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Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius was an early Christian author (c. 250 – c. 325) who became an advisor to the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine I, guiding his religious policy as it developed,[1] and a tutor to his son.


Lactantius, a Latin-speaking native of North Africa, was a pupil of Arnobius and taught rhetoric in various cities of the Eastern Roman Empire, ending in Constantinople. He wrote apologetic works explaining Christianity in terms that would be palatable to educated people who still practiced the traditional religions of the Empire. He defended Christian beliefs against the criticisms of Hellenistic philosophers. His Divinae Institutiones ("Divine Institutes") were an early example of a systematic presentation of Christian thought. He was considered somewhat heretical after his death, but Renaissance humanists took a renewed interest in him, more for his elaborately rhetorical Latin style than for his theology.

A translator of the Divine Institutes starts his introduction as follows:

Lactantius has always held a very high place among the Christian Fathers, not only on account of the subject-matter of his writings, but also on account of the varied erudition, the sweetness of expression, and the grace and elegance of style, by which they are characterized.[2]

Lactantius was not born into a Christian family. In his early life, he taught rhetoric in his native town, which may have been Cirta in Numidia, where an inscription mentions a certain 'L. Caecilius Firmianus'.

Lactantius had a successful public career at first. At the request of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, he became an official professor of rhetoric in Nicomedia; the voyage from Africa is described in his poem Hodoeporicum. There, he associated in the imperial circle with the administrator and polemicist Sossianus Hierocles and the pagan philosopher Porphyry; he first met Constantine, and Galerius, whom he cast as villain in the persecutions.[3] Having converted to Christianity, he resigned his post[4] before Diocletian's purging of Christians from his immediate staff and before the publication of Diocletian's first "Edict against the Christians" (February 24, 303).[5] As a Latin rhetor, he subsequently lived in poverty according to Saint Jerome and eked out a living by writing until Constantine I became his patron. The new emperor appointed the aged scholar in 311 or 313. The friendship of the Emperor Constantine raised him from penury and he became tutor in Latin to his son Crispus, whom Lactantius may have followed to Trier in 317, when Crispus was made Caesar (lesser co-emperor) and sent to the city. Crispus was put to death in 326, but when Lactantius died and in what circumstances are unknown.

Like so many of the early Christian authors, Lactantius depended on classical models. The early humanists called him the "Christian Cicero" (Cicero Christianus). His works were copied in manuscript several times in the 15th century and were first printed in 1465 by the Germans Arnold Pannartz and Konrad Sweynheim at the Abbey of Subiaco. This edition was the first book printed in Italy to have a date of printing, as well as the first use of a Greek alphabet font anywhere, which was apparently produced in the course of printing, as the early pages leave Greek text blank. It was probably the fourth book ever printed in Italy. A copy of this edition was sold at auction in 2000 for more than $1 million.[6]

Prophetic exegesis

Beginning of Lactantius’ Divinae institutiones in a Renaissance manuscript written in Florence ca. 1420–1430 by Guglielmino Tanaglia

In The Divine Institutes, Lactantius expected an earthly reign of the resurrected saints with Jesus after His second advent for the thousand years before the universal judgment. He presented, in sharp chronological summary and with surprising astuteness, the premillennial advent, the two resurrections, the millennial period and the reign of the saints with Christ, reflecting the unsettled doctrine of the time.[7]

With the conversion of Constantine, the Christians were no longer persecuted, their adversaries were destroyed and tranquility reigned. The world's favor, rather than its hatred, became the church's peril. Multitudes flocked into the church because it was now fashionable and so the church, long comfortable to persecution and expected martyrdom, became worldly. New errors commingled with older ones and with truth.[8]

In the outline of Bible history, Lactantius dealt with the plan of salvation, the origin of sin, creation, probation in Eden, the fall, and the incarnation of Christ. He said that "as the end of this world approaches, the condition of human affairs must undergo a change, and through the prevalence of wickedness become worse."[9]

Lactantius confidently stated that the beginning of the end would be the fall, or breakup, of the Roman Empire. He asserted that the Roman world would be divided into ten contemporaneous kingdoms, which would mark the beginning of disastrous times. After Rome's breakup the Antichrist would appear and after that the saints would take the kingdom. Three of the ten kingdoms would be destroyed by a powerful northern enemy that would harass the world, changing laws, assuming the government, and ruling with intolerance, oppressing mankind.[10]

Lactantius linked the False Prophet, the Beast of Revelation 13 and the Antichrist as the same destructive power whose tyrannical rule would prevail for "forty-two months.” None of the fathers thus far had been more verbose on the subject of the millennial kingdom than Lactantius or more particular in describing the times and events preceding and following. He held to the fundamental apostolic belief that the millennium originates with the second advent of Christ and marks the destruction of the wicked, the binding of the devil and the raising of the righteous dead.[11]

He depicted Jesus reigning with the resurrected righteous on this earth during the seventh thousand years prior to the general judgment. The resurrected saints rule over the not yet glorified righteous who remain alive at the end and subject the survivors of the unregenerate nations to slavery. In the end, the devil, having been bound during the thousand years, is loosed; the enslaved nations rebel against the righteous, who hide underground until the hosts, attacking the Holy City, are overwhelmed by fire and brimstone and mutual slaughter and buried altogether by an earthquake: rather unnecessarily, it would seem, since the wicked are thereupon raised again to be sent into eternal punishment. Next, God renews the earth, after the punishment of the wicked, and the Lord alone is thenceforth worshiped in the renovated earth.[12]


  • De Opificio Dei ("The Works of God"), an apologetic work, written in 303 or 304 during Diocletian's persecution and dedicated to a former pupil, a rich Christian named Demetrianius. The apologetic principles underlying all the works of Lactantius are well set forth in this treatise.
  • Institutiones Divinae ("The Divine Institutes"), written between 303 and 311. This is the most important of the writings of Lactantius. It was "one of the first books printed in Italy and the first dated Italian imprint."[13] As an apologetic treatise, it was intended to point out the futility of pagan beliefs and to establish the reasonableness and truth of Christianity as a response to pagan critics. It was also the first attempt at a systematic exposition of Christian theology in Latinan was planned on a scale sufficiently broad to silence all opponents.[14] The Catholic Encyclopedia said, "The strengths and the weakness of Lactantius are nowhere better shown than in his work. The beauty of the style, the choice and aptness of the terminology, cannot hide the author's lack of grasp on Christian principles and his almost utter ignorance of Scripture." Included in this treatise is a quote from the nineteenth of the Odes of Solomon, one of only two known texts of the Odes until the early twentieth century.[15] However, his mockery of the idea of a round earth[16] was criticised by Copernicus as "childish".[17]
Page from the Opera, a manuscript from 1465, featuring various colours of pen-work
  • An Epitome of the Divine institutes is a summary treatment of the subject.
  • De Ira Dei ("On the Wrath of God" or "On the Anger of God"), directed against the Stoics and Epicureans, deals with anthropomorphic deities.
  • De Mortibus Persecutorum ("On the Deaths of the Persecutors") has an apologetic character but has been treated as a work of history by Christian writers. The point of the work is to describe the deaths of the persecutors of Christians before Lactanius (Nero, Domitian, Decius, Valerian, Aurelian) and the contemporaries of Lactantius himself: Diocletian, Maximian, Galerius, Maximinus. This work is taken as a chronicle of the last and greatest of the persecutions in spite of the moral point that each anecdote has been arranged to tell. Here, Lactantius preserves the story of Constantine's vision of the Chi Rho before his conversion to Christianity. The full text is found in only one manuscript, which bears the title Lucii Caecilii liber ad Donatum Confessorem de Mortibus Persecutorum.
  • Widely attributed to Lactantius although it shows only cryptic signs of Christianity, the poem The Phoenix (de Ave Phoenice) tells the story of the death and rebirth of that mythical bird. That poem in turn appears to have been the principal source for the famous Anglo-Saxon poem to which the modern title The Phoenix is given.
  • Opera ("Works") A second edition printed in the monastery at Subiaco, Lazio, is still extant. It remained in Italy until the late eighteenth century, when it was known to be in the library of Prince Vincenzo Maria Carafa in Messina. The Bodleian Library in Oxford, England, acquired this volume in 1817.[18]

See also


  1. His role is examined in detail in Elizabeth DePalma Digeser, The Making of a Christian Empire: Lactantius and Rome, 2000.
  2. W. Fletcher (1871). The Works of Lactantius.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Paul Stephenson, Constantine, Roman Emperor, Christian Victor, 2010:104.
  4. Encyclopædia Britannica. 7 (15th ed.). 1993.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Stephenson 2010:106.
  6. "Lot 65 Sale 6417 LACTANTIUS, Lucius Coelius Firmianus (c. 240–c. 320). Opera". Retrieved 2010-12-29.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Froom 1950, p. 354.
  8. Froom 1950, pp. 354-355.
  9. Froom 1950, pp. 355-356.
  10. Froom 1950, pp. 356-357.
  11. Froom 1950, pp. 357-358.
  12. Froom 1950, pp. 358.
  13. "The Rubrics of the First Book of Lactantius Firmianus's On the Divine Institutes Against the Pagans Begin". World Digital Library. 2011-10-17. Retrieved 2014-03-01.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Lactantius The Divine Institutes, translated by Mary Francis McDonald Catholic University of America Press (1964)
  15. Charlesworth, James Hamilton. The Odes of Solomon. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1973, pp. 1, 82
  16. Lactantius, Divine Institutes, Book III Chapter XXIV<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Nicholas Copernicus (1543), The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project: full scan of Lucius Coelius Firmianus Lactantius, Opera hosted by the Bodleian Libraries ( Provenance information: Accessed 13 July 2015.


External links