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Lactantius’ “On the Deaths of the Persecutors”

Gregory DiPippo

Yesterday, we wrote about the writer Lactantius (AD 250-320 ca.), who is known as “the Christian Cicero,” and his general apologetic exposition of Christianity, the Divine Institutes. This book was very appealing to the sensibilities of the Renaissance for its use of pagan writings to prove the truth of the Christian Faith. Nowadays, however, he is probably better known for his treatise On the Deaths of the Persecutors, the thesis of which is that all the emperors who persecuted the Church came to a very bad end. It is an unabashedly partisan work, as we would say today. Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that Lactantius was a famous man in his time, personally employed by the two most successful emperors of the later 3rd and early 4th century. As such, the book is a vital witness to the events of the period of the Tetrarchy, and the early reign of Constantine.

Lactantius sums up his purpose in writing it in the final chapter.

“Quae omnia secundum fidem … ita ut gesta sunt mandanda litteris credidi, ne autem memoria tantarum rerum interiret aut si quis historiam scribere voluisset, [non] corrumperet veritatem vel peccata illorum adversus deum vel iudicium dei adversus illos reticendo.

And I have committed all these things to them to writing exactly as they happened, according to the authority of well-informed persons; lest the memory of such great events should perish, or lest anyone should wish to write their history and corrupt the truth, either by suppressing their sins against God, or the judgment of God against them.”

Lactantius appears as a character in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Helena, which we mentioned last month in connection with the Finding of the Cross. The passage cited above inspired Waugh to take this rhetorical shot at one of the great corruptors of history, Edward Gibbon, who in his magnum opus The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, disparages the Christian martyrs, exactly as Lactantius had foreseen might happen.

In the relevant scene, Lactantius is speaking to the Empress Helena about his work while they eat on a terrace of her residence. “An Indian ape, the recent expensive present of a visiting diplomat, rattled his gold chain on the terrace. Helena threw him a plum.” At a mention of the Christians and their ongoing persecution, Constantine’s ex-wife Minervina says, “I daresay the whole thing is very much exaggerated. I expect it will all blow over.” This leads to the following speech by Lactantius.

“It needs a special quality to be a martyr – just as it needs a special quality to be a writer. Mine is the humbler role, but one must not think it quite valueless. One might combine two proverbs and say: ‘Art is long and will prevail.’ … Suppose that in years to come, when the Church’s troubles seem to be over, there should come an apostate of my own trade, a false historian, with the mind of Cicero or Tacitus and the soul of an animal,” and he nodded towards the gibbon who fretted his golden chain and chattered for fruit. “A man like that might make it his business to write down the martyrs and excuse the persecutors. He might be refuted again and again but what he wrote would remain in people’s minds when the refutations were quite forgotten. That is what style does – it has the Egyptian secret of the embalmers. It is not to be despised.”

(A fanciful representation of Christians worshipping in the catacombs during the era of persecution. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 

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