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The Christian Cicero

Gregory DiPippo

Yesterday, in reference to the anniversary of the Edict of Milan, we mentioned one of the principal sources of information about it, the writer Lactantius, who is often called “the Christian Cicero.” He was born a pagan in the mid-3rd century in Roman North Africa, and, having studied in his youth with a writer called Arnobius, went on to teach rhetoric. (This is the same career path on which St Augustine would embark a century later, while Arnobius himself also became a Christian, apparently after Lactantius knew him.) His success as a rhetorician was such that the Emperor Diocletian summoned him to teach in Nicomedia, the city in Asia Minor where he kept his capital, fairly close to Byzantium. It is not known when exactly Lactantius became a Christian, but it must have been before February of 303, when Diocletian’s first edict against the Christians was issued, at which point he resigned his position. St Jerome reports lived in extreme poverty during the following decade of the persecution, and had to leave Nicomedia.

However, during his time there, he had become friends with Constantine, who ended the persecution, and rescued his now-elderly friend from penury by appointing him tutor to his son and heir-apparent, Crispus. This necessitated move to Trier (then at the extreme east of Roman Gaul, now at the extreme west of Germany), where he apparently ended his days, although the date and manner of his death are unknown. In 326, Constantine had both Crispus and his wife Fausta put to death for reasons that are still unclear; there is no cause to imagine that Lactantius had any involvement with the circumstances.

The entry on Lactantius in the original Catholic Encyclopedia (1910) describes his writing as “polished rather than profound”, and says that the humanists of the Renaissance were right to call him “Christian Cicero”, since “he exhibits many of the shortcomings as well as the graces of his master.” It should be pointed out that he also earned this title from being, like Cicero, the most famous and successful rhetorician of his times; he was, after all, in the personal employ of the two most successful emperors of the later 3rd and early 4th century. His magnum opus, an apology for the Christian faith called “The Divine Institutions”, written during the persecution, was the first attempt written in Latin to set out the whole of Christian belief, and demonstrate both its truth and wisdom against the foolishness of paganism, while responding to the most common attacks made against it by pagan authors. To his end, he employs far more pagan sources than Christian ones, and many passages of such authors are now known to us only from being preserved in his work. The author of the article cited above speaks of “his almost utter ignorance of Scripture”, and it is true that large sections of the work have almost no citations of the Bible. This assessment is, however, unduly harsh.

Two more recent authors, Anthony Bowen and Peter Garnsey, are more sympathetic to him in the introduction to their English translation of the book. (Liverpool Univ. Press, 2003) “(T)he crucial point for (Lactantius) in determining his rhetorical strategy was that his opponents refused to accept the testimony of the scriptures as divine. So an argument based on Scripture would never get off the ground.” The authors then cite the following passage (2.12 in fine) as proof that this was in fact his procedure.

“Quod Cicero, quamvis expers coelestium litterarum, vidit tamen; qui libro de Legibus primo hoc idem tradidit, quod prophetae, cujus verba subjeci: ‘Hoc animal providum, sagax, multiplex, acutum, memor, plenum rationis et consilii, quem vocamus hominem, praeclara quadam conditione generatum esse a supremo Deo; solum est enim ex tot animantium generibus atque naturis, particeps rationis et cogitationis, cum caetera sint omnia expertia.’ Videsne hominem, quamvis longe a veritatis notitia remotum, tamen, quoniam imaginem sapientiae tuebatur, intellexisse non nisi a Deo hominem potuisse generari?”

And Cicero, though ignorant of the heavenly writings, saw this nevertheless, who in his first book on the Laws handed down the same thing as the prophets; and I add his words. ‘This animal, foreseeing, keen, various, acute, gifted with memory, full of reason and counsel, which we call man, was produced by the supreme God under remarkable circumstances; for alone of so many kinds and natures of animals, he partakes of reason and reflection, when all other animals are destitute of them.’ Do you see that man, although far removed from the knowledge of the truth, nevertheless, since he preserved the image of wisdom, understood that man could not be produced except by God?”

What a perfect example of that “wisdom of the ancients” with which St John XXIII wished us all to be well acquainted through the study of Latin!

(The first page of a manuscript of the Divine Institutions copied out in Florence ca. 1425. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

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