Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.09.29


E. Heck and A. Wlosok (edd.), Lactantius: Epitome divinarum institutionum. Leipzig: Teubner, 1994. Pp. xlviii + 128. 39DM. ISBN 3-519-01934-5 (pb).


Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, University of Pennsylvania.

Lactantius' Divine Institutes, composed in seven books c. 304/11 CE, just before their author went to the court of Constantine, claim our attention on several levels. First, they are an important testament to the creation of Christian Latin literature and apologetic. As often with such texts, they present us an implicit reader curious to discern: learned in traditional lore and taking anti-Christian ideas quite seriously, but probably, in the end, himself a Christian or Christian-sympathizer. The purpose of the text is to confute the non-Christians, but the tone and tenor is probably such as to persuade only the already-converted.

The work comes down to us in three discernible forms. Some manuscripts of the work as a whole contain additional material that is undoubtedly authentic and that is agreed now to be the work of Lactantius himself, revising the work not long before his death in 325, and developing his ideas, not necessarily in a way that every orthodox Christian would approve. He has been reading not only Christian but Platonic works in the meantime, and they have shaped his conceptions. One of the editors here, Antonie Wlosok, in an important book early in her career, Lactanz und die philosophische Gnosis (1960), traced these developments.

But to that interesting and significant evidence for revision and a "second edition" there must be added the work edited here. Sometime between 311 and his death (probably around 320), Lactantius took the 300,000 or so words of the original and produced this abridgement in approximately 1/10 the space. It holds a middle place in the work's intellectual development, between the first edition and the interpolations of the second, and on many points clarifies and advances what was in the original. This is in fact one of very very few ancient works to come down to us in an abbreviated form provided by the original author -- the editors note only two medical works by Galen and Oribasius as comparable. The abbreviation as both successful and imperilled early. It seems to have been read by at least one anonymous author, also confuting non- Christians, of the fourth century, and Jerome knows the work, but he already knows it in a mutilated form missing its first 50 (of 68) chapters. The earliest manuscript comes from the fifth century and represents the mutilated form of the work, while the best manuscript (discovered only in the 18th century by Maffei) dates from the 6th/7th centuries but is itself a recomposition -- that is, its last 18 chapters show signs of deriving from a mutilated copy and thus its first 50 have been rejoined to the last 18 from some lost intermediate source. The effect is not insignificant, for this is a work that begins as philosophical meditation, devolves into specific discussion and defense of Christian scriptural history, and then returns to a more philosophical mode. In the curtailed form, only the closing philosophical section would be read. There is enough logic to the point of interruption to suggest that the separation of these chapters may have been deliberate.

There has been only one satisfactory edition in modern times, that of Brandt in 1890 done together with the other works of Lactantius, and even he, late in life, was planning a revision thwarted by World War I. Heck and Wlosok are undertaking this revision of the whole corpus for Teubner and so have published this text first. (The editors are severe regarding a 1987 French edition.) It differs from earlier by virtue of rechecked and improved collations of the manuscripts, a more careful examination of the history of the criticism of the text and its emendation, and an improved analysis of the practice of epitomation made possible by computer-assisted comparison of the text of the epitome with that of the larger work from which it is drawn. The arrangement is meticulous, lucid, and useful. The text is accompanied by a triple apparatus showing at each point not only the MSS readings but also the relationship of the text of the epitome to the original and, where appropriate, an apparatus fontium to document the learned borrowings, both Christian and otherwise, of the author. Indices nominum et locorum complete the volume.