Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.08.36

Bernard Fragu (trans.), Arnobe. Contre les gentiles (Contre les païens). Tome VI. Livres VI-VII. Collection des Universités de France série latine, 396.   Paris:  Les Belles Lettres, 2010.  Pp. lxxiii, 257.  ISBN 9782251014555.  €51,80.  

Reviewed by Michael Bland Simmons, Auburn University Montgomery (

It is a well known fact that Arnobius, the author of the Adversus nationes and a rhetor in Africa proconsularis during the reign of Diocletian (284-305), was much better in his attack upon religious and philosophical paganism of the Greco-Roman world than he was in his defense of his newly acquired Christian religion. Books I-II of the Adv. nat. provide what this reviewer (Arnobius of Sicca [Oxford: , 1995]) has described as the professor from Sicca’s retractations of formerly held anti-Christian criticisms derived primarily from Porphyry of Tyre, who not only lived for some time on the island of Sicily (and thus not far from Arnobius’ province), but also stayed in Carthage long enough to rear a partridge (Abst. III.4.7). We cannot, however, define the contents of the first two books as a Christian apology in the strict sense,1 simply because Arnobius does not have a sound knowledge of his new religion. Books III-VII, on the other hand, represent Arnobius at his best, viz., attacking many beliefs and practices of paganism while simultaneously offering to his readers a goldmine of information on cults, mythology, and ancient religion and philosophy. It is with respect to this second part of the Adv. nat. that the book by Bernard Fragu, which is a French translation of the original Latin text accompanied by a copious and erudite commentary on Books VI and VII, provides so much illuminating and thought-provoking information. It is an admirable complement to the two other volumes published on Arnobius in the Budé series by Henri Le Bonniec (Livre I, 1982) and Jacqueline Champeaux (Livre III, 2007) and highly recommended for use in advanced undergraduate and graduate courses related to the inter-relationship between paganism and Christianity in the Greco-Roman world of Late Antiquity.

The introduction (pp. xi-liv) includes nine sections ending with a list of the previous editions of the work. There follows a bibliography of recent works, the French translation of Books VI and VII with the Latin text facing each page (pp. 1-75), and the commentaries on books VI (pp. 77-160) and VII (pp. 161-248). In the first section of the introduction (pp. xi-xvi) the author offers a judicious analysis of the structure of Books VI-VII, but one might find unconvincing his changing the last section of Book VI to the first section of Book VII because, as McCracken noted in his 1949 translation, though VI.27 forms an introduction to Book VII, the reference to the persecution of the Christians, a characteristic of the last sections of Books I, II, and IV, led him to retain it there. Section II (pp. xvi-xx) provides an excellent analysis of the contents of Books VI and VII.

Section III (pp. xx-xxiii) is titled "Problèmes de Datation." Two important texts, VI.11.5 and IV.36.4, allude to the persecution of Christians, which Fragu acknowledges as occurring frequently in Christian apologies, but he astutely adds (p. xxi): “Néanmois, les allusions à la grande persécution qui eut lieu sous Dioclétien sont fort claires, et l’on trouve un écho semblable chez Lactance.” One of the major problems in dating the Adv. nat., however, concerns the contradictions in two passages of Jerome: De vir. ill. 79 (Arnobius) and 80 (Lactantius), which place Arnobius (Lactantius' teacher in North Africa) in the reign of Diocletian (284-305), and the Chronici canones, which assigns his floruit to the regnal year equivalent of 327 (ed. Helm, 231g). 2 Fragu correctly concludes that the latter date is certainly erroneous (pp. xxi-xxii), noting that if Arnobius had lived until 327, he would have been very old, since Lactantius was un vieillard in 317 (p. xxii)! It is puzzling here that Fragu does not critique a recent article by Mark J. Edwards, 3 who comes to the absolutely ridiculous conclusion that Arnobius wrote c. 327. He nevertheless, following a vast majority of scholars, 4 dismisses this date and replaces it with 305, the probable date of the African rhetor’s death (pp. xxii-xxiii). Yet he does not pay enough attention to the dating of the Adv. nat. to c. 303-305 by the present reviewer, which has been accepted by recent scholarship;5 and though there is an acknowledgement of Arnobius’ many references to the persecution of Christians, 6 the author does not apply them to the contemporary events in North Africa and the eastern provinces during the Great Persecution.7

Section IV (pp. xxiii-xxix) deals with Arnobius’ Greek and Latin sources (pp. xxiii-xxix) and represents one of the most informative parts of the book. It should benefit any student of the religious cultures of Late Antiquity. Of particular interest is the remark that Arnobius knew the writings of Porphyry of Tyre, concurring with the present reviewer’s thesis (1995) that “le traité d’Arnobe constitue une réponse auz attaques de Porphyre contre les chrétiens, et voient meme dans le titre choisi par Arnobe, aduersus nationes, une intention non dissimulée de réfuter le κατὰ Χριστιανῶν du philosophe syrien.”8 This offers a refreshing counter-argument to the revisionist attempts to place too much emphasis upon the True Discourse of Celsus during a period when the disciple of Plotinus indisputably posed the most intimidating threat to the Christian religion.9 The Porphyrian connection is admirably supported by copious references in the commentary.10 On the important question of why Arnobius does not mention his adversary by name, Fragu’s explanation is reasonable: “Enfin, le silence d’Arnobe sur Porphyre peut s’expliquer par le désir de ne pas donner une audience plus importante encore à un adversaire connu et redoubtable.”11

Section V (pp. xxix-xxxii) covers the pagan cults mentioned in the Adversus nationes. Though Fragu is correct to say that the divine epithet Frugifer, cited in Adv. nat. VI.10.7, was applied to a number of Greco-Roman deities of the Roman Empire, he fails to understand the rich and ancient tradition of the term used to describe the deity par excellence of Roman North Africa, Saturn, and in particular, his connection with agriculture and the harvest.12 Another deficiency of this section is in referring to Arnobius’ ‘description satirique des sacrifices’ (p. xxxii) in Book VII without any historical contextualization vis-à-vis the fourth edict of Diocletian. Equally puzzling is the absence of any reference to Arnobius’ use in Book VII of the Stoic doctrines of the λόγος ἐνδιάθετος and the λόγος προφορικός, the Pythagorean doctrines of piety and justice, Porphyry’s views on sacrifice found in (e.g.) Abst. and De philosophia ex oraculis, and his literary dependence upon (e.g.) Plutarch’s De sollertia animalium in the attack upon animal sacrifice.13

Section VI (pp. xxxii-xxxviii) addresses "Le Christianisme d’Arnobe," correctly concludes that Arnobius had a superficial knowledge of Christianity (p. xxxv). Section VII (pp. xxxviii-xlii) gives a good analysis of the language, style, and humor of Arnobius; section VIII (pp. xlii-l) is an overview of the manuscript tradition; and the final section (IX, pp. l-li) offers Remerciements. The bibliography (pp. lv-lxix) is generally thorough though it misses the very important works by the Italian scholar Pier Franco Beatrice. The French translation is lucid and fluid, showing a sensitivity to Arnobius’ style of writing, and demonstrating in the commentary an acute awareness of the philological problems which the manuscript tradition often poses to the modern translator.

To sum up: Fragu has written a very fine book which will contribute significantly to existing knowledge not only in Arnobiana, but also to the early history of Christianity and the religious and philosophical milieu of the Greco-Roman world in Late Antiquity.


1.   See M. B. Simmons, Arnobius of Sicca (Oxford, 1995), pp. 1-45. The view of Mark J. Edwards (“The Flowering of Latin Apologetic: Lactantius and Arnobius,” in Mark Edwards et al. (eds.), Apologetics in the Roman Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 197-221, esp. 200-203) has been easily refuted by T. D. Barnes, “Monotheists All?,” Phoenix 55 (2001): 142-162, esp. 152f.
2.   See Simmons (1995): 47-53.
3.   Mark J. Edwards, “Dating Arnobius: Why Discount the Evidence of Jerome?, AnTard 12 (2004): 263-71. Cf. Barnes (2001): 152, citing Edwards (1999): 200, “Edwards treats Against the Nations as a product of the period after Constantine had defeated Licinius and hence arrives at the utterly perverse conclusion that Lactantius is ‘more conciliatory’ towards pagans than Arnobius ‘because he is writing earlier.’”
4.   See (e.g.) Fragu (pp. xxi-xxiii); Simmons (1995): 47-55.
5.   E.g., T. D. Barnes, Constantine, Religion and Power in the Later Roman Empire. (Blackwell Ancient Lives; Oxford/Chichester/Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), p. 176, citing Simmons (1995): 47-93; cf. Barnes (2001): 153; Elizabeth DePalma Digeser, The Making of a Christian Empire. Lactantius and Rome (Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, 2000), p. 102 and n. 63.
6.   Fragu, p. 135, on Adv. nat. VI.11, and citing I.26.1; I.65.7; II.5.4; II.77.3; III.36.1; IV.36.4; V.29.3; VI.27.2 [VII.1.2].
7.   See Simmons (1995): 47-93; Barnes (2001): 152-153.
8.   Fragu, p. xxv.
9.   The best example here is Sébastien Morlet, “Eusebius’ Polemic Against Porphyry: A Reassessment,” in Sabrina Inowlocki and Claudio Zamagni (eds.), Reconsidering Eusebius. Collected Papers on Literary, Historical, and Theological Issues. (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2011), pp. 119-150, who in his zealousness, tries too hard to convince his readers that Porphyry was not as important in Christian polemics as has been maintained for centuries now by a vast majority of scholars (e.g., de Tillemont, A. Harnack, J. B. Lightfoot, J. Geffcken, J. Bidez, D. Rokeah, H. Schrekenberg, W. J. Ferrar, M. Frede, M. Edwards, E. V. Gallagher, P. F. Beatrice, M. B. Simmons, J. G. Cook, M. Fiedrowicz, C. Kannengiesser, H. Chadwick, E. DePalma Digeser, A. Kovsky, J. Schott, and T. D. Barnes). One of a number of Morlet’s awkwardly erroneous assertions which is motivated more by the zeal to replace conventional wisdom than to base one’s claims in fact, is the attempt to interpret Eusebius’ allusion to τῶν νέων φιλοσόφων παῖδες (p. 132 and n. 77) as not referring to contemporary philosophers like Porphyry, discounting the evidence in Simmons (1995): 216-217, on Adv. nat. II.15.2f., not citing the important text PE III.6, and totally ignoring the phrase used by Eusebius in his last apology, the Theophany V.3, which I date to c. A.D. 337-338 in a forthcoming paper, immediately followed by a quotation from Porphyry! The ܦܝܠܘܣܵܦܐ ܚܕܵܬܐ or New Philosophers of Theoph. V.3, are certainly referring to Porphyry and his followers because the quotation at the end of the passage also occurs in Phil. orac. 324 F, which is derived from P.E. IX.10.3-5, obviously reinforced by the wise men of the Greeks (ܚܟܝܵܡܐ ܕܝܘܵܢܝܐ) glorying or boasting (ܘܡܫܬܒܗܪܝܢ) in the oracles of their gods (ܒܩܨܵܡܐ ܕܐܠܗܝܵܗܘܢ), a clear reference to Philosophia ex oraculis which parallels the viri novi of Arnobius and the τῶν νέων of the PE III.6 passage. Interestingly, Morlet does not cite Pier F. Beatrice, “Un Oracle Antichrétien chez Arnobe,” in Y. de Andia et al. (eds), Mémorial Dom Jean Gribomont (1920- 1986) (Rome, 1988), pp. 107-29, who proved years ago that Porphyry and his followers are des modernes (τῶν νέων) mentioned in PE III.6.7, a text curiously not cited by Morlet (p. 132). Is this objective scholarship? If Morlet can prove that Eusebius did not respond very much to Porphyry, why does he ignore Theoph. V.3?
10.   E.g., p. 81, Adv. nat. VI.1, and Porph., Contra Christ. frag. 76; Marc. 19; p. 125, Adv. nat. VI.10, and Porph. Antr. Nymph. 16; p. 179, Adv. nat. VII.10-12 [VII.11-13], and Porph., Abst. II.14.3; II.15.1; p. 193, Adv. nat. VII.23 [VII.24], and Porph., Abst. 37-34.
11.   Fragu, p. xxv.
12.   See Simmons (1995): 15-16, 106, 198-201; CIL VIII.2666 (Lambaese); CIL VIII.4581 (Diana Veteranorum); and Marcel Leglay, Saturne Africain. Histoire. (Bibliothèques des Écoles Françaises d'Athènes et de Rome, fasc. 205; Paris: Éditions de Boccard, 1966), pp. 12, 22, 90, 99, 101, 104, 120-124, 128, 151, 188, 190, 191, 196, 203, 209, 235, 246, 257, 282, 310, 413.
13.   Thoroughly analyzed by Simmons (1995): 304-318; cf. Barnes (2001): 153.
14.   Simmons (1995): 94-130.

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