BMCR 2005.04.36

Lactantius: Divine Institutes. Translated Texts for Historians, 40

, , , Lactantius : Divine institutes. Translated texts for historians.. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2003. xiv, 472 pages ; 21 cm.. ISBN 0853239886 £20.00 (pb).

[My apologies to all concerned for the lateness of this review.]

This book is a pleasure. Once again, the Translated Texts for Historians series has brought an important late antique text further out of its relative obscurity. For those working anywhere in his vicinity, Lactantius (hereafter L.) is an author ignored at one’s peril. Lately, more scholars have come to appreciate L.’s De mortibus persecutorum (DMP) as not merely a startling diatribe but as the fundamental historical account for the decade 303-313 (and thus for the Tetrarchy and the persecution). While Divinae Institutiones (DI) is a much larger and more ambitious work, primarily devoted to philosophy and religion and thus important for the intellectual history of the fourth century, it also had some effect on Constantinian policy.

Peter Garnsey (hereafter G.) is responsible for the substantial introduction (54 pp.) in which he lays out and interprets the contents of the work. He sparingly annotates the literary, philosophical, theological, and historical references in the text. The select bibliography is his as well. Foremost among recent scholars who have set their sights on L. and DI are Elizabeth Digeser and Oliver Nicholson. G.’s views are quite openly reliant on and appreciative of Nicholson’s ongoing work. Anthony Bowen (hereafter B.) does the translation, which is most welcome considering the two inaccurate and dated versions that are available. B.’s English text is based on the editions of Brandt and Monat (rather than Migne’s, which forms the basis of William Fletcher’s old translation in the Ante-Nicene Fathers series). In addition, B. provides annotation for textual and linguistic matters. There is an index of topics and an index of proper names.

In the six-part introduction, G. first summarizes L.’s life, works, and reputation. As is well known, L. was born (c. 250) and raised in Africa, had Arnobius as a teacher, and was a Christian convert and a teacher of rhetoric, who then, late in the 3rd century, became the official teacher of Latin rhetoric in Nicomedia, where Diocletian was resident. There he ran into a philosopher (about whose identity G. judiciously refuses to speculate) and a judge (who is known to be Sossianus Hierocles, governor of Bithynia in 303). Provoked by these two pagan thinkers, and by the persecution in general, L. wrote DI between 303 and 310. G. plainly hopes to dispel the widespread view of L. as mediocre and derivative, as little more than a conduit for his sources, by showing, among other things, that L. in fact made creative use of his material, that he wrote a new kind of Christian apologetic, and that it was a coherent body of Christian thought in serious dialogue with the classical thought still current among the Roman educated classes.

Next, G. treats the contents, genre, and authorities of DI. He summarizes the contents book by book (seven in total), as L. attacks the pagan gods, tries to knock pagan philosophers off their perch, shows Christianity to be the true source of wisdom, defines the virtues and delineates the precepts for a Christian life, and finally speaks of the rewards to come (in less than 200 years) for those on the right path. While L.’s apologetic has some obvious predecessors, it surpasses them all as “the first attempt at a summary of Christian thought.” (13) Thus it is also a forerunner of Augustine’s De civitate dei. This seems to be one of G.’s primary purposes — to win L. his place in the limelight, especially considering that Augustine, above all, was waiting in the wings. L’s use of authorities is striking, as it shows a minimal reliance on scripture, and includes plenty of non-Christian sources, including Terence, Lucretius, Cicero, Vergil, and Seneca, as well as Hermes Trismegistus and the Sibylline Oracles.

Part three of the introduction explains L.’s Christian fusion of religion and wisdom, despite his pronounced ambivalence towards philosophers. This duo becomes a triad with the addition of justice, which, from L.’s perspective, involves the due worship of God and the fair treatment of one’s fellow human beings. Fourth, G. highlights DI as the first systematic treatment of Christian ethics. The major components of this treatment are discussions of the supreme good (eternal life), virtue (modeled by Christian martyrs, and thus clearly dependent on opposition), and, once again, justice.

The social and political ideas in DI are presented by G. in part five. They can be divided into three overlapping categories: representation of the ideal society as one that accentuates morality and friendship instead of politics, criticism of Rome past, and criticism of Rome present (i.e., Diocletian and the Tetrarchy). L. was, as G. says, “the first Christian writing in Latin to attempt a general account of the religious history of humanity and of Rome.” (41) The countercultural Christian position is laid out in all its topsy-turviness, with its opposition to killing, its failure to be impressed by ambition, and its striving, however imperfect, for social equality. Aeneas, Romulus, Numa Pompilius, and others do not fare well under L.’s pen, though he does highlight the good points of such luminaries as Regulus, Pompey, Caesar, and Cicero. Eusebius’ respect for monarchy as a partner to monotheism is absent in L., for whom the only good emperor is one who doesn’t persecute Christians. L.’s comments in DI regarding imperial matters and the contemporary political set-up are much less direct than those in DMP. His criticisms of Jupiter and Hercules are surely to be seen as veiled attacks on Diocletian Iovius and Maximian Herculius. Lastly in this section, G. digresses on L.’s “plea for religious freedom … the most elaborate and eloquent of its kind surviving from antiquity.” (46) The impression G. creates may owe more to his own interest in the topic of religious toleration than it does to L.’s actual convictions. But that’s a relatively small matter.

G.’s conclusion summarizes the importance of DI and of L.’s contribution to early Christian literature and thought. He calls L. the “first major Christian moral philosopher” (52), but one who has been overshadowed by his successors. In L.’s concern with Christian justice, G. characterizes his thought as “on the one hand utopian and on the other destructive of established and traditional political and social values.” (53) G. at the end indulges in some speculation, asking some unanswerable questions, and then admits: “In any case, we have to work with what we have, and that is a Christian thinker trapped in the thought world of the pre-Constantinian era, and a singular work, which is at once a passionate, witty and sustained defence of his new-found faith, and an intelligent and individual interpretation of the religious history of man, the mission and teaching of Christ, and Christian precepts for living.” (54)

As for the text and its translation, which, of course, forms the bulk of this book, B. has made a vast improvement over his predecessors. It is fair to say that each generation needs a new translation of any given author of significance (Homer, for example, seems to get more than his share), and ours is fortunate to have this one. While American readers might still get a whiff of archaism in the British English, there is not much room for serious complaint here. B.’s language is a model of clarity (within the sometimes convoluted confines of the nature of L.’s arguments and his Ciceronian manner of expression). Again, B.’s ability to rely on Monat’s recent Sources Chrétiennes text (for books 1, 2, 4, and 5 so far) has been a boon. Finally, while acknowledging the difficulty of attributing L.’s quotations, B. has usefully added at least several specific new references.

One passage, chosen almost at random (DI 7.26.10a, the invocation of Constantine), may stand for the nature and quality of B.’s translation:

All fictions have now, most holy emperor, been laid to rest, ever since God most high raised you up to restore the abode of justice and to protect the human race. Now that you are ruler of the world of Rome we worshippers of God are no longer treated as criminals and villains; as the truth comes clear and is brought to light we are not put on trial as unjust for trying to do the works of justice. No one now flings the name of God at us in reproach, no one calls us irreligious any more, for we are the only religious people of them all: we scorn images of dead men; we worship the true and living God.

For comparison’s sake, here is Fletcher’s 1886 version:

But all fictions have now been hushed, most holy Emperor, since the time when the great God raised thee up for the restoration of the house of justice, and for the protection of the human race; for while thou rulest the Roman state, we worshippers of God are no more regarded as accursed and impious. Since the truth now comes forth from obscurity, and is brought into light, we are not censured as unrighteous who endeavour to perform the works of righteousness. No one any longer reproaches us with the name of God. None of us, who are alone of all men religious, is any more called irreligious; since despising the images of the dead, we worship the living and true God.

The differences may seem subtle, but they add up, especially in the long run. A noticeable reduction in antiquated language and a concomitant increase in clarity are the most obvious and significant improvements.

Thanks to G. and B., Latinless students of church history, patristics, and late Roman history now have this readable and reliable volume. Selective use of the indexes and G.’s helpful introduction may allow many of them to avoid reading L.’s entire, heady work from start to finish. That would be their loss. L. was an interesting man, a fervent Christian, and a skilled writer who was a product of the Classical literary tradition. While in DI he clearly cares more about religion than politics, an intimate bond still joined the two. The world in which we live, where this very connection, in varying degrees, is still before us, is just one reason that L. continues to merit our attention.

A couple of final notes. The copy-editing is very good throughout, never an impediment, with only a few misprints and inconsistencies noted. The frontispiece, a full-color reproduction of an illuminated manuscript page, is a happy perquisite.