For 4th century author, see Lactantius Placidus.

Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius was an early Christian author (c. 250 c. 325) who became an advisor to the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine I, guiding his religious policy as it developed,[1] and a tutor to his son.


Lactantius, a Latin-speaking North African of Berber origin,[2][3][4][5] was not born into a Christian family. He was a pupil of Arnobius who taught at Sicca Veneria, an important town in Numidia. In his early life, he taught rhetoric in his native town, which may have been Cirta in Numidia, where an inscription mentions a certain "L. Caecilius Firmianus".[6]

Lactantius had a successful public career at first. At the request of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, he became an official professor of rhetoric in Nicomedia; the voyage from Africa is described in his poem Hodoeporicum (now lost[7]). There, he associated in the imperial circle with the administrator and polemicist Sossianus Hierocles and the pagan philosopher Porphyry; he first met Constantine, and Galerius, whom he cast as villain in the persecutions.[8] Having converted to Christianity, he resigned his post[9] before Diocletian's purging of Christians from his immediate staff and before the publication of Diocletian's first "Edict against the Christians" (February 24, 303).[10]

As a Latin rhetor in a Greek city, he subsequently lived in poverty according to Saint Jerome and eked out a living by writing until Constantine I became his patron. The persecution forced him to leave Nicomedia and from the outbreak of hostilities until perhaps 311 or 313 he had to live elsewhere. The Emperor Constantine appointed the elderly Lactantius Latin tutor to his son Crispus. Lactantius followed Crispus to Trier in 317, when Crispus was made Caesar (lesser co-emperor) and sent to the city. Crispus was put to death in 326, but when Lactantius died and under what circumstances are unknown.[11]


Like so many of the early Christian authors, Lactantius depended on classical models. The early humanists called him the "Christian Cicero" (Cicero Christianus). A translator of the Divine Institutes wrote: "Lactantius has always held a very high place among the Christian Fathers, not only on account of the subject-matter of his writings, but also on account of the varied erudition, the sweetness of expression, and the grace and elegance of style, by which they are characterized."[12]

He wrote apologetic works explaining Christianity in terms that would be palatable to educated people who still practiced the traditional religions of the Empire. He defended Christian beliefs against the criticisms of Hellenistic philosophers. His Divinae Institutiones ("Divine Institutes") were an early example of a systematic presentation of Christian thought.

He was considered somewhat heretical after his death, but Renaissance humanists took a renewed interest in him, more for his elaborately rhetorical Latin style than for his theology. His works were copied in manuscript several times in the 15th century and were first printed in 1465 by the Germans Arnold Pannartz and Konrad Sweynheim at the Abbey of Subiaco. This edition was the first book printed in Italy to have a date of printing, as well as the first use of a Greek alphabet font anywhere, which was apparently produced in the course of printing, as the early pages leave Greek text blank. It was probably the fourth book ever printed in Italy. A copy of this edition was sold at auction in 2000 for more than $1 million.[13]

Prophetic exegesis

Beginning of Lactantius’ Divinae institutiones in a Renaissance manuscript written in Florence ca. 1420–1430 by Guglielmino Tanaglia

Like many writers in the first few centuries of the early church, Lactantius took a premillennialist view, holding that the second coming of Christ will precede a millennium or a thousand-year reign of Christ on earth. According to Charles E. Hill, "With Lactantius in the early fourth century we see a determined attempt to revive a more “genuine” form of chiliasm."[14] Lactantius quoted the Sibyls extensively. Book VII of The Divine Institutes indicates a familiarity with Jewish, Christian, Egyptian and Iranian apocalyptic material.[15]

None of the fathers thus far had been more verbose on the subject of the millennial kingdom than Lactantius or more particular in describing the times and events preceding and following. He held to the literalist interpretation of the millennium, that the millennium originates with the second advent of Christ and marks the destruction of the wicked, the binding of the devil and the raising of the righteous dead.[16]

He depicted Jesus reigning with the resurrected righteous on this earth during the seventh thousand years prior to the general judgment. In the end, the devil, having been bound during the thousand years, is loosed; the enslaved nations rebel against the righteous, who hide underground until the hosts, attacking the Holy City, are overwhelmed by fire and brimstone and mutual slaughter and buried altogether by an earthquake: rather unnecessarily, it would seem, since the wicked are thereupon raised again to be sent into eternal punishment. Next, God renews the earth, after the punishment of the wicked, and the Lord alone is thenceforth worshiped in the renovated earth.[17]

Lactantius confidently stated that the beginning of the end would be the fall, or breakup, of the Roman Empire.[18] However, this view fell out of favor with the conversion of Constantine and the improved lot of Christians: "Many Christians felt that any expectation of the downfall of the empire was as disloyal to God as it was to Rome."[15]

Attempts to determine the time of the End were viewed as in contradiction to Acts 1:7: "It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority,"[15] and Mark 13:32: "But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."


Page from the Opera, a manuscript from 1465, featuring various colours of pen-work

See also


  1. His role is examined in detail in Elizabeth DePalma Digeser, The Making of a Christian Empire: Lactantius and Rome, 2000.
  2. Serralda, Vincent; Huard, André (1984). Le Berbère-- lumière de l'Occident (in French). Nouvelles Editions Latines. p. 56. ISBN 9782723302395.
  3. Annales de la Société d'histoire et d'archéologie de l'arrondissement de Saint-Malo (in French). 1957. p. 83.
  4. Manceron, Gilles; Aïssani, Farid (1996). Algérie: comprendre la crise (in French). Editions Complexe. p. 161. ISBN 9782870276617.
  5. Dérives (in French). 1985. p. 15.
  6. Harnack, Chronologie d. altchr. Lit., II,416
  7. Conte, Gian Biagio (1999). Latin Literature: A History. Baltimore: JHU Press. p. 640. ISBN 0-8018-6253-1. Retrieved August 29, 2016.
  8. Paul Stephenson, Constantine, Roman Emperor, Christian Victor, 2010:104.
  9. Encyclopædia Britannica. 7 (15th ed.). 1993.
  10. Stephenson 2010:106.
  11. 1 2 3 Healy, Patrick. "Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 26 February 2016
  12. 1 2 3 W. Fletcher (1871). The Works of Lactantius.
  13. "Lot 65 Sale 6417 LACTANTIUS, Lucius Coelius Firmianus (c. 240–c. 320). Opera.". Retrieved 2010-12-29.
  14. Hill, Charles E., "Why the Early Church Finally Rejected Premillennialism", Modern Reformation, Jan/Feb 1996, p. 16
  15. 1 2 3 McGinn, Bernard. Visions of the End, Columbia University Press, 1998 ISBN 9780231112574
  16. Froom 1950, pp. 357-358.
  17. Froom 1950, pp. 358.
  18. Froom 1950, pp. 356-357.
  19. "The Rubrics of the First Book of Lactantius Firmianus's On the Divine Institutes Against the Pagans Begin". World Digital Library. 2011-10-17. Retrieved 2014-03-01.
  20. Lactantius The Divine Institutes, translated by Mary Francis McDonald Catholic University of America Press (1964)
  21. Charlesworth, James Hamilton. The Odes of Solomon. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1973, pp. 1, 82
  22. Lactantius, Divine Institutes, Book III Chapter XXIV
  23. Nicholas Copernicus (1543), The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres
  24. Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project: full scan of Lucius Coelius Firmianus Lactantius, Opera hosted by the Bodleian Libraries ( Provenance information: Accessed 13 July 2015.


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