In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Lactantius

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Lactantius’s Reception in Later Literature

Classics Lactantius
Stefan Freund
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 November 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0344


Lucius Caelius Firmianus Lactantius (c. 250–c. 325 CE) was a Christian Latin author during the Diocletianic persecution and the times of Constantine the Great. Lactantius was born in Africa, studied with the rhetor Arnobius in Sicca Veneria, and became a teacher of rhetoric himself. In about 290, Emperor Diocletian offered him a chair at the court at Nicomedia, one of the new imperial residences of the Tetrarchy. There, in 303 the author faced the beginning of the Diocletianic persecution. The injustice he believed was being done to the Christians is of utmost importance for Lactantius. In order to become the champion of the oppressed, he resolved to defend and explain the Christian faith. His first two writings conceal their Christian character: The elegy on the Phoenix (De ave Phoenice) tries to illustrate the idea of resurrection by retelling the myth of the fabulous bird which dies and comes to life again; with it Lactantius establishes a Christian Latin poetry in the classical manner. His treatise On the Workmanship of God (De opificio dei) gives a detailed account of human physiology, which suggests that it was created through the working of God’s providence. In his magnum opus, the seven books entitled Divine Institutes (Divinae institutiones), consisting of more than six hundred modern pages, Lactantius gives an apologetic overall sketch of Christian teaching for pagan readers. The Divine Institutes were finished before 311, as the whole work suggests that persecution was still in progress while it was being written. Soon after the end of persecution, i.e., in 313/314, Lactantius composed his brief work On the Deaths of the Persecutors (De mortibus persecutorum), the first Latin treatise on ecclesiastical history. When Constantine appointed Lactantius to be tutor to his son Crispus, Lactantius came to the imperial court at Trier. In the following years, Lactantius wrote On the Anger of God (De ira dei), which argues that God does indeed show wrath, and also a short version of his Divine Institutes (Epitome divinarum institutionum). An unfinished second edition of the whole Divine Institutes, which contains dedications to the emperor Constantine and passages explaining the author’s dualistic worldview, presupposes the political conditions of 324 and thus dates the author’s death to 324/325. Lactantius was read in Late Antiquity, but was often supposed to be theologically outdated or problematic. In the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, however, the “Christian Cicero,” as he was called then, was greatly admired for the way he used classical style, rhetoric, poetry, education, and mythology to explain Christianity. The Divine Institutes are contained in the first book which was printed in Italy.

General Overviews

There is no recentintroductory and comprehensive monograph on Lactantius in general—Pichon 1901 is outdated. Colot 2016, however, although focusing on the Divine Institutes, gives a very useful introduction to Lactantius and his times. All important facts and (older) research problems are presented in an excellent handbook article by Wlosok 1989 (French version is Wlosok 1993). The translation of the Divine Institutes by Bowen and Garnsey 2003 has a clear general introduction to the author’s life and works. A remarkably helpful and exhaustive online bibliography is Jackson Bryce’s Bibliography of Lactantius. Important topics in Lactantius’s writings are discussed in the collections of essays presented by Fontaine and Perrin 1978, Guillaumin and Ratti 2003 and, more recently, by Nicholson 2017.

  • Bowen, Anthony, and Peter Garnsey. 2003. Lactantius, Divine Institutes. Translated Texts for Historians 40. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.3828/978-0-85323-988-8

    Offers a precise and helpful introduction.

  • Colot, Blandine. 2016. Lactance. Penser la conversion de Rome au temps de Constantin. Florence: Leo S. Olschki Editore.

    A comprehensive study of Lactantius’s political and religious concepts, particularly as they appear in the Divine Institutes.

  • Fontaine, Jacques, and Michel Perrin. 1978. Lactance et son temps. Recherches actuelles. Paris: Éditions Beauchesne.

    A collection of sixteen essays on historical, literary, and religious topics raised by Lactantius and his work. Most contributions are still of fundamental importance.

  • Guillaumin, Jean-Yves, and Stéphane Ratti. 2003. Autour de Lactance. Hommages à Pierre Monat. Besançon, France: Presses Univ. de Franche-Comté.

    A collection of essays of which five refer to Lactantius.

  • Jackson Bryce’s Bibliography of Lactantius.

    An excellent annotated bibliography in four parts (bibliographical works, early editions to 1700, editions from 1700, plus commentaries and translations of all periods, scholarly literature), last updated in 2007.

  • Nicholson, Oliver. 2017. The classical or Christian Lactantius. Papers presented at the Seventeenth International Conference held in Oxford 2015. Edited by Markus Vinzent. Studia Patristica 80. Paris and Bristol, UK: Peeters.

    A recent collection of eleven essays on various problems in Lactantius, including his reception. Nicholson’s introduction gives an excellent overview of the state of scholarly discussions on Lactantius. Volume 6 edited by Oliver Nicholson.

  • Pichon, René. 1901. Lactance: Étude sur le movement philosophique et religieux sous le règne de Constantin. Paris: Librairie Hachette.

    An outdated but comprehensive introduction into Lactantius’s writing and historical setting.

  • Wlosok, Antonie. 1989. L. Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius. In Handbuch der lateinischen Literatur der Antike. Fünfter Band: Restauration und Erneuerung. Edited by Reinhart Herzog, 375–404. Munich: C. H. Beck.

    A comprehensive handbook article covering the biography and all works of Lactantius with rich bibliography and all-important ancient testimonies. The French version of this German article is Wlosok 1993.

  • Wlosok, Antonie. 1993. L. Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius. In Nouvelle histoire de la Littérature Latine. V: Restauration et Renouveau. Edited by Reinhart Herzog, 426–459. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols.

    Slightly updated French translation of Wlosok 1989.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.