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Lactantius, Hermes Trismegistus and Constantinian obelisks

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 October 2013

Caroline Nicholson
Bryn Mawr CollegeUniversity of Minnesota American School of Classical Studies at Athens
Oliver Nicholson
Bryn Mawr CollegeUniversity of Minnesota American School of Classical Studies at Athens
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In a recent article in this journal (JHS cvii [1987] 51–57) Garth Fowden has argued that the obelisk from Karnak erected by Constantius II in Rome in 357 had been promised to that city by his father Constantine, as Ammianus Marcellinus states, and was not originally intended, as was claimed in the (lost) inscription on its base, for Constantine's new foundation at Constantinople. The interesting suggestion is made that Constantine might have been in touch with Athenian religious experts over the matter, and the project is seen as an earnest of ‘his desire to conciliate the pagan Establishment of Old Rome’. The point of this piece is to enlarge on the possible significance of the obelisk to contemporary Christians that is hinted at by Dr Fowden.

Constantine paid three visits to Rome as emperor, in 312, after winning the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, in 315 during the celebration of his Decennalia, and in 326 for his Vicennalia; on at least one of these occasions, he gave offence to non-Christian Romans by declining to perform the customary procession to the Capitol to offer sacrifice.

Copyright © The Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies 1989

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The authors would like to express their thanks to Dr Fowden for his kind advice.

1 Fowden, Garth, ‘Nicagoras of Athens and the Lateran Obelisk’, JHS cvii (1987) 51–7CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Amm. Marc, xvii 4. 12–14; Dessau ILS 736.

2 JHS cvii (1987) 51–2, 56–7Google Scholar.

3 JHS cvii (1987) 56Google Scholar.

4 JHS cvii (1987) 56Google Scholar indicates that a phrase in Amm. Marc, xvii 4 recalls the Hermetic Asclepius 24 and points out that Hermes was much used by Christians seeking pagan witnesses to Christianity (on which see further Fowden, G.The Egyptian Hermes [Cambridge 1986] 198212Google Scholar).

5 Barnes, T. D.The New Empire of Diocletian and Constantine (Cambridge, Mass. 1982) 71, 72, and 77CrossRefGoogle Scholar gives the sources.

6 Zosimus ii 29.5 places this incident in 326, which accords with the late date he accepted for Constantine's conversion to Christianity. Paschoud, F., ‘Zosime 2, 29 et la version paienne de la conversion de Constantin’, Historia xx (1971) 334–53Google Scholar (=his Cinq études sur Zosime [Paris 1975] chapter 2) prefers 315, and Barnes, T. D.Constantine and Eusebius (Cambridge, Mass. 1981)Google Scholar favours 312.

7 Piganiol, A.L'empéreur Constantin (Paris 1932) 112 ffGoogle Scholar. argued that Constantine's benefactions to S. Peter's Rome (Liber Pontificalis 34) included lands in the East, and so they too must date from after the victory over Licinius in 324. The City Prefect of 326 was Acilius Severus, on whom PLRE I, s.n. Severus 16. Hitherto ignored in the controversy over Constantine's failure to sacrifice at the Capitol has been a small piece of a glass souvenir plate, showing Constantine and Severus in front of a façade bearing an inscription commemorating the Vicennalia. This was first published by Bruzza, L.Frammento di un disco di vetro che rappresenta i vicennali di Diocletiano’, Bull. Com. Rom. x (1882) 180–90Google Scholar, and correctly identified by Fuhrmann, H.Studien zu den Consulardiptychen verwandten Denkmälern I: eine Glasschale von der Vicennalienfeier Constantins des Grossens zu Rom in Jahre 326 nach Chr.RomMitt liv (1939) 161–75Google Scholar. In front of Severus, as Dr Anna Wilson points out to us, is part of a garland like those put round the necks of sacrificial animals (as, for instance, on the Tetrarchic Decennalia base from the Roman Forum); one must suppose that the makers of souvenirs showed Constantine as about to offer sacrifice whether he did or not. Severus was not the first Christian Prefect; he was preceded by Ovinius Gallicanus, Prefect in 316–17, on whom, Champlin, E., ‘Saint Gallicanus (Consul 317)Phoenix xxxvi (1982) 71–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Oratio ad sanctos 20. The emperor praises Vergil's proper use of poetic licence; on this notion Lactantius also had ideas: Divine Institutions (Inst.) i 11.24.

9 Above note 4. For Crispus and Lactantius, Jerome Chron. ad ann. 317 AD; Jerome de viris illustribus 80.

10 Heck, E.Die Dualistische Zusätze und die Kaiseranreden bei Lactantius (Abhandlungen Heidelberg Akad. 1972) 167 ffGoogle Scholar. suggests that Lactantius died before completing his revisions of Inst, for the second edition dedicated to Constantine.

11 Jerome de viris illustribus 80 and 111.

12 Inst, i 22.19–20. For Jupiter's own first sacrifice, Inst, i 11.63–5. In general on Lactantius' view of world history Nicholson, O. P., ‘The Source of the Dates in Lactantius' Divine InstitutesJTS xxxvi n.s. (1985) 292310Google Scholar; Wehrli, F., ‘L. Caelius Firmianus Lactantius über die Geschichte des wahren Gottesglaubens’, in Palmer, R. B. and Hamerton-Kelly, R. (eds.) Philomathes Fs R. Merlan (The Hague 1971) 251–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Fredouille, J.-C., ‘Lactance historien des réligions’, in Fontaine, J. and Perrin, M. (eds.) Lactance et son temps (Paris 1978) 237–52Google Scholar.

13 Inst, vii 6.1, on the theological implications of which Wlosok, A.Laktanz und die philosophische Gnosis (Abhandlungen Heidelberg. Akad. 1960) 192 ffGoogle Scholar.

14 Inst, ii 1.14–19; ii 2.19–24; ii 5 ff.; de ira Dei (Ira) 20.10–11; de opijicio Dei (Opif.) 8.1–3: ‘hominem … ad caeli contemplationem rigidum erexit bipedemque constituit’ (2). On Lactantius' anthropology, Perrin, M., ‘L'homme antique et chrétien’ (Paris 1981)Google Scholar; on rectus status and contemplatio caeli, A. Wlosok op. cit. (n. 13)

15 Inst, i 22.1–8 describes Numa's activities in Rome; Inst, i 22.9–15 the earlier importation of pagan religion into Latium by Faunus, grandson of Saturn.

16 E.g. Herodotus ii 53 ff., ii 144 ff.; Iamblichus de mysleriis vii 5. Porphyry thought the Egyptians ‘the most learned nation of all’: de abslinentia ii 5 (quoting Theophrastus, and in turn cited by Eusebius Prep. Ev. i 9).

17 Inst, ii 13.5–7: ‘haec fuit prima gens quae deum ignoravit’ (7).

18 Inst, ii 13.10–11; Lactantius expands on the agency of the demons, the fallen angels and their offspring, in devising pagan cults in Inst, ii 16. He had disdain for the animal-headed gods of Egypt: Inst, ii 5.35–6; v 20.12; cf. iii 20.16.

19 Inst, iv 5.6: ‘about 900 years before the Trojan War’. Cf. JTS xxxvi n.s. (1985) 305–6Google Scholar.

20 Inst, iv 10.12.

21 Inst, vii 15.6 interprets the plagues of Egypt as signs of what was to come, a mere foretaste of the Last Times when ‘Egypt shall suffer punishment for her foolish superstitions and will run with blood as with a river’ (10). Inst, vii 18.3–4 reinforces the prophecy by quoting the Hermetic Asclep. 26.

22 Oratio ad sanctos 16.

23 The reference to the sudden way that ‘by the folly of a single age’ polytheism was introduced (Inst, iv 1.1) must refer to the activities of the family of Saturn and Jupiter in the Greek world. Lactantius was able to perceive wisdom surviving even in those who had begun the process of corruption: Solomon made the serious mistake of founding a temple and a city (Inst, iv 13.24) which marked a stage in the Jews' falling away from the religion of the Most High God, yet he was still ‘sapientissimum regem’ (Inst, iv 6.6) and an important prophet.

24 Inst, vii 22.2: ‘Licet sint multo antiquiores quam historici et oratores et cetera genera scriptorum … earn vero temere ac leviter auditam in modum commenticae fabulae prodiderunt’.

25 Inst, i 5.4: ‘vetustissimus poetarum’; for the date Inst, i 22.17 with i 9.10, and JTS xxxvi (1985) 302Google Scholar. Also he was of a generation to be the first to introduce the worship of Liber in Boeotia where that son of jupiter was born: Inst, i 22.15–16. Orpheus illustrates well the piecemeal way that polytheism supplanted man's original innocent religion; he was well aware that Saturn and Jupiter were mortal monarchs (Inst, i 13.11; i 5.7), and could witness to the Most High God.

26 Inst, i 7.7.

27 Inst, i 5.4–7.

28 For the process by which wisdom because the property of a few, and then only the object of desire for philosophers, studiosos sapientiae, Inst, iv 1.9–14, with iii 16.7–17.

29 Inst, i 6.15–19.

30 Inst, iv 2.4, a tradition studied by Dörrie, H., ‘Platons Reisen zu fernen Völkern—Zur Geschichte eines Motives der Platon-Legende und zu seiner Neuwendung durch Laktanz’ in den Boer, W. et al. (ed.) Romanitas et Christianitas: studia J. H. Waszink oblata … (Amsterdam and London 1973) 99118Google Scholar.

31 Inst, i 6.1. For a list of Lactantius' references to Hermes A. Wlosok (n. 13) 261–2. Ira 11.12 places Hermes ‘long before’ any philosopher, or even the Seven Sages.

32 Inst, i 11.61: ‘Trismegistus … Uranum Saturnum Mercurium nominavit cognatos suos’. On the five Mercuries of Cicero de Natura Deorum iii 56, Inst, i 6.2–4.

33 Asclepius, the Latin version of the Perfect Discourse which survives in full, makes Hermes, the founder of the city which bore his name (cf. Inst, i 6.3), the grandfather of the teacher of the Perfect Discourse (Asclep. 37).

34 Inst, i 5.4–5; cf. iv 13.2. ‘Trismegistus… dedeo patre omnia, de filio locutus est multa quae divinis continentur arcanis’: Inst, i 27.20.

35 He called the Devil ‘daemoniarchus’ (Inst, ii 14.6). It was the demons who were responsible for instigating paganism, so Lactantius thought (Inst, ii 14–16); he agreed with Hermes that the knowledge of God was the only defence against them (Inst, ii 15.4–8.

36 Inst, vi 25.10–11 translates the passage preserved as Asclep. 41.

37 Of course the interpretations of events offered in official speeches could be oblique, witness the orator of 313 who alluded to Constantine's ‘personal secret with the Divine Mind’ (Pan. hat. ix 2.5). Lactantius thought that it was the poet's job to present res gestae ‘obliquis figurationibus’ (Inst, i 11.24), and he thought that poetry had its beginnings in panegyrics (Inst, i 13.15).

38 e.g. Buchner, E.Die Sonnenuhr des Augustus (Mainz 1982)Google Scholar.

39 Halsberghe, G. H.The Cult of Sol Invictus (Leiden, EPRO 23, 1978)Google Scholar collects much material, some of it confusingly from the Historia Augusta, but is concerned more with specific manifestations of cult than with the reverence widely felt for the Sun. On Christians and the Sun Dölger, F. J.Sol Salutis (Munster 1925)Google Scholar.

40 Inst, ii 5.1; ii 9.11–12. It may not be too obvious to point out that an obelisk points to the sky, a telling indication for one who like Lactantius thought that man was made for ‘contemplatio caeli’ (cf. note 14 above). The Phoenix, about which Lactantius wrote a poem, was also associated with the Sun: Phoen. 9: ‘Solis nemus’; Phoen. 43: the Sun sets the time of its metamorphosis; Phoen. 58: ‘Et sola arcanis conscia, Phoebe, tuis’; Phoen. 121: ‘Solis ad urbem’. The frequent references to Phoebus (never Apollo) in the poem, might be explained by Lactantius on the lines of Orpheus' use of Phanes and Phaethon (Inst, i 5.4–5) combined with his theory of poetic licence (Inst, i 11.24–5). For a commentary on Lactantius' Phoenix, see the unpublished Oxford D.Phil, thesis of Claire Sharp (1986), on the character of the poem F.J. Bryce in Studia Patristica (1988, forthcoming).

41 For Constantine's periods of residence, Barnes (n. 5) 68, 72–3. Constantine's renaming of the city was referred to in a letter of 450 from the bishops of Gaul to Leo the Great (Leo ep. 65.3; cf. CIL XII, p. 83–4). The comprehensive account of the monuments is still Constans, L. A.Arles Antique (Paris 1921)Google Scholar; for the Christian city (with bibliography) Fevrier, P.-A. in ed. Gauthier, N. et Picard, J.-Ch.Topographie chrétienne des cités de la Gaule III: provinces ecclesiastiques de Vienne et d'Arles par Biarne, J. et al. ( (Paris 1986) 7384Google Scholar.

42 On the circus and the obelisk, Humphrey, J.Roman Circuses (London 1984) 390–8Google Scholar. For the most recent excavation report, Gallia xliv (1986) 394–7Google Scholar; digging continues.

43 Of other western obelisks, that at Vienne, though taller than that at Arles (and so perhaps reflecting the long-standing local rivalry) is not of Egyptian granite (Humphrey [n. 42] 402–3), and that at Merida is presumed to exist only from its base (ibid. 371). Apart from Constantine, the emperors most likely to have given an obelisk to Arles would be his sons, one of whom, Constantine II, was born in the city (Epitome de Caesaribus 41.4; Zosimus ii 22.2), while another, Constantius II, celebrated his Tricennalia there in 353 with elaborate games (Amm. Marc, xiv 5.1). It might be that at Arles, as at Rome, Constantius II could have carried out his father's intentions in the manner suggested by Dr Fowden, and Marcellinus, Ammianus: ‘obelisks think nothing of lying around for decades or centuries’ (JHS cvii [1987] 53Google Scholar).