Lucius Caelius (or Caecilius) Firmianus, Christian apologist; b. North Africa, c. 240; d. c. 320. As a pagan he was a pupil of arnobius the Elder and long a teacher of rhetoric; he was officially invited to teach at Nicomedia during Diocletian's reign. It is uncertain when he became a Christian, but in the persecution of 303 he lost his official position and was impoverished. He seems to have moved to the West (c. 305), may have lived in Gaul, and probably returned to the East (311–313). In his old age (c. 317) in Trier, he became tutor to Crispus, Constantine's son.
None of his works survive except those connected with Christianity. The De Opificio Dei (303–304) is a demonstration of divine providence based on the wonders of human anatomy. The Divinae institutiones in seven books, completed by 313, was written to refute attacks on Christianity by a philosopher and a high official (Hierocles)—and other past or future traducers of Christianity. In this work Lactantius attacks paganism and philosophy; discusses Christianity, justice, true worship, and true religion; and deals extensively with eschatology. In pursuing his goal, the union of true religion and true wisdom, possible only in Christianity, he makes little use of Scripture but relies on pagan prophets, such as the sibylline oracles and Hermes Trismegistus. His quotations of Scripture depend largely on Cyprian's Testimonia. In De ira Dei (c. 314) he counters the notion that God is indifferent, showing that His anger toward the wicked corresponds to His favor to the good. De mortibus persecutorum (c. 318), which shows the evil fate of those who had persecuted Christians, is an important historical source for the period after 303. Its authorship is no longer questioned. Lactantius's Epitome of his Institutiones and a poem on the phoenix are also extant.
In style Lactantius is the most classical of the early Christian Latin authors. He uses pagan authors, especially Cicero, Lucretius, and Vergil. Jerome says that his writing is "like a stream of Ciceronian eloquence," and in the Renaissance he was called the "Christian Cicero." He has little to say of Christian doctrine and institutions and is of little value as a theologian. "Would that he had been able to establish our teaching as well as he demolished that of others," said Jerome.
Bibliography: Opera Omnia, ed. s. brandt and g. laub-mann, 2 v. in 3 (Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 19,27.1, 27.2; 1890, 1893, 1897); De la mort des persécuteurs, tr. and ed. j. moreau, 2 v. (Sources Chrétiennes 39; 1954); De ira Dei, tr. and ed. h. kraft and a. wlosok (Darmstadt 1957); Divinarum institutionum epitome, tr. and ed. e. h. blakeney (London 1950). r. pichon, Lactance (Paris 1901), fundamental. a. wlosok, Laktanz und die philosophische Gnosis (Heidelberg 1960); "Zur Bedeutung der nichtcyprianischen Bibelzitate bei Laktanz," Studia Patristica 4.2 (Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur 79; 1961) 234–250. j. stevenson, "The Life and Literary Activity of Lactantius," ibid., 1.1 (Texte und Untersuchungen 63; 1957) 661–677. j. quasten, Patrology 2:392–410. d. r. s. bailey, "Lactantiana," Vigiliae christianae 14 (1960) 165–169.