It is time now to move on from questions about the formation of these treatises and their formal argumentation to the arguments themselves. I shall begin with their exposition of Christianity, and then turn to the nature of their offensive arguments. It is striking that a presentation of the author’s own case, though one might expect it to be a necessary component of apologetic, is of a pretty meagre sort. Josephus’ Against Apion, as Goodman points out (Ch. 3), has only a very crude summary of Judaism (2. 180—219). The Latin texts under discussion here have even less on the nature of Christianity. They focus on two issues: the issue of one god and the resurrection of the body. Tertullian’s To the Gentiles, despite its call to the Gentiles to discover Christianity (I. 20), includes almost nothing about Christian doctrine or practice. Christian beliefs come up only as part of the issue of the Christian martyrs’ alleged contempt for death. The point is raised that pagans too can despise death, but Tertullian argues that even if their beliefs are similar, the Christian and the pagan have different grounds for their beliefs: the Christian believes in the resurrection of the body (I. 18—19).

The Apology has a longer discussion of Christian theology, but again only incidentally to its argument. The section of the work arguing that Christians should not be held guilty of sacrilege, because the pagan gods are not actually gods, moves on to a statement of Christian belief in the existence of only one god. This is demonstrated in the ancient Jewish writings, though Christians have now separated themselves from Jewish practice: Christians worship God through his son Jesus Christ; the beings whom the pagans believe to be gods are actually dangerous demons (17—24). He ends as follows:

I think I have proved enough as to false and true deity. I have shown how the proof hangs together consistently, resting as it does not only on discussion and argument, but on the evidence of those beings whom you believe to be gods; so that there is nothing more to be said on that issue. (25. I)

Tertullian’s On the Evidence of the Soul is rather different. It eschews, as we have seen, attacks or even discussion of paganism, and offers instead a single exposition of the witness of the human soul. This focuses on the same two issues. The soul adduces arguments in favour of one god, rejecting other gods as demons, and it expects to be reunited in the last days with its original body. Tertullian comments that this Christian view, though superior to the Pythagorean, as it does not transfer you into beasts; though more complete than the Platonic, since it endows you again with a body; though more worthy than the Epicurean, as it preserves you from annihilation, yet, because of the name connected with it, it is held to be nothing but vanity and folly, and as it is called, a mere hypothesis. (4)

The passage, in its direct confrontation with competing philosophical eschatologies, illustrates that Christian doctrine concerning the resurrection of the body and the Last Judgement, to which this passage proceeds, were major problems for the presentation of Christianity. It is perhaps not very surprising that the first works of technical Christian theology were addressed to this very issue.

Tertullian’s To Scapula, with its more practical purpose, does not touch on the resurrection of the body, but again states the Christian commitment to one sole god, in order to explain and justify the rationality of Christian refusal to participate in pagan practices (2). Unlike some of the Christian martyrs who are alleged in their Acts to have offered the governors trying them lectures in Christian doctrine, Tertullian offers the minimum possible statement of the Christian case.

In similar circumstances, Cyprian likewise says very little about Christianity. He too emphasizes that there is only one god, but goes further than Tertullian in saying that God demands humans worship him alone, a point supported with biblical quotations; he also says that God is angry at the fact that pagans do not turn to him, and is punishing them for their evil (6-9). In the changed circumstances of the mid-third century, Cyprian takes up a much more forthright and aggressive position than Tertullian felt able to do. By now, almost all the free population of the empire were Roman citizens, but serious structural problems were afflicting the Roman state. Christians themselves were more numerous and better organized than at the time of Tertullian, and Cyprian himself (unlike Minucius Felix or Tertullian) wielded personal authority as a bishop. But he too says little about the resurrection in its own right, though he does stress at length that Christian patience in the face of persecution was unshakable because of Christian hope in vengeance to come at the Last Judgement (17-25). Again, this is a much more threatening position than Tertullian’s picture at the end of the Apology of the glory of martyrdom (50).

At first sight, Minucius Felix might seem to be an exception to my claim that the apologists have little positive to say about Christianity. After all, half the work is devoted to Octavius’ speech in favour of Christianity. But in fact the range of topics discussed there is very limited. As we have seen, Octavius is committed to a Christian providentialism on the part of one god (the existence of one rather than many gods he almost takes for granted). After citing the opinions of pagan philosophers, he concludes:

These opinions are pretty well identical with ours; we recognize a god and we call him father of all. ... I have disclosed the views of almost all philosophers of any outstanding distinction; though under a multiplicity of names they have defined god as unique. So it is open to anyone to suppose that either present-day Christians are philosophers or philosophers of the past were already Christians. (19. 15—20. I)

Any truth that there is in pagan divination and oracles is due to malicious demons (26—7). The remainder of his exposition of Christianity concerns the end of the world and the resurrection of the body (34—5). Octavius notes that pagan philosophy is in agreement that the world will end in a final conflagration. The fires of hell, about which people are warned ‘in the books of the erudite and the verses of the poets’ (35. i), await those who are ignorant of God.

In other words, in all these works there is little on the Bible, little Christology, nothing about the Holy Spirit or the emerging doctrine of the Trinity; little on the Redemption (only Judgement); nothing about the Church, its ministry, sacraments, and other practices. Some have suspected in the case of Minucius Felix that he was a recent convert who had not yet fully assimilated the teachings of the Church; a similar case has been made out for Arnobius, who is equally silent on most aspects of Christianity. But this is to ignore the explicit claim of Octavius that the speaker had long since been converted to Christianity, and it is also to ignore the fact that similar silences occur in the works of Tertullian and Cyprian. While Tertullian’s first four apologetic treatises are among his earliest (datable) works, and so might be the products of ignorance about Christianity, this cannot be said either of To Scapula, his last datable work, or of Cyprian’s To Demetrianus. And in any case the Apology(17—25. I) is clearly well-informed on Christian doctrine. The explanation of the prominence given to the exposition of Christianity surely lies in the nature of the apologetic exercise: the texts address only those issues of interest to a pagan readership. They avoid discussion of esoteric matters, of importance only to those already Christians, and focus on two issues: the nature of the Christian god, which was the problem lying behind the persecutions; and the resurrection, which was both a notorious stumbling-block to pagans and a key factor in the ability of Christians to resist persecution.

I want now to turn from the exposition of arguments about Christianity to consideration of some of the arguments attacking paganism. How far are they attacking targets that would be familiar to the putative addressees of the treatises, and how far are they constructing paper tigers? Some elements of this problem we have already considered earlier, when thinking about the differences between Tertullian’s To the Gentiles and Apology: that is, the more popular criticisms of book i of the former and the more legalistic arguments of the latter. I want now to argue further for the contemporary relevance of the treatises, though I do not wish us to underestimate their tendentiousness.

I shall focus here on the second book of To the Gentiles. This begins by explaining that the defence of Christianity demands that at this point Tertullian discuss whether the pagan gods be truly gods, ‘as you [pagans] would have it supposed, or falsely, as you are unwilling to have proved’ (2. I).

Wishing, then, to follow step by step your own commentaries which you have drawn out of your theology of every sort (because the authority of learned men goes further with you in matters of this kind than the testimony of facts), I have taken and abridged the works of Varro; for he in his treatise Concerning Divine Things, collected out of ancient digests, has shown himself a serviceable guide for us. (2. I)

Varro is treated by Tertullian as a familiar name, with which the educated pagan was expected to be familiar. This is hardly surprising. Varro remained a towering figure in the second century ce (and beyond). As Aulus Gellius says, ‘the records of knowledge and learning left in written form by Varro are familiar and in general use’. In relation to Roman religion in particular, Varro’s work remained the sole exposition of the subject as a whole, and was the obvious point of reference for any Latin speaker, in Rome or the provinces, who wanted to ascertain the nature of Roman religion. As Augustine also realized over 200 years later in The City of God, Varro offered many hostages to hostile critique, but Tertullian is not, I think, attacking a merely antiquarian target.

Like Augustine in The City of God, Tertullian goes through Varro’s threefold classification of gods, showing that none of them are real gods. First, with regard to the physical gods, treated by the philosophers (2. 2—6), Tertullian criticizes at some length the argument that the elements are divine. He makes the pagan admit that the divine being exists in unimpaired integrity, and then points out that the heavenly bodies, allegedly divine, are subject to changes: the moon undergoes monthly changes, while the sun is frequently put to the trial of an eclipse. Here there does not seem to be any obviously post-Varronian material; but, equally, the Varronian arguments are not necessarily out of date. Secondly, with regard to the mythic gods, associated with the poets (2. 7), Tertullian could have had a field-day, but he promises a fuller account elsewhere (it is given in Apology 22—3). He just assumes that the alleged gods of this class were once merely human beings, adducing in support the contemporary world. ‘Look at your own practice, when with similar excess of presumption you sully heaven with the sepulchres of your kings.’ Tertullian admits that the pagan principle was to honour those illustrious for justice, etc., and to deprive the impious and disgraceful of even the old prizes of human glory; but he argues that such honours are a prostitution of God’s inexhaustible grace and mercy. He then passes on to the scandals of divine immorality. This was an easy target, since Plato had already sought to banish the poets from his ideal state as calumniators of the gods; but Tertullian correctly points out that though some pagans might claim that immoral stories about the gods were merely poetic fables, they none the less show respect for the stories, as the basis of the fine arts, and as the very foundation of their literature and hence higher education. Thirdly, regarding the Gentile gods (2. 8), Tertullian is quite brief, avoiding lengthy polemic against an easy target (unlike Augustine, who is wittily vicious on this subject). He points out the multiplicity of names and functions of the gods in general use among different races, citing some from contemporary knowledge (African Caelestis, Moorish Varsutina, etc.) and some explicitly from Varro (Duluentinus of Casinum, Visidianus of Narnia, etc.). ‘I laugh often enough at the little coteries of gods in each municipality (deos decuriones), which have their honours confined within their own city walls’ (2. 8). He then goes on to argue that some of the more absurd pagan gods are derived from misinterpretations of Christian Scripture: so Serapis was derived from the biblical story of Joseph (perhaps not an immediately obvious case!). So, in picking Varro’s work as his stalking-horse, Tertullian took over the three categories and some of Varro’s actual material, but he adapted the points very much with an eye to the present.

This focus on the present is continued in the remainder of the treatise (2. 9—17). Tertullian turns from Varro’s threefold distinction of gods, propounded by the philosophers, poets, and the nations, ‘to the dominant Romans, who received the tradition and gave it wide authority’ (2. 9). He then offers an extended critique of the gods of Rome, who had once merely been human beings. Even the earliest ‘gods’—Saturn, Coelus, and Terra—had once been human. Who then made them gods? Some were infamous characters (like Larentina the prostitute), or Jupiter himself. The gods were associated with every stage of life, even the most indelicate (Augustine has fun with the gods of the marriage-bed). Gods who were, according to the pagans, elevated to heaven were also unsuitable: Hercules was a very undesirable character. Tertullian admits (2. 13) that some of the gods whom he has enumerated are peculiarly Roman, and not easily recognized abroad; but he points out that the functions and circumstances over which they are supposed to preside are found throughout the human race. The Roman Empire was certainly not the result of Roman piety towards her gods.

Tertullian’s emphasis on Rome and her gods is not the result of a facile antiquarianism. Rather, Rome is central to his contemporary world. He writes easily in On the Philosopher’s Cloak to people who were proud to be Carthaginians, with some memory of their pre-Roman past, but recognizes that romanitas (a unique term which he may have invented) was now everyone’s salvation (4. i). In general, he is conscious of being a provincial, eyeing the great capital. When he talks about the pernicious qualities of Rumour, he thinks not of local gossip, but of ‘news’ from Rome. ‘Fama, malum qua non aliud velocius ullum’ (Rumour a curse and swiftest of all curses), in the words of Virgil’s Aeneid, 4. 174. Rumour presents itself as fact. ‘Nobody says, for example, ‘‘They say this occurred at Rome,’’ or ‘‘Rumour is that so and so is assigned the province,’’ but ‘‘He has been assigned the province’’ and ‘‘This did occur at Rome’’’ (Apology, 7. 8—10). Similarly, in To the Gentiles (I. 16. 13—19) Tertullian treats at some length a scandalous case involving unwitting homosexual incest which had recently (? 186—90 ce) come before the Prefect of the City of Rome: the public scandal of this case was illustrative for Tertullian of conventional (if private) immorality.

This focus on Rome was shared by Minucius Felix. As we saw earlier, the setting is just outside Rome, and the arguments of both speakers concern Roman gods. Caecilius’ defence refers to familiar examples of Roman religious practices: the introduction of the cult of Mater Magna from Mount Ida, and the fact that after Flaminius spurned the auguries, Lake Trasimene was swollen and dyed with Roman blood. Conversely, Octavius’ speech included in its attack on the absurdities of pagan practices some specifically Roman ones: ‘some devotees run about naked in the depth of winter; others move in procession wearing felt caps and parading old shields; or they beat drums of hides and go begging from quarter to quarter dragging their gods with them’ (24. II). And so on. Therefore the Roman Empire cannot be dependent on Rome’s piety; rather, it is due to her unpunished impiety (25). The Roman focus of the work is noteworthy. There is a good chance that Minucius Felix himself originated in Africa. Though the speaker of Octavius represents himself simply as resident in Rome, engaged in legal business (2. 3), his long-standing friend Octavius is shown as having just come to Rome on business, leaving his wife and children behind (2. 1), and Caecilius refers to Fronto as ‘Cirtensis noster’ (9. 6), explicitly claiming an African origin for himself. The African element in the text is hardly strong, but that might simply show the extent to which Rome had become the conceptual centre of the world for local elites in the Latin West.

All this is very different in the Greek apologies (above, Ch. 5). They operate largely without reference to Rome, even in the case of Justin, who is supposed to have been writing in Rome itself.

Tertullian and Minucius Felix, like Arnobius and Lactantius later (below, Ch. 9), treat critique of Rome as fundamental to their project, though Tertullian sets this critique firmly in the particular cultural matrix of Carthage: for example, in On the Philosopher’s Cloak he starts from the once traditional dress of the Carthaginians (and their neighbours in Africa), still used in their local cult of Aesculapius (I). As Rives’s book on Carthage shows, this focus would have been immediately familiar and telling to a contemporary Western audience. The differences between the Latin and Greek apologies surely derive from profound differences in the nature of Eastern as against Western culture under the empire.

The focus on Rome shared by the Latin authors conceals some differences of emphasis in their attitude to contemporary culture. Octavius’ speech in Minucius Felix sought to draw together the positive strands in pagan poetry (Virgil) and philosophy (Stoicism) that supported the Christian view of a unique and providential god (17—19). (In this he may have been influenced by Justin’s rather similar ambition.) And of course the treatise moves at the end to the conversion of the pagan Caecilius. Tertullian, on the other hand, is at first sight much more exclusivist. In To the Gentiles and Apology he does not have much if anything positive to say about the positive contributions of pagan thought. However, there is another sense in which he does seek to build bridges between paganism and Christianity. Recall the tactic of On the Evidence of the Soul: the treatise rejects the two obvious approaches of defending Christianity by finding pagan predecessors and of attacking pagan differences from Christianity. Instead, it presents the human soul as an impartial authority, neither pagan nor Christian. And in On the Philosopher’s Cloak he uses arguments that an educated pagan could have accepted to suggest that conversion to Christianity was the next logical step to take. Even in To the Gentiles and Apology he is placatory in down-playing the novelty of Christianity (except Apology, 37. 4) and in stressing its antiquity (To the Gentiles, 2. 2. 5; Apology, 19). Even pagans, with their commitment to traditionalism, were innovative in their customs, and laws too were capable of progress. Whereas Cyprian held a gloomy view according to which natural disasters were due to the fact that the world was growing old and weary, Tertullian upheld the possibility of progress. The Christians were the real upholders of Truth; they were responsible for the ending of natural disasters; and the empire was secure because the emperor held power from the Christian god. The path was open for a reconciliation of Christianity and Rome.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!