Each requires a word of introduction. Arnobius of Sicca, though he taught Lactantius rhetoric, was an old man at the time of his conversion, and was told that he must put his skills at the service of his new beliefs before he could be admitted to the Church. Jerome, who reports this, dates the treatise Against the Nations to about 326 ce. This date has been disputed on the strength of vague assertions which suggest that he wrote before the year 300; but there are other statements, equally vague, which point to his writing in the fourth century, and there is little external or internal evidence which fails to support the later date assigned to him by Jerome. His allusions to the burning of the Scriptures, for example, make it probable that he saw the execution of the imperial decrees against the Christians in 303, but do not prove that he wrote while persecution was in force. He names no pagan magistrate, and makes no appeal to laws in the manner of Justin or Tertullian; if he wrote when the persecution was abated, we can understand his silence, and make sense of Jerome’s statement that the audience intended for this treatise ‘against the nations’ was the Church.
Although he came from Sicca, he shows few signs of being an African. A recent study notes his frequent references to Saturn, whose name was given to an indigenous deity of the region; his disparagement of Venus, who was the object of a special cult at Cirta; the aforementioned allusion to the burning of the Scriptures, which we know to have occurred in parts of Africa; and his use of certain ecclesiastical terms which were at home in the vocabulary of Cyprian and Tertullian. The last two points are, I think, of little weight, since almost all the Latin of the third century is the Latin of Christian Africa, and the first of Diocletian’s edicts was at least supposed to be universally enforced. As for the other two, there would have been no need of a modern book to make them if Arnobius had shared the provincial temper of Augustine or Tertullian; as it is, his Saturn is invariably the patriarch of Latium, and his Venus has as little African colour as the poetry of Lucretius, which Arnobius appears to have valued far more highly than his native town.
The evidence for the later date is strengthened by Lactantius, when he enumerates as previous Latin champions of the faith Minucius Felix, Tertullian, and Cyprian, with no word of his master, whose eccentric contribution he might have criticized, but would have had no plausible reason to ignore. Lactantius himself we know much better from his writings. Since he studied rhetoric with Arnobius, he was an African, though he does not care to say so. The proofs of his education are his style and his own assertion that he was summoned to Bithynia as a tutor. It was in the Eastern capital, Nicomedia, that he became a Christian. Barnes’s observation that he did so when it was ‘safe and fashionable’ is tendentious; in the court of Diocletian and Galerius it was always safer and more fashionable to be a pagan. This became apparent in events which drove Lactantius from Bithynia after 303, and remained for him a vivid recollection:
When I had been summoned to Bithynia and was teaching oratory there, and it happened that the Temple of God was overturned, then there stood forth two who trampled on the prostrate and abject truth; whether their pride or their rashness was the greater, I cannot say. (Divine Institutes, 3. 2. 2) ... I saw in Bithynia a chief magistrate elated with joy, as if he had subdued some race of barbarians, because one man, who had withstood him with great virtue for two years, appeared to have succumbed at last. (3. II. 3)
These men are probably Hierocles, who contrasted Apollonius and Christ to the disadvantage of the latter, and Porphyry, whose treatise Against the Christians was the most erudite, and the most resented, of all the Greek polemics. If both wrote in the reign of Diocletian (284—303 ce), they may have helped to fan the persecution which he unleashed against the Christian Church in 303 ce. This entailed the destruction of books and churches, the confiscation of property, the arrest of clergy, and finally an edict requiring everyone to pay homage to the gods. Arnobius, as we have seen, recalls the burning of the Scriptures, and although he never takes issue with a living pagan writer, Michael Simmons has argued that his treatise was designed as a compendious refutation of Porphyry.
The best evidence that Arnobius was acquainted with the works of this philosopher is his second book, which brings a number of arguments against the pre-existence of the soul. This, with other tenets, is ascribed to certain ‘new men’ (novi viri)who appealed to the authority, not of Porphyry himself, but of the second-century Platonists Numenius and Cronius, whom we know to have been his literary mentors. His defence of Jesus against the charge of sorcery, and the antiquarian learning which he brings to his attacks on pagan cults, would have served him well in a reply to Porphyry’s strictures. On the other hand, Arnobius leaves at least one fatal argument unanswered, for, having himself no interest in the Old Testament, he has nothing to say to Porphyry’s demonstration that the Book of Daniel lies about its date.
But in neither Arnobius nor his pupil should we look for perfect scholarship, any more than for original philosophy. Both were rhetoricians, trained in the Roman manner, and had lived under Diocletian, who had set himself the task of turning even the most peripheral of his subjects into Romans. Africa at that time was not peripheral, but the heart of Latin culture, and it was here that the persecution fell most heavily; here, above all, security for the Christian lay in being Roman, not in being right. Or rather, one must be more than Roman: the Christian polemicists of the fourth century may aspire to take their place with the Latin classics, like Tertullian, but at the same time they are boasting of their franchise in a heavenly republic which has already outlasted Rome.