Christianity in these writers is therefore an alternative philosophy, not merely an alternative to philosophy; a social creed, not merely a remonstration with society. ‘Philosophy’ is the proper term, for antiquity allowed no facile contrast between this discipline and rhetoric, least of all in the Roman world, where all the known philosophers had been trained in the schools of eloquence. The care with which Lactantius marks transitions at the ends of books is an index of his comprehensive purpose and his readiness to work along the grain of his education: ‘what religion and wisdom are, the next book will more plainly indicate’ (end of book 3); ‘since we have said enough of true religion and wisdom, in the next book let us speak of justice’ (end of book 4). Arnobius also takes conspicuous pains with the commencement of a book, supporting the reader’s memory with a brief review of the argument so far, or introducing an objector to anticipate fatigue. Even his manifesto against the followers of Porphyry in the second book must justify its place, as Simmons says, as a ‘planned digression’ within the rules of Latin rhetoric. Each of the first three books, however, ends with a reflection on the dangerous sterility of eloquence. It is Christ and no one else, the first declares, who, by his mastery of virtue, has delivered us from the peril of eternal death. The second brings this still closer: the philosophers must beware lest, while they arm themselves against the truth, they be overtaken by the day of reckoning. Your danger is in your own hands, says the third, for it is clear that the debates of your mythographers never come to rest in knowledge:

If Janus be, let him be Janus, if Liber, let him be Liber; for this is what it is to have faith, to hold fast, to be fixed in the knowledge of a proven theory; not to . . . bring such matters into the danger that, while you take some away and restore others, it will be possible to doubt whether any of them have any existence whatsoever. (Against the Nations, 3. 44)

The Christian ‘institution’ which Lactantius undertakes will be superior to the secular philosophies, since these are contradicted by the incapacity of their own professors: ‘But when you yourself do not do it, what insolence it is to impose rules on a free man which you yourself do not obey? You who teach, learn first, and before you correct the ways of others, correct your own’ (Divine Institutes, 5. 23).

If Christians ever depreciated rhetoric, it was in the spirit of Plato: the ornaments of style, being indispensable to persuasion, were therefore doubly dangerous when estranged from a love of truth. Moreover, they were saying nothing new when they averred that one could not have a true philosophy unless one also followed the corresponding way of life. Yet one had only to read Cicero, the greatest of both orators and philosophers in the Latin world, to learn that it was common for the life of a pagan sage to be at variance with his teaching:

They seek not profit but pleasure from philosophy, as Cicero indeed bears witness, saying, ‘That whole debate of theirs, although it contains rich founts of virtue and knowledge, when it is compared to what they do and achieve, will none the less be found, I fear, to have been not so much a source of profit in the affairs of men as of pleasure in their hours of recreation’. He had no reason to fear when he spoke the truth. (Ibid. 3. 16)

Pagan rhetoric, therefore, must give way to Christian rhetoric—which is to say that skills used only for prolonging disputation must give way to arguments based upon the facts of history. In Jesus Christ—in him alone—salvation is made both possible and visible; but this appeal to a concrete personality does not invalidate the arts of speech. On the contrary, Lactantius puts the record of his actions into the mouth of Christ himself:

Should anyone say ‘your precepts are impossible’, he can answer, ‘I do them myself’ yet I am clothed in flesh, whose nature is to sin. And I bear the same flesh, yet sin has no power over me. It is hard for me to despise wealth, since one cannot live otherwise in this body. Yet I too have a body, but I fight against every appetite. I cannot bear pain or death for the sake of justice, being frail; behold, death and pain have power in me, and I overcome the things you fear. (Ibid. 3. 24)

In this position there is nothing novel: it had been a commonplace of Latin rhetoric to extol the virtuous hardihood of Rome’s unlettered ancestors while scorning the effete sophistication of the East. It had also been a commonplace to impute bad lives to Christians, to urge that they were politically redundant or subversive, to treat them as a foreign sect with all the usual traits. As we shall see, Arnobius and Lactantius differ widely in their choice of pagan targets and in their judgements as to what will count as Roman; yet both conduct the attack on paganism from within. Each rebuts the charges by presenting Christianity as the only path to virtue, as the most enduring bond of human society, and as the heir to the mos maiorum, the ancestral way, which Romans praise but rarely emulate. Under these three heads I propose to illustrate their affinities, as well as the special character of each.

1 Virtues

Against the frequent charge that Christianity is immoral, Arnobius and Lactantius exhibit Christ, the pattern of Christian character, as one whose life subsumes and yet surpasses all the merits of his counterparts in Roman literature. Hercules was the universal symbol of undeviating virtue. Matching force with strength and craft with strategy, his victory over Cacus cleared the wilderness for the founding of a city which went on to tame the nations by a similar union of power and law. He appears in the insignia of rulers from Augustus on, supplying, in the lifetimes of Arnobius and Lactantius, an emblem for the emperor Gallienus. He had also brought the Roman and the Greek mind into harmony, as Stoicism, which allied itself most readily to the temper of the Roman noble, celebrated Hercules as a paragon of reasoned self-denial. To denigrate this figure was to throw doubt upon the imperial philosophy and the disciplines by which it was upheld.

Lactantius, however, has no esteem for the Roman hero, whom he styles ‘an illustrious man, and as it were Africanus’ (Divine Institutes, I. 9). The allusion is to P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus, whose victory over Hannibal made it possible for Lactantius to be born a Roman citizen. This Scipio was himself a man of questionable virtues, but Hercules fell even further below the common level into a life of crime which aggravated the infamy of his birth: ‘This earth which he is supposed to have traversed and purged, did he not foul it with fornication, lust and adultery? No wonder, when he was born from the adultery of Alcmena’ (ibid. I. 9). Just as he denies elsewhere that Romulus ascended into heaven, so Lactantius may be seeking here to explode the false analogy between Hercules and Jesus which is inspired by their miraculous conceptions. A literary precedent will hardly have escaped him: the sceptical Lucretius had averred that the few strange beasts destroyed by Hercules could not have been such a danger to mankind at large as the terrors of religion, whose bloody and useless rituals were fostered, as Lactantius too complains, by the inanities of philosophers and poets. Not the gods of poetry, but the human Epicurus, through his conquest of religion, was the true deliverer of the human race. Lucretius was a classic in the society, whose public life his ridicule had been powerless to alter, and Lactantius’ frequent use of him is a hint that Christianity is more Roman than the Romans, since it carries to its logical end an argument endorsed by the Roman syllabus. At the same time, it supersedes the sceptical critique, which is revealed to be incoherent when the poet himself concedes the immortality of the soul (ibid. 3. 16):

Lucretius, forgetting what he asserted before, and what doctrine he was defending, wrote these verses:

That which is of the earth to earth again Returns, but that which came from heaven’s shores The blazing precincts of the sky receive.

(On the Nature of Things, 2. 999—1001)

To Lactantius, the certainty of a reckoning in the afterlife is a necessary inference from God’s manifest concern for human character. Christ is the successor to Epicurus, in that he wrought a path to heaven by his virtues; he is greater in that his is not a metaphorical heaven, but a real one in which virtue will obtain its long reward. At the climax of his argument, he borrows and amends a famous eulogy:

He alone, as Lucretius says,

Has purged the hearts of men with truthful words,

And fixed the bounds of appetite and fear;

Revealed what is that highest good to which All tend, and in brief compass shown the way By which we may most surely strive for it.

(On the Nature of Things, 6. 24—8)

Nor did he show it only, but he went before, lest anyone might shrink from the path of virtue through timidity. (Divine Institutes, 7. 27)

Even an Epicurean like Lucretius may permit himself to deify a human benefactor, and Christians of this time adopt the theory of Euhemerus that the cults of all the gods began as posthumous memorials to such men. Hence Arnobius argues that comparison with others will not only excuse the Christian worship of a mortal man, a natus homo, but will demonstrate that Jesus is the one man who deserves it. A Bacchus, a Minerva, or a Hercules may invent a single art, but it is Christ who has revealed to us the most important truths about our nature and destination (Against the Nations, I. 37 ff.). The charge that he was a sorcerer is refuted by the manner of his working, which depends on no machinery but his spoken word, and is uniformly good in its effect. The scandal of his death is mitigated by the analogy with Hercules (I. 38); but when the objector urges that he died upon the cross, and therefore shamefully, Arnobius turns from legendary figures to the Roman paradigms of civic virtue: ‘Many who excelled in glory, virtue and reputation suffered the most bitter forms of death, such as Aquilius Trebonius Regulus; were they ever reckoned sinners after their deaths because they did not die by the general law of fate, but lacerated and tortured by the harshest kind of death?’ (ibid. i. 40). Thus Christ can be commended to the Romans as a model of Roman fortitude. If it be objected that the Gospels are unreliable, the same or more, Arnobius reminds us, could be said of pagan histories. These the Christian advocate could hardly fail to trust when they supplied him with such evidence of mortal and immortal misdemeanours. The birth of Servius Tullius, king of Rome, is told by Plutarch as a proof that Roman virtue is the fosterling of providence; in Arnobius the absurdity of the legend is a satire on the ritual that commemorates the man.

Let us in the same way conceal in silence the dei Conserentes, whom Flaccus, among other authors, reports to have been changed into the form of a human penis and to have risen from the ash which had been left under a small jar; when Tanaquil removed this, the gods slipped out and grew firm with divine sinews . . . Ocrisia inserted the gods into her vagina . . . and thus was born Servius Tullius, king of Rome. (Ibid. 5. 18)

We need not be surprised that pagan records offer little help as to the identity of Flaccus. Just as it lets slip no opportunity of competing with the paradigmatic virtues of the Romans, so Catholic Christianity is not to be surpassed in its contempt for the useless valour of the Greeks. Lactantius can align himself with the Romans in disdain of other nations, though not in their estimation of themselves: ‘So are our people much better, who despise athletic virtue, because it is of no effect, but have such admiration for regal power, because it can cause wide damage, that they assign to brave and warlike leaders a place among the gods?’ (Divine Institutes, I. 18). Instead, let Rome remember what is truly admirable. Christianity is not the superstition of a beaten race, but the natural religion of the masters. Lactantius tells his former educators that they have nothing to unlearn except their weakness, since Christ has put the signature of history on virtues which their literary traditions have disposed them to admire.

2 Society

The second and more dangerous complaint against Christianity, that it fails to respect the empire, is upheld in part by every Latin spokesman of the Church. For all his protestations of fidelity, Tertullian sees the whole world as a pageant of the devil(pompa diaboli), which is soon to disappear before the triumph of the Lord. Augustine, shedding few tears for the fall of Rome, regards all secular offices as violent antidotes to human fallenness, which magistrates are required by God to exercise at the risk of their own salvation. To treat these statements merely as expressions of the factious African temper, or as local observations on the perils of existence in the region, is to do them less than justice: we cannot blame the Christian who elects to take the founder of his religion at his word.

Arnobius and Lactantius see the empire in the Latin way, as a sepulchre of virtue, not, like their contemporary Eusebius, as an instrument of God. Caesar, says Lactantius, echoing Lucan, ‘was your founder, though he was one of the worst of mortals’ (6. 18), whereas Pompey, though a better man, ‘was abandoned by your gods’ (6. 6. 17). Both can take for granted that the extension of political dominion by warfare is iniquitous, and Lactantius can aver that patriotism is a proof of moral ignorance:

If you take away human concord, there is no virtue anywhere. For what are the goods of one’s fatherland, if not the evils of another commonwealth or nation? That means to spread one’s boundaries by violently stealing those of others, to increase dominion, to make taxes greater. All these things are not virtues, but virtues subverted. (Divine Institutes, 6. 6. 23)

Here we have an attack on secularity which does not presume a Christian understanding or experience of the world. We may begin to illustrate the difference with Augustine’s condemnation of the theatre in the Confessions, where his hatred of illusions is bound up with a belief in the ubiquity of daemons and contempt for the phantasmal Christ of Manichaean teaching. When he turns from theatre to amphitheatre, he denounces not the cruelty but the pleasure of the spectacle, which can turn a Christian heart away from God. Tertullian, in his On the Shows (30), reviles the shows as places where the pagan gods are worshipped and the Christians put to death:

How shall I laugh, how shall I exult, when I see so many great kings, who were proclaimed as denizens of heaven, weeping together with Jove and all who accredit him in the lowest part of hell! And magistrates too, persecutors of God’s name, melting in flames that attack them with more savagery even than they showed against the Christians!

We shall not join Gibbon in sneering at the ‘affected and unfeeling witticisms’ of this passage, unless we too are prepared to smile at a century of inquisitions, massacres, and burnings. Nevertheless, we should notice that Lactantius, though he too retails with pleasure both the present and the future tribulation of his persecutors, bases his rejection of the shows upon abuses that are as obvious to the Romans as to him:

Anyone who deems it pleasure to see a man’s throat cut before his eyes, even a man condemned deservedly, has a stain upon his conscience ... I cannot describe the corrupting influence of plays, for comic dramas speak of the immoralities of virgins and the loves of prostitutes . . . and tragic dramas thrust parricides and the enormities of bad rulers on our eyes. . . . In circuses and games what else is there but triviality, vanity and madness? (Divine Institutes, 6. 20)

This might be the voice of a cultivated pagan, until Lactantius, mindful that some readers will be Christian, offers as supplementary objections to the circuses the fact that they occur on public holidays, and that any pleasant habit has a tendency to draw the mind from God. Arnobius comes to the theatre near the climax of a long and picturesque denunciation of the ‘new men’ (novi viri), who profess to know the origin of the soul. In his response he denies it any eternal preconceptions, and asks why God would send an unblemished soul to such a pit of misery. Did he send us only that we might suffer famine, torture, and oppression? Or worse still, that we might become oppressors and the slaves of our own benighted tyranny? That we might deceive, forge testaments, break doors at night, and entertain our bellies with the most far-fetched luxuries? Did he send us, therefore, ‘that souls might distend mouths by blowing trumpets, that they might go before with obscene songs . . . whereby another lascivious multitude of souls might lapse into dissolute motions of the body?’ (Against the Nations, 2. 42).

Arnobius, burlesquing a number of famous Greek experiments in a comprehensive parable, does not believe that humans are by nature equipped for virtue. He prefers the thesis of the philosopher Protagoras, that human beings developed civil polity to defend themselves from nature. Lactantius, by contrast, based his own view that society is ordained by God on a classic text of pagan legal theory. Cicero maintains in his work On Laws that, since the pains and pleasures, the fears and sympathies, of any human society are like those of any other, the laws that humans make are not conventional, but bear witness to a universal community of interests. Since the gods have made us all participants in reason, we cannot separate law from nature, justice from desire. Lactantius borrows from Cicero and others the observation that the anatomy of man bespeaks a natural affinity with heaven, and endorses the conclusion that society is founded on the moral sentiments: ‘For God, who gives men life and breath, desired that all be equal, that is peers. . . . For just as he gives his own light to all . . . so he gives equity and virtue to all’ (Divine Institutes, 5. 13).

The keynote of Lactantius’ work, foreshadowing Augustine, is the contrast between the kingdom of God and the Roman state, which Cicero glorifies in his On the Commonwealth. Our loss of paradise is a sufficient guarantee that any pagan anticipation of this kingdom will be a vicious parody. The asylum founded by Romulus is a haven of moral laxity (Divine Institutes, 2. 7), and even if the city owes its name to the Greek word rhume, meaning ‘power’ (ibid. 7. 23), it is destined to restore that power to Asia when its cycle is complete:

The Roman name, by which the globe is now ruled (the spirit recoils from saying it, but I shall say it, since it is to be), shall be taken from the earth and power will revert to Asia . . . the Sibyls openly say that Rome will die, and by the justice of God, because she has hated his name, and in her enmity to justice, has killed the people who were nurtured by the truth. (Ibid. 7. 13)

The Roman could not contradict the Sibyl, since her prophecies were among the sacred treasures of his city (ibid. I. 6, etc.). Her masterpiece, as the poet himself acknowledged, was the Fourth Eclogue of Virgil, which Lactantius was the earliest to interpret as a foreshadowing of Christ (ibid. 7. 26). Less obvious subjects also suffer this apotheosis: ‘He gave noxious poison to black serpents [Georgics, I. 126]; that is, he [Jupiter = the Devil] sowed hatred, envy and treachery in men, that they might be as poisonous as serpents and as predatory as wolves’ (Divine Institutes, 5. 5).

The Christian writer even finds an allusion in the Georgics to the destruction of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea (Divine Institutes, 5. 10). He styles Virgil noster Maro at I. 13. 12, but without saying whether he means this as a citizen of the empire or a member of the Church. Christians will inevitably find the unwritten truth in pagan literature, since they alone possess a revelation from that other world which is sought by all religions. Philosophy could no more find this world without direction than it could get to know an undiscovered city: ‘It is as though we wished to discuss the character of a city of some extremely remote nation, which we had never seen, and of which we had merely heard the name’ (ibid. 3. 2). We might as well imagine the antipodes, he adds (3. 24), in yet another anticipation of Augustine. Cicero is the exemplar of man’s ignorance in an earthly city: what did his ‘canine eloquence’ achieve but his own beheading (6. 18)? Juvenal, the great satirist of imperial Rome, had made this jibe a commonplace, but the boast of Christianity is not only that it sees the truth more clearly, but that it has the power to make this truth effective. Cicero, for example, had declared that righteous acts should flow from nature, not from any calculation of rewards and penalties; those who know the laws of God will also know that the justice which created human nature has ordained the just requitals after death: ‘Their master with his ministers will be bound, and with him equally the whole host of the impious, in the sight of angels and the just, will be burnt with perpetual fire for all eternity’ (ibid. 7. 26).

In Tertullian, hell is retribution for a persecuted Church, but in Lactantius it is the flowering of justice that is at the heart of nature. The Fall ensures that justice cannot prove herself without the immortality of the soul, which Cicero, like Lucretius, was therefore wrong to question (ibid. 3. 18). A true account of nature will acquaint us with the polity of heaven, which is sure to redress the iniquities now reigning in the cities of the world.

3 Religion and the mos maiorum

The third, and most pernicious, charge against the Christians was that they held to a vana et prava superstitio—vain and depraved in this, if nothing else: that they had renounced the laws and practices of their ancestors, the Jews. The Jews had taught the Christians how to answer one polemic with another. All pagans are idolaters, and thus evince their ignorance of the true God, who is beyond imagination. Even without a Bible, they should be able to perceive that a recent artefact, brought into being by a mere technician, cannot be a proper object of their worship. Christian polemic takes its place beside the satires of the pagan literati, and if it pays no regard to the apologies for images that were offered by such Platonists as Porphyry and Maximus, that too is quite in keeping with the manners of an age in which one flaunted the privilege of one’s education by confining one’s allusions and invectives to the writings of the past.

This is the case with Greek apologetic, but Tertullian, as an African beset by persecution and embroiled in tempests of ecclesiology, takes more notice of his time. He laughs at the presumption of the senate and the emperors, who bring new gods into being by legislation; and, like Minucius Felix, he draws a vivid picture of ruined monuments which, because their worshippers no longer tend them, have become a nest of birds. In common with Greek apologists, he holds that the immoralities of religion are provoked by human intercourse with daemons; even after the Incarnation, these remain for him so much the masters of the world that one is present at the birth of every child in a pagan household. Our apologists made less use of the Bible or of any arcane tradition. Paganism is not condemned primarily for the intrigues of the daemons or the excesses of provincial superstition; the test of a society is its literature, and Roman antiquarians had already shown the origins of mythology to be both incoherent and ridiculous. This favourite recreation of the leisured class was thus the Tarpeian gate through which Lactantius and Arnobius hoped to enter unopposed.

For many modern historians, Saturn is so much the presiding deity of African Christianity that any attack on him is a repudiation of Africa itself. For both the authors treated here, he is a purely Roman figure, to whom, Arnobius claims, the Romans sacrificed human beings before the time of Hercules (Against the Nations, 2. 68). Both argue that his golden age is a fiction of the poets, though Lactantius adds that Christ has ushered in the true Saturnia regna (‘Saturnine kingdoms’) prophesied by Virgil and the Sibyl. The Saturn of the Romans, however, was a mortal ruler, driven from his throne by filial enmity—an enmity that his more than human cruelty rendered equally inevitable and just (Divine Institutes, I. II, 13; 5. 5, etc.). For evidence of his character, Arnobius and Lactantius do not turn to neighbouring altars, but to myth, in which, Lactantius says, the Romans are the dupes of a lesser race: ‘This evil arose from the Greeks, whose shallowness, fortified by facility and resource in speaking, has thrown up clouds of lies in incredible quantities’ (ibid. I. 15).

Arnobius, for his part, despises Rome, professing no esteem for its superannuated virtues; yet, though the authors cited are more obscure and more diverse, the whole of his controversy with the nations takes the form of an attack upon the hegemonic power. The deities whom we think most characteristic of African paganism are those to whom Arnobius turns immediately when he wants to convict the Romans of the vices that they scorn in other peoples. You laugh, he says, at the mysteries of the Persians, yet ‘It is with your connivance that the artists play obscenely with the bodies of gods . . . and so Hammon is formed and fashioned with ram’s horns, and Saturn, with his hooked fork, as the guardian of the fields’ (Against the Nations, 6. 12). Arnobius does not distinguish clearly between the empire and the city that created it. If Rome is made responsible for Hammon in his argument, that is because it is the misfortune of the conqueror to ingest the sins of all her subject races: ‘ ‘‘But, you say, these are not the rites of our commonwealth’’ . . . And how does it help your cause, that they are not yours, when those who make them up are your subjects?’ (ibid. 5. 24).

Arnobius has been quoting the lurid mysteries of Attis, as described by the Greek Timotheus. Lactantius is not nearly so eclectic, his touchstones being Varro, Cicero, Seneca, Ovid, Lucretius, Virgil, and the Sibyl. Lucretius’ etymology, superior to Cicero’s, defines religion as a kind of bondage (ibid. 5. 28, but cf. 3. 27); and Varro, that connoisseur of lost antiquities, reminds us that to be an antiquarian is to see the filth and error that pollute the very wellsprings of the cult. Rooted in the acts of dead adventurers, religion is enhanced by the illusory machinations of the daemons, who have power to lie, though not to make and mar. The resulting institution is despised by its intelligent votaries, and it scarcely needs a prophet to observe that being old is not the same as being true.

For Arnobius, the appeal to our moral sense is reinforced by a critique of Rome’s belief in her antiquity, ironically derived from the research of antiquarians. Rather than maintain that Christianity is the faith of man in Eden, or the soul behind the flesh of Judaism, he parries the charge of novelty by reminding the Roman audience that their own paternal customs are of recent manufacture:

First we ask and inquire of you concerning this very incense . . . Etruria the progenitor and mother of superstition did not know the concept and reputation of it, as their priestly rituals indicate, nor did anyone use it during the 400 years when Alba Longa flourished, nor was its birth or origin known to Romulus himself or to Numa, that artist in the mingling of religions, as is clear from the sacred flour, with which it was customary to perform the duties of solemn sacrifice. Whence then was the use of it adopted, or what novelty has broken in to the ancient and inveterate custom, that what was for so long unnecessary now has the first place in sacrifices? (Ibid. 6. 26)

Arnobius can invoke a Roman prejudice when he gives the name ‘new men’ (novi viri) to opponents who affirm the preexistence of the soul. Whether these be a single group or a coalition, followers of Porphyry or the scholar Cornelius Labeo, the elements of their creed are very ancient, and if anything is new, it is the teaching that salvation is attainable by many ancestral paths: ‘You who believe in Plato, Cronius, Numenius or whomsoever you will, we believe in Christ’ (ibid. 2. II). Or again: ‘Let Etruria kill as many victims as she may, let the wise deny themselves all human things, let the mages soothe and cajole all powers’ (ibid. 2. 62).

To resist the Gospel, Romans must not only deceive themselves as to the age of their religion, they must then invent a new religion according to which all teachings that are older than Christianity, including the most immoral and ridiculous, have an equal claim to truth. Their own books should have led them instead to ask what is wrong in any case with novelty. Arnobius departs from the usual practice of apologetic here, but such manreuvres are not uncommon in pagan rhetoric. The elegiac poets employ them frequently, and Cicero justified his own translation from the Old to the New Academy by observing that the new is often better than the old. Arnobius distinguishes of course between capricious innovations which afflict the works of man without his knowledge or consent and the changes brought about by the omnipotent will of God, in whose essential being no novelty can occur: ‘If what happens today had been necessary a thousand years ago, the most high God would have done it . . . Nothing prevented him from waiting out the necessary term of ages. His works are done according to fixed reasons, and what once is decreed to happen cannot be changed by any innovation’ (ibid. 2. 75).

Novelty is vindicated, therefore, by the God of Latin Christendom, defined not by his nature but by his freedom. Arnobius has perhaps the most profound and philosophical understanding of this freedom among Christians of the first three centuries. Lactantius thought it laughable that gods should be male and female in mythology, since the female is notoriously weaker than the male, and thus a female god would be imperfect (Divine Institutes, I. 16, etc.). He quotes the ‘Hermetic’ principle that God unites both sexes (ibid. 5. 8); yet nowhere in his writings do we find it said so clearly as in Arnobius that God transcends all human excellences or the imagination of them: ‘O greatest one, O most high procreator of things invisible, thyself unseen and apprehended by no nature, worthy, worthy thou truly art . . . For thou art first cause, the place and seat of things, the foundation of all that is, infinite, ingenerate, immortal, ever alone, defined by no corporal form, uncircumscribed by any principle’ (Against the Nations, i. 3i). And again: ‘he is the fount of things, the sower of ages and times. And yet, as you say, Jupiter has father and mother, grandfathers, grandmothers, brothers’ (ibid. I. 34), etc.

So much for the polytheism frequently imputed to Arnobius. A God of such transcendence might be new to many Christians, yet Arnobius still urges that his attributes are obvious to reason; Jesus we know only from the Gospels, but as to God’s transcendence, there is nothing to be revealed. A scholar of both philosophy and history, Arnobius uses both to address, not Africa, not the magistrate, not a local population, but the commonwealth of learning. He argues, like his pupil, that the library of an educated Roman will suffice to reveal the vanity and corruption of that very institution which embraced them as their principal support.

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