VI. EARLY LATIN CHRISTIANITY: MINUCIUS FELIX, TERTULLIAN, LACTANTIUS.
The new religion was long in adapting itself to literary form; and if, between the era of the Antonines and that of Diocletian, a century passes in which all the important literature is Christian, this is rather due to the general decay of art and letters, than to any high literary quality in the earlier patristic writing. Christianity began among the lower classes, and in the Greek-speaking provinces of the Empire; after it reached Rome, and was diffused through the Western provinces, it remained for a long time a somewhat obscure sect, confined, in the first instance, to the small Jewish or Graeco-Asiatic colonies which were to be found in all centres of commerce, and spreading from them among the uneducated urban populations. The persecution of Nero was directed against obscure people, vaguely known as a sort of Jews, and the martyrdom of the two great apostles was an incident that passed without remark and almost without notice. Tacitus dismisses the Christians in a few careless words, and evidently classes the new religion with other base Oriental superstitions as hardly worth serious mention. The well-known correspondence between Pliny and Trajan, on the subject of the repressive measures to be taken against the Christians of Bithynia, indicates that Christianity had, by the beginning of the second century, taken a large and firm footing in the Eastern provinces; but it is not till a good many years later that we have any certain indication of its obtaining a hold on the educated classes. The legend of the conversion of Statius seems to be of purely mediaeval origin. Flavius Clemens, the cousin of the Emperor Domitian, executed on the ground of “atheism” during the year of his consulship, is claimed, though without certainty, as the earliest Christian martyr of high rank. Even in the middle of the second century, the Church of Rome mainly consisted of people who could barely speak or write Latin. The Muratorian fragment, the earliest Latin Christian document, which general opinion dates within a few years of the death of Marcus Aurelius, and which is part of an extremely important official list of canonical writings issued by the authority of the Roman Church, is barbarous in construction and diction. It is in the reign of Commodus, amid the wreck of all other literature, that we come on the first Christian authors. Victor, Bishop of Rome from the year 186, is mentioned by Jerome as the first author of theological treatises in Latin; taken together with his attempt to excommunicate the Asiatic Churches on the question, already a burning one, of the proper date of keeping Easter, this shows that the Latin Church was now gaining independent force and vitality.
Two main streams may be traced in the Christian literature which begins with the reign of Commodus. On the one hand, there is what may be called the African school, writing in the new Latin; on the other, the Italian school, which attempted to mould classical Latin to Christian use. The former bears a close affinity in style to Apuleius, or, rather, to the movement of which Apuleius was the most remarkable product; the latter succeeds to Quintilian and his contemporaries as the second impulse of Ciceronianism. The two opposing methods appear at their sharpest contrast in the earliest authors of each, Tertullian and Minucius Felix. The vast preponderance of the former, alike in volume of production and fire of eloquence, offers a suggestive parallel to the comparative importance of the two schools in the history of ecclesiastical Latin. Throughout the third and fourth centuries the African school continues to predominate, but it takes upon itself more of the classical finish, and tames the first ferocity of its early manner. Cyprian inclines more to the style of Tertullian; Lactantius, “the Christian Cicero,” reverts strongly towards the classical forms: and finally, towards the end of the fourth century, the two languages are combined by Augustine, in proportions which, throughout the Middle Ages, form the accepted type of the language of Latin Christianity.
In a fine passage at the opening of the fifth book of his Institutes of Divinity, Lactantius regrets the imperfect literary support given to Christianity by his two eminent predecessors. The obscurity and harshness of Tertullian, he says (and to this may be added his Montanism, which fluctuated on the edge of heresy), prevent him from being read or esteemed as widely as his great literary power deserves; while Minucius, in his single treatise, the Octavius, gave a brilliant specimen of his grace and power as a Christian apologist, but did not carry out the task to its full scope. This last treatise is, indeed, of unique interest, not only as a fine, if partial, vindication of the new religion, but as the single writing of the age, Christian or pagan, which in style and diction follows the classical tradition, and almost reaches the classical standard. As to the life of its author, nothing is known beyond the scanty indications given in the treatise itself. Even his date is not wholly certain, and, while the reign of Commodus is his most probable period, Jerome appears to allude to him as later than Tertullian, and some modern critics incline to place the work in the reign of Alexander Severus. The Octavius is a dialogue in the Ciceronian manner, showing especially a close study of the De Natura Deorum. A brief and graceful introduction gives an account of the scene of the dialogue. The narrator, with his two friends, Octavius and Caecilius, the former a Christian, the latter a somewhat wavering adherent of the old faith, are taking a walk on the beach near Ostia on a beautiful autumn morning, watching the little waves lapping on the sand, and boys playing duck-and-drake with pieces of tile, when Caecilius kisses his hand, in the ordinary pagan usage, to an image of Serapis which they pass. The incident draws them on to a theological discussion. Caecilius sets forth the argument against Christianity in detail, and Octavius replies to him point by point; at the end, Caecilius professes himself overcome, and declares his adhesion to the faith of his friend. Both in the attack and in the defence it is only the rational side of the new doctrine which is at issue. The unity of God, the resurrection of the body, and retribution in a future state, make up the sum of Christianity as it is presented. The name of Christ is not once mentioned, nor is his divinity directly asserted. There is no allusion to the sacraments, or to the doctrine of the Redemption; and Octavius neither quotes from nor refers to the writings of either Old or New Testament. Among early Christian writings, this method of treatment is unexampled elsewhere. The work is an attempt to present the new religion to educated opinion as a reasonable philosophic system; as we read it, we might be in the middle of the eighteenth century. With this temperate rationalism is combined a clearness and purity of diction, founded on the Ciceronian style, but without Cicero's sumptuousness of structure, that recalls the best prose of the Silver Age.
The author of the Octavius was a lawyer, who practised in the Roman courts. The literary influence of Quintilian no doubt lasted longer among the legal profession, for whose guidance he primarily wrote, than among the grammarians and journalists, who represent in this age the general tendency of the world of letters. But even in the legal profession the new Latin had established itself, and, except in the capital, seems to have almost driven out the classical manner. Its most remarkable exponent among Christian writers was, up to the time of his conversion, a pleader in the Carthaginian law-courts.
Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus was born at Carthage towards the end of the reign of Antoninus Pius. When he was a young man, the fame of Apuleius as a writer and lecturer was at its height; and though Tertullian himself never mentions him (as Apuleius, on his side, never refers in specific terms to the Christian religion), they must have been well known to each other, and their antagonism is of the kind which grows out of strong similarities of nature. Apuleius passed for a magician: Tertullian was a firm believer in magic, and his conversion to Christianity was, he himself tells us, very largely due to confessions of its truth extorted from demons, at the strange spiritualistic seances which were a feature of the time among all classes. His conversion took place in the last year of Commodus. The tension between the two religions—for in Africa, at all events, the old and the new were followed with equally fiery enthusiasm—had already reached breaking point. A heathen mob, headed by the priestesses of the Mater et Virgo Caelestis, the object of the ecstatic worship afterwards transferred to the mother of Christ, had two or three years before besieged the proconsul of Africa in his own house because he refused to order a general massacre of the Christians. In the anarchy after the assassination of Commodus, the persecution broke out, and continued to rage throughout the reign of Septimius Severus. It was in these years that Tertullian poured forth the series of apologetic and controversial writings whose fierce enthusiasm and impetuous eloquence open the history of Latin Christianity. The Apologeticum, the greatest of his earlier works, and, upon the whole, his masterpiece, was composed towards the beginning of this persecution, in the last years of the second century. The terms in which its purport is stated, Quod religio Christiana damnanda non sit, nisi qualis sit prius intelligatur, might lead one to expect a grave and reasoned defence of the new doctrine, like that of the Octavius. But Tertullian's strength is in attack, not in defence; and his apology passes almost at once into a fierce indictment of paganism, painted in all the gaudiest colours of African rhetoric. Towards the end, he turns violently upon those who say that Christianity is merely a system of philosophy: and writers like Minucius are included with the eclectic pagan schoolmen in his condemnation. Here, for the first time, the position is definitely taken which has since then had so vast and varied an influence, that the Holy Scriptures are the source of all wisdom, and that the poetry and philosophy of the Graeco-Roman world were alike derived or perverted from the inspired writings of the Old Testament. Moses was five hundred years before Homer; and therefore, runs his grandiose and sweeping fallacy, Homer is derived from the books of Moses. The argument, strange to say, has lived almost into our own day.
In thus breaking with heathen philosophy and poetry, Tertullian necessarily broke with the literary traditions of Europe for a thousand years. The Holy Scriptures, as a canon of revealed truth, became incidentally but inevitably a canon of literary style likewise. Writings soaked in quotations from the Hebrew poets and prophets could not but be affected by their style through and through. A current Latin translation of the Old and New Testament—the so-called Itala, which itself only survives as the ground-work of later versions—had already been made, and was in wide use. Its rude literal fidelity imported into Christian Latin an enormous mass of Grecisms and Hebraisms—the latter derived from the original writings, the former from the Septuagint version of the Old Testament—which combined with its free use of popular language and its relaxed grammar to force the new Latin further and further away from the classical tradition. The new religion, though it met its educated opponents in argument and outshone them in rhetorical embellishment, still professed, after the example of its first founders, to appeal mainly to the simple and the poor. “Stand forth, O soul!” cries Tertullian in another treatise of the same period; “I appeal to thee, not as wise with a wisdom formed in the schools, trained in libraries, or nourished in Attic academy or portico, but as simple and rude, without polish or culture; such as thou art to those who have thee only, such as thou art in the crossroad, the highway, the dockyard.”
In the ardour of its attacks upon the heathen civilisation, the rising Puritanism of the Church bore hard upon the whole of culture. As against the theatre and the gladiatorial games, indeed, it occupied an unassailable position. There is a grim and characteristic humour in Tertullian's story of the Christian woman who went to the theatre and came back from it possessed with a devil, and the devil's crushing reply,In meo eam inveni, to the expostulation of the exorcist; a nobler passion rings in his pleading against the butcheries of the amphitheatre, “Do you wish to see blood? Behold Christ's!” His declamations against worldly luxury and ornament in the sumptuous pages of the De Cultu Feminarum are not more sweeping or less sincere than those of Horace or Juvenal; but the violent attack made on education and on literature itself in the De Idololatria shows the growth of that persecuting spirit which, as it gathered material force, destroyed ancient art and literature wherever it found them, and which led Pope Gregory, four hundred years later, to burn the magnificent library founded by Augustus. Nos sumus in quos decucurrerunt fines seculorum, “upon us the ends of the world are come,” is the burden of Tertullian's impassioned argument. What were art and letters to those who waited, from moment to moment, for the glory of the Second Coming? Yet for ten years or more he continued to pour forth his own brilliant essays; and while the substance of his teaching becomes more and more harsh and vindictive, the force of his rhetoric, his command over irony and invective, the gorgeous richness of his vocabulary, remain as striking as ever. In the strange and often romantic psychology of the De Anima, and in the singular clothes- philosophy of the De Pallio, he appears as the precursor of Swedenborg and Teufelsdrueckh. A remarkable passage in the former treatise, in which he speaks of the growing pressure of over-population in the Empire, against which wars, famines, and pestilences had become necessary if unwelcome remedies, may lead us to reconsider the theory, now largely accepted, that the Roman Empire decayed and perished for want of men. With the advance of years his growing antagonism to the Catholic Church is accompanied by a further hardening of his style. The savage Puritanism of the De Monogamia and De Ieiunio is couched in a scholastic diction where the tradition of culture is disappearing; and in the gloomy ferocity of the De Pudicitia, probably the latest of his extant works, he comes to a final rupture alike with Catholicism and with humane letters.
The African school of patristic writers, of which Tertullian is at once the earliest and the most imposing figure, and of which he was indeed to a large degree the direct founder, continued for a century after his death to include the main literary production of Latin Christianity. Thascius Caecilius Cyprianus, Bishop of Carthage from the year 248, though a pupil and an admirer of Tertullian, reverts in his own writings at once to orthodoxy and to an easy and copious diction. In earlier youth he had been a professor of rhetoric; after his conversion in mature life, he gave up all his wealth to the poor, and devoted his great literary gifts to apologetic and hortatory writings. He escaped the Decian persecution by retiring from Carthage; but a few years later he was executed in the renewed outbreak of judicial massacres which sullied the short and disastrous reign of Valerian. Forty years after Cyprian's death the rhetorician Arnobius of Sicca in Numidia renewed the attack on paganism, rather than the defence or exposition of Christianity, in the seven books Adversus Nationes, which he is said to have written as a proof of the sincerity of his conversion. “Uneven and ill-proportioned,” in the phrase of Jerome, this work follows neither the elaborate rhetoric of the early African school, nor the chaster and more polished style of Cyprian, but rather renews the inferior and slovenly manner of the earlier antiquarians and encyclopedists. A free use of the rhetorical figures goes side by side with a general want of finish and occasional lapses into solecism. His literary gift is so small, and his knowledge of the religion he professes to defend so slight and so excessively inaccurate, that theologians and men of letters for once agree that his main value consists in the fragments of antiquarian information which he preserves. But he has a further claim to notice as the master of a celebrated pupil.
Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius, a name eminent among patristic authors, and not inconsiderable in humane letters, had, like Cyprian, been a professor of rhetoric, and embraced Christianity in mature life. That he was a pupil of Arnobius is established by the testimony of Jerome; his African birth is only a doubtful inference from this fact. Towards the end of the third century he established a school at Nicomedia, which had practically become the seat of empire under the rule of Diocletian; and from there he was summoned to the court of Gaul to superintend the education of Crispus, the ill-fated son of Constantine. The new religion had passed through its last and sharpest persecution under Diocletian; now, of the two joint Emperors Constantine openly favoured the Christians, and Licinius had been forced to relax the hostility towards them which he had at first shown. As it permeated the court and saw the reins of government almost within its grasp, the Church naturally dropped some of the anathematising spirit in which it had regarded art and literature in the days of its earlier struggles. Lactantius brought to its service a taste trained in the best literary tradition; and while some doubt was cast on his dogmatic orthodoxy as regards the precise definition of the Persons of the Trinity, his pure and elegant diction was accepted as a model for later writers. His greatest work, the seven books of the Institutes of Divinity, was published a few years before the victory of Constantine over Maxentius outside the walls of Rome, which was the turning-point in the contest between the two religions. It is an able exposition of Christian doctrine in a style which, for eloquence, copiousness, and refinement, is in the most striking contrast to the wretched prose produced by contemporary pagan writers. The influence of Cicero is obvious and avowed throughout; but the references in the work show the author to have been familiar with the whole range of the Latin classics, poets as well as prose writers. Ennius, the comedians and satirists, Virgil and Horace, are cited by him freely; he even dares to praise Ovid. In his treatise On Gods Workmanship—De Opificio Dei—the arguments are often borrowed with the language from Cicero, but Lucretius is also quoted and combated. The more fanatical side of the new religion appears in the curious work, De Mortibus Persecutorum, written after Constantine had definitely thrown in his lot with Christianity. It is famous as containing the earliest record of the vision of Constantine before the battle of the Mulvian Bridge; and its highly coloured account of the tragical fates of the persecuting Emperors, from Nero to Diocletian, had a large effect in fixing the tradition of the later Empire as viewed throughout the Middle Ages. The long passionate protest of the Church against heathen tyranny breaks out here into equally passionate exultation; the Roman Empire is already seen, as it was later by St. Augustine, fading and crumbling away with the growth of the new and imperial City of God.
Besides the large and continuous volume of its prose production, the Latin Church of the third century also made its first essays in poetry. They are both rude and scanty; it was not till late in the fourth century that Christian poetry reached its full development in the hymns of Ambrose and Prudentius, and the hexameter poems of Paulinus of Nola. The province of Africa, fertile as it was in prose writers, never produced a poet of any eminence. The pieces in verse—they can hardly be called poems—ascribed to Tertullian and Cyprian are forgeries of a late period. But contemporary with them is an African verse-writer of curious linguistic interest, Commodianus. A bishop of Marseilles, who wrote, late in the fifth century, a continuation of St. Jerome's catalogue of ecclesiastical writers, mentions his work in a very singular phrase: “After his conversion,” he says, “Commodianus wrote a treatise against the pagans in an intermediate language approximating to verse,” mediocri sermone quasi versu. This treatise, theCarmen Apologeticum adversus Iudaeos et Gentes, is extant, together with other pieces by the same author. It is a poem of over a thousand lines, which the allusions to the Gothic war and the Decian persecution fix as having been written in or very near the year 250. It is written in hexameters, composed on a system which wavers between the quantitative and accentual treatment. These are almost evenly balanced. The poem is thus a document of great importance in the history of the development of mediaeval out of classical poetry. Though not, of course, without his barbarisms, Commodianus was obviously neither ignorant nor careless of the rules of classical versification, some of which—for instance, the strong caesura in the middle of the third foot—he retains with great strictness. His peculiar prosody is plainly deliberate. Only a very few lines are wholly quantitative, and none are wholly accentual, except where accent and quantity happen to coincide. Much of the pronunciation of modern Italian may be traced in his remarkable accentuation of some words; like Italian, he both throws back the accent off a long syllable and slides it forward upon a short one. Assonance is used freely, but there is not more rhyming than is usual in the poetry of the late empire. Not only in pronunciation, but in grammatical inflexion, the beginnings of Italian here and there appear. The case-forms of the different declensions are beginning to run into one another: the plural, for example, of insignis is no longer insignes, but, as in Italian, insigni; and the case-inflexions themselves are dwindling away before the free use of prepositions, which was already beginning to show itself in the Pervigilium Veneris.
Popular poetry was now definitely asserting itself alongside of book- poetry formed on the classical model. But authors who kept up a high literary standard in prose continued to do so in verse also. The poemDe Ave Phoenice, found in early mediaeval collections under the name of Lactantius, and accepted as his by recent critics, is written in accurate and graceful elegiac couplets, which are quite in accordance with the admiration Lactantius, in his work On the Wrath of God, expresses for Ovid. It is perhaps the earliest instance outside the field of prose of the truce or coalition which was slowly forming itself between the new religion and the old culture. Beyond a certain faint and almost impalpable mysticism, which hints at the legend of the Phoenix as symbolical of the doctrine of the Resurrection, there is nothing in the poem which is distinctively Christian. Phoebus and the lyre of Cyllene are invoked, as they might be by a pagan poet. But the language is from beginning to end full of Christian or, at least, scriptural reminiscences, which could only be possible to a writer familiar with the Psalter. The description with which the poem opens of the Earthly Paradise, a “land east of the sun,” where the bird has its home, has mingled touches of the Elysium of Homer and Virgil, and the New Jerusalem of the Revelation; as in the Psalms, the sun is a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and night and day are full of a language that is not speech.
In the literary revival of the latter half of the fourth century these tendencies have developed themselves, and taken a more mature but a less interesting form. After Christianity had become formally and irrevocably the State religion, it took over what was left of Latin culture as part of the chaotic inheritance which it had to accept as the price for civil establishment. A heavy price was paid on both sides when Constantine, in Dante's luminous phrase, “turned the eagle.” The Empire definitively parted with the splendid administrative and political tradition founded on the classical training and the Stoic philosophy; though shattered as it had been in the anarchy of the third century, that was perhaps in any case irrecoverable. The Church, on its side, drew away in the persons of its leaders from its earlier tradition, with all that it involved in the growth of a wholly new thought and art, and armed or hampered itself with that classicalism from which it never again got quite free. It is in the century before Constantine, therefore, when old and new were in the sharpest antagonism, and yet were both full of a strange ferment—the ferment of dissolution in the one case, in the other that of quickening— that the end of the ancient world, and with it the end of Latin literature as such, might reasonably be placed. But the first result of the alliance between the Empire and the Church was to give added dignity to the latter and renewed energy to the former. The partial revival of letters in the fourth century may induce us to extend our survey so far as to include Ausonius and Claudian as legitimate, though remote, successors of the Augustan poets.