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§ 202. Arnobius.


(I.) Arnobii (oratoris) adversus Nationes (or Gentes) libri septem. Best ed. by Reifferscheid, Vindob. 1875. (vol. IV. of the "Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum," issued by the Academy of Vienna.)

Other editions: by Faustus Sabaeus, Florence 1543 (ed. princeps); Bas. (Frobenius) 1546; Paris 1580, 1666, 1715; Antw. 1582; Rom. 1583; Genev. 1597; Lugd. Bat. 1598, 165l; by Orelli, Lips. 1816; Hildebrand, Halle, 1844; Migne, "Patrol. Lat." v. 1844, col. 350 sqq. Fr. Oehler (in Gersdorf’s "Bibl. Patr. Lat."), Lips. 1846. On the text see the Prolegg of Oehler and Reifferscheid.

English Version by A. Hamilton Bryce and Hugh Campbell, in Clark’s "Ante-Nic. Libr." vol. XIX. (Edinb. 1871). German transl. by Benard (1842), and Alleker (1858).

(II.) Hieronymus: De Vir. ill. 79; Chron. ad ann. 325 (xx. Constantini); Ep. 46, and 58, ad Paulinum.

(III) The learned Dissertatio praevia of the Benedictine Le Nourry in Migne’s ed. v. 365–714. Neander: I. 687–689. Möhler (R.C.): Patrol. I. 906–916. Alzog (R.C.): Patrologie (3d ed), p. 205–210. Zink: Zur Kritik und Erklärung des Arnob., Bamb. 1873. Ebert, Gesch. der christl. lat. Lit. I 61–70. Herzog in Herzog2 I. 692 sq. Moule in Smith and Wace I. 167–169.


Arnobius, a successful teacher of rhetoric with many pupils (Lactantius being one of them), was first an enemy, then an advocate of Christianity. He lived in Sicca, an important city on the Numidian border to the Southwest of Carthage, in the latter part of the third and the beginning of the fourth century . He was converted to Christ in adult age, like his more distinguished fellow-Africans, Tertullian and Cyprian. "O blindness," he says, in describing the great change, "only a short time ago I was worshipping images just taken from the forge, gods shaped upon the anvil and by the hammer .... When I saw a stone made smooth and smeared with oil, I prayed to it and addressed it as if a living power dwelt in it, and implored blessings from the senseless stock. And I offered grievious insult even to the gods, whom I took to be such, in that I considered them wood, stone, and bone, or fancied that they dwelt in the stuff of such things. Now that I have been led by so great a teacher into the way of truth, I know what all that is, I think worthily of the Worthy, offer no insult to the Godhead, and give every one his due .... Is Christ, then, not to be regarded as God? And is He who in other respects may be deemed the very greatest, not to be honored with divine worship, from whom we have received while alive so great gifts, and from whom, when the day comes we expect greater gifts?"15721572    Adv. Nat. 1, 39, ed. Reifferscheid, p. 26.573

The contrast was very startling indeed, if we remember that Sicca bore the epithet "Veneria," as the seat of the vile worship of the goddess of lust in whose temple the maidens sacrificed their chastity, like the Corinthian priestesses of Aphrodite. He is therefore especially severe in his exposure of the sexual immoralities of the heathen gods, among whom Jupiter himself takes the lead in all forms of vice.15731573    In book V. 22 he details the crimes of Jupiter who robbed Ceres, Leda, Danae, Europa, Alcmena, Electra, Latona, Laodamia, and "a thousand other virgins and a thousand matrons, and with them the boy Catamitus of their honor and chastity," and who was made a collection of "all impurities of the stage."574

We know nothing of his subsequent life and death. Jerome, the only ancient writer who mentions him, adds some doubtful particulars, namely that he was converted by visions or dreams, that he was first refused admission to the Church by the bishop of Sicca, and hastily wrote his apology in proof of his sincerity. But this book, though written soon after his conversion, is rather the result of an inward impulse and strong conviction than outward occasion.

We have from him an Apology of Christianity in seven books of unequal length, addressed to the Gentiles. It was written a.d. 303,15741574    He says that Christianity had then existed three hundred years (I. 13), and that the city of Rome was one thousand and fifty years old (II. 71). The last date leaves a choice between a.d. 296 or 303, according as we reckon by the Varronian or the Fabian era.575 at the outbreak of the Diocletian persecution; for he alludes to the tortures, the burning of the sacred Scriptures and the destruction of the meeting houses, which were the prominent features of that persecution.15751575    IV. 36; comp. I. 26; II. 77; III. 36, etc. Comp. Euseb. H. E. VIII. 2.576 It is preserved in only one manuscript (of the ninth or tenth century), which contains also the "Octavius" of Minucius Felix.15761576    In the Nation. Libr. of Paris, No. 1661. The copy in Brussels is merely a transcript. The MS., though well written, is very corrupt, and leaves room for many conjectures. Reifferscheid has carefully compared it at Paris in 1867.577 The first two books are apologetic, the other five chiefly polemic. Arnobius shows great familiarity with Greek and Roman mythology and literature, and quotes freely from Homer, Plato, Cicero, and Varro. He ably refutes the objections to Christianity, beginning with the popular charge that it brought the wrath of the gods and the many public calamities upon the Roman empire. He exposes at length the absurdities and immoralities of the heathen mythology. He regards the gods as real, but evil beings.

The positive part is meagre and unsatisfactory. Arnobius seems as ignorant about the Bible as Minucius Felix. He never quotes the Old Testament, and the New Testament only once.15771577    "Has that well-known word (illud vulgatum) never struck your ears, that the wisdom of man is foolishness with God?" II. 6; comp. 1 Cor. 3:19.578 He knows nothing of the history of the Jews, and the Mosaic worship, and confounds the Pharisees and Sadducees. Yet be is tolerably familiar, whether from the Gospels or from tradition, with the history of Christ. He often refers in growing language to his incarnation, crucifixion, and exaltation. He represents him as the supreme teacher who revealed God to man, the giver of eternal life, yea, as God, though born a man, as God on high, God in his inmost nature, as the Saviour God, and the object of worship.15781578    The strongest passages for the divinity of Christ are I. 37, 39, 42 and 53. In the last passage he says (Reifferscheid, p. 36): "Deus ille sublimis fuit [Christus], deus radice ab intima, deus ab incognitis regnis et ab omnium principe deo sospitator est missus"579 Only his followers can be saved, but he offers salvation even to his enemies. His divine mission is proved by his miracles, and these are attested by their unique character, their simplicity, publicity and beneficence. He healed at once a hundred or more afflicted with various diseases, he stilled the raging tempest, he walked over the sea with unwet foot, he astonished the very waves, he fed five thousand with five loaves, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments that remained, he called the dead from the tomb. He revealed himself after the resurrection "in open day to countless numbers of men;" "he appears even now to righteous men of unpolluted mind who love him, not in any dreams, but in a form of pure simplicity."15791579    "per purae speciem simplicitatis, " I.46. This passage speaks against the story, that Arnobius was converted by a dream.580

His doctrine of God is Scriptural, and strikingly contrasts with the absurd mythology. God is the author and ruler of all things, unborn, infinite, spiritual, omnipresent, without passion, dwelling in light, the giver of all good, the sender of the Saviour.

As to man, Arnobius asserts his free will, but also his ignorance and sin, and denies his immortality. The soul outlives the body but depends solely on God for the gift of eternal duration. The wicked go to the fire of Gehenna, and will ultimately be consumed or annihilated. He teaches the resurrection of the flesh, but in obscure terms.

Arnobius does not come up to the standard of Catholic orthodoxy, even of the ante-Nicene age. Considering his apparent ignorance of the Bible, and his late conversion, we need not be surprised at this. Jerome now praises, now censures him, as unequal, prolix, and confused in style, method, and doctrine. Pope Gelasius in the fifth century banished his book to the apocryphal index, and since that time it was almost forgotten, till it was brought to light again in the sixteenth century. Modern critics agree in the verdict that he is more successful in the refutation of error than in the defense of truth.

But the honesty, courage, and enthusiasm of the convert for his new faith are as obvious as the defects of his theology. If be did not know or clearly understand the doctrines of the Bible, be seized its moral tone.15801580    I must differ from Ebert (p 69), who says that Christianity produced no moral change in His heart."In seinem Stil ist Arnobius durchaus Heide, und auch dies ist ein Zeugniss für die Art seines Christenthums, das eben eine innere Umwandlung nicht bewirkt hatte. Das Gemüth hat an seinem Ausdruck nirgends einen Antheil."581 "We have learned," he says, "from Christ’s teaching and his laws, that evil ought not to be requited with evil (comp. Matt. 5:39), that it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it, that we should rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another. An ungrateful world is now for a long period enjoying the benefit of Christ; for by his influence the rage of savage ferocity has been softened, and restrained from the blood of a fellow-creature. If all would lend an ear to his salutary and peaceful laws, the world would turn the use of steel to occupations of peace, and live in blessed harmony, maintaining inviolate the sanctity of treaties."15811581    I. 9.582 He indignantly asks the heathen, "Why have our writings deserved to be given to the flames, and our meetings to be cruelly broken up? In them prayer is offered to the supreme God, peace and pardon are invoked upon all in authority, upon soldiers, kings, friends, enemies, upon those still in life, and those released from the bondage of the flesh. In them all that is said tends to make men humane, gentle, modest, virtuous, chaste, generous in dealing with their substance, and inseparably united to all that are embraced in our brotherhood."15821582    IV. 36.583 He uttered his testimony boldly in the face of the last and most cruel persecution, and it is not unlikely that he himself was one of its victims.

The work of Arnobius is a rich store of antiquarian and mythological knowledge, and of African latinity.



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