Ante-Nicene Fathers/Volume VII/Lactantius/The Divine Institutes/Book II/Chap. VIII

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Chap. viii.—of the use of reason in religion; and of dreams, auguries, oracles, and similar portents.

It is therefore right, especially in a matter on which the whole plan of life turns, that every one should place confidence in himself, and use his own judgment and individual capacity for the investigation and weighing of the truth, rather than through confidence in others to be deceived by their errors, as though he himself were without understanding. God has given wisdom to all alike,[1] that they might be able both to investigate things which they have not heard, and to weigh things which they have heard. Nor, because they preceded us in time, did they also outstrip us in wisdom; for if this is given equally to all, we cannot be anticipated[2] in it by those who precede us. It is incapable of diminution, as the light and brilliancy of the sun; because, as the sun is the light of the eyes, so is wisdom the light of man’s heart. Wherefore, since wisdom—that is, the inquiry after truth—is natural to all, they deprive themselves of wisdom, who without any judgment approve of the discoveries of their ancestors, and like sheep are led by others. But this escapes their notice, that the name of ancestors being introduced, they think it impossible that they themselves should have more knowledge because they are called descendants, or that the others should be unwise because they are called ancestors.[3] What, therefore, prevents us from taking a precedent[4] from them, that as they handed down to posterity their false inventions, so we who have discovered the truth may hand down better things to our posterity? There remains therefore a great subject of inquiry, the discussion of which does not come from talent, but from knowledge: and this must be explained at greater length, that nothing at all may be left in doubt. For perhaps some one may have recourse to those things which are handed down by many and undoubted authorities; that those very persons, whom we have shown to be no gods, have often displayed their majesty both by prodigies, and dreams, and auguries, and oracles. And, indeed, many wonderful things may be enumerated, and especially this, that Accius Navius, a consummate augur, when he was warning Tarquinius Priscus to undertake the commencement of nothing new without the previous sanction of auguries,[5] and the king, detracting from[6] the credit due to his art, told him to consult the birds, and then to announce to him whether it was possible for that which he himself had conceived in his mind to be accomplished, and Navius affirmed that it was possible; then take this whetstone, he said, and divide it with a razor. But the other without any hesitation took and cut it.  

In the next place is the fact of Castor and Pollux having been seen in the Latin war at the lake of Juturna washing off the sweat of their horses, when their temple which adjoins the fountain had been open of its own accord. In the Macedonian war the same deities, mounted on white horses, are said to have presented themselves to Publius Vatienus as he went to Rome at night, announcing that King Perseus had been vanquished and taken captive on that day, the truth of which was proved by letters received from Paulus[7] a few days afterwards. That also is wonderful, that the statue of Fortune, in the form[8] of a woman, is reported to have spoken more than once; also that the statue of Juno Moneta,[9] when, on the capture of Veii, one of the soldiers, being sent to remove it, sportively and in jest asked whether she wished to remove to Rome, answered that she wished it. Claudia also is set forth as an example of a miracle. For when, in accordance with the Sibylline books, the Idæan mother was sent for, and the ship in which she was conveyed had grounded on a shoal of the river Tiber, and could not be moved by any force, they report that Claudia, who had been always regarded as unchaste on account of her excess in personal adornment, with bended knees entreated the goddess, if she judged her to be chaste, to follow her girdle; and thus the ship, which could not be moved by all the strong men,[10] was moved by a single woman. It is equally wonderful, that during the prevalence of a pestilence, Æsculapius, being called from Epidaurus, is said to have released the city of Rome from the long-continued plague.  

Sacrilegious persons can also be mentioned, by the immediate punishment of whom the gods are believed to have avenged the injury done to them. Appius Claudius the censor having, against the advice of the oracle, transferred the sacred rites of Hercules to the public slaves,[11] was deprived of his eyesight; and the Potitian gens, which abandoned[12] its privilege, within the space of one year became extinct. Likewise the censor Fulvius, when he had taken away the marble tiles from the temple of the Lacinian[13] Juno, to cover the temple of the equestrian Fortuna, which he had built at Rome, was deprived of his senses, and having lost his two sons who were serving in Illyricum, was consumed with the greatest grief of mind. Turullius also, the lieutenant of Mark Antony, when he had cut down a grove of Æsculapius in Cos,[14] and built a fleet, was afterwards slain at the same place by the soldiers of Cæsar. To these examples is added Pyrrhus, who, having taken away money from the treasure of the Locrian Proserpine, was shipwrecked, and dashed against the shores near to the temple of the goddess, so that nothing was found uninjured except that money. Ceres of Miletus also gained for herself great veneration among men. For when the city had been taken by Alexander, and the soldiers had rushed in to plunder her temple, a flame of fire suddenly thrown upon them blinded them all.  

There are also found dreams which seem to show the power of the gods. For it is said that Jupiter presented himself to Tiberius Atinius, a plebeian, in his sleep, and enjoined him to announce to the consuls and senate, that in the last Circensian[15] games a public dancer had displeased him, because a certain Antonius Maximus had severely scourged a slave under the furca[16] in the middle of the circus, and had led him to punishment, and that on this account the games ought to be repeated. And when he had neglected this command, he is said on the same day to have lost his son, and to have been himself seized by a severe disease; and that when he again perceived the same image asking whether he had suffered sufficient punishment for the neglect of his command, he was carried on a litter to the consuls; and having explained the whole matter in the senate, he regained strength of body, and returned to his house on foot. And that dream also was not less wonderful, to which it is said that Augustus Cæsar owed his preservation. For when in the civil war with Brutus he was afflicted with a severe disease, and had determined to abstain from battle, the image of Minerva presented itself to his physician Artorius, advising him that Cæsar should not confine himself to the camp on account of his bodily infirmity. He was therefore carried on a litter to the army, and on the same day the camp was taken by Brutus. Many other examples of a similar nature may be brought forward; but I fear that, if I shall delay too long in the setting forth of contrary subjects, I may either appear to have forgotten my purpose, or may incur the charge of loquacity.  


  1. Pro virili portione. The phrase properly denotes the share that falls to a person in the division of an inheritance, hence equality.  
  2. It cannot be forestalled or preoccupied.  
  3. Majores. There is a play upon the words for ancestors and descendants in Latin which our translation does not reproduce. The word translated ancestors may also mean “men who are greater or superior:” the word translated descendants may mean “men who are less or inferior.”  
  4. Exemplum, “an example for imitation.”  
  5. Until he had consulted auguries.  
  6. Elevans, “disparaging,” or “diminishing from.”  
  7. Paulus Æmilius, who subdued Macedonia.  
  8. Muliebre. Others read Fortunæ muliebris.  
  9. The name is said to be derived from monendo, “giving warning,” or “admonition.”  
  10. The youth of military age.  
  11. The circumstance is related by Livy, book ix. c. 29.  
  12. Prodidit, “betrayed.”  
  13. Lacinian, so called from the promontory Lacinia, near Croton.  
  14. The island of Cos lies off the coast of Caria; it had a celebrated temple of Æsculapius.  
  15. The Circensian games were instituted by Romulus, according to the legend, when he wished to attract the Sabine population to Rome for the purpose of obtaining wives for his people. They were afterwards celebrated with great enthusiasm.  
  16. Furca, an instrument of punishment to which the slave was bound and scourged.