Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol VII:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
Lactantius: Chap. IV.—Of images, and the ornaments of temples, and the contempt in which they are held even by the heathens themselves
Chap. iv.—of images, and the ornaments of temples, and the contempt in which they are held even by the heathens themselves.
What majesty, then, can images have, which were altogether in the power of puny man, either p. 45 that they should be formed into something else, or that they should not be made at all? On which account Priapus thus speaks in Horace: 141“Formerly I was the trunk of a fig-tree, 142 a useless log, when the carpenter, at a loss whether he should make a bench or a Priapus, decided that it should be a god. Accordingly I am a god, a very great terror to thieves and birds.”
Who would not be at ease with such a guardian as this? For thieves are so foolish as to fear the figure of Priapus; though the very birds, which they imagine to be driven away by fear of his scythe, settle upon the images which are skilfully made, that is, which altogether resemble men, build their nests there, and defile them. But Flaccus, as a writer of satire, ridiculed the folly of men. But they who make the images fancy that they are performing a serious business. In short, that very great poet, a man of sagacity in other things, in this alone displayed folly, not like a poet, but after the manner of an old woman, when even in those most highly-finished 143 books he orders this to be done:—“And let the guardianship of Priapus of the Hellespont, 144 who drives away thieves and birds with his willow scythe, preserve them.”
Therefore they adore mortal things, as made by mortals. For they may be broken, or burnt, or be destroyed. For they are often apt to be broken to pieces, when houses fall through age, and when, consumed by conflagration, they waste away to ashes; and in many instances, unless aided by their own magnitude, or protected by diligent watchfulness, they become the prey of thieves. What madness is it, then, to fear those objects for which either the downfall of a building, or fires, or thefts, may be feared! What folly, to hope for protection from those things which are unable to protect themselves! What perversity, to have recourse to the guardianship of those which, when injured, are themselves unavenged, unless vengeance is exacted by their worshippers! Where, then, is truth? Where no violence can be applied to religion; where there appears to be nothing which can be injured; where no sacrilege can be committed.
But whatever is subjected to the eyes and to the hands, that, in truth, because it is perishable, is inconsistent with the whole subject of immortality. It is in vain, therefore, that men set off and adorn their gods with gold, ivory, and jewels, as though they were capable of deriving any pleasure from these things. What is the use of precious gifts to insensible objects? Is it the same which the dead have? For as they embalm the bodies of the dead, wrap them in spices and precious garments, and bury them in the earth, so they honour the gods, who when they were made did not perceive it, and when they are worshipped have no knowledge of it; for they did not receive sensibility on their consecration. Persius was displeased that golden vessels should be carried into the temples, since he thought it superfluous that that should be reckoned among religious offerings which was not an instrument of sanctity, but of avarice. For these are the things which it is better to offer as a gift to the god whom you would rightly worship:—“Written law 145 and the divine law of the conscience, and the sacred recesses of the mind, and the breast imbued with nobleness.” 146
A noble and wise sentiment. But he ridiculously added this: that there is this gold in the temples, as there are dolls 147 presented to Venus by the virgin; which perhaps he may have despised on account of their smallness. For he did not see that the very images and statues of the gods, wrought in gold and ivory by the hand of Polycletus, Euphranor, and Phidias, were nothing more than large dolls, not dedicated by virgins, to whose sports some indulgence may be granted, but by bearded men. Therefore Seneca deservedly laughs at the folly even of old men. We are not (he says) boys twice, 148 as is commonly said, but are always so. But there is this difference, that when men we have greater subjects of sport. Therefore men offer to these dolls, which are of large size, and adorned as though for the stage, both perfumes, and incense, and odours: they sacrifice to these costly and fattened victims, which have a mouth, 149 but one that is not suitable for eating; to these they bring robes and costly garments, though they have no need of clothing; to these they dedicate gold and silver, of which they who receive them are as destitute 150 as they who have given them.
And not without reason did Dionysius, the despot of Sicily, when after a victory he had become master of Greece, 151 despise, and plunder and jeer at such gods, for he followed up his sacrilegious acts by jesting words. For when he p. 46 had taken off a golden robe from the statue of the Olympian Jupiter, he ordered that a woollen garment should be placed upon him, saying that a golden robe was heavy in summer and cold in winter, but that a woollen one was adapted to each season. He also took off the golden beard from Æsculapius, saying that it was unbecoming and unjust, that while his father Apollo was yet smooth and beardless, the son should be seen to wear a beard before his father. He also took away the bowls, and spoils, and some little images 152 which were held in the extended hands of the statues, and said that he did not take them away, but received them: for that it would be very foolish and ungrateful to refuse to receive good things, when offered voluntarily by those from whom men were accustomed to implore them. He did these things with impunity, because he was a king and victorious. Moreover, his usual good fortune also followed him; for he lived even to old age, and handed down the kingdom in succession to his son. In his case, therefore, because men could not punish his sacrilegious deeds, it was befitting that the gods should be their own avengers. But if any humble person shall have committed any such crime, there are at hand for his punishment the scourge, fire, the rack, 153 the cross, and whatever torture men can invent in their anger and rage. But when they punish those who have been detected in the act of sacrilege, they themselves distrust the power of their gods. For why should they not leave to them especially the opportunity of avenging themselves, if they think that they are able to do so? Moreover, they also imagine that it happened through the will of the deities that the sacrilegious robbers were discovered and arrested; and their cruelty is instigated not so much by anger as by fear, lest they themselves should be visited with punishment if they failed to avenge the injury done to the gods. And, in truth, they display incredible shallowness in imagining that the gods will injure them on account of the guilt of others, who by themselves were unable to injure those very persons by whom they were profaned and plundered. But, in fact, they have often themselves also inflicted punishment on the sacrilegious: that may have occurred even by chance, which has sometimes happened, but not always. But I will show presently how that occurred. Now in the meantime I will ask, Why did they not punish so many and such great acts of sacrilege in Dionysius, who insulted the gods openly, and not in secret? Why did they not repel this sacrilegious man, possessed of such power, from their temples, their ceremonies, and their images? Why, even when he had carried off their sacred things, had he a prosperous voyage—as he himself, according to his custom, testified in joke? Do you see, he said to his companions who feared shipwreck, how prosperous a voyage the immortal gods themselves give to the sacrilegious? But perhaps he had learnt from Plato that the gods have no 154 power.
What of Caius Verres? whom his accuser Tully compares to this same Dionysius, and to Phalaris, and to all tyrants. Did he not pillage the whole of Sicily, carrying away the images of the gods, and the ornaments of the temples? It is idle to follow up each particular instance: I would fain make mention of one, in which the accuser, with all the force of eloquence—in short, with every effort of voice and of body—lamented about Ceres of Catina, or of Henna: the one of whom was of such great sanctity, that it was unlawful for men to enter the secret recesses of her temple; the other was of such great antiquity, that all accounts relate that the goddess herself first discovered grain in the soil of Henna, and that her virgin daughter was carried away from the same place. Lastly, in the times of the Gracchi, when the state was disturbed both by seditions and by portents, on its being discovered in the Sibylline predictions that the most ancient Ceres ought to be appeased, ambassadors were sent to Henna. This Ceres, then, either the most holy one, whom it was unlawful for men to behold even for the sake of adoration, or the most ancient one, whom the senate and people of Rome had appeased with sacrifices and gifts, was carried away with impunity by Caius Verres from her secret and ancient recesses, his robber slaves having been sent in. The same orator, in truth, when he affirmed that he had been entreated by the Sicilians to undertake the cause of the province, made use of these words: “That they had now not even any gods in their cities to whom they might betake themselves, since Verres had taken away the most sacred images from their most venerable shrines.” As though, in truth, if Verres had taken them away from the cities and shrines, he had also taken them from heaven. From which it appears that those gods have nothing in them more than the material of which they are made. And not without reason did the Sicilians have recourse to you, O Marcus Tullius, that is, to a man; since they had for three years experienced that those gods had no power. For they would have been most foolish if they had fled for protection against the injuries of men, to those who were unable to be angry with Caius Verres on their own behalf. But, it will be urged, Verres was condemned on account of these deeds. Therefore he was not punished by the gods, but by the energy of Cicero, by which he either p. 47 crushed his defenders or withstood his influence. 155 Why should I say that, in the case of Verres himself, that was not so much a condemnation as a respite from labour? So that, as the immortal gods had given a prosperous voyage to Dionysius when he was carrying off the spoils of gods, so also they appear to have bestowed on Verres quiet repose, in which he might with tranquility enjoy the fruits of his sacrilege. For when civil wars afterwards raged, being removed from all danger and apprehension, under the cloak of condemnation he heard of the disastrous misfortunes and miserable deaths of others; and he who appeared to have fallen while all retained their position, he alone, in truth, retained his position while all fell; until the proscription of the triumvirs,—that very proscription, indeed, which carried off Tully, the avenger of the violated majesty of the gods,—carried him off, satiated at once with the enjoyment of the wealth which he had gained by sacrilege, and with life, and worn out by old age. Moreover, he was fortunate in this very circumstance, that before his own death he heard of the most cruel end of his accuser; the gods doubtless providing that this sacrilegious man and spoiler of their worship should not die before he had received consolation from revenge.
Horat., 1 Serm. 8. 1.45:142
The wood of the fig-tree is proverbially used to denote that which is worthless and contemptible.45:143
The Georgics, which are much more elaborately finished than the other works of Virgil.45:144
Priapus was especially worshipped at Lampsacus on the Hellespont; hence he is styled Hellespontiacus.45:145
Compositum jus, fasque animi. Compositum jus is explained as “the written and ordained laws of men;” fas, “divine and sacred law.” Others read animo, “human and divine law settled in the mind.”45:146
Persius, Sat., ii. 73.45:147
Pupæ, dolls or images worn by girls, as bullæ were by boys. On arriving at maturity, they dedicated these images to Venus. See Jahns note on the passage from Persius.45:148
The allusion is to the proverb that “old age is second childhood.”45:149
An allusion to Ps. cxv. 5: “They have mouths, but they speak not.”45:150
Quæ tam non habent qui accipiunt, quam qui illa donarunt. The senseless images can make no use of the treasures.45:151
Justin relates that Græcia Magna, a part of Italy, was subdued by Dionysius. Cicero says that he sailed to Peloponnesus, and entered the temple of the Olympian Jupiter. [De Nat. Deor., iii. 34.]46:152
Sigilla. The word is also used to denote seals, or signets.46:153
Equuleus: an instrument of torture resembling a horse, on which slaves were stretched and tortured.46:154
Nihil esse [= are nothing.]47:155
The allusion is to the efforts made by the partisans of Verres to prevent Cicero from obtaining the necessary evidence for the condemnation of Verres. But all these efforts were unavailing: the evidence was overwhelming, and before the trial was over Verres went into exile.
Next: Chap. V.—That God only, the creator of all things, is to be worshipped, and not the elements or heavenly bodies; and the opinion of the stoics is refuted, who think that the stars and planets are gods
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