Nicene and Ante-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol I:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
The Life of Constantine with Orations of Constantine and Eusebius.: Chapter XIX
Chapter XIX.—That this Prophecy respecting our Saviour was not the Fiction of any Member of the Christian Church, but the Testimony of the Erythræan Sibyl, whose Books were translated into Latin by Cicero before the coming of Christ. Also that Virgil makes mention of the same, and of the Birth of the Virgins Child: though he spoke obscurely of this Mystery from Fear of the Ruling Powers.
Many, however, who admit that the Erythræan Sibyl was really a prophetess, yet refuse to credit this prediction, and imagine that some one professing our faith, and not unacquainted with the poetic art, was the composer of these verses. They hold, in short, that they are a forgery, and alleged to be the prophecies of the Sibyl on the ground of their containing useful moral sentiments, tending to restrain licentiousness, and to lead man to a life of sobriety and decorum. Truth, however, in this case is evident, since the diligence of our countrymen 3462 has made a careful computation of the times; so that there is no room to suspect that this poem was composed after the advent and condemnation of Christ, or that the general report is false, that the verses were a prediction of the Sibyl in an early age. For it is allowed that Cicero was acquainted with this poem, which he translated into the Latin tongue, and incorporated with his own works. 3463 This writer was put to death during the ascendancy of Antony, who in his turn was conquered by Augustus, whose reign lasted fifty-six years. Tiberius succeeded, in whose age it was that the Saviours advent enlightened the world, the mystery of our most holy religion began to prevail, and as it were a new race of men commenced: of which, I suppose, the prince of Latin poets thus speaks:
Behold, a new, a heaven-born race appears. 3464
And again, in another passage of the Bucolics:
Sicilian Muses, sound a loftier strain.
What can be clearer than this? For he adds,
The voice of Cumas oracle is heard again. 3465
Evidently referring to the Cumæan Sibyl. Nor was even this enough: the poet goes further, as if irresistibly impelled to bear his testimony. What then does he say?
Behold! the circling years new blessings bring:
The virgin comes, with her the long-desired king. 3466
p. 576 Who, then, is the virgin who was to come? Is it not she who was filled with, and with child of the Holy Spirit? And why is it impossible that she who was with child of the Holy Spirit should be, and ever continue to be a virgin? This king, too, will return, and by his coming lighten the sorrows of the world. The poet adds,
Thou, chaste Lucina, greet the new-born child,
Beneath whose reign the iron offspring ends,
A golden progeny from heaven descends;
His kingdom banished virtue shall restore,
And crime shall threat the guilty world no more.
We perceive that these words are spoken plainly and at the same time darkly, by way of allegory. Those who search deeply for the import of the words, are able to discern the Divinity of Christ. But lest any of the powerful in the imperial city might be able to accuse the poet of writing anything contrary to the laws of the country, and subverting the religious sentiments which had prevailed from ancient times, he intentionally obscures the truth. For he was acquainted, as I believe, with that blessed mystery which gave to our Lord the name of Saviour: 3467 but, that he might avoid the severity of cruel men, he drew the thoughts of his hearers to objects with which they were familiar, saying that altars must be erected, temples raised, and sacrifices offered to the new-born child. His concluding words also are adapted to the sentiments of those who were accustomed to such a creed; for he says:
“Our men,” i.e. Christians rather than “countrymen.”575:3463
[The passage in Cicero (De Divinatione, Bk. II. ch. 54) clearly does not refer to this acrostic, and contains in itself a plain denial of prophetic truth in the Sibylline prediction (whatever it was) which the writer had in view. “Non esse autem illud carmen furentis, cum ipsum poema declaret (est enim magis artis et diligentiæ, quam incitationis et motus), tum verò ea, quæ ἀκροστιχὶς dicitur, cum deinceps ex primis versuum litteris aliquid connectitur, ut in quibusdam Cumanis, id certe magis est attenti animi, quam furentis,” &c.—Bag.]575:3464
This and following quotations are found in the fourth eclogue of Virgil—the Pollio. The version of Bag. is allowed to stand. If farther variety of rendering and interpretation is desired, it can be found in charming profusion in the various English translations of Virgil of which the few at hand give ample promise. Those at hand are Ogilby, Lond., 1675, p. 41–49; Warton, Lond., 1763, p. 76–82; Trapp, Lond., 1755, p. 37–46; Kennedy, Lond., 1849, p. 25–29; Wilstach, Bost., 1884, p. 154–161; Bowen, Lond., 1887, p. 24–28. Compare Henley, Observations on the Subject of the Fourth Eclogue, etc., Lond., 1788. 8vo.575:3465
Here is variety indeed. 1711 renders, “Last times are come Cumæas prophecy,”—whatever that may mean. Molz. has “Now the voice of the famed oracle of Cumæ is dumb.”575:3466
Constantine takes large liberty with the poet here in order to make him say what he would like to have had him say. The latest translation at hand (Bowen) renders:
“Now is the worlds grand cycle begun once more from of old;
Justice the Virgin comes, and the Saturn Kingdom again.”576:3467
“The blessed and salutary mystery of our Saviour.”—1709. “Mystery of salvation.”—Molz.
Next: Chapter XX
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