Lactantius was a Christian who had been a part of the Roman government (which was hostile to Christians) prior to his conversion. Sometime between 303 and 311 he wrote a systematic theology, in which he wrote:

When [God] might have bestowed upon His people both riches and kingdoms, as He had before given them to the Jews, whose successors and posterity we are; on this account He would have them [that is, "His people"] live under the power and government of others, lest, being corrupted by the happiness of prosperity, they should glide into luxury and despise the precepts of God; as those ancestors of ours, who, ofttimes enervated by these earthly and frail goods, departed from discipline and burst the bonds of the law.

But when Constantine converted to Christianity and became emperor, Lactantius became an advisor and hagiographer to Constantine, as well as a tutor to the emperor's son. It appears that he believed it good and right for a Christian to hold the highest post in the government, even though he had previously said that it was for Christians to live under a pagan emperor.

Did he ever say why it was good for Christians to live under a Christian government?

  • The Making of a Christian Empire: Lactantius and Rome looks like a good resource for answering this. Nov 10, 2020 at 19:07

2 Answers 2


Yes, though in terms of the Church. In The Divine Institutes he writes:

For if the ruler is wicked, the state also will be wicked; but if the ruler is good, the state also will be good. And this is not only true of the ruler, but of all who have authority. For as the rudder is to a ship, so is the government to a state. If the rudder is straight, the ship also will go straight; but if the rudder is crooked, the ship also will go crooked. For this reason, it is more advantageous to the worship of God, and to the peace of the Church, that the state should be administered by good princes, who themselves worship God. And this is the reason why the Lord has so often, by the mouth of the prophets, exhorted kings and princes to worship Him (Book VI, Ch. 20)


Edward Gibbon tells us, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, (D.M. Low abridgement page 290), as soon as the defeat of Licinius had invested Constantine with total dominion of the Roman world, he immediately, by circular letters, exhorted all his subjects to imitate, without delay, the example of their sovereign, and to embrace the divine truth of Christianity. Lactantius was very possibly being pragmatic taking on the role of eulogist for an emperor who gave favours to those who became Christians.

Anders Cullhed says, in The Shadow of Creusa: Negotiating Fictionality in Late Antique Latin Literature (ebook) Lactantius saw an opportunity for covert, albeit legitimate Christian indoctrination. Cullhed says Lactantius considered it downright legitimate to treat truth as a contraband of sorts, concealing it by means of a lie. The siginificance of this is that we can never know whether Lactantius sincerely believed anything he said in support of any position he took. He knew that Constantine looked favourably on work that progressed the Christian cause in his empire and did not need any reason to do the emperor's bidding and would naturally say it was good for Christians to live under a Christian government.

  • 1
    Question on timing here. If Lactitus was Christian from 303 to 311, and Constantine became emperor (when, about 311 or 313?) then Lactitus (you guys spell it differently) must have converted from conviction. He might have changed his mind about the value of having a Christian emperor for any reason, but I agree that if he often concealed his true feelings, then we probably never can know.
    – Bit Chaser
    Jun 29, 2015 at 13:01
  • I can't read the Shadow of Creusa link, but Lactantius became a Christian during the reign of Diocletian. So this answer doesn't seem at all plausible. Jun 29, 2015 at 13:31
  • @disciple I agree that if Lactantius was a Christian in 303 then this was before Constantine became co-emperor, and then emperor. On your information, I have removed my reference to his conversion. However I still believe he behave as many of us might have done, once C. established his rule - writing what C. wanted to hear - so I kept this in place. There are examples of others who did this, as well as examples of those close to C. who suffered for being too pagan. Jun 29, 2015 at 21:46
  • @Mr.Beatitude I tested the Shadow of Creusa link and it works fine for me. It does not require membership and has no apparent access restriction, so I wonder if it is your geographic location that prevents access? Jun 29, 2015 at 21:48
  • The link works for me now; I'm at work and was at home when I tried it previously. The main issue I have with this answer now is that 1) it doesn't really answer the question. I asked if he ever wrote why it's good for Christians to live under a Christian to live under a Christian government; you wrote that he "would naturally say" that it is -- so did he? If so, where? You may reply that it wouldn't matter because "we can never know whether Lactantius sincerely believed anything he said" but I'll be the judge of that. I just want to see some quotes. Jun 29, 2015 at 22:19

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