The Earliest States of Eastern Europe
DG-2016, 184-195

Lapsus Linguae or the Play of Words? How the Christian Writer Lactantius Made Pagans Barbarians with Only One Pronoun

I. M. Nikolsky

In the article on the example of the work by Christian apologist and historian
Lucius Firmianus Lactantius (ca. 260 – ca. 325) On the Deaths of Persecutors
(De mortibus persecutorum, DMP) the problem of evolution of the most
important for the Romans’ self-identification terminology is studied, particularly
enlargement and extension of the variety and spectrum of meanings, that the
term ‘barbarian’ had, in the age of legalization of Christianity (the Edict of
Milan signed by Constantine the Great), and of the appearance of the new, more
‘politicized’ level of the conflict between its protagonists and opponents. In this
rather peripheral for the storyline fragment of DMP, in which the death of the
emperor Valerian (253–260) is described, Lactantius used one and the same
pronoun suus (its), two times in one sentence, at first designating Persians, called
‘barbarians’ before, and then designating Romans. It's argued in the article that
it was not a faux-pas word here, but Lactantius willfully structured the phrase in
such a manner, in order to give it double meaning, and tried to equalize Persians
the barbarians with Pagan Romans. For this hypothesis sequent arguments are
made. In the tradition of classical antiquity – so Greek, as Roman – on which
Lacatantius drew – not only special ‘ethnical’ or ‘linguistic’ contexts of the
word ‘barbarian’ had been formed, but it had been used also for characterization
for the ‘alien’ in the sense of ethical viewpoints and moral values. Such cases
are well-known due to the orations (Demosthenes, Cicero, Quintilian), dramas
(Euripides, Aristophanes, Menander) and poetry (Horace, Ovid). With coming
of the conflict between Christians and Pagans to the political field appellation
to the ‘barbarity’ as the argument in polemics sooner or later should appear in
the sphere of interfaith relations. The earlier, in comparison with Lactantius,
Christian tradition had indications, showing such a possibility. Tertullian
complained about that Romans that were Pagans think of the Christian Romans
as of the barbarians. Frequent contacts between Persian and Graeco-Latin
world, convergence of the practices of the religious worship (the Roman cult of
Mithras) resulted in a situation when Christians in their contra-Pagan polemics
didn’t make the difference between ‘friendly’ Romans and ‘alien’ Persians.
There is at least one more case, that is known, when Lactantius, in another his
work, compared Pagans with barbarians. The later authors also used the word
‘barbarian’ as the distinctive characteristic of their opponents in the disputes
over questions of religion – for example, Victor Vitensis. It’s very probable,
that Lactantius was the first from the time of ‘legalization’ of Christianity, who
used primarily ‘ethnic’ or ‘ethnolinguistic’ category as rhetorical instrument in
interfaith polemics – that later, as the political role of Christianity grew, became
widespread as practice.

paganism, Christianity, Lactantius, Valerian, Romans, barbarians, Persians

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