The historic events leading to the accession of Constantine irrevocably rely on a crucial but obscure rhetorician who taught in Nicomedia. It was a contemporary voice from North Africa that entered this eastern city into the court and life of the emperor, a voice of erudition and of suffering. The writings of Lactantius offer both a philosophical and historical report on the pursuits of the Roman leader who came to champion Christianity in an empire that resisted the new religion. In particular, his writings shaped Constantine’s understanding of the faith and influenced the later religious policies that he would enact. Scholars have established Lactantius as a contributor to the genius of a new religious empire and an inescapable historical voice of that evolution, but they are only beginning to scrutinize his exact influence. This chapter seeks to identify and disaggregate the con- tribution of Lactantius in his fourth-century influence and in his twenty- first-century legacy.
In particular, it depicts this influential turn-of-the-fourth-century philosopher using a paradigm of architectural narrative. This is the notion that a historian writes in a way with intentional design, employing a metanarrative that creates not the events but the blueprint of those events— the frame for understanding, the interpretation, the significance, the divine providence of the events, or, to use the language of historical interpretation of Earle Cairns, “history as the product of inquiry.” Yet, for Lactantius, this is not vaticinium ex eventu or a theological spin on events crafted by the victors, but he was himself the champion for a cause of religious freedom that he was able to affect and witness fulfilled in his lifetime. In this way, a historian like Lactantius can be seen as a “narrative architect.” He designed a modified empire based on religious idealism but also records the impulses of the era in a way that history will forever view the development of this new empire. This essay, with an architectural theme, will consider his role as designer, as builder, and as narrator. After dealing with his role in the paradigmatic imperial shift, it will summarize his place in the edifice that we call history.
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