Firmicus Maternus, On the Error of Pagan Religions – now online in English

Firmicus Maternus, De errore profanum religionum, is a very interesting late Roman text on paganism from the mid-4th century.  Unfortunately it has never been online.

A correspondent kindly lets me know that a PDF containing a 1971 thesis with a full translation can be found here (PDF here): Richard E. Oster, Julius Firmicus Maternus: De errore profanum religionum. Introduction, translation and commentary, Rice University, 1971.  I suspect that this is the same person who blogs here, with many of the same interests (and outlook) as myself.

Grab it while it’s hot!  Rice University are to be commended for making this accessible.


Was Firmicus Maternus a Christian?

In every age there are those who adopt their religion and their values from the society in which they live, often without considering that this is what in effect they do.  Indeed most people today do this, for instance; and often would say that they “think for themselves”.  But in truth their way of life, their way of thinking, is merely a subset of the menu of values and ideas characteristic of the late 20th century USA.  This is often easier to see in men of a century ago, who all seem “Victorian” to us in every important regard, but who would most certainly have protested their intellectual independence.

In the fourth century, Christianity was becoming fashionable.  This had the evil consequence of creating people who were Christian in name, and unregenerate in heart, word and deed.  Such behaviour might be called hypocritical; but is merely natural, to any man who follows his nose rather than some predefined set of principles.  (Indeed if we mention “principles” to such a man, he may consider us a fool!)  Such men are beneath reason, but none the less normal honest human beings.  The issue of integrity is one that they are not awake enough to perceive.

Anyone who has read the letters of Augustine will encounter many such people.  The letters of Isidore of Pelusium, a little later, show the same process.  “Christianity” is the religion of the state; more, it is the religion which is socially on the rise.  To stand out against this peer pressure is socially dangerous; to profess it opens doors and at least removes one ground of possible offence.  Consequently men adopt it, with as little interference with their lives as may be.  It is merely words.

Today I have been translating Firmicus Maternus, On the error of profane religion, and have reached chapter 6.  I admit that I was predisposed against him.  His work was described as a crude and unsuccessful attack on paganism.  Unsuccessful in literary terms it certainly was;  Ambrosiaster is the only author who might show any knowledge of the work from the time that it was written, ca. 350, to the time that it was discovered in the 16th century.  A quick read of the chapter on Attis revealed nothing against this perceived wisdom.  The work contains a great deal of hard information about late paganism, and is not online. It is routinely referred to by the sort of scribbler who affects to believe that Christ was just a reinvention of Attis or Osiris, so it really should be online.

Yet… in every age, there are also those who sincerely have chosen Christ.  In an age when “Christianity” is fashionable, it will be hard for us to know them unless we meet them.  But as I transcribed his words, I found myself wondering whether he was one.  Firmicus Maternus was an adult convert.  He had participated in the mystery cults, and knew them well; and he detested their superstition and general moral grubbiness.  His anger towards these cheats, these attempts to divert the impulse that leads us towards the light into lust and superstition, is genuine, and appropriate.

In chapter 4 he attacks the Syrian cult of the goddess.  The depraved and effeminate priests draw his lash, and quite rightly too:

It is still necessary to consider what indeed this divinity can be, who enjoys staying in a debauched body, who attaches itself unchaste members, which is placated by the contamination of a polluted body. Blush, O most wretched! God made you otherwise. When your troop arrives before the court of the divine judge, you will bring nothing with you that the god who created you might recognize.

So far, so good.  But then he goes on to address the members of this cult:

Reject this error, source of so many difficulties, give up before it’s too late the profane studies of your mind. Do not damn your body, the work of God, while subjecting yourself to the criminal laws of the devil, and put an end to your disgraces while there is still time. God is rich in mercy, He forgives readily.

4. He leaves ninety sheep to seek the only one which was mislaid; the father returns his robe and prepares a feast for the returned prodigal son. Do not let the multitude of your crimes throw you into despair. The supreme god, through His son Jesus-Christ, our Lord, delivers those who wish it, He forgives readily those who repent, and He does not ask great things to forgive. Faith and repentance are enough for you to repurchase what you have lost by yielding to the wicked urgings of the devil.

Condemnation is easy.  But Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, not to condemn them.  And Firmicus Maternus is able to see this, applied to these vile dancing priests; to implore them to save their souls, to repent, and to come to Christ.  None of this reads like “Join my party.”  Those who see the battle of factions will know that these seek to win, not to convert; to persecute, not to convince.  The words of Firmicus Maternus seem to me to breath the pure air of the gospel.  Would that many of the anti-heretical writers of antiquity had remembered the same.


Back to Agapius

I know that various people are interested in the translation of Agapius, so they may be pleased to learn that I am still working on this.  In fact I did some more this afternoon.  What a pleasant change it was, after fighting with Firmicus Maternus. 

There must be something wrong with the text of the latter, I think.  Comparing my own effort to that of Clarence Forbes, the ACW translator, I noticed a distinct tendency to paraphrase at points.  He had to fight with the text to get some sense out of it at various points.

But I’ve ordered the French edition of Turcan, and with luck that will address some of the textual issues.  In the mean time, it is nice to work on a translation that doesn’t involve squeezing your mind or feel like chopping wood; where you can just translate like breathing.

Agapius has an interesting comment on the book of Ruth:

In year 5 of the same [=Samson], the story of Ruth the Moabite took place, i.e. originating from the tribe of Moab. Boaz married her and fathered by her Obed, grandfather of the prophet David. The story of Ruth contains 246 verses; her book is so beautiful, that it was translated from Greek into Arabic.

Agapius is one of the earliest Christian Arabic writers, so it seems that Ruth was translated earlier still.  Note that the translation was from the Septuagint.


The discovery of Firmicus Maternus

It is always good to have a clear idea of how a book comes into our hands.

In 1562 Mattias Flacius, who was writing a church history in the Lutheran interest, happened upon a handwritten medieval book at Minden in Germany, which contained an ancient text previously unknown.  The work was De errore profanum religionem (On the error of pagan religion) by Firmicus Maternus, and was dedicated to the emperors Constantius II and Constans. 

Recognising an unpublished text, he sent it to Strasburg, where it was printed with his corrections and notes.  Unfortunately he did his work so poorly that the text was unintelligible in parts.  This was a problem, since the Minden manuscript disappeared soon after Flacius used it.

In 1603 Johannes Wouwer printed another edition at Froben, with his own emendations on the Flacius edition.  This became the basis for study for the next two centuries, and various editions were based on this.

In 1856 Conrad Bursian determined from a catalogue that a manuscript must exist in the Vatican, in Ms. Palatinus Latinus 165.    A collation was obtained and used. 

 The Vatican manuscript is now the only handwritten copy known to have survived the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages.  It was written in Germany in the 9-10th centuries, and is mutiliated at the beginning. 

It contains notes in the hand of Flacius, which shows that this is the “Minden” manuscript.  The Palatine collection in the Vatican comes from Germany.  It consists of manuscripts from the Rhineland Palatinate, from Heidelberg.  Flacius himself may have removed the book from the monks of Minden — he removed books from Fulda — or the Elector Palatine may have done so.  The collection was transferred to the Vatican at the end of the Thirty Years War.  The book has lost some leaves after folio 4, including an important passage on Mithras.

These notes culled from the introduction to the Teubner text by Ziegler, available on Google books, 1905


Attis 3 – Firmicus Maternus

In chapter 3 of his De errore profanum, Firmicus Maternus apparently discusses Attis, although without naming him.  Supposedly it says: 

In the first half of the fourth century CE, Firmicus Maternus reports that “he whom they had buried a little while earlier [Attis] had come to life again.” (from here)

There seems to be no English translation online.  I’ve made one here from the 1905 edition.

III. (1) The Phyrgians who live at Pessinus around the banks of the river Gallus, assign first place to the earth over the other elements, and this they profess (volunt) is the mother of all things. Then, so that they also might have for themselves an order of annual sacred events, they have consecrated the love affair of a rich women, their queen, who chose to punish tyrannically the scorn of an adolescent lover, with annual lamentations.  And to satisfy the irate woman, or to find consolation for her remorse, he whom they had buried a little earlier, they claim that he had come back to life.  And as the soul of the woman burned with the impatience of excessive love, they built temples to the dead youth. Then they profess that the priests appointed should undergo from themselves what the angry woman had done because of the injury to her scorned beauty.  So in the annual sacred rites in honour of the earth the pomp of his funeral is organised, and when men are persuaded that they are honouring the earth, they are (in fact) venerating the death and funeral of a wretch.

(2) Here also, most sacred emperors, in order to shield this error, they profess that these natural sacred rites are also arranged rationally.  They profess that the earth loves its fruits, they profess that Attis is exactly this, which is born from fruits; however the punishment which he sustained, this they profess is what the reaper with his scythe does to the ripe fruits.  They call it his death when the collected seeds are stored; life again, when the sown seeds sprout in the turning of the years.

(3) I would like them now to reply to my inquiry, why have they associated this simple (story of) seed and fruit with a funeral, with death, with scorn, with punishment, with love?  Was there not anything else that might be said? Was there not anything else that poor mortals might do in grateful thanks to the highest God for the crop? So that you can give thanks for the reborn crop, you howl; so that you rejoice, you weep. And you, when you see the true reason, you do not finally repent of doing this, but you do this, so that busyied with the turning seasons, you still flee from life, you pine for death.

(4) Let them tell me, how it benefits the crop, that they renew their tears with yearly howlings, that they groan over the calamities of a reborn corpse, which they say is arranged for a natural reason. You mourn and you wail, and you cover your mourning with another excuse. The farmer knew when he could furrow the earth with a plow, when he could sow the furrows with grain, he knew when to gather the crop ripened by the heat of the sun, he knew when to tread out the dried crop.  This is the natural reason, these are the true sacrificial rites, which are carried out by the yearly labour in men of healthy minds.  The divinity asks for this simplicity, that men should follow the laws ordained of the seasons (temporum) in collecting crops.  Why do they try to explain this order by wretched fictions of a death?  Why is that shielded with tears, which does not need to be shielded? From which let them admit of necessity, that these rites are not held in honour of the crops, but in honour of an unworthy death.

(5) When they say that the earth is the mother of all the gods, and they allot the chief roles to this element, indeed it is mother of their gods, — this we don’t deny or refuse, because from it they are always making their bunch of gods, whether of stone or wood. The sea flows around the whole earth, and again it is held tight by the circle of the encircling embracing Ocean.  The heavens also are covered by the lofty dome, blown through by winds, splashed by rains, and in fear, as shown by tremors of unremitting motion.  What remains to you, who cultivate these things, consider; when your gods reveal their weakness to you in daily declarations.


Here is the Latin, from the 1905 Teubner of Ziegler from (tided up a bit):

III. Phryges qui Pessinunta incolunt circa Galli fluminis ripas, terrae ceterorum elementorum tribuunt principatum, et hanc volunt omnium esse matrem. Deinde ut et ipsi annuum sibi sacrorum ordinem facerent, mulieris divitis ac reginae suae amorem quae fastus amati adulescentis tyrannice voluit ulcisci, cum luctibus annuis consecrarunt, et ut satis iratae mulieri facerent, aut ut paenitenti solacium quaererent, quem paulo ante sepelierant revixisse iactarunt, et cum mulieris animus ex inpatientia nimii amoris arderet, mortuo adulescenti templa fecerunt. Tunc quod irata mulier pro iniuria spretae fecerat formae, hoc ordinatos a se pati volunt sacerdotes. Sic annuis sacris cum honore terrae istius funeris pompa conponitur, ut cum persuaderetur hominibus quod colant terram, miseri funeris venerentur exitium. Hic quoque sacratissimi imperatores ut error iste celetur, etiam haec sacra physica volunt esse ratione conposita. Amare terram volunt fruges, Attin vero hoc ipsum volunt esse, quod ex frugibus nascitur, poenam autem quam sustinuit hoc volunt esse, quod falce messor maturis frugibus facit. Mortem ipsius dicunt, quod semina collecta conduntur, vitam rursus quod iacta semina annuis vicibus reconduntur. Vellem nunc mihi inquirenti respondeant, cur hanc simplicitatem seminum ac frugum, cum funere, cum morte, cum fastu, cum poena, cum amore iuncxerunt? Itane non erat aliud quod diceretur? Itane non erat quod in agendis deo summo pro frugibus gratiis faceret misera mortalitas? Ut gratias pro renatis frugibus agas ululas, ut gaudeas plangis, nec te cum veram rationem videris, hoc aliquando fecisse paenituit, sed hoc agis ut annuis luctibus occupatas vitam semper fugias mortem requiras. Dicant mihi quid hoc frugibus profuit, ut fletus suos annuis ululatibus renovent, ut renati funeris calamitatibus ingemescant, quod dicant physica ratione conpositum? Lugetis et plangitis, et luctus vestros alia ratione celatis. Novit agricola quando terram aratro dimoveat, novit quando sulcis frumenta committat, novit quando maturatas solis ardoribus colligat segetes, novit quando tostas terat fruges. Haec est physica ratio, haec sunt vera sacrificia, quae ab sanae meniis hominibus annuo labore conplentur, hanc simplicitatem divinitas quaerit, ut homines in colligendis fructibus ordinatis temporum legibus serviant. Cur huic ordini miserae mortis figmenta quaesita sunt? Cur celatur lacrimis quod celari non debuit? Unde confiteantur necesse est, haec sacra non in honorem frugum sed in honorem esse conposita mortis alienae. Nam quod terram matrem esse omnium deorum dicunt qui huic elemento primas tribuunt partes, vere deorum suorum mater est, nec abnuimus aut recusamus, quia ab hac collectos deos suos aut lapideos faciunt semper aut ligneos. Terram omnem circumfluunt maria, et rursus inclusa Oceani ambientis circulo stringitur, caeli etiam rotunda sublimitate operitur, perflatur ventis aspergitur pluviis, et timorem suum assidui motus tremoribus confitetur. Quid vos maneat qui haec colitis considerate, cum dii vestri infirmitatem suam vobis cottidianis confessionibus prodant.

I always sigh on seeing so large a chunk of Latin.

This is a very different earth cult to the one represented in the other sources.