Why Minucius Felix is later than Tertullian

The “Octavius” of Minucius Felix is one of the most attractive works of early Latin Christianity.  It features three friends going to the baths at Ostia, when one of them kisses his hand to a statue of Serapis.  Reproved by the other, the three settle down to debate the merits of paganism and Christianity.  There is a lovely translation included in the Loeb Tertullian volume.

The “Octavius” is preserved in a 9th century manuscript of the work of Arnobius the Elder against the pagans.  This manuscript is now in Paris, where it is BNF lat. 1661, and online.  In this manuscript, Minucius Felix appears without identification as “book 8”.  It would appear that, when Arnobius was copied from a collection of scrolls into a parchment codex, the modern book form, the scribe found an extra roll in the box.  Presuming that it belonged with the rest, he copied it too.

Here’s the beginning of the work, on f.162r:

BNF lat. 1611, f.162r (excerpt): the beginning of Minucius Felix “Octavius”, under the title of book 8 of Arnobius.

and here’s the end on folio 190r.

There is no external evidence as to when Minucius Felix wrote.  The Quod idola dii non sint attributed to Cyprian makes extensive use of it, or so I understand; but this work itself may not be authentic.  If it is, it perhaps dates to 248-9, after Cyprian’s conversion and before his ordination.[1].

But the really thorny question is whether the work is considerably earlier.  Is it, in fact, second century, dating to 150 AD or later?  Or is it later than Tertullian, whose Apologeticum is securely dated to 197 AD?  For quite a large chunk of material that appears in Tertullian’s Apologeticum also appears in Minucius Felix.

As long ago as 2001, I wrote a page online with whatever quotes on the date of the work I could find.  It is still here.  The tendency was to place Minucius Felix later.  Tertullian makes the same arguments in his earlier Ad Nationes, but extends them in the Apologeticum.  It is hard to think that Tertullian borrowed some of Minucius Felix in his first work; and then went back and borrowed some more in the second!

But the classic discussion is in C. Becker, Der “Octavius” des Minucius Felix, (1967), p.74–97.  I have a feeling that many anglophone scholars have rather shied away from a volume of German.  Indeed I have myself not felt any urge this evening to go through 25 pages of German.

Fortunately T. D. Barnes summarises the key points for us, in a review of M. Edwards, M. Goodman, S. Price and C. Rowland, “Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity” in Phoenix 55 (2001), pp.142-162 (JSTOR).  On p.150-1 we read (paragraphing mine):

Price reverts to the untenable view that Minucius Felix wrote his Octavius in the late second century before Tertullian (p.111-112). He makes it transparently clear that he has either not read Carl Becker’s proof that Minucius Felix copies Tertullian or not understood the force of Becker’s arguments when he asserts  “‘parallels’ cannot establish the priority of either author” (112).

That observation applies only to cases where priority is inferred from a comparison of two texts or authors without any external control.

But Becker did not merely compare the two Christian writers with each other. He first analysed how Minucius Felix adapts Plato, Cicero’s De natura deorum and Seneca (1967: 10-74); only then did he turn to the relationship between Minucius Felix and Tertullian in order to show that the former adapts the latter in exactly the same way as he adapts Plato, Cicero, and Seneca and, furthermore, that in some passages he has combined his Christian model with his pagan sources (1967: 74-97).

It was the introduction of Plato, Cicero, and Seneca into the argument that provided undeniable proof of the priority of Tertullian – as Becker himself explicitly observed (1967: 79-80, 90, 94).

To paraphrase, Minucius is adapting material from Plato, Cicero, and Seneca in a very particular way.  The “parallel” material, taken from Tertullian, relates to the text of Tertullian in the same manner as his excerpts from Plato / Cicero / Seneca relate to the original text of Plato / Cicero / Seneca .  Indeed he is combining Tertullian with these pagan writers.  Tertullian on the other hand is simply writing what he wants to say, and is adapting nobody.

  1. [1]Geoffrey D. Dunn, “References to Mary in the writings of Cyprian”, in: Papers Presented at the Fourteenth International Conference on Patristic Studies Held in Oxford 2003, vol. 4 (2006), p.371.  Preview.

Tertullian, De Baptismo – new text and Italian translation available online

Francesco Pieri kindly writes to let me know of a new edition and Italian translation of one of the works of Tertullian:

I have just edited a slightly revised edition of De Baptismo: it is fully available on line and free for download:


Looking at the site, I find this useful notice (I’ve tweaked the English version slightly).

Francesco Pieri , QSF Tertulliani De baptismo liber (Bologna 2023)

After an extensive historical-literary presentation of Tertullian’s treatise De baptismo, against the background of the main divergent doctrinal positions taken into account by the Latin apologist, the study provides a textual revision of the work, based on the readings of the two manuscripts, the Agobardinus (9th century) and Trecensis 523 (12th century), as well as on a certain number of the most significant ancient editions and all the proposals of modern editors. Compared to the most recent reference edition by Bruno Luiselli (1960), the text offered here presents a dozen correction proposals.

These cheap Italian editions are quite frankly a marvel.  You can find them anywhere in Rome, even in Termini, the railway station.  I am always utterly envious of the mass access to patristic texts that publishers like this make possible.  And in this case, they’ve even made it available in free PDF!

This is how it should be done.  Download it, and buy it in paper form!


More on the earliest use of the word “Christianity”

I can’t believe that I forgot to hit the “Publish” button last night on yesterday’s post

Yesterday I was asking when the word “Christianity” appears in our sources.  In Greek it is Χριστιανισμός, and it appears in Ignatius of Antioch; then in Origen; and then in post-Nicene sources.  It’s not a widely-used word in surviving ante-Nicene literature, plainly. 

But today I wondered what the Latin word might be.  I thought perhaps “Christianitas”, with Romanitas in mind.  But a little searching around gave me:

Christĭānismus , i, m., = Χριστιανισμός,
I.ChristianityTert. adv. Marc. 4, 33; Aug. Civ. Dei, 19, 23, 1; Hier. in Gal. 6, 4.

Christĭānĭtas , ātis, f. Christus.
I. Christianity, = Christianismus, Cod. Th. 16, 7, 7; 12, 1, 112.—
II. Meton.the Christian clergy, Cod. Th. 12, 1, 123.

These are both from Lewis and Short, via PerseusGaffiot gave me much the same.

So the rather Germanic-sounding Christianismus is our word, originating with Tertullian – who else? – in Adversus Marcionem book 4, chapter 33, verse 8:

[8] Quasi non et nos limite in quendam agnoscamus Ioannem constitutum inter vetera et nova, ad quem desineret Iudaismus et a quo inciperet Christianismus, non tamen ut ab alia virtute facta sit sedatio legis et prophetarum, et initiatio evangelii in quo est dei regnum, Christus ipse.

As though we too did not know that John has been set as a sort of dividing-line between old things and new, a line at which Judaism should cease and Christianity should begin—not however that by the action of any alien power there came about this cessation of the law and the prophets, and the inception of that gospel in which is the kingdom of God, Christ himself.

I don’t have access as far as I know to any search tool for Latin texts like the TLG, but it does indeed make sense that Tertullian would originate the term, as the first of the Latin fathers.  Equally it makes sense that the Latin term should be the Greek term, transliterated.

But the mention of “Judaismus” is interesting.  Ignatius also uses “Christianity” as a foil for “Judaism” (Ἰουδαϊσμὸς).  Possibly the term “Christianity” exists solely because of the existence of “Judaism”, and the fact that Christians were not included in it?

I wondered how frequently Ἰουδαϊσμὸς or Ἰουδαϊσμὸν, etc was used, so I did a search.  Here again it was Ignatius, Origen, then post-Nicene writers!  Although in this case it also appears in the fragments of Porphyry’s Against the Christians.  This is surprising really.

A google search reveals that it also appears in 2 Maccabees, so perhaps my lack of results is a reflection of the search tool available to me.


Tertullian and British Israelitism

A correspondent wrote to me, in search of a quotation:

In McBirnie (1973,227) writing about the 12 apostles I found a quote he states is from Tertullian. He cites Lionel Smithett Lewis ( 1955, 129) who wrote re Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury, England. Both authors cite the Tertullian reference as (Def. Fidei, 179). McBirnie’s bibliography only refers me to Lewis and Lewis has no bibliography!  I want to know what Tertullian text the quote is from.  Could you help?

The full quote is ‘The extremities of Spain, the various parts of Gaul, the regions of Britain, which have never been penetrated by Roman Arms, have received the religion of Christ.’

Roman Arms never penetrated Ireland.

The source for this is Tertullian, Adversus Judaeos, ch. 7, v.4, which reads, in the Latin of Trankle and the old English of Thelwall:

[4] For upon whom else have the universal nations believed, but upon the Christ who is already come? For whom have the nations believed,–Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and they who inhabit Mesopotamia, Armenia, Phrygia, Cappadocia, and they who dwell in Pontus, and Asia, and Pamphylia, tarriers in Egypt, and inhabiters of the region of Africa which is beyond Cyrene, Romans and sojourners, yes, and in Jerusalem Jews,95 and all other nations; as, for instance, by this time, the varied races of the Gaetulians, and manifold confines of the Moors, all the limits of the Spains, and the diverse nations of the Gauls, and the haunts of the Britons–inaccessible to the Romans, but subjugated to Christ, and of the Sarmatians, and Dacians, and Germans, and Scythians, and of many remote nations, and of provinces and islands many, to us unknown, and which we can scarce enumerate?

(… et Britannorum inaccessa Romanis loca Christo …)

So where on earth does that poor translation come from?

The oldest volume that I can find is Richard Williams Morgan, St. Paul in Britain, or, The origin of British as opposed to papal Christianity, Parker: Oxford and London, 1861 (Download).  There are reprints in 1880 and 1925 – in fact one modern writer suggests nine reprints, the latest in 1984, because it was “adopted” by the British Israelite Society.[1]  The publisher is the same as for the Oxford Movement series of translations, the Library of the Fathers, curiously.  The book was significant enough to attract a Wikipedia page.

On p.146 we read:

Now we know from Tertullian that Britain was Christian before it was Roman. The Dove conquered where the Eagle could make no progress. “Regions in Britain which have never been penetrated by the Roman arms,” are his words, (A.D. 192) “have received the religion of Christ.” If this statement were correct, after the war between Rome and Britain had raged for a century and a half, from A.D. 43 to A.D. 192—and in a national point of view it is impartial testimony, for Tertullian was an African—it is obvious that the Arimathaean mission must have been founded in the heart of independent Britain, quite out of the pale, therefore, of the Roman empire. …

But on p.194-5 we find:

Tertullian, who flourished during the war of Commodus in Britain, which Dion Cassius terms “the most dangerous in which the empire during his time had been engaged,” says expressly “that the regions in Britain which the Roman arms had failed to penetrate professed Christianity for their religion.” “The extremities of Spain, the various parts of Gaul, the regions of Britain which have never been penetrated by the Roman arms, have received the religion of Christ g.”

He sounds somewhat uncertain about what Tertullian actually says here, giving the same material twice.  And the reference, “g”?  It is this:

g Tertullian, Def. Fidei, p. 179.

This is the source given in all the subsequent “quotations”, which may thus be described as descended from it.  And what is “Def. Fidei”?  Is it, perhaps Bishop George Bull’s Defensio Fidei Nicaenae?  (1688, and translated into English in 1852  by one of those who translated Tertullian for the Oxford Movement LFC)  If so, I have not been able to locate the passage.  “Defensio fidei” is the opening words of a number of books, and Morgan gives no bibliography.

Interesting to see how a book may have a long literary progeny.

  1. [1]Joanne Pearson, “Wicca and the Christian Heritage: Ritual, Sex and Magic”, Routledge, 2007, p.35.  The author describes Williams as a maverick Welsh clergyman.

A few months of interesting links

For some months I’ve been collecting bits and pieces.  Mostly I have nothing much to add, but they shouldn’t be lost.

Cool 9th century manuscript online as PDF

Via Rick Brannan I learn that a downloadable PDF of the Greek-Latin St Gall 9th century manuscript of Paul’s letters is online and can be downloaded as a single PDF:

Note the link on this page where you can download a PDF of what appears to be the entire Codex Boernerianus. It is beautiful.

And so you can.  It’s at the SLUB in Dresden here, where it has the shelfmark A.145.b.  It also contains Sedulius Scottus, I gather.

Nice to see the interlinear, isn’t it?

Codex Trecensis of Tertullian online

A correspondent advised me that the Codex Trecensis of the works of Tertullian has appeared online in scanned microfilm form at the IRHT.  Rubbish quality, but far better than nothing.  The ms is here.  De Resurrectione Carnis begins on 157r and ends on 194r.  De Baptismo begins on folio 194r and ends on 200v.  De Paenitentia begins on folio 200v.

Saints lives = Christian novels?

A review at BMCR by Elisabeth Schiffer of Stratis Papaioannou, Christian Novels from the ‘Menologion’ of Symeon Metaphrastes. Dumbarton Oaks medieval library, 45. Harvard University Press, 2017, caught my eye.   This contains 6 lives from Metaphrastes collection.

Even though hagiographical texts are among the most frequently translated Byzantine sources, little effort has been made so far to translate parts of Symeon Metaphrastes’ Menologion. This is primarily due to the generally unfortunate editorial situation of these texts: They are transmitted relatively standardized, but in a vast number of liturgical manuscripts.

In addition to summarizing the status of research on Symeon’s rewriting enterprise, Papaioannou explains in his introduction why he calls the texts in focus “Christian novels.” It is not unproblematic to apply this modern term, as he himself states, but he decided to do so because of the fictionality of these narratives and because of their resemblances to the late antique Greek novel. When saying this, it is important to emphasize—as Papaioannou explicitly does—that these texts of novelistic character were not understood as such by their audience. On the contrary, the Byzantines regarded these texts as relating true stories, written for edification and liturgical purposes (see pp. xiv-xviii).

It’s an interesting review of a neglected area of scholarship where the tools for research – editions and translations – are not available.

Full-text of the Greek Sibylline Oracles online for free

Annette Y Reed broke the story on Twitter: it’s J. Geffcken, Die Oracula Sibyllina, Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1902, which has turned up at Archive.org here.   A useful transcription, rather than the original book, is also online here.

All known mss in the Bodleian library – detailed in online catalogue

Ben Albritton on Twitter shares:

This is awesome – “This catalogue provides descriptions of all known Western medieval manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, and of medieval manuscripts in selected Oxford colleges (currently Christ Church).” Sharing ICYMI too.

It also has direct links to the for Greek mss!

Where did the Byzantine text of the New Testament come from?

Peter Gurry at the ETC blog asks the question, and suggests that Westcott and Hort are no longer the authorities to consult.

How to respond to politically motivated persecution

Since the election of President Trump I have noted on Twitter a new form of anti-Christian posting.  There has been an endless stream of anti-Christian jeering online, demanding “how dare you support Trump”?  It is surreal to see how people who hate Christians suddenly have become expert theologians on what Jesus would do.  Thankfully a certain Kurt Schlichter writes *Sigh* No, Being A Christian Does Not Require You Meekly Submit To Leftist Tyranny:

Everyone seems to want to tell Christians that they are obligated to give in. There’s always some IPA-loving hipster who writes video game reviews when he’s not sobbing alone in the dark because no one loves him tweeting “Oh, that’s real Christian!” whenever a conservative fights back. I know that when I need theological clarification, I seek out the militant atheist who thinks Christ was a socialist and believes that the Golden Rule is that Christians are never allowed to never offend anyone.

It’s a good article, and sadly necessary in these horribly politicised times.  It’s worth remembering that, were times different, rightists would most certainly adopt the same lofty lecturing tone.

A quote for pastors from St Augustine

Timothy P. Jones posted on twitter:

“If I fail to show concern for the sheep that strays, the sheep who are strong will think it’s nothing but a joke to stray and to become lost. I do desire outward gains–but I’m more concerned with inward losses” (Augustine of Hippo).

Queried as to the source, he wrote:

It’s from Sermon 46 by Augustine–the entire message is an outstanding exposition of what it means to be a shepherd of God’s people…. I translated the above from thisHere’s a good English translation as well.

Artificial Intelligence in the Vatican Archives

I knew it.  It’s alive!!!

Well, not quite.  This is a piece in the Atlantic, Artificial Intelligence Is Cracking Open the Vatican’s Secret Archives: A new project untangles the handwritten texts in one of the world’s largest historical collections:

That said, the VSA [Vatican Secret Archives] isn’t much use to modern scholars, because it’s so inaccessible. Of those 53 miles, just a few millimeters’ worth of pages have been scanned and made available online. Even fewer pages have been transcribed into computer text and made searchable. If you want to peruse anything else, you have to apply for special access, schlep all the way to Rome, and go through every page by hand.

But a new project could change all that. Known as In Codice Ratio, it uses a combination of artificial intelligence and optical-character-recognition (OCR) software to scour these neglected texts and make their transcripts available for the very first time.

They’ve found a way around the limitations of OCR by using stroke recognition instead of letter recognition.  They open-sourced the manpower by getting students (who didn’t know Latin) to input sample data, and started getting results.

All early days, but … just imagine if we could really read the contents of our archives!

Kazakhstan abandons Cyrillic for Latin-based alphabet

Via SlashDot I read:

The Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan is changing its alphabet from Cyrillic script to the Latin-based style favored by the West. The change, announced on a blustery Tuesday morning in mid-February, was small but significant — and it elicited a big response. The government signed off on a new alphabet, based on a Latin script instead of Kazakhstan’s current use of Cyrillic, in October. But it has faced vocal criticism from the population — a rare occurrence in this nominally democratic country ruled by Nazarbayev’s iron fist for almost three decades. In this first version of the new alphabet, apostrophes were used to depict sounds specific to the Kazakh tongue, prompting critics to call it “ugly.” The second variation, which Kaipiyev liked better, makes use of acute accents above the extra letters. So, for example, the Republic of Kazakhstan, which would in the first version have been Qazaqstan Respy’bli’kasy, is now Qazaqstan Respyblikasy, removing the apostrophes.

The article at SlashDot instinctively opposed a change, which can only benefit every single Kazakhstani, by making a world of literature accessible.  Ataturk did the same, and for the same reason.

Tell Google that a book is in the public domain

Sometimes Google misclassifies books.  But there is a way to tell it that actually the book is public domain.  The Google link is here.  From It’s surprisingly easy to make government records public on Google Books:

While working on a recent story about hate speech spread by telephone in the ’60s and ’70s, I came across an interesting book that had been digitized by Google Books. Unfortunately, while it was a transcript of a Congressional hearing, and therefore should be in the public domain and not subject to copyright, it wasn’t fully accessible through Google’s archive….

But, as it turns out, Google provides a form where anyone can ask that a book scanned as part of Google Books be reviewed to determine if it’s in the public domain. And, despite internet companies sometimes earning a mediocre-at-best reputation for responding to user inquiries about free services, I’m happy to report that Google let me know within a week after filling out the form that the book would now be available for reading and download.

What does it mean to speak of an authorial/original/initial form of a Scriptural writing when faced with tremendous complexity in the actual data itself?

Back at ETC blog, Peter Gurry discusses this with Greg Lanier here.

Some of the difficulty, one senses, is because the interaction of the divine with an imperfect world is always inherently beyond our ability to understand.  It requires revelation, which is not supplied in this case.

And with that, I think I’ve dealt with a bunch of interesting stories which didn’t deserve a separate post.  Onward!


‘Finding a home’ for copies of about 500 periodical articles and monographs on Tertullian

Dr Ian Balfour is retiring, and writes:

While working on a Ph.D. thesis on Tertullian in the 1970s, I photocopied about 500 periodical articles and monographs on Tertullian from libraries all over the country (with appropriate permissions) and bound them in spring-back foolscap-size folders, and stored them at home.

My son took over our house in 2001, but allowed me to leave the collection there. He is now going to sell the house in the summer of this year, so I would like to find a good home for the collection.

I do not wish any payment for it, and the cost of transport would be for discussion between myself and anyone who was interested in taking it or any part of it.

I don’t have a typed index of the articles and books, but I could give some details of what is available to anyone who was interested.

If anybody would like to acquire this useful collection, please write to me using this form and I will forward this on.

He also adds:

… my 1980 University of Edinburgh Ph.D thesis, ‘The Relationship of Man to God, from conception to conversion, in the Writings of Tertullian’ is now available (with an English translation of non-English words and comments on it by Rene Braun of Nice) on my website, www.ianbalfour.co.uk.

An English translation of some German and French works, with the original and the translation on alternate pages, are also available on the website, and more are to follow.

Very useful indeed – thank you!

UPDATE: Dr Balfour writes to thank everyone for their enquiries.  The outcome is that his collection will be transferred to the Union School of Theology at the end of April, and those wishing access will need to contact the librarian there.


The Codex Agobardinus of Tertullian is online at Gallica!!

A red letter day, this.  I learn via Twitter and the Florus blog that some more Latin manuscripts have appeared on the French National Library Gallica.bnf.fr site.  Among them is the oldest and most important manuscript of the works of Tertullian, the Codex Agobardinus (Paris lat. 1622).  It may be found here.  100Mb of joy!

This manuscript was something I always wanted to see, from my earliest interest in Tertullian and Patristics, back in 1997.  Eventually I worked out how I might get a reader’s pass for the BNF, and, very nervously, in 2002, I bought an air-ticket for a day trip and flew over to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.  I went to the BNF in the Rue de Richlieu and persuaded the staff to allow me access.  And I held it in my hands!

I looked at it for an hour, and then handed it back.  I got a very old-fashioned look from the serving woman, who seemed to resent the idea that I should order a manuscript out of the vault for so short a time.  Why didn’t you use a microfilm, she wondered?  How dare I!  But I also needed to visit the other BNF site, in my limited time.  And I didn’t fly to Paris to look at a microfilm!  I was, of course, immensely privileged to be able to see a manuscript at all.

Now, 11 years later, the world can look at this rare and precious volume.  It’s the oldest copy of Tertullian’s works.  It was probably written at Fulda in the 9th century.  It contained the only copy of Ad Nationes, for instance.  And … it once contained more works, all now lost.  A table of contents at the start (below) lists works that no man living has seen; de spe fidelium, de paradiso, de superstitione saeculi… how we would like to read these!

It makes me feel humble, somehow.  So many things in the world are worse than they were.  But for the learned, this is a time of miracles and wonders!

Page from Latin_1622_Tertullian_Agobardinus


Chronica Tertullianea et Cyprianea 2011 now out

Through the kindness of Pierre Petitmengin, a copy of the Chronica Tertullianea et Cyprianea 2011 has reached me.  This bibliography of Latin patristic materials before Nicaea, with short reviews, is published in the Revue d’etudes augustiniennes, which, I learn, has now become the Revue d’etudes augustiniennes et patristiques.[1]

So, what was published in the last year, and what do we make of it?  I shall concentrate on Tertullian material.

The review opens with 4 Italian and 1 Spanish editions of works of Tertullian.  These are all based on existing texts with minor modifications and translations.  In truth something of the kind is published every year, and it seems unlikely that any of these editions require any special attention from us.

The new Reallexikon project, Bd. 24, p/189-191 includes an article on Minucius Felix by Christoph Schubert.  The reviewer comments slightly wearily that every article on this author tends to be similar to every other article, since the subject has been thrashed to death from every possible angle.  This one is particularly clear and up-to-date on every point, however.

A volume has appeared, collecting the fragments of the medical writer Soranus, much of it from Tertullian.

There is a proposal by Carmelo Conticello to make an inventory of all the Latin Christian texts that were translated into Greek, from the 2nd to the 15th century; a subject never systematically explored.  A set of examples has appeared.

Most of the remainder of the 81 articles reviewed seemed dispensable.  Looking at them, I found very little that I thought worth my time to read, and much that seemed not worth the trouble of writing.  The latter was the case particularly for material written in English.  I read, from time to time, of the litter of substandard journal publications.  Here we see clear signs of it, exhausting the patience of reader and reviewer alike.

  1. [1]Vol. 58 (2012), p.323-372.  An offprint has been sent to me.

Sacrifices of children at Carthage – the sources

A mention in a post at the Theology Archaeology blog drew my attention to the question of the sacrifice of children at Carthage.

I think that we all remember that the Carthaginians sacrificed their children to their god. It is, indeed, one of the things we think of, when the word “Carthaginian” is mentioned.

But apparently there is some revisionism around. This led me to wonder just what the ancient evidence is.

The following literary sources mention the custom. I have gathered the references from Google searches.[1]

Cleitarchus = Clitarchus = Kleitarchos (ca. 310-300 BC)

This writer was one of the popular biographers of Alexander, and wrote ca. 310-300 BC. His words are found in the Scholia to Plato’s Republic, I, 337A (ed. Bekker, vol. 9, p.68):

Κλείταρχος δέ φησι τοὺς Φοίνικας, καὶ μάλιστα Καρχηδονίους, τὸν Κρόνον τιμῶντας, ἐπάν τινος μεγάλου κατατυχεῖν σπεύδωσιν, εὔχεσθαι καθ᾽ ἑνὸς τῶν παίδων, εἰ περιγένοιντο τῶν ἐπιθυμηθέντων, καθαγιεῖν αὐτὸν τῷ θεῷ. τοῦ δὲ Κρόνου χαλκοῦ παρ᾽ αὐτοῖς ἑστῶτος, τὰς χεῖρας ὑπτίας ἐκτετακότος ὑπὲρ κριβάνου χαλκοῦ, τοῦτον ἐκκαίειν τὸ παιδίον. τῆς δὲ φλογὸς τοῦ ἐκκαιομένου πρὸς τὸ σῶμα ἐμπιπτούσης, συνέλκεσθαί τε τὰ μέλη, καὶ τὸ στόμα σεσηρὸς φαίνεσθαι τοῖς γελῶσι παραπλησίως, ἕως ἂν συσπασθὲν εἰς τὸν κρίβανον παρολίσθῃ.

This is translated (via here) by Paul G. Mosca[2] as:

There stands in their midst a bronze statue of Kronos, its hands extended over a bronze brazier, the flames of which engulf the child. When the flames fall upon the body, the limbs contract and the open mouth seems almost to be laughing until the contracted body slips quietly into the brazier. Thus it is that the ‘grin’ is known as ‘sardonic laughter,’ since they die laughing.

The same material in briefer form is found in the Suda and in the lexicon of Photius under Σαρδάνιος [or Σαρδόνιος] γέλως (= ‘sardonic laughter’). The Suda Online entry (found by searching for ‘sardanios’) includes this:

And Clitarchus and others say that in Carthage, during great prayers, they place a boy in the hands of Cronus (a bronze statue is set up, with outstretched hands, and under it a baking oven) and then put fire under; the boy shrunk by the fire seems to laugh.

The description in Diodorus is apparently derived from this.

Diodorus Siculus (60-30 BC)

Book 13, chapter 86 (via Lacus Curtius):

1. Hannibal, being eager to launch assaults in an increasing number of places, ordered the soldiers to tear down the monuments and tombs and to build mounds extending to the walls. …  2. For it happened that the tomb of Theron, which was exceedingly large, was shaken by a stroke of lightning; consequently, when it was being torn down, certain soothsayers, presaging what might happen, forbade it, and at once a plague broke out in the army, and many died of it while not a few suffered tortures and grievous distress. 3. Among the dead was also Hannibal the general, and among the watch-guards who were sent out there were some who reported that in the night spirits of the dead were to be seen. Himilcar, on seeing how the throng was beset with superstitious fear, first of all put a stop to the destruction of the monuments, and then he supplicated the gods after the custom of his people by sacrificing a young boy to Cronus and a multitude of cattle to Poseidon by drowning them in the sea.

Book 20, chapter 14 (via RogueClassicism and Lacus Curtius):

They [the Carthaginians] also alleged that Cronus had turned against them inasmuch as in former times they had been accustomed to sacrifice to this god the noblest of their sons, but more recently, secretly buying and nurturing children, they had sent these to the sacrifice; and when an investigation was made, some of those who had been sacrificed were discovered to have been supposititious.

When they had given thought to these things and saw their enemy encamped before their walls, they were filled with superstitious dread, for they believed that they had neglected the honours of the gods that had been established by their fathers.

In their zeal to make amends for their omission, they selected two hundred of the noblest children and sacrificed them publicly; and others who were under suspicion sacrificed themselves voluntarily, in number not less than three hundred. There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus, extending its hands, palms up and sloping toward the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.

Quintus Curtius (mid 1st century)

Book 4, chapter 3:

Sacrum quoque, quod equidem dis minime cordi esse crediderim, multis saeculis intermissum repetendi auctores quidam erant, ut ingenuus puer Saturno immolaretur: quod sacrilegium verius quam sacrum Carthaginienses a conditoribus traditum usque ad excidium urbis suae fecisse dicuntur. Ac nisi seniores obstitissent, quorum consilio cuncta agebantur, humanitatem dira superstitio vicisset. (from Lacus Curtius)

Some also advocated the revival of a religious rite which had been discontinued for many generations and which I certainly would not have thought to be at all acceptable to the gods – namely the sacrifice of a free-born male child to Saturn. (Such sacrilege – to use a more appropriate word than sacrifice – the Carthaginians inherited from their founders, and they are said to have continued the practice right down to the time of their city’s destruction.) Had it not been vetoed by the elders, whose judgement carried weight in all matters, cruel superstition would have triumphed over civilized behaviour. (Yardley translation, 2004)

Plutarch (ca. 110 AD)

De superstitione, chapter 13 (via Lacus Curtius):

Would it not then have been better for those Gauls and Scythians to have had absolutely no conception, no vision, no tradition, regarding the gods, than to believe in the existence of gods who take delight in the blood of human sacrifice and hold this to be the most perfect offering and holy rite?

Again, would it not have been far better for the Carthaginians to have taken Critias or Diagoras to draw up their law-code at the very beginning, and so not to believe in any divine power or god, rather than to offer such sacrifices as they used to offer to Cronos? These were not in the manner that Empedocles describes in his attack on those who sacrifice living creatures:

“Changed in form is the son beloved of his father so pious,
“Who on the altar lays him and slays him. What folly!”

No, but with full knowledge and understanding they themselves offered up their own children, and those who had no children would buy little ones from poor people and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young birds; meanwhile the mother stood by without a tear or moan; but should she utter a single moan or let fall a single tear, she had to forfeit the money, and her child was sacrificed nevertheless; and the whole area before the statue was filled with a loud noise of flutes and drums took the cries of wailing should not reach the ears of the people.

Justinus (2nd century)

Epitome of Pompeius Trogus, book 18 (via here):

This city was founded seventy-two years before Rome; but while the bravery of its inhabitants made it famous in war, it was internally disturbed with various troubles, arising from civil differences. Being afflicted, among other calamities, with a pestilence, they adopted a cruel religious ceremony, an execrable abomination, as a remedy for it; for they immolated human beings as victims, and brought children (whose age excites pity even in enemies) to the altars, entreating favour of the gods by shedding the blood of those for whose life the gods are generally wont to be entreated.

VII. In consequence of the gods, therefore, being rendered adverse by such atrocities, after they had long fought unsuccessfully in Sicily, …

Tertullian (197 AD)

Apologeticum, chapter 9, 2-3(Thelwall translation):

[2] Children were openly sacrificed in Africa to Saturn as lately as the proconsulship of Tiberius, who exposed to public gaze the priests suspended on the sacred trees overshadowing their temple-so many crosses on which the punishment which justice craved overtook their crimes, as the soldiers of our country still can testify who did that very work for that proconsul. [3] And even now that sacred crime still continues to be done in secret. It is not only Christians, you see, who despise you; for all that you do there is neither any crime thoroughly and abidingly eradicated, nor does any of your gods reform his ways. [4] When Saturn did not spare his own children, he was not likely to spare the children of others; whom indeed the very parents themselves were in the habit of offering, gladly responding to the call which was made on them, and keeping the little ones pleased on the occasion, that they might not die in tears.

Philo Byblus

Phoenician History, as preserved in Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica book 1 (via here):

And soon after he says:

‘It was a custom of the ancients in great crises of danger for the rulers of a city or nation, in order to avert the common ruin, to give up the most beloved of their children for sacrifice as a ransom to the avenging daemons; and those who were thus given up were sacrificed with mystic rites. Kronos then, whom the Phoenicians call Elus, who was king of the country and subsequently, after his decease, was deified as the star Saturn, had by a nymph of the country named Anobret an only begotten son, whom they on this account called ledud, the only begotten being still so called among the Phoenicians; and when very great dangers from war had beset the country, he arrayed his son in royal apparel, and prepared an altar, and sacrificed him.’

Porphyry (3rd century)

Quoted in Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica, book 4, chapter 16 (via here).  This chapter is a long series of testimonies to human sacrifice, from which only excerpts can be given here.

The Phoenicians, too, in the great calamities of war, or pestilence, or drought, used to dedicate one of their dearest friends and sacrifice him to Kronos: and of those who thus sacrificed the Phoenician history is full, which Sanchuniathon wrote in the Phoenician language, and Philo Byblius translated into Greek in eight books.

‘And Ister, in his Collection of Cretan Sacrifices, says that the Curetes in old times used to sacrifice boys to Kronos. But that the human sacrifices in almost all nations had been abolished, is stated by Pallas, who made an excellent collection concerning the mysteries of Mithras in the time of the Emperor Hadrian. Also at Laodicea in Syria a virgin used to be offered to Athena every year, but now a hind.

Moreover the Carthaginians in Libya used to perform this kind of sacrifice, which was stopped by Iphicrates. The Dumateni also, in Arabia, used every year to sacrifice a boy, and bury him under the altar, which they treated as an image.

Augustine (4-5th century)

The City of God, book 7, chapter 19 (via here):

Then he [Varro] says that boys were wont to be immolated to him [Saturn] by certain peoples, the Carthaginians for instance; and also that adults were immolated by some nations, for example the Gauls-because, of all seeds, the human race is the best.  … He says that Saturn was called kronoj, which in the Greek tongue signifies a space of time because, without that, seed cannot be productive. These and many other things are said concerning Saturn, and they are all referred to seed.

Orosius (4-5th century)

Book 4, chapter 6 (via here):

We must also say something about her disasters and domestic misfortunes, just as Pompeius Trogus and Justin relate them. The Carthaginians have always had domestic and internal misfortunes. Because of this source of discord and its unhappy faculty of causing disturbance they have never yet enjoyed prosperity abroad, or peace at home. When they were suffering from plagues in addition to their other misfortunes, they resorted to homicides instead of to medicines; indeed they sacrificed human beings as victims and offered young children at their altars. In this way they aroused even the pity of the enemy.

Concerning this form of sacred rite—nay, rather of sacrilege—I am perplexed as to what I should discuss in preference to all else. For if some demons have dared to order rites of this character, requiring as they did that the death of men should be propitiated by human slaughter, it must be understood that these demons acted as partners and promoters of the plague and that they themselves killed those whom the plague had not seized; for it was customary to offer healthy and undefiled sacrificial victims. In doing this they not only failed to allay, but rather anticipated, the pestilences.

When the Carthaginians—the gods being alienated, as Pompeius Trogus and Justin admit, because of sacrifices of this kind, and, as we assert, because of their presumption and impiety toward an angered God—had long fought unsuccessfully in Sicily, …

Update (1st June): I have added a couple of further instances, and added a translation of Kleitarchos.

  1. [1]Bill Thayer has helped greatly by digitising this article on The Image of Moloch, Journal of Biblical Literature 16 (1897), p.161-5.
  2. [2]Paul G. Mosca, Child Sacrifice in Canaanite and Israelite Religion. PhD thesis, Harvard, 1975, p.22.  Reference via Bennie H. Reynolds, “Molek: Dead or Alive? The meaning and derivation of mlk and ###”, in Human sacrifice in Jewish and Christian tradition, ed. K. Finsterbusch &c, Leiden: Brill, 2007, p.133-150, p.149 n.68.

From my diary

We all know Franz Cumont’s Textes et Monumentes, which collected all the ancient sources on Mithras known a century ago.  What few realise is that a translation was made of most of the literary fragments that he published.  It’s A. S. Geden, Select passages illustrating Mithraism.  It was published by SPCK in 1925; and since Mr. Geden died in 1936, it should be out of copyright in the EU and probably everywhere else too.

Last night I scanned it to PDF and made it searchable.  I’ve uploaded it to Archive.org, here.

I’ve been going through my own page of Mithras testimonia, and was struck by how he rendered some passages from Tertullian.

For instance in De praescriptione haereticorum 40:3-4, the ANF version reads:

… if my memory still serves me, Mithras there, (in the kingdom of Satan,) sets his marks on the foreheads of his soldiers; celebrates also the oblation of bread, and introduces an image of a resurrection, and before a sword wreathes a crown.  What also must we say to (Satan’s) limiting his chief priest to a single marriage? He, too, has his virgins; he, too, has his proficients in continence.

While Mr. Geden gives us:

…  if my memory does not fail me marks his own soldiers with the sign of Mithra on their foreheads, commemorates an offering of bread, introduces a mock resurrection, and with the sword opens the way to the crown. Moreover has he not forbidden a second marriage to the supreme priest? He maintains also his virgins and his celibates.

Let’s see the Latin:

[4]  et si adhuc memini Mithrae, signat illic in frontibus milites suos. Celebrat et panis oblationem et imaginem resurrectionis inducit et sub gladio redimit coronam. [5] Quid, quod et summum pontificem in unis nuptiis statuit? Habet et uirgines, habet et continentes.

The ANF material in brackets is the opinion of the translator, struck by the sudden switch from “the devil” to Mithras as the subject.

Now I know that “Mithrae” in this passage is thought to be a gloss itself.  Some have thought that the sense demands that the subject of all these remarks is “the devil” — the devil has his chief priest, who can only marry once, the devil has sacred virgins.  Both are, after all, part of ancient Roman religion.  The Roman state priests had to marry only once; the vestal Virgins are well known.  Nothing of either is known to be associated with Mithras; and indeed the idea of Mithraic nuns is strange, for a male-only cult.  Tertullian, then, is listing a set of features of Roman paganism, from various sources, on this theory.

Maybe so.  But it is curious, all the same.