Firmicus Maternus De Errore: An Analysis

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It is an understatement to say that scholarly opinion does not value Firmicus Maternus’ De errore profanarum religionum as helpful for thinking about religious tolerance. With only slight variation in language it has been repeatedly judged as “a handbook of intolerance.” As its author, Firmicus himself has been dubbed “the poster child of Christian intolerance.” Other recent scholars read the text as a description of divinely sanctioned violence in the “language of oppression.” And such judgments are not without warrant. In De errore, Firmicus’ exhorts the emperors to eradicate pagan practices and temples—which are said to be “tombs”—and even entire cities if they are caught observing the crimes of paganism. Forbes suggests in his critical …show more content…
In his hands the apologetic appeal is not primarily about demythologizing pagan declaration and practice, nor is it a plea for the end of persecution, nor is it a legal argument for Christian incorporation in the Empire. For Firmicus, apologetic critique after Constantine is essentially a matter of exorcizing paganism as a means of participation in the final victory of the Empire. Problems of violence and coercion emerge because Firmicus identifies exorcism with conversion, and delegates the responsibility of exorcism to the Empire with divine certification. In other words, insofar as exorcism amounts to the material eradication of paganism as the home of the demonic, conversion becomes a matter of purely imperial law enforcement. To complicate this reading of De errore and the larger conclusions that it might evidence (IV), I turn to Harold Drake’s historical interpretation as offering an alternate way to make sense of Firmicus’ offensive on the basis of his situation as a recent Christian convert. Lastly (V), to add a theological complication, I argue that Firmicus tacitly articulates a second theology of conversion in De errore that emphasizes divine calling and human (i.e., pagan) volition. This theology of conversion