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Lactantius, De mortibus persecutorum and the Enemies of Christianity


Admission requirements

This course is intended for students enrolled in the (Research) MA Classics and Ancient Civilizations, Religious Studies or History programs.
Students are required to have a BA either in Religious Studies, Classical Languages, Ancient History, Egyptology, Assyriology or Archaeology. Minimum number of participants is 3, maximum is 20.


Lucius Caelius Firmianus, better known as Lactantius, lived in turbulent times. Born ca. 250 and excellently educated, Lactantius was appointed teacher at Diocletian's thriving court at Nicomedia, became a Christian and witnessed the bloody persecutions the tetrarchs brought over the Empire in 303. Shortly after 311, when the persecutions were over and the Empire was making peace with the Christians, Constantine called Lactantius to Trier to serve as tutor for his son Crispus. Perhaps here, perhaps elsewhere, Lactantius wrote De mortibus persecutorum ("On the kinds of death the persecutors have died"), a very personal reflection of the past era of violence, a text that is somewhere between a polemical pamphlet and a theological treatise about God's justice (theodicy).

We will take this text (in translation) as basis to reflect about early Christianity's relationship with the Roman Empire (and vice versa) and take a look at the most important early Christian apologetic texts and their Jewish predecessors. On the historical level, we will assess the tetrarchs' reform of the Empire and the ascent of Constantine. Moving around in the two worlds of "paganism" and Christianity, Lactantius will prove us a highly stimulating guide.

Course objectives


  • of the major cultural and political developments during the transition from the Late Empire towards the Tetrarchy;

  • of the major phases and factors that helped Christianity to spread across the Roman Empire;

  • of ancient Jewish and early Christian literature, its contents and authors voicing various ways to relate the Roman Empire and its culture;

  • of the reception of the "Age of Martyrs" in later European literature and culture.


  • research: independent formulation of a complex research question, collecting materials, analyzing results, constructing arguments, formulating conclusions;

  • critical assessment of secondary literature; oral presentation: the oral presentation will give a clear and well-argued interpretation of specific textual passages, making effective use of a handout and/or PowerPoint;

  • written presentation: the paper will offer a clear and well-structured presentation of original research.

  • the student must demonstrate his or her grasp of critical issues in recent scholarship, and assess recent scholarly contributions by confronting them with the original source material;

  • this course aims at active participation and preparation: the student demonstrates involvement in the topic by asking well-informed and constructive questions and making contributions to the collective progress, on the basis of antecedent independent preparation.

The requirements for MA and ResMA students are differentiated:

  • MA students may expect more help in choosing their topic, literature and research question, and when preparing their presentation (with handout). Their paper may consist of an assessment of the status quaestionis on a given topic.

  • ResMA students are expected to come up with their own original topic, literature and research question for the presentation (with handout). Their paper will have the more complex form of a scholarly report on a given issue discussed in current research. In addition to that, they will write a proposal / abstract for a paper to be held at a (fictitious) conference.


The timetable is available on the Classics and Ancient Civilizations website.

Mode of instruction

Seminar: lecture elements by instructor, assignments to students, presentations and discussions by students.

Course Load

Total course load 10 ec x 28 hours = 280 hours:

  • Seminar sessions: (13 x 2 hours =) 26 hours;

  • Preparing seminar sessions: 54 hours;

  • Preparing oral presentation (finding topic, research question, literature): 40 hours;

  • Writing handout, literature report and (only ResMA) proposal for conference: 30 hours;

  • Working out paper: 130 hours

Attendants who miss more than two sessions will have to repeat the course.

Assessment method

  • Assignments (report on research question and bibliography), for ResMA students also proposal for (fictitious) conference paper.

  • Oral presentation;

  • Written paper (ca. 7500 words, based on research in primary sources, including footnotes and bibliography).


  • Written paper: 60%;

  • Oral presentation: 30%;

  • Assignments: 10%.

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient.


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor. Only the final paper can be re-taken. The sufficient parts cannot be re-taken.

Exam review

How and when a review of the written paper will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the results at the latest.


Blackboard will be used as means of communication and to distribute study material.

Reading list

To be announced in class.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about registration in uSis is available in English and Dutch.

Exchange and Study Abroad students: please see the Study Abroad/Exchange website for information on how to register.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Prof. dr. J.K. (Jürgen) Zangenberg
Huizinga 1.34


Attendants who miss more than two sessions will have to repeat the course.