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FIRE AND ITS ASIAN WORSHIPPERS: A NOTE ON FIRMICUS MATERNUS’ DE ERRORE PROFANARVM RELIGIONVM 5.1*

  • Alessio Mancini (a1) and Tommaso Mari (a2)
Extract

Persae et Magi omnes qui Persicae regionis incolunt fines ignem praeferunt et omnibus elementis ignem putant debere praeponi. (Firm. Mat. Err. prof. rel. 5.1)

The Persians and all the Magi who dwell in the confines of the Persian land give their preference to fire and think it ought to be ranked above all the other elements.

Iulius Firmicus Maternus was a Latin writer who lived in the fourth century a.d. In the 340s, following his conversion to Christianity, he wrote the De errore profanarum religionum, which has been preserved only in the tenth-century manuscript Vaticanus Palatinus Latinus 165. In this work he argues against the pagan cults, calling for the emperors to suppress them. The first sections are dedicated to the pagan worship of the natural elements: objects of a cult are water among the Egyptians, earth among the Phrygians, air among the Assyrians. The chapter we are dealing with, the fifth, is dedicated to fire, a central element of the Zoroastrian religion. Greek and Roman writers, pagans and Christians alike, were aware of this, and references to some sort of fire-cult among Persians are numerous in literature and are found as early as Herodotus (1.131, 3.16). Just like Firmicus Maternus, some authors also state that the Magi worship fire as a god or divine element and that they conduct fire-related rituals. In Greek and Latin authors there is a view that the Magi, these specialists of the rituals of the Persian religion, were originally a Median tribe. As shown by the passages of Ammianus and Basil, such knowledge was also available to Firmicus Maternus’ contemporaries, and there do not appear to be particular differences in the way in which Greek and Latin authors viewed the Magi in Achaemenid and Sassanid times. Regrettably, one cannot know for certain which of these sources Firmicus Maternus knew.

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alessio.mancini@sns.it
tommaso.mari@uni-bamberg.de
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*

We wish to thank the anonymous referee and Bruce Gibson for their useful suggestions. The paper as a whole is the result of a close cooperation between the authors; however, the first three paragraphs are the work of Alessio Mancini, and the last four the work of Tommaso Mari.

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1 Forbes, Transl. A., The Error of the Pagan Religions (New York, 1970), 51–2.

2 For the dating of this work in the 340s, see Forbes (n. 1), 9–10.

3 Digital reproductions of this manuscript are currently available online on the website of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, at http://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Pal.lat.165 (last accessed 17 March 2017).

4 See, for example, de Jong, A., Traditions of the Magi. Zoroastrianism in Greek and Latin Literature (Leiden, 1997), 343–50.

5 Others are, for instance, Curt. 3.3.9 and passim, Lucian, Iupp. trag. 42.690, Theodoretus, HE 5.39.1 (= p. 342.15 Parmentier), Procop. Pers. 2.24.

6 E.g. Vitr. De arch. 8 praef. 1, Diog. Laert. 1.6, Basil. Ep. 258.4, Epiph. Adv. haeres. 13.

7 E.g. Xen. Cyr. 8.3.12, Strabo 15.3.15, Amm. Marc. 23.6.34, Agath. 2.25.1.

8 Cf. Hdt. 1.101, Amm. Marc. 23.6.32.

9 For the Magi under the Sassanids, see, for example, Boyce, M., Zoroastrians. Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (London and New York, 2001), 119–21.

10 Strabo 15.3.15: ἐν δὲ τῇ Καππαδοκίᾳ (πολὺ γὰρ ἐκεῖ τὸ τῶν Μάγων φῦλον, οἳ καὶ πύραιθοι καλοῦνται· πολλὰ δὲ καὶ τῶν Περσικῶν θεῶν ἱερά), οὐδὲ μαχαίρᾳ θύουσιν, ἀλλὰ κορμῷ τινι ὡς ἂν ὑπέρῳ τύπτοντες. ἔστι δὲ καὶ πυραιθεῖα, σηκοί τινες ἀξιόλογοι· ἐν δὲ τούτοις μέσοις βωμός, ἐν ᾧ πολλή τε σποδός, καὶ πῦρ ἄσβεστον φυλάττουσιν οἱ Μάγοι. Basil. Ep. 258.4: τὸ δὲ τῶν Μαγουσαίων ἔθνος (ὅπερ διὰ τῆς ἑτέρας ἐπιστολῆς σημῆναι ἡμῖν κατηξιώσας) πολύ ἐστι παρ’ἡμῖν κατὰ πᾶσαν σχεδὸν τὴν χώραν διεσπαρμένον […] oἳ ἔθεσιν ἰδιάζουσι κέχρηνται, ἄμικτοι ὄντες πρὸς τοὺς ἄλλους ἀνθρώπους […] καὶ τὸ πῦρ ἡγοῦνται Θεόν.

11 Paus. 5.27.5–6: ἔστι γὰρ Λυδοῖς ἐπίκλησιν Περσικοῖς ἱερὰ ἔν τε Ἱεροκαισαρείᾳ καλουμένῃ πόλει καὶ ἐν Ὑπαίποις, ἐν ἑκατέρῳ δὲ τῶν ἱερῶν οἴκημά τε καὶ ἐν τῷ οἰκήματί ἐστιν ἐπὶ βωμοῦ τέφρα· χρόα δὲ οὐ κατὰ τέφραν ἐστὶν αὐτῇ τὴν ἄλλην. ἐσελθὼν δὲ ἐς τὸ οἴκημα ἀνὴρ μάγος καὶ ξύλα ἐπιφορήσας αὖα ἐπὶ τὸν βωμὸν πρῶτα μὲν τιάραν ἐπέθετο ἐπὶ τῇ κεφαλῇ, δεύτερα δὲ ἐπίκλησιν ὅτου δὴ θεῶν ἐπᾴδει βάρβαρα καὶ οὐδαμῶς συνετὰ Ἕλλησιν· ἐπᾴδει δὲ ἐπιλεγόμενος ἐκ βιβλίου· ἄνευ τε δὴ πυρὸς ἀνάγκη πᾶσα ἁφθῆναι τὰ ξύλα καὶ περιφανῆ φλόγα ἐξ αὐτῶν ἐκλάμψαι.

12 Cf. Pastorino, A., Iuli Firmici Materni De errore profanarum religionum (Florence, 1956), 61 and Turcan, R., Firmicus Maternus. L'erreur des religions païennes (Paris, 1982), 205 . Clement of Alexandria must have been the source of Firmicus Maternus on several topics (see Turcan [this note], 51–2).

13 Cf. e.g. Livy 1.43.13 quadrifariam enim urbe diuisa regionibus collibusque qui habitabantur, where some manuscripts write collibus before qui (cf. Ogilvie ad loc.).

14 Firmicus Maternus must have been aware of this if he read Clement of Alexandria. Other passages are in Strabo 11.14.16 (ἅπαντα μὲν οὖν τὰ τῶν Περσῶν ἱερὰ καὶ Μῆδοι καὶ ᾽Αρμένιοι τετιμήκασι) and 15.3.13 (τὰ ἔθη τὰ Περσικὰ καὶ τούτοις καὶ Μήδοις τὰ αὐτὰ καὶ ἄλλοις πλείοσι). Lucan (8.338–9) talks about Chaldean fires while referring to the Parthians: Chaldaeos culture focos et barbara sacra, | Parthorum famulus?

* We wish to thank the anonymous referee and Bruce Gibson for their useful suggestions. The paper as a whole is the result of a close cooperation between the authors; however, the first three paragraphs are the work of Alessio Mancini, and the last four the work of Tommaso Mari.

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