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For others named Labeo, see Labeo (disambiguation)

Cornelius Labeo was an ancient Roman theologian and antiquarian who wrote on such topics as the Roman calendar and the teachings of Etruscan religion (Etrusca disciplina). His works survive only in fragments and testimonia. He has been dated "plausibly but not provably" to the 3rd century AD.[1] Labeo has been called "the most important Roman theologian" after Varro, whose work seems to have influenced him strongly.[2] He is usually considered a Neoplatonist.[3]

Labeo and Censorinus are the only authors with demonstrable interests in writing about Roman religion during the Crisis of the Third Century, a time of "military anarchy" between the death of Caracalla and the accession of Diocletian when scholarship seems mostly to have ground to a halt.[4] Because religious and civil law in ancient Rome may overlap, the fragments of this Labeo are sometimes confused with those of the jurists Quintus Antistius Labeo and Marcus Antistius Labeo.



Labeo was among the sources used by Macrobius,[5] John Lydus,[4][6] and Servius.[7] It has sometimes been supposed that the Orphic verses given by Macrobius in the first book of his Saturnalia are taken from Labeo.[8] His works were influential enough that he was targeted for criticism by Church Fathers[4] such as Arnobius[9] and Augustine.[10] He may have been Arnobius's intermediate source for Porphyry,[11] and possibly Martianus Capella's for Iamblichus.[12]

Labeo was interested in such problems as the existence of good and bad numina, and whether intermediate beings should be called daimones (δαίμονες, daemons) or angeloi (ἄγγελοι, angels).[13] Labeo is one of the Greek and Roman authors with whom Augustine of Hippo debates over the nature of "demons" in Book 8, On the City of God. In particular, he rejects Labeo's distinction between good and bad daimones, claiming that they are all impure spirits and thus evil.[14] In classifying divine figures as gods, demigods, and heroes, Labeo placed Plato among demigods such as Hercules and Romulus.[15]

In De mensibus ("On the months"), Lydus cites Labeo as his source for a list of thirty names for Aphrodite (Venus) and for explanations of customs pertaining to the calendar such as the etymologies of the names of the months.[16] Labeo supported the view that the Roman goddess Maia was the Earth (Terra), named for her great size (magnitudine), to be identified with the Great Mother (Magna Mater) and the Good Goddess (Bona Dea), to whom a temple was dedicated on the Kalends of May.[17]

Apollo and IaoEdit

Labeo wrote a book De oraculo Apollinis Clarii that has provided a key passage for understanding monotheistic tendencies in ancient Greek and Roman religious thought.[18] When asked "Who is the supreme God?"[19] Apollo responded:

Alas, you have not come to enquire about small matters.
You want to know who is the king of heaven
Whom even I do not know, yet revere according to tradition.

Apollo says that the supreme God is superior to him, ineffable and unknowable. Labeo also reports that an interpretation was sought for the Orphic verse "Zeus is One, Hades is One, Helios is One, Dionysus is One." According to Macrobius:

The authority of this line rests on an oracle of Clarian Apollo, in which another name for the Sun, too, is added, who is given among other names, in the same holy lines, that of Iao. For the Clarian Apollo, upon being asked which of the gods was meant by Iao, spoke as follows: "Initiates must hold their secrets—yet know! Iao is Hades in the winter, Zeus in spring, Helios in summer, and Iao in autumn." The force of this oracular saying, and the interpretation of the divinity and the name, whereby Father Liber and Sol are meant by Iao, Cornelius Labeo treats in his book titled On the Oracle of the Clarian Apollo.[20]

This passage has been called "the most far-reaching and prominent evidence for the concept of theocrasy in pagan antiquity."[21] "Many gods," Ramsay MacMullen observed, "were really aspects of a single god."[22] "Iao" (Ἰαώ) is not explicitly identified as the god of the Jews, but the name was already established in Latin usage as such.[23] Labeo tried to find a way to situate the Jewish god in the Olympian system.[13] In late antiquity, "Iao" has a "magical potency" that came to embody the unifying tendency of Neopythagoreanism and Neoplatonism.[24]


The most extensive treatment of Cornelius Labeo, including the collected fragments, is that of the Italian scholar P. Mastandrea, Un Neoplatonico Latino: Cornelio Labeone, testimonianze e frammenti (Leiden, 1979). English translation of the fragments appears in Hooker (tr.), John Lydus: On the Months (2017), pp. 200-205.

The work Peri keraunôn (Περὶ κεραυνῶν, On Lightnings) has sometimes been wrongly ascribed to him.[25]


  1. ^ C. Robert Phillips III, "Approaching Roman Religion: The Case for Wissenschaftsgeschichte," in A Companion to Roman Religion (Blackwell, 2007), p. 15, citing HLL 4.78; Robert Lamberton, Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition (University of California Press, 1986), p. 250.
  2. ^ Attilio Mastrocinque, "Creating One's Own Religion: Intellectual Choices," in A Companion to Roman Religion, p. 384.
  3. ^ Mastrocinque, "Creating One's Own Religion," p. 384; R. Majercik, "Chaldean Triads in Neoplatonic Exegesis: Some Reconsiderations," Classical Quarterly 51.1 (2002), p. 291, note 119, citing P. Mastandrea, Un Neoplatonico Latino: Cornelio Labeone (Leiden, 1979), 127–34 and 193–8; Robert A. Kaster, Studies on the Text of Macrobius' Saturnalia (Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 39; Lamberton, Homer the Theologian, p. 249 (where he is ranked among "the Latin authors of greatest importance for the development of Platonism in late antiquity").
  4. ^ a b c Phillips, "Approaching Roman Religion," p. 15.
  5. ^ Clifford Ando, "The Palladium and the Pentateuch: Towards a Sacred Topography of the Later Roman Empire," Phoenix 55 (2001), pp. 402–403, and The Matter of the Gods: Religion and the Roman Empire (University of California Press, 2008), p. 193. Alan Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 267, considers Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.17–23 as "nothing but a series of excerpts from Labeo."
  6. ^ Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome, p. 268, noting that Lydus excerpted many of the same passages from Labeo as Macrobius did.
  7. ^ Phillips, "Approaching Roman Religion," p. 15. Example at note to Aeneid 3.168.
  8. ^ R. Delbrueck and W. Vollgraff, "An Orphic Bowl," Journal of Hellenic Studies 54 (1934), p. 134.
  9. ^ Arnobius 2.15.
  10. ^ Augustine, De civitate Dei 2.11, 9.19.
  11. ^ Majercik, "Chaldean Triads in Neoplatonic Exegesis," p. 291, note 119, citing Mastandrea, Un Neoplatonico Latino, 127–34 and 193–8.
  12. ^ Gérard Capdeville, "Les dieux de Martianus Capella," Revue de l'histoire des religions 213.3 (1996), p. 258, note 18, citing Robert Turcan, "Martianus Capella et Jamblique," REL 36 (1958) 235–254. On the difficulty of determining Macrobius's use of Labeo, see Danuta Shanzer, A Philosophical and Literary Commentary on Martianus Capella's De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, Book 1 (University of California Press, 1986), pp. 133–138, 193–194.
  13. ^ a b Lambertson, Homer the Theologian, p. 250.
  14. ^ Augustine, De civitate Dei 2.11, 8.22, 3.25; Maijastina Kahlos, Debate and Dialogue: Christian and Pagan Cultures c. 360–430 (Ashgate, 2007), p. 175.
  15. ^ Kahlos, Debate and Dialogue, p. 157.
  16. ^ Lydus, De mensibus 1.21, 3.1.12, 3.10.
  17. ^ Hendrik H.J. Brouwer, Bona Dea: The Sources and a Description of the Cult (Brill, 1989) p. 224.
  18. ^ Macobius, Saturnalia 1.18.18–21; Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede, introduction to Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity (Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 16, citing Tübingen Theosophy 12.
  19. ^ Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.18.20.
  20. ^ Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.18.19.
  21. ^ Peter Schäfer, Judeophobia: Attitudes toward the Jews in the Ancient World (Harvard University Press, 1997, 1998), p. 52.
  22. ^ Ramsay MacMullen, Paganism in the Roman Empire (Yale University Press, 1981), p. 87.
  23. ^ The name of the Jewish god is first given as Iao by Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica 1.94.2 (1st century BC) and Varro (as preserved by Lydus, De mensibus 4.53). As a Jewish term it is attested by the Aramaic papyri from Elephantine dating to the Persian period. Assumed to have become a vocabulum ineffabile for Jews, it occurs in a fragment of the Septuagint version of Leviticus probably dating to the 1st century BC, but it does not occur in the textus receptus of the Septuagint. The name is ubiquitous in magic texts from all over the Greco-Roman world, an indication that it had passed out of "official" usage and become popularized by syncretism. See Peter Schäfer, Judeophobia pp. 53, 232, and Hugo Rahner, Greek Myths and Christian Mystery (Burns & Oak, 1963, reprinted 1971, originally published 1957 in German), p. 146, citing also R. Ganschinietz, "Jao," in RE 9, col. 708, 1–33. See also John Granger Cook, The Interpretation of the Old Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism (Mohr Siebeck, 2004), p. 118.
  24. ^ Schäfer, Judeophobia, p. 53.
  25. ^ "Wrongly" as noted by Stefan Weinstock, "Libri fulgurales," Papers of the British School at Rome 19 (1951), p. 138.