New College, University of Edinburgh

Eaten By Worms: Comparison between Acts 12:23 and Death of the Persecutors 33-35

When asked if I wanted to write an article for this blog about worms, I was hooked. It is one of my favorite parts in my dissertation and I cannot get tired of talking about Galerius and how his groin got eaten by worms from the inside out.

But first things first:

In quite a few ancient sources a bad emperor gets eaten alive by worms and in most of them it is made clear from the beginning that a god or God is punishing some impious tyrant by these means. There is already some work on the topos of worms as a disease naming numerous examples.[i] I want to compare the descriptions by Lactantius and Luke in Acts to see how they differ and why that may be:

In On Death of The Persecutors, Lactantius tells us how the emperor Galerius is afflicted with an illness, first showing itself as an ulcer (ulcus malum). Medical treatment is insufficient and the wound opens up time and again under great loss of blood. He looks for help from pagan Gods and thus worsens his suffering. His lower body is completely destroyed and finally worms emerge to eat him from the inside out. He suffers from immense pain and a swarm of worms pushes out of his body, even more worms still remaining. His whole body dries up, there seems to be no cure. After Galerius decides to worship God his illness stops long enough for him to release his edict against persecuting Christians before he finally meets his end (Lact. Mort.  33-35). Luke also explains in Acts that Herod Agrippa is punished by angels because he denied God and thus dies eaten by worms (Acts 12:23). Lactantius uses several chapters until his antagonist finally dies and Luke attributes one verse to the death of Herod Agrippa. Both tell us the emperor denied God and thus is punished. Lactantius introduces the anecdote about Galerius’s suffering with the words “when God punished him with incurable wound”[ii] and resolves with “nevertheless he did not achieve forgiveness for his deeds from God, but […] was consumed by horrific decay”.[iii] Luke combines all information within this single verse, naming the punisher, the punished and the punishment.

The descriptions differ in various aspects. Lactantius shows his readers how much Galerius suffers in great detail. He includes the worms in a row of illnesses, the first being cancer. The passage of punishment ties to Galerius’s suffering from social lowering through the promotion of Constantine and thus is an addition to recent punishments. Galerius then seems to have the chance to get better by acknowledging God but decides to turn to a pagan god, which are demons.[iv] He then is rotting alive and eaten by worms. It seems his reaction to former punishments is challenging God to end his life in such great misery. Galerius is punished for his deeds against humanity, the state, and his denouncing God – although one might argue, that the first two are a sign for the acts against God.

Luke, on the other hand, shows a different approach. Herod Agrippa is punished by angels, not God himself, but is punished for what he did to God not for what he did to his fellow humans or the angels. I think it would be useful to ask further questions as to why the angels execute the punishment and how this fits within Luke’s broader notion of God throughout his Gospel and Acts. For the time being I want to note that in comparison to Lactantius, the interpretation might be twofold: First, God exists outside of this world and does not interact personally but uses messengers who interact on his behalf. Second, God does not punish himself.

In conclusion, Lactantius makes God a very real part of this world, who decides which punishment is sufficient for a bad emperor and who himself is the force executing said punishment directly or indirectly. Luke describes a God outside of this world, who has no direct connection to what is happening within its boundaries. So their respective notions of God become apparent within the passages and show considerable differences. The cause of punishment is in both cases the delinquent’s renunciation of God. The punishment itself is different especially in its length: Lactantius puts his description of worms at the end of a long period of suffering but does not make them the immediate cause of death. It is rather the tipping point for Galerius’s attitude. Luke ends Herod Agrippa’s story with him being eaten alive. There is no lesson to be learned. Both authors show us that as soon as the punishment via worms is applied, there is no way to escape certain death. It might take longer because there is a repentance to be made like in the case of Galerius but whatever happens after the punishment is set in motion, it does not bring salvation.

After this very short analysis, I wonder how other descriptions of punishment through worms compare and if they might actually contribute to a closer understanding of the notion of God in these sources?


Written by Gianna Zipp Universität Mainz



[i] Thomas Africa, Worms and the Death of Kings: A cautionary Note on Disease and History, Classical Antiquity 1/1 (1982), 1-17 notes that Judeo-Christian writers did not write objective history and thus their descriptions should not be used by historians to explore diseases. Roland Steinacher, von Würmern bei lebendigem Leib zerfressen… und die Läusesucht Phtheiriasis. Ein antikes Strafmotiv und seine Rezeptionsgeschichte, Gerhard Dobesch, Hermann Harrauer, Peter Siewert, Ekkehard Weber [eds.], Tyche. Beiträge zur Alten Geschichte, Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Band 18 (2003), 145-166 outlines the depiction of worms as illness especially for emperors beginning with Herodotos and shows that this motif is found not only within Judeo-Christian discourse but throughout antiquity.

[ii] Cum percussit eum deus insanabili plaga. Lact. mort. 33,1.

[iii] Nec tamen ille hoc facto veniam sceleris accepit a deo, sed […] horrenda tabe consumptus est. Lact. Mort. 35,3.

[iv] In 10,2 Lactantius characterises the gods Diocletian prays to as demons.

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  • CSCO Team,
  • 20th June 2018

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