And, just in case anyone was wondering if I was aware of this, yes, I have started the last two posts out with basically the same introduction. The primary difference between this time and last time is that this time I will talk about Constantine the Great.
Constantine is a difficult individual to pin down. Few rulers in European history have had more influence on the world that followed than he did. Yet of all the European rulers of grand importance, Constantine arguably has the smallest library of useful and authoritative biography. The main problem we have with the story of Constantine is that although we have a half-dozen contemporary or near-contemporary biographers, said biographers largely focused on different things and had well-known biases, which clouds any attempt to understand the whole picture of Constantine. Further, since the different focuses were wide-spread enough, few of the accounts we have produce enough overlap for us to iron out the inconsistencies.
The most maddening point in this, of course, is in that best-known aspect of Constantine’s life: religion. Specifically his conversion to Christianity. For this set of stories we must go to Eusebius – which is a lot like going to Glenn Beck to ask what’s going on with gold futures – and Lactantius, a combination that is problematic in its own right.
Between the two we get three separate accounts of Constantine’s vision before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.
The best-known account of Constantine’s moment of revelation comes from Eusebius’s Life of Constantine, a panegyric to Constantine. He mentions a vision seen in the sky of a cross above the sun with the inscription “Hoc Vince” (Conquer by This). According to Eusebius the entire army saw the vision and Constantine swore to him an oath that it had actually happened.
According to Lactantius – who was probably in the best position to get the story from Constantine's own mouth, as he was Constantine’s son’s tutor at the time – the important moment came in a dream, where Constantine was directed to place the chi-rho on the shields of his soldiers. In the Life of Constantine, Eusebius added that the next day Jesus hisownself showed up and told Constantine to make it in to a banner, and the labarum was created.
In Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, meanwhile, which also mentions the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Eusebius doesn’t mention a damn thing about Constantine’s vision. No cross in the sky. No dream. No nothing.
John Julius Norwich is quite a bit kinder to Eusebius than I tend to be on this topic. After pointing out that it’s quite impossible to believe such an impressive event as the sign Constantine and his entire army witnessed before the battle went unmentioned until Eusebius’s panegyric, Norwich gets down to the business of trying to answer an important question: if it didn’t happen, why did Constantine suddenly switch to Christianity? More importantly, did he actually make a full conversion? He comes up with a pretty impressive series of arguments on the topic, so I’m more than willing to allow him to take the floor for a bit. With commentary, for the record.
There are indications that Constantine had been in a state of grave religious uncertainty since the execution of his father-in-law Maximian two years before, and was increasingly tending towards monotheism: after 310 his coins depict, in place of the old Roman deities, one god only – Helios, or as he was more generally known, Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun – of whom Constantine also claimed to have had a vision some years before, while fighting in Gaul. Yet this faith too – by now the most popular and widespread in the entire Empire – seems to have left him unsatisfied.
As far as a snapshot of an individual ripe for conversion goes, Norwich takes a pretty good picture. To that he adds this tidbit:
Eusebius tells how, on his journey in to Italy, knowing that he was shortly to fight the most important battle of his life – that on which is whole future career would depend – he prayed fervently for some form of divine revelation.
In this I’m willing to take Eusebius more-or-less at his word. It’s one of those weird cases where even if Eusebius had a reason to lie, that which we know happened is goofy and unexplainable enough otherwise that we might as well go with it. Seeing as how, “He was unsettled and looking desperately for answers,” seems a pretty reasonable lead-in to, “He suddenly decided to go with the whole Jesus thing.” Of course, Eusebius ended up going with the whole Road to Damascus apologetics theater bit, which is a bit overblown, but we’ll give him his moment of glory.
Robin Lane Fox paints an overall more sordid picture of this moment in Pagans & Christians. He points out the superstitious armies of the period wouldn’t march without the blessing of a priest and posits that none of the available pagan priests would have been willing to bless Constantine’s rebellion. An enterprising Christian bishop, according to this theory, then showed up and said, “I’ll do it.” And thus was history made. I have several problems with this line of argumentation. But to explain, well, I have to explain the Tetrarchy.
In 285 the Emperor Diocletian declared Maximian his co-emperor. This was strictly for pragmatic reasons. The Empire was huge, unwieldy, and beginning to disintegrate from the pressure of barbarian tribes without and civil difficulties within. The lack of communication that could move any faster than a boat at sea or horse on land added to these stresses. Further, Emperors had a tendency to need to be at the point of crisis, which was a tough sell if the Emperor happened to be in Gaul when something bad happened in Iconium. The solution, quite simply, was to have two emperors.
Even this solution didn’t seem to help, though. Eight years later Diocletian added two more emperors, dividing the offices in to senior (Augustus) and junior (Caesar). Maximian’s praetorian prefect, Constantius, was elevated to the level of Caesar and campaigned in Gaul while his son, Constantine, fought in the East under Diocletian, but was considered a prime candidate to follow in his father’s footsteps. While in Nicomedia Constantine got a first-hand look at Diocletian’s Great Persecution of the Christians. But I shall leave persecutions and martyrs alone for now.
The main problem Constantine had was the taint of illegitimacy. Constantius dumped Constantine’s mother Helena (who may or may not have been his wife) for Maximian’s stepdaughter Theodora upon taking his place as Caesar. Bastard sons of junior emperors don’t have the easiest path to power, and Constantine was no exception. It didn’t much help that upon his promotion to Augustus the other Caesar, Galerius, did his level-headed best to get Constantine killed in battle.
That’s another fun moment. Diocletian stepped down and declared Constantius and Galerius the new co-Augusti. Everyone thought that Constantine and Maxentius (Maximian’s son) would be declared the co-Caesars. But Galerius managed to convince Diocletian to appoint his supporters to that position. It was then that Galerius tried to get Constantine to conveniently impale himself on a barbarian spear.
Constantine instead managed to get leave to head West. Constantius died in Britain, but not before declaring his son to be his successor as Augustus. Galerius instead promoted Severus, the current Caesar, to Augustus and made Constantine Caesar.
At this point Maxentius revolted. Maximian traveled to Gaul and offered Constantine his daughter’s hand and the title of Augustus in return for support. Galerius, meanwhile, sent Severus against Maxentius…with an army comprised mainly of Maximian’s old troops. This did not end well for Severus.
Galerius finally intervened fully and attempted to put an end to the whole thing. Somehow or other it resulted in Galerius calling both Constantine and Maximian “Augustus” even after promoting Licinius to the position of Augustus of the West. Maxentius, meanwhile, was in charge of a good chunk of Italy, including Rome itself, but had no official standing amongst the chorus of emperors.
Eventually Galerius died. The East was unstable, Maxentius still held Rome, and the most powerful and popular individual in the Empire was Constantine, who held Gaul, Britain, and Spain.
Maxentius, meanwhile, had been making himself extremely unpopular in Italy. One of the actions he took in an attempt to get a small but growing section of the population of Rome was to allow the Christians to elect a new leader: Eusebius. This later backfired, Maxentius kicked him out, and the Christians ended up being just as pissed at Maxentius as everyone else was.
Still, Constantine’s advisors and his people in charge of reading the signs told him that moving against Maxentius was a bad idea. Maxentius was entrenched, controlled a much larger army than Constantine could muster, and had already held off Severus and Galerius. Constantine decided to move anyway.
It is in this context that we can now go back to Constantine’s Damascus Road moment before the Milvian Bridge. Norwich seems to largely ignore this larger context of Constantine’s campaign and focus on the man’s internal conflict. Lane Fox (at least, from the most comprehensive review I’ve read, which is not the best way of interpreting an idea…but I’m going to go with it) seems to have well underestimated Constantine’s popularity and flat-out misrepresented the relative levels of legitimacy enjoyed by Constantine and Maxentius. So I’ll propose a third path.
Constantine was an opportunist and a shameless manipulator. His use of religion (which I’ll hit in great detail in the next post) shows that he was willing to use belief as a tool for manipulation time and time again. He had already discarded Mars as a patron in favor of Sol Invictus for reasons that can only be seen as selfishly manipulative. It’s not hard to imagine that he would be willing to discard Sol Invictus for Jesus if he thought that would give him an advantage.
What that advantage is, though, is open to interpretation. When he decided to take advantage is an even bigger mystery. Eusebius’s own Ecclesiastical History mentions nothing about a conversion moment at the Milvian Bridge. Lactantius does, but he didn’t make his record until a couple years later.
Meanwhile, Constantine’s own actions after winning at the Milvian Bridge and taking Rome leave open to interpretation just how serious his conversion really was. And now that I have handled the political reality, I shall leave the religious aspect for next time. Hopefully in doing so I’ll be able to paint as complete a picture as possible.
Byzantium was, in fact, a story with much symmetry. The first Roman Emperor to rule in Constantinople was a Constantine born of Helena. The last Roman Emperor to rule in Constantinople was a Constantine born of Helena. This actually freaked a lot of Byzantines out during that final siege of Mehmet. It would end the way it began, they said. Constantly looking for omens, the Byzantines were. Religion and superstition go hand-in-hand more often than not, after all.
The race to the bottom of that category is basically between Constantine and Alexander the Great. The Alexandrian vulgate is slightly smaller and slightly farther removed in time, but it also comes across as being somewhat more reliable and comprehensive for reasons that I will be covering in places that are not this footnote. Let’s just say for the sake of argument that I trust Plutarch or Arrian to have more faithfully attested to things that happened four centuries before they were born than Eusebius to tell the truth about what he ate for breakfast.
And I say “of course” in a weary, “Of course it would be here,” sense, not in an, “Of course you already know this,” sense.
This, in and of itself, is problematic. Panegyrics are basically formalized eulogies, meant to be effusive in praise and not necessarily truthful.
John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: the Early Centuries (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2007), p 42
At least this is what I’ve been told. Again, I didn’t actually read much of the book. (Fixed. Thanks, Colleen.)
There’s a weird interplay between meritocracy and hereditary rule in Rome and Byzantium. Hopefully I’ll be able to get in to it more fully later. Suffice it to say that the Empire was a hereditary dictatorship when a family was established and a meritocracy based on acclamation by the army when one wasn’t. And sometimes it was just a place where the army got worked up in to a lather and put someone on the throne for the hell of it. Honestly, it’s a wonder Rome and Byzantium survived as long as they did…
Not the historian.