Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.03.09

Samuel N. C. Lieu, Dominic Montserrat , Constantine. History, Historiography and Legend. Based on a 1993 Warwick symposium entitled: Constantine and the Birth of Christian Europe.   New York:  Routledge, 1998.  Pp. xix, 238.  ISBN 0-415-10747-4.  $75.00.  

Reviewed by Hagith Sivan (
Word count: 2289 words


Barnes, Cameron, Hall, Leadbetter, Lieu, Mitchell, Stevenson, Tomlin, Wilfong, Wilson

The editors of this slim volume left the introduction in the capable hands of Averil Cameron. She certainly does her best to point out how the varied contributions respond to the generous title of this collection. But she also points to a welter of new and important publications that appeared between 1993 and 1998 including a volume edited by Magdalino (1994) on the legendary Constantine and her own on the Vita Constantini (1997). Lieu and Montserrat themselves have enriched the 1990s bibliography on Constantine (and his dynasty) with a volume of annotated translations of texts (1996).

And there is more. The proceedings of a 1990 Constantinian conference in Italy appeared in two hefty volumes in 1993 (Constantino il Grande: dall'antichità all'umanesimo). Important issues, such as the legal activities of Constantine, have come under close scrutiny (J. Evans Grubbs, Law and Family in Late Antiquity. The Emperor's Constantine's Marriage Legislation, 1995). Hans Pohlsander has contributed several articles and books on Constantine and his family, including one on Helena (Helena. Empress and Saint, 1995) and one on Constantine done by Routledge. Perhaps the most exciting and innovative work in recent years has focused on Constantine's Palestinian and Jewish policies (R. Wilken, The Land called Holy, 1992; David Hunt's 'Constantine and Jerusalem' JEH 1997, and the excellent article by Oded Irshai, published, alas, in Hebrew, 'Constantine and the Jews: The Prohibition against Entering Jerusalem-History and Hagiography', Zion 60 (1995), 129-178).

The question, I daresay, is just how timely is the appearance of yet another collection of essays on Constantine five years after a conference. Nor is it clear how much room for revision and updating was given to individual contributors. That the emperor, concrete or mythical, is indeed a worthy subject of reexamination need not be doubted. And, of course, the temptation to chart a Constantine for the 21st century is too great to ignore. I am afraid, however, that the Constantine of this volume is unlikely to be a source of inspiration for future research. But this is, naturally, a strictly personal view.

The book is divided into two parts: I. Constantine: history and historiography and II. Constantine: legend.

Tim Barnes ('Constantine, Athanasius and the Christian Church', 7-20) offers reflections on the inevitable theme of church and government in a paper that in the meantime appeared in a book on Athansasius and Constantius II (sic!). He attempts to debunk what he regards as a German scholarly image of Constantine as a secular ruler dispensing ecclesiastical affairs in a high handed manner. Instead he proposes a model of imperial non-intervention and compliance. Athanasius comes in handy (D. Arnold, The Early Episcopal Career of Athanasius, Notre Dam 1991). As the examples chosen by Barnes himself demonstrate, the pattern of relations between emperors and bishops was far from even, and what we know is, at any rate, heavily tainted by biased historiographers and panegyrists. The question of the execution of the decisions of church councils (p. 14) is likewise problematic. There was hardly an "automatic enforcement" (p. 14) by the imperial bureaucracy of ecclesiastical regulations (or vice versa). (Eusebius of Vercelli, under Constantius II, is a case in point. E. dal Corolo, I rapporti tra la chiesa nel secolo di Eusebio, in Eusebio di Vercelli e il suo tempo, 1997.) The limitations of the practical application of either episcopal decisions or imperial laws need to be reexamined (cf. the riots in Caesarea following the publication of NTh 3 of CE 438). In the end, Barnes seems to indicate that strong minded and enterprising churchmen benefited from what appears to be, at times, a singular mixture of imperial lack of interest and/or ineptitude. He may be right. But the emperors had an ax to grind as well.

Away from Constantine, Roger Tomlin, in a witty and erudite article ('Christianity and the late Roman army', 21-51) asks the million-dollar-question and offers some provocative insights and a host of telling anecdotes. Just how much did it matter whether the late Roman army was Christian? Or, put otherwise, to what extent did the ideological battle between Christianity and paganism impinge on the military machine of the empire? Tomlin briefly examines the religious beliefs and practices of top brass, the relations between individual soldiers and clergymen, and contacts between emperors and bishops as well as between the army and the population at large. Each of these topics, needless to say, deserves a separate treatment but there is no reason to doubt the basic veracity of Tomlin's general, and familiar, conclusion -- namely that religion as such played a minor role as far as the functioning of the army was concerned.

If such a dictum is sensible enough, it might be useful to ponder also the power base of the emperor in an army whose religious affiliations were marked by theological indifference in an age characterized more by civil wars than by wars against 'barbarians'. John Drinkwater (apud Mathisen/Sivan, Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity, 1996) offers some provocative suggestions, not least the creation of militarized zones and bogus barbarian hazards. Conspicuous lack of success on the eastern (Sasanian) frontiers was corrected by later Byzantine writers purely on the basis of their own imagination (Lieu, below). In a paradoxical way, it seems that the Christianized barbarians (rather than Christianity and barbarism, pace Gibbon) provided the mainstay of the imperial power. While Constantine's conversion supplied the church with a powerful arsenal, it did not equip the common soldiers with better fighting spirit (F. Heim, Le victoire sans combat, 1992, on the promotion of divine rather than earthly victories over Rome's and Christ's enemies). In this respect, it apparently made little difference.

The nature of the relations between soldiers and civilians, often tense, but at times harmonious, also determined, at times, the landscape of the hinterland. Stephen Mitchell ('The cities of Asia Minor in the age of Constantine', 52-73) reexamines a territory that he knows well, Asia Minor, and specifically its cities, along familiar lines (division of empire into small provinces, increase of imperial bureaucracy, road system, taxation patterns, imperial cult, Christianity). He sets out to discern major breaks or changes that can be specifically dated or ascribed to Constantine. Not surprisingly the search ends up in a general sense of frustration. The urban landscape of the empire had begun its transformation earlier than Constantine, and archaeology, for the most part, cannot be as precise as historians would like it to be. The impact of the introduction of as yet another religion (Christianity) into the cityscape of late antiquity must be measured over time. A question remains -- how useful it is to examine separately cities and rural settlements. And can this examination be divorced from an understanding of communal structures? Long ago the rabbis recognized that specific geographical and topographical affiliations were critical in determining patterns of human relations and their own control over their co-religionists (Sivan, 'Rabbinic landscapes: Domestic Relations, the city and the countryside in late ancient Palestine', Shifting Frontiers in Late Antiquity III, Atlanta, March 1999). Just how members of a religious organization, such as the church, managed to create patterns of urban and rural control remains to be explored. If, as Mitchell points out, the attribution of the Jewish inscriptions of Aphrodisias and Sardis to the fourth century requires further investigation into the post-Constantinian landscape of the Jews of Asia Minor, it also may pay to consider the ways in which non-Christian communities took advantage of the imperial promotion of monotheism in general and of Christianity in particular.

Bill Leadbetter reviews the question of Constantine's birth, the marriage and divorce of his parents and their determination of the emperor's legitimacy ('The illegitimacy of Constantine and the Birth of the Tetrarchy', 74-85). His conclusions are unsurprising -- a match between a low born woman, Helena, and an ambitious soldier, Constantius, was clearly not made in heaven and was conveniently discarded when a better match was in the cards. To add to the irony of the situation, the union was also apparently in contravention of the couple's son's own (later) laws on marriage outside one's class and rank. That the later Helena, a pious pilgrim and a model of charitably behaviour, was a far cry from the early Helena, need not be doubted. But the question of the validity of her marriage and, by implication, of her divorce, as well as her later promotion, still requires elucidation. In spite of an apparent disparity of rank and class, Helena had been a legitimate wife turned, in the annals of late Christian authors, into a humble figure (Evans Grubbs, 1995, 306-7). Why the church, urged by Ambrose of Milan, elected to recast Helena in this role is a question that relates to the legendary rather than the historical Helena and Constantine. Ultimately, the alleged illegitimacy of Constantine was a non-issue.

Reviewing the Vita Constantini Stuart Hall addresses the question of the documentary evidence and its use by Eusebius ('Some Constantinian documents in the Vita Constantini' 86-103) and specifically VC 2.61-72. He suggests that the Constantinian letter that Eusebius incorporated in this section was originally addressed to the Antiochene church and not to Arius and Alexander, as is commonly assumed on the basis of Eusebius's own misleading presentation. If indeed Eusebius employed such editorial methods, a reassessment of the ways in which he manipulated the documentary evidence at his disposal is clearly in place.

Hall also touches, briefly, on Constantine's Jewish policy and ascribes to the emperor the reaffirmation of the right of Jews to keep the Sabbath. Here, too, it seems that an Eusebian agenda has dictated both modern emendations of texts relating to this measure and Eusebius's own interpretation of Constantine's laws. VC 4.18 merely refers to a general recommendation to observe both Saturdays and Fridays, in addition to Sundays. Such generosity is indeed puzzling. Perhaps the text embeds a regulation touching only on Jewish affairs, but the question must be examined within the larger context of Constantine's Jewish policies (as Irshai does in his 1995 article).

At the start of the second part of the book (Constantine: Legend) Anna Wilson ('Biographical models: The Constantinian period and beyond', 107-135) discusses the reworking of Moses as a model of fourth century biographies. As is all too apparent, Eusebius's choice of the venerable law giver as a model of the imperial-Christian ruler was bound to fail. Moses was put to a much better use in the hands of the Cappadocian fathers, who could harness him as a subtext of hagiographical texts. But it is worth pondering on the reasons that generated the Constantine-Moses model. Here I suspect that Eusebius's Palestinian roots need to be examined. His elevation of Moses stands in stark contrast to the marginality of this biblical figure in contemporary Jewish writings. Were Christian-Jewish polemics in the early fourth century at the heart of the making of Constantine as a Moses?

Sam Lieu ('From history to legend and legend to history: The medieval and Byzantine transformation of Constantine's Vita', 136-176) deals with the recreation of Constantine in the medieval west and the Byzantine east (the latter much aided by the significant contributions of Winkelmann). Here one has to admire the remarkable ingenuity of both eastern and western authors who blithely fashioned an imaginary emperor, barely recognizable as Constantine. From Aldhelm's 'On virginity', through the famous or rather infamous donatio, and thence to Constantinople, it is indeed fascinating to follow the 'cleansing' progression that used Constantine to bolster the needs of the authors' diverse audiences. As Lieu correctly notes, one problem facing these later 'biographers' of Constantine was their reluctance and/or inability to use the 'heretical' Eusebius. And since, as noted above, the Eusebian model had singular shortcomings, later authors used other biblical figures, such as David.

Just how useful these late images of the first Christian emperor are for historians of Constantine is an open question. A curious tale of close relations between the emperor and a trusted but wholly fictional eunuch (conveniently translated by Lieu in this article) serves as a reminder of the power of eunuchs in the courts of early Christian emperors (D. Schlinkert, 'Der Hofeunuch in der Spätantike: Ein gefährlicher Aussenseiter?', Hermes 1994). A close examination of one theme, as Irshai had done in conjunction with the alleged Constantinian prohibition on Jewish entry to Jerusalem, can trace the power brokers of such themes and their transmission.

The rebirth of Constantine as a model of Christian piety was a wide-spread literary phenomenon, as Wilfong's article further shows ('Constantine in Coptic. Egyptian Constructions of Constantine the Great', 177-188). The Coptic Constantine, like his western and eastern brothers of Lieu's article, is likewise selective and imaginary, reflecting not only contemporary concerns of his creators but also their inventive powers. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this survey is the relative insignificance of Constantine in the general historical schemes of Coptic historiographers. Jane Stevenson ('Constantine, St. Aldhelm and the Loathy Lady', 189-206) returns to Insular culture to trace the folk themes that influenced the reshaping of the first Christian emperor. Exploring the relations between Aldhelm's Constantine and the Vita Sylvestri she suggests (contra Lieu) the primacy of the former over the latter and the use of Irish tales. I was pleased to witness the irony in the emergence of Constantine as a barbarian hero (p. 201).

In the end, the historical Constantine of the first part of this volume is a de-Christianized figure, dwarfed by indomitable churchmen, and reduced to a traditional ruler barely wielding the reins over a vast territory that would have been transformed even without him. Christianity without Constantine is an alluring proposition. But is it a valid model? In a way, I find the wholly imaginary Constantine of the second part much convincing, if not more endearing.

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