Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.11.27

Klaus M. Girardet, Die Konstantinische Wende. Voraussetzungen und geistige Grundlagen der Religionspolitik Konstantins des Grossen.   Darmstadt:  Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2006.  Pp. 204.  ISBN 3-534-19116-1.  €44.90.  

Reviewed by Franziska E. Shlosser, Concordia University (
Word count: 1392 words

Die Konstantinische Wende consists of two essays published previously in 1998.1 Girardet expresses his satisfaction that the publication of the book coincides with the Konstantine-Jahr 2006 commemorating Constantine's rise to the purple at the death of his father Constantius, when Constantius' troops hailed him as Augustus. In the introduction to his book, he gives a brief historical synopsis and outlines the problems besetting Constantine's conversion (die Wende) to Christianity. Was it, he asks, simply the final result of a long development, or did Constantine just do what was timely, namely to use Christianity in his bid for power?

The first of the two essays, "Christliche Kaiser vor Konstantine d. Gr." is a sort of preface to the rest of the book, and looks at the theory of some scholars who think that there may have been Christian Emperors before Constantine. Girardet cites the view of K. Christ that Constantine's conversion was of such importance that the changes it initiated were felt not only in Late Antiquity but also in Medieval Europe and the Byzantine Empire.2 The author emphasizes the need to establish whether or not Constantine was the first Christian Emperor or if he had indeed some predecessors who had been either sympathizers or Christians. For the former, Tiberius and Hadrian are candidates, while for the latter Alexander Severus, Philip the Arab, Constantius I and even Maxentius have been considered. Girardet concludes, based on the sources we have, that they may have been tolerant of Christianity but none of them could be considered to have been a Christian. In his view, Constantine demonstrated to the Roman world his conversion to Christianity when, after his victory over Maxentius at the Milvian bridge, he entered Rome in triumph and went straight to the Palatine and the Imperial palace without, as was customary, traveling on the via sacra to the Capitol and there make the traditional sacrifice to Jupiter. No Roman Emperor before Constantine had ever done this. Eusebius of Caesarea was to see in Constantine the only emperor who was the "friend of God" and thus chosen to proclaim his message to the world. Girardet sees no reason to contradict Constantine's historian.

In the second essay, "Die Konstantinische Wende und ihre Bedeutung für das Reich", Girardet begins his essay by citing A.H.M. Jones, for whom Constantine's conversion to Christianity had no immediate consequences for the Roman Empire of Late Antiquity. Instead, Jones characterized Constantine as the politician and statesman who continued the reforms of his predecessor, Diocletian. The early Christian writers, Lactantius and Eusebius, saw it differently, however, and wrote that the "Wende" of Constantine ushered in a new era and made the world a better place. Constantine himself perceived it as a renovatio imperii, a rejuvenating of the Roman Empire. Girardet admits that in the day-to-day workings of the Empire little did change, but in the spiritual foundation, promoted by imperial laws, the changes become visible.

The author continues his essay with an analysis of recent views on Constantine and the mystery surrounding his becoming a Christian. There are some who think that the parents of Constantine had been Christians, and, therefore, he was a Christian from birth. Others question Constantine's motives, asking if he promoted Christianity for political reasons only. Old controversies such as those between J. Burckhardt and H. Grégoire seem to surface again. In support of his argument that Constantine conversion was in 312, Girardet stresses the public demonstration of Constantine's Christianity, his programmatic acceptance of Christian monotheism, and the tendency to impose Christian unity, with consequences for the other religions. At extreme ends of the debate are the opinion that there was no conversion since he grew up a Christian or that the emperor exchanged one divine patron for another. In between these extremes we find interpretations about Constantine's conversion saying that the sources are not clear about the year 312, and whether or not a conversion had taken place does not explain the changes in the religious politics of the Empire.

Girardet takes issue with the view of T.D. Barnes who believes the emperor's support for Christianity dates to the year 306, because there is support for this only in Lactanius. Discussing the events of 312, Girardet asks what was needed to be considered a Christian in the time of Constantine. Giradet refrains from retelling the stories circulating about Constantine's dream visions, and sees the Wende to have taken place in the emperor's decision not to participate in pagan sacrifices. In the words of Lactantius, the first step to becoming a Christian is to refrain from worshipping things made by human hands (59). There follows a lengthy discussion about the refusal of Constantine to worship pagan gods. Girardet points to the fact that the refusal to sacrifice to Jupiter in 312 upon entering Rome does not stand in isolation. In 313, Constantine refused to celebrate the ludi saeculares which had been reestablished in the year 17 by Augustus. The pagan historian Zonares saw in this the beginning of the end of the Roman state.

Girardet credits Eusebius of Caesarea with creating the picture of the Christian ruler based on his rights and obligations and illustrates the way that Constantine himself understood those duties by means of the letters of Constantine to various officials. These letters express the emperor's anxiety for the security of the res publica and the imperium, all of which is totally within imperial tradition. Conflict could bring about "maxima iracundia caelestis providentiae", and to this is now added any conflict within the Christian Church. Writing to the vicarius Africae Celsus in 316, Constantine sees it as his duty "pro instituto meo ipsiusque principis munere", to fight error so that all will follow the right religion, and to offer Godwhat is due to him. This too is traditional but the addressee is now the God of the Christians. The rest of the essay is largely concerned with the political and religious issues that eventually led in the time of Theodosius I to making Christianity the religion of state, and what this signified for other religious groups in the Late Roman Empire.

Girardet concludes that in the minds of Lactantius and Eusebius of Caesarea all this was only for good; the world would be a better place. They saw the rule of Constantine as the beginning of a blessed time for all of humanity. It was the same in the mind of the first Christian Emperor who, with the help of the Christian God, had achieved a renovatio imperii. Tolerance for other religions and freedom of worship had no place in this. Romanitas and Christianitas achieved a synthesis, and the Konstantinische Wende is called, in the words of Fr. Vittinghoff, "die epochenmachende geistige Revolution der Kaiserzeit" (154). R. Lorenz perceives in this elevation of the Church into the institutions of the state the basis "für das byzantinische Reich und das abendländische Mittelalter", developing in time into the specific civilization of Europe. The essay ends with a quotation from J. Straub which is worth citing in full: "ohne die Konstantinische Wende, die individuell-persönliche und politisch-programmatische Abwendung dieses Herrschers von den traditionellen Göttern Roms und Hinwendung zum Gott der Christen, vom Polytheismus über einen vagen philosophischen Henotheismus zum christlichen Monotheismus, hätte die Weltgeschichte einen anderen Verlauf genommen" (155).

Girardet's book is an excellent analysis of the debate over Constantine's conversion. There may never be a last word in this ongoing discourse but Girardet's work opens up a new approach based on his meticulous review of the sources. As Giradet notes, J. Vogt's description of the colossal head of Constantine in Rome as a "Sphinx der historischen Wissenschaft"3 could also be applied to the man who turned against the old Gods of Rome.

The book is well-written, free of errors, and pleasurable to read. It has a bibliography of thirty pages which, given the size of the book, 204 pages in all, is extensive. It also has an alphabetical register of citations from the sources, and a listing of illustrations. What is missing, however, in the view of this reviewer is a list of abbreviations. It would be helpful, given that the multilingual bibliography lists works published in sometimes lesser known journals. This is indeed a minor omission of an otherwise very well-organized work. The book will be of much interest to specialists, and possibly prove very useful in graduate seminars.


1.   First published in P. Kneisel, V. Losemann (eds.), Imperium Romanum. Studien zur Geschichte und Rezeption. Festschrift für Karl Christ zum 75. Geburtstag. Stuttgart, 1998, 288-310; E. Mühlenberg (ed.), Die Konstantinische Wende Gütersloh, 1998, 9-122.
2.   K. Christ, Geschichte der römischen Kaiserzeit von Augustus bis zu Konstantine Munich, 2nd ed. 1992, 781.
3.   J. Vogt, Constantine der Grosse und sein Jahrhundert, Munich, 1973, 252.

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