Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.02.14

Bruno Bleckmann, Horst Schneider, Eusebius von Caesarea. De vita Constantini. Über das Leben Konstantins. Fontes Christiani, 83.   Turnhout:  Brepols, 2007.  Pp. 548.  ISBN 978-2-503-52560-0.  €40.09 (pb).  

Reviewed by Peter Van Nuffelen, University of Exeter (
Word count: 1543 words

This edition and translation of Eusebius' Life of Constantine appears in the distinguished series Fontes Christiani, which offers Greek and Latin texts with facing German translation. It offers a lengthy introduction by Bruno Bleckmann (pp. 7-106), who mainly assesses the historical and historiographical background, and a text, translation and brief notes by Horst Schneider. It is a welcome addition to the growing body of scholarship on the Life of Constantine.

The De vita Constantini is a text fraught with difficulties. Its authenticity has been disputed and it has been argued that the text we have is a hasty joining of two separate tracts. Bleckmann is a reliable guide in that territory. From the outset he argues that Eusebius is the author of the work and that it was written with a single plan in mind. Most of the oddities in composition can be explained by the fact that Eusebius left it unfinished.

After a brief summary of the contents of De vita Constantini, Bleckmann addresses the issue of genre. De vita Constantini is usually defined as a mixed genre, as it clearly includes panegyrical, biographical and historiographical elements. Bleckmann rightly stresses the innovative nature of most of Eusebius' writings. Its elevated style suggests a target audience of high-ranking, well-educated officials, and following the suggestion by A. Cameron and S. G. Hall in their translation of De vita Constantini (Oxford, 1999, 28), Bleckmann argues that Eusebius wanted to urge Constantine's sons to continue their father's religious policies.

Eusebius' perspective is very much determined by his own position. Most of the documents he quotes were sent to him as bishop of Caesarea (not necessarily implying a personal correspondence with the emperor), and he also likes to stress his own autopsy. But part of the narrative, especially that relating to the period when Constantine was only emperor of the West, seems to rely on panegyrical material (44-6). Bleckmann is particularly good at unearthing the various historiographical strands that make up De vita Constantini, and situating them in their wider context.

The last and longest section of the introduction, discussing the image of Constantine in De vita Constantini, provides a kind of running commentary on the work. I single out just a few points. Bleckmann stresses that the depiction of Constantius Chlorus and of Constantine's early career is determined by a dependency on a pro-Constantinian panegyrical tradition and by the religious contrast between Christians and pagans that Eusebius superimposes on the political troubles leading up to 312 (pp. 47-55). A similar dependency on contemporary propaganda explains the portrait of Licinius (64-75).

For Bleckmann the famous vision of Constantine before the battle of the Milvian Bridge (312) is the official version dating from the later part of Constantine's reign. Originally, he suggests, the labarum had a mere magical function of leading to victory and averting defeat (pp. 54-63). Concerning Eusebius' "political theology", Bleckmann remains cautious. He argues that Eusebius does not attribute the status of priest or bishop to the emperor. He rather stresses the Moses-typology, and the implicit comparison with Christ. Again Eusebius does not argue for an identity of Constantine with Moses or Christ, but suggests that the emperor is a tool of God (96-106).

What the introduction does not, or insufficiently, discusses, is the literary character of De vita Constantini. For example, Eusebius likes to play with bipolar contrasts, Homeric vocabulary and allusions. Little work has been done in this area, but it seems vital in order to fully understand the De vita Constantini. Nevertheless, this edition and translation is a fine piece of work that offers reliable guidance to the reader.

Text, translation and notes are the work of H. Schneider. The text follows the standard edition by F. Winkelmann (Über das leben des Kaisers Konstantin, GCS. Eusebius Werke 1/1, Berlin, 1991, 2nd edition). Apart from a few misprints, the text seems accurate (2.23.1, 2.26.1, 3.1.3, 3.1.7, 3.17.1, 3.48.1, 3.60.3, see also p. 332 n. 184).

The translation is usually accurate and helpful. I read it next to the translation of A. Cameron and S. G. Hall (Oxford, 1999), and it drew my attention to a few errors in the latter (cf. 1.13, 2.12.2, 2.50, 3.11). Moreover, this new German translation will make the most important source for Constantine's reign accessible to a wider audience and will help scholars and students to engage closely with the original Greek text.

I have, however, a few concerns.

First, the translation is unduly literal. In line with the genre, Eusebius uses classical Greek terms for Roman institutions. Rather than translating them with the term that they mean (e.g. ὁπλῖται, "soldiers"), Schneider prefers to transcribe them ("Hopliten") and give explanations in the notes or in brackets. This is a rather cumbersome practice (cf. 4.51.3), and in certain instances even a bit awkward. For example, ἐπαρχία, the usual Greek term in Late Antiquity for "province", is always transcribed as "Eparchie" (e.g. 2.62). That is of little help to the reader with limited Greek and with little understanding of Late Antique institutions. The strangest choice is to neither translate nor transcribe οἰκουμένη. It is simply left in Greek in the translation.

The choice for a literal translation also expresses itself in often long and cumbersome sentences that are not always easier to read than the original Greek, especially not for a non-native German speaker. In the case of a text written in a tortuous Greek, one would wish that a translation would be more of a real help to the reader.

Second, although generally accurate, the translation is not free from errors. I will single out three examples. (See also 1.35.1, 2.12.1-2, 3.18.2, 4.25.3, 4.55.2, where Schneider mistakenly reads ἐπιτήδειος for ἐπικήδειος.)

(1) The translation of 1.10.2 runs as follows. "Den wäre es in der Tat nicht schändlich, wenn das Andenken Neros und derer, die noch weit schlimmer waren als dieser, frevelhafter und gottloser Tyrann, eilfertige Chronisten fand, die die Inhaltsangaben schlechter Taten durch eine pompöse Umdeutung ins Dramatische aufpolierten und in Geschichten, die zahlreiche Bücher füllten, verpackten (...)". Several errors are packed into this sentence. "Frevelhafter und gottloser Tyrann" should be plural (τυρράνων) and refer to the other tyrants, not Nero: "the memory of Nero and those vicious and godless tyrants who were far worse than him". "Chronisten" as a translation for συγγραφεῖς is slightly inaccurate: it might induce the reader to think that the reference is to authors of chronicles and not to writers of histories. ὑποθέσεις means, in the context of a history, subject matter; "Inhaltsangaben" is rather awkward. "Durch eine pompöse Umdeutung ins Dramatische" misconstrues the Greek. φαύλων ὑποθέσεις δραμάτων and ἑρμενείᾳ κομψῇ belong together; the translation should be "accounts of wretched deeds" and "stylish expression", as Cameron/Hall (71) have it.

(2) In 3.59.2 the translation "teilt er [der Teufel] die Kirche Antiochiens durch ein Unglück tragischen Ausmasses" is rather implausible. Admittedly, διελάμβανε can mean "divide". But that the church is divided is explained immediately afterwards in a subclause. Moreover, διαλαμβάνειν is also an athletic term, meaning "grab around the waist", which suits well in the context: just before Eusebius used the word ἐπαλείψω (to rub with oil) to indicate that the devil is preparing himself to attack the church of Antioch. The translation should consequently be "the devil attacked" or "grabbed" the church. "Ein Unglück tragischen Ausmasses" is a rather imprecise translation of τραγικαῖς συμφοραῖς, apart from translating a plural by a singular. Cameron/Hall (147) have a better translation with "disasters of tragic proportions".

(3) Schneider usually translates οἱ ἔξοθεν as "pagans". That might be correct in 1.43.1, but, with Eusebius writing from an ecclesiastical perspective, the term means those outside the church, i.e. not just the pagans, but the entire secular realm. (His note on p. 412 seems to be aware of this, but his translations do not always reflect that.) Schneider's translation of a letter of Constantine, according to which the emperor says that ecclesiastical troubles are much more painful for him than "Kämpfe mit den Heiden" (3.12.2) is thus mistaken. For Constantine, ecclesiastical troubles are more painful than troubles in the (secular) state. Consequently, when Constantine designates himself as ἐπίσκοπος τῶν ἐκτός, he does not mean that he oversees the pagans (as stated by Schneider p. 435 note 302). It would be strange indeed if Constantine would see himself as overseeing only the pagans! Equally, in 4.52.2 Eusebius does not talk about "pagan sciences" but "secular sciences".

Third, the translation would have benefited from a thorough revision, as occasionally a few words or even parts of sentences are forgotten in the translation (1.13.3: ἐκθέσμου; 1.20.2: τὸ δὲ ... παρεῖναι; 1.55.3: κουριδίας; 2.20.3 διὰ θεὸν; 3.23: οἷα, 3.27: ἐπιθειάσας) and the paragraph numbers in text and translation do not always correspond (1.14.5, 1.36.2, 2.4.1-3, 3.54.4).

One final concern. I found the setting of the Greek text, in a relatively large font size with the lines relatively close to each other, rather tiresome for the eye. Some more space between the lines would make reading the Greek a much more pleasant exercise.

Notwithstanding these flaws, this new translation of the Life of Constantine must be welcomed. A translation is just a means to make the original accessible, and Bleckmann and Schneider must be congratulated for doing a fine job on a difficult text.

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