Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.11.16
Raymond Van Dam, The Roman Revolution of Constantine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xii, 441; map 1. ISBN 978-0-521-88209-5. $85.00.
Reviewed by Andrea Sterk, University of Florida (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Word count: 2060 words
"One imposing requirement for interpreting the past is to forget the future" (9), writes historian Raymond Van Dam in his latest book on the later Roman empire. This requirement is perhaps nowhere more challenging than in a study of Constantine the Great, who has long captivated the popular imagination and consumed scholarly discourse. From his ancient biographer, Eusebius of Caesarea, to a host of eminent modern historians (Norman Baynes (1931), Andrew Alföldi (1948), A. H. M. Jones (1962), Timothy Barnes (1981), and most recently H. A. Drake (2000)), scholars have not ceased to fashion new images and pose fresh interpretations of this first Christian Roman emperor. For his part Van Dam has attempted to restore Constantine to the world of fourth-century Roman politics and culture. He begins with a description of Ronald Syme's approach to Augustus in his compelling and immensely influential study, The Roman Revolution (1939). Van Dam argues that Constantine's reign was as revolutionary for the Empire as that of Augustus three centuries earlier and that the idea of a "Christian emperor" was no less contradictory than the notion of a "Republican emperor" had been. Studies of Constantine have typically emphasized the emperor's conversion or religious preferences, making his involvement with Christianity "the defining characteristic of his long reign," (10) even when focusing on seemingly non-religious elements of his policies. In keeping with the approach of his trilogy on Roman Cappadocia, however, Van Dam proposes to study Constantine's career from a variety of different perspectives. "Before Constantine was a Christian emperor, he was a typical emperor," he explains, and "in many situations Christianity was not Constantine's primary concern" (11).1
In his introduction, Van Dam warns that a focus on any one man's biography can distort our understanding of broad historical developments. Alternatively, the three main sections of Van Dam's book consider larger trends during Constantine's reign over which the emperor himself had little control: "a Roman empire that no longer had to include Rome, a Greek empire in the eastern provinces that still used Latin, a Christian empire that was consistently at odds about defining orthodox Christianity." (16) Examining in turn a geographical shift, a cultural transition, and a debate over the nature and substance of Christian orthodoxy, Van Dam begins each section with an ambiguous text that has generated conflicting interpretations: an imperial rescript, a petition, and an inscription. He provides the Latin text and an English translation of the rescript, the petition, and Constantine's responses to the petition in two Appendices at the end of the book.
Section One, "The Roman Empire without Rome" traces the history of two important and interrelated developments in Constantine's reign which are often eclipsed by studies that focus on the emperor's religion. The section opens with a letter from Hispellum and several other cities in central Italy requesting autonomy from the dominant city of the neighboring region of Tuscia. Chapters 1 and 2 consider the immediate background to this petition and the broader context which shaped Constantine's response. Van Dam focuses on a series of demographic reversals taking place in the early fourth century: between capital and frontier, cities and provinces, Romans and barbarians, center and periphery. He particularly highlights the shift from a civilian, Latin, pagan capital to a military, Greek, and Christian one as "Rome" became "Old Rome" with the accession of Constantinople. Indicative of these transitions was the foundation of several new imperial capitals on the frontiers (e.g., Trier and Serdica) making it increasingly evident that "'Rome' could be made elsewhere than at Rome." (52) Chapters 3 and 4 build on Van Dam's analysis of these requests highlighting concerns that preoccupied Constantine's thinking through much of his reign -- imperial legitimacy in the early years and imperial succession in the latter decades. He carefully traces Constantine's creation of a new Flavian dynasty, distinct from the Valerian dynasty of the Tetrarchs, and his successful efforts to ensure dynastic succession through his sons. Returning to the request from Hispellum, Van Dam effectively captures the city's ambiguous stance toward religion. The proposal to construct a new temple to the Flavian dynasty, despite the emperor's longstanding public support of Christianity, reflected the reality of Constantine's reign: "his political needs repeatedly took priority over any religious preferences." (126)
Section Two, "A Greek Roman Empire," focuses on the linguistic and cultural transitions that marked the Constantinian era. Despite the insistence of Eusebius and many modern interpreters on discontinuity between the reign of Constantine and his predecessors, Van Dam portrays the emperor as "the scrupulous heir of Diocletian and his fellow Tetrarchic emperors" (144). Here he points to three factors that had become defining characteristics of Romanness: increased political centralization, correct religion, and the use of the Latin language. A petition to the emperor set in motion a dialogue between Constantine and the town of Orcistus in central Asia Minor that provides the vehicle for Van Dam's exploration of these themes (chapter 5). The ambiguity of Orcistus with regard to religion mirrored the emperor's fluctuating religious views (chapter 6) while its choice of Latin over Greek reflected Constantine's own preferences and the realities of imperial administration in the fourth century despite the shift to Constantinople and the eastern empire. After posing Julian as a counterpoint to Constantine in cultural as well as religious preferences, in Chapter 7 Van Dam describes how Julian's "support for Greekness" and Constantine's promotion of Christianity gradually won the day in the eastern empire. Although Orcistus was wrong on both counts in the long run, the citizens' successful petition for independence reflects the ambivalence that marked this period. As imperial authority was gradually linked with religion and culture, petitioners tried to be sensitive to the emperor's vacillating preferences. Orcistus was right about viewing Constantine's reign as more of a cultural than a religious revolution, and it is in this cultural framework that the expansion of Christianity in the eastern empire should be interpreted. (215)
The most intriguing if not provocative part of the book is Section Three, entitled "Emperor and God." Once again Van Dam starts out with an ambiguous text, a dedication inscribed in the apse of the church of St. Peter in Rome. Open to conflicting theological and political interpretations, the inscription points to overlapping dialogues concerning the political philosophy of Christian emperorship and the Trinitarian theology of the Christian God. Chapter 9 examines the formation of a tetrarchic theology of imperial rule illustrating how "a debate about doctrines was simultaneously a debate about Christian emperorship." (249) Chapter 10 analyzes the Arian controversy from the standpoint of political philosophy. Here Van Dam critiques the confessional, pietistic approach of many learned surveys of the development of doctrine which fail to take account of "ancient criteria" and neglect to connect their narratives "to the society and culture of the later Roman empire." To be fair, he also takes to task recent ahistorical postmodern readings of early Christian theology noting that "the use of critical theory has become our new postmodern confessional history." (265-266 and n.19) Van Dam himself opts for a symbolic reading of the varieties of early Christianity, à la Geertz, examining all versions of the faith, both orthodox and heterodox, as "legitimate cultural systems." (267)
In Chapter 11 Van Dam expands his discussion of religion and politics as he examines the role of Eusebius of Caesarea, who spent the latter years of his life creating an image of Constantine that undergirded his non-Nicene doctrinal position. His Life of Constantine expressed a new theology of Christian emperorship, Van Dam argues, presenting Constantine as an analogue of Jesus Christ while at the same time supporting Eusebius's own subordinationist theology. In contrast, Chapter 12 considers a Nicene construction of the Christian emperor shaped by bishops and church historians. Athanasius's Life of Antony became an "inverted reflection" of Eusebius's Life of Constantine promoting Nicene theological views about the relationship between God the Father and Christ the Son as well s a new model for a Christian ruler. For later Nicene theologians and historians Theodosius the Great embodied the new ideal of Christian emperorship, not an analogue of Christ but of an Old Testament king, and they reinterpreted and reshaped Constantine in light of this Theodosian paradigm. With the reign of Theodosius the longstanding discourse about the emperor and religion fundamentally changed as rival models of emperorship were overturned and Augustus' Roman revolution came to an end. While Augustus had co-opted traditional Republican titles to describe his reign, Christian writers "now subverted the same terminology to define Theodosius' standing as a Christian emperor." (350) In the Epilogue Van Dam reiterates his contention that religion was only one of many strategies available to Constantine and others for "imagining the emperor" and uses the reign of Julian to summarize the themes examined throughout the book.
There is little to criticize and much to praise in this reassessment of the reign of Constantine and the later Roman Empire as a whole. Van Dam's masterful reading of evidence -- literary, documentary, and material -- is matched by an admirable sensitivity to linguistic and theological nuance. To be sure, in his critique of theological developments he is more deft at deconstructing than constructing. Van Dam gives many examples in Chapter 9 of how imperial political discourse drew upon religious, and increasingly Trinitarian concepts, about God; yet his discussions of the development of Trinitarian theology in Chapter 10 rarely go beyond the writings of Arius, Alexander, and Eusebius of Nicomedia, or Eusebius of Caesarea and Marcellus of Ancyra in Chapter 11. What seems oddly lacking, since Van Dam certainly knows the sources well, is any discussion of the three Cappadocian Fathers (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa), major Nicene theologians and primary shapers of the doctrine of the Trinity. Granted their careers come a generation after the reign of Constantine, but since Van Dam deals extensively with Julian's "neo-tetrarchic theology" (357-362) as well as his reign as emperor, some attention to his famous compatriots seems warranted, especially as they were no strangers to imperial and ecclesiastical politics. While ignoring the Cappadocians, presumably because their trinitarian theology has been well studied elsewhere, Van Dam continues his fixation on Constantine's nephew, Julian. The pagan emperor is also the subject of his Epilogue, "A Fourth Cappadocian Father," in his Families and Friends in Late Roman Cappadocia (2003). In the present work he associates Julian with Constantine arguing that the two together "should be credited as co-founders of Byzantine society."(216) As Van Dam notes that his theological ideas have been overlooked and deserve further consideration (360-361, n.8), one wonders whether a more substantial study of Julian's life and thought may be within his purview.
Whether or not one agrees with all the arguments in this study, Van Dam has succeeded in dispelling the myth of the inevitability of Constantine's conversion and the consequent transition to a Christian empire. Studiously avoiding retrospection, he repeatedly exposes the contingency of the emperor's religious choices. Van Dam's illuminating insights and careful scholarship are matched by playful interpretations of ambiguous evidence and an eminently readable prose. The details of scholarly disputes are left to dense but invaluable footnotes making the work accessible to advanced undergraduates as well as scholars. The approach of the book is particularly refreshing as it brings together at least two fields of study which have far too often been separated in late Roman and early Byzantine scholarship: political philosophy and the development of Christian theology. Van Dam's analysis of each in light of the other enriches our understanding of both and exposes the complex internal dynamics of late Roman society and culture that are obscured by a narrower focus on Constantine's biography or conversion. For this reason the book is important for patristic theologians and scholars of early Christianity as well as for Roman, late antique, and Byzantine historians.
Like Syme's work on Augustus, Van Dam's study of Emperor Constantine constitutes a major reappraisal of this pivotal figure for Roman history and western civilization as a whole. Despite its importance, however, the book will surely not be the final word for either popular or scholarly discussions of the famous Christian emperor. New generations will feel compelled to evaluate him afresh in light of their own interpretive stances. Indeed Van Dam has intimated as much in his Introduction, suggesting that "as we repeatedly construct Constantine, we are Eusebius' true heirs." (15)
1. Similarly, in Becoming Christian: The Conversion of Roman Cappadocia (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 4, Van Dam describes his aim to study the rise of Christianity in the region while the book "essentially ignores doctrines, asceticism, monasticism, and spirituality."