Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.09.39 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.09.39

Noel Lenski, Constantine and the Cities: Imperial Authority and Civic Politics. Empire and after.   Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.  Pp. ix, 404.  ISBN 9780812247770.  $79.95 (hb).  

Reviewed by Hendrik Dey, Hunter College, CUNY (


While the life and times of emperor Constantine I have never wanted for scholarly attention, the bibliographical floodgates have opened since the seventeenth centenary of his accession, in 2006, and the battle of the Milvian Bridge, in 2012. We can expect the rising torrent to attain biblical proportions by the centenary of his death in 2037, probably with intermediate surges around 2024 (Chrysopolis) and 2030 (the dedication of Constantinople). One reason for the endless stream of monographs is that Constantine has proven so hard to pin down, so open to the most diverse and conflicting interpretations, as Noel Lenski points out in the succinct historiographical summary with which he prefaces Constantine and the Cities. Constantine has been many things (religious zealot, saintly preceptor, pragmatic realpolitiker, cynical opportunist, benighted rube, etc.) to the very many people who have thought about him, judged him, and written about him from his own time up until the present, nearly all of whom have presumed to understand the ‘real’ Constantine. Lenski sensibly demurs: ‘It is this fundamental assumption, the assumption that an essential Constantine exists and that, once uncovered, its framework can be used as the key to unlock this perennial hermeneutic mystery, that this monograph draws into question.’ (pp. 6-7)

Rather, Lenski seeks new purchase on Constantine the chameleon by focusing on communications between emperor and subjects, especially the system of petition-and-response that permitted a direct channel of discourse between Roman emperors and various constituencies throughout the empire, the workings of which are adumbrated inter alia by surviving rescripts and several illuminating inscriptions of Constantinian date that Lenski uses to especially good effect. Lenski’s Constantine, then, is essentially mediated: if we can never really know Constantine, we can at least seek to know better the multifarious personas he chose to present to different groups at different times over the course of his long reign; the assumptions and expectations of those who petitioned him; and the responses available to those petitioners when confronted with imperial pronouncements.

Lenski girds his approach with a theoretical carapace derived from S. Hall’s application of Jaussian reception theory—according to which art and cultural production constitute reality as much as they passively represent or reflect it—to systems of mass communication, leavened with a sprinkling of Jürgen Habermas on the ways in which social activity is structured, or negotiated, through discourse. Lenski thus prefaces his reading of Constantine with two related premises: that Constantine’s life was a collective affair, a continual give-and-take between the emperor and his subjects that shaped not only perceptions of the man, but also his conduct; and consequently that Constantine’s power, like that of all Roman emperors, was not absolute, but rather derived from ‘intersubjective processes that entailed input and reaction from the ruler himself, but also and in turn counter-input from his many relatives, administrators, soldiers, subjects, opponents, and enemies’ (p. 12). Following Hall, Lenski proposes three principal governing dynamics of mass communication between emperor and subjects: 1) a ‘dominant’ or ‘hegemonic’ reading, wherein the emperor’s agenda was understood and shared by the recipients of his communiqués; 2) a ‘negotiated’ reading in which both emperor and subjects compromised on the ways in which policy was both formulated (by Constantine) and interpreted or enacted on the part of his subjects; and 3) an ‘oppositional’ reading involving active resistance to the imperial will.

Constantine and the Cities comprises four sections. The first, ‘Constantine’s Self-Presentation,’ deals with Constantine’s ‘official’ persona as communicated to his subjects via written (especially legal) and iconographic (especially numismatic) sources. Lenski finds art historians’ traditional division of Constantine’s portrait types into four successive phases broadly applicable to his career as a whole: an early Constantine (ca. 306-10) operating within the established framework of Tetrarchic conventions, followed by an increasingly assertive, individualized liberator and conqueror of tyrants (ca. 310-21); a still more explicitly Christian vanquisher of tyrants and propagator of the faith (ca. 321-30); and finally (ca. 330-37) a moralizing proselyte, a sort of living incarnation of the ideal Christian monarch. He follows Peter Weiss in thinking that Constantine saw a cross- shaped solar halo in southern Gaul in 310, which later inspired whatever Constantine saw or claimed to see before the battle of the Milvian Bridge, whose outcome sufficed to confirm Constantine’s definitive conversion to Christianity. Chi-rho inscribed milestones from North Africa, legislation establishing clerical exemption from traditional civic munera, imperial funding allocated to church-building in Rome and elsewhere, as well as the famous decree of religious toleration, all convince Lenski that already by 313, Constantine was operating as a Christian sovereign dedicated to the propagation of the faith, though his manifestations of support for the new faith became still more unambiguous and ostentatious following his rupture with Licinius in the early 320s. The well-worn textual and iconographical evidence adduced in support of this portrayal of Constantine as a devout Christian and tireless supporter of the Christian cause by the morrow of the Milvian Bridge, if not earlier still, will not convince many of the dissenters in the endless debate over Constantine’s credo, but I suspect Lenski never intended it to: rather, having staked out his positions on the main causes célèbres in Constantinian scholarship, he leaves the rest of his book to do the real work of conversion.

Lenski lays the groundwork in the subtly and rather brilliantly subversive Part 2, on petitions from cities and the responses they elicited from Constantine (here, at last, the cities promised in the title make their appearance). He begins with the famous inscription from Orcistus in Asia Minor that preserves the text of four documents: the petition of the Orcistans to receive civic status and become autonomous of their larger neighbor, Nacoleia; Constantine’s favorable response; and the two rescripts he issued in confirmation of his decision. Lenski plausibly argues that just as cities (perhaps including Nacoleia) had been encouraged by Maximin Daia to solicit imperial judgments unfavorable (even lethal) to Christians—to furnish the emperor with the pretext, via the traditional mechanism of petition and response, to proactively pursue his political and religious agenda—so too Constantine encouraged Christian communities to petition him, that he might ostentatiously reward his co-religionists by rendering judgments favorable to the Christian cause.

But while it was simple for Constantine and the Orcistans to collude in the emperor’s preferred ‘dominant’ or ‘hegemonic’ mode of pro-Christian discourse, Lenski’s Constantine proved equally adroit at exploiting traditional civic rivalries with non-Christian polities, in order to achieve ‘negotiated’ solutions that allowed him to make more incremental but nonetheless real progress toward Christianizing the empire. The prime example is Hispellum (Spello) in Umbria, the subject of Ch. 5, where another famous inscription records the petition of the Hispellates, late in Constantine’s reign (ca. 333-35), to be allowed to build a temple to the gens Flavia, to which Constantine—strangely, in the eyes of some past scholars— acceded. Lenski makes a strong case that what the Hispellates really wanted was more cultic autonomy from Volsinii (Bolsena), whose annual festival the priests of Hispellum had been compelled to attend since the amalgamation of Tuscia and Umbria under the Tetrarchs, requiring an arduous multiday journey through the Apennines. By granting the Hispellates’ petition to build a new center of imperial cult on their home soil only with the important caveat that no blood sacrifices (and perhaps some other rites besides, depending on one’s interpretation of contagiosa superstitio) be conducted in the new complex, Constantine struck a blow against one of the pillars of traditional religion even as he acquiesced to the Hispellates’ petition and honored them with traditional signs of imperial favor.

In Part 3, ‘reconstructing the cities,’ Lenski widens his purview to address Constantine’s systemic efforts to spread Christianity throughout his dominions, via the cities and the urban institutions that comprised the administrative (and political, and social, and intellectual) backbone of the empire. Constantine began the process of arrogating the material wealth, revenues, and estates of temples, and even some civic lands, to the res privata, from which he allocated vast sums to bishops across the empire, who used it to subsidize local clergy, nourish the poor, distribute patronage, and build churches. In a stroke, bishops surpassed city-councilors as leading local power-brokers, a process Constantine furthered with a remarkable series of concessions: he permitted bishops to adjudicate civil cases and to enforce their (un-appealable) decisions with the collaboration of imperial officials; to manumit slaves; and to use the cursus publicus on official church business; and all clerics were made immune from taxes and traditional civic munera. Constantine, in short, tweaked existing civic and administrative structures in ways calculated to make the church the leading player in cities across the empire, setting in motion a process that would unfold gradually, with innumerable local vicissitudes and setbacks, over the ensuing centuries.

Finally, in Part 4, Lenski turns to the limits of Constantine’s ability to effect change, as reflected both in his usual willingness to compromise with constituencies averse to his ‘dominant’ mode of Christian discourse, and his occasional and usually counterproductive recourse to outright violence or unilateral highhandedness in attempting to enforce orthodoxy, whether against adherents of traditional cult or against heterodox or dissenting Christian communities. The upshot here is that while Constantine was usually unable to impose his will as fully as he might have wished, especially in cities as complex and fractious as Alexandria and Antioch, and in strongholds of traditional religion like Baalbek, he was nearly always acting in ways calculated to hasten the advent of the Christian Roman oikumene over which he believed himself divinely appointed to preside.

I noted that Lenski’s approach is subtly, and rather brilliantly, subversive. In framing his monograph in terms of Constantine and cities, he has pulled off an intellectual bait-and-switch—we leave with considerably more than we came to get. Contrary to the promise of the title, this is neither a book about cities per se, nor, for the most part, about Constantine as a shaper of cities. It is, rather, the umpteenth book about Constantine and Christianity, by a crafty scholar who presumably realized that an umpteenth title to that effect would have provoked (at best) eye-rolls and cries of ‘another!?’ To the extent that cities feature prominently, it is because cities were the marrow of the Roman empire. If most of the audiences and constituencies Lenski shows us addressing and being addressed by Constantine are city-based (and some in fact are not), it is because cities were overwhelmingly where the important people whose petitions reached imperial ears/eyes—aristocrats and decurions, pagan priests and Christian bishops, writers and orators and intellectuals—lived and worked. Constantine was no more concerned with cities than his imperial predecessors or successors, nor were his policies and pronouncements targeted at urban milieus to any unusual extent. Like any Roman emperor anxious to shape attitudes and beliefs on an empire-wide level, Constantine addressed himself primarily to urban constituencies because these urban constituencies were what mattered.

By focusing on Constantine’s adroit manipulation of municipal politics, intercity rivalries, and the system of petition and response to further his own political and especially spiritual agenda, Lenski grinds a fine new lens through which to assess the character and priorities of this complex and confounding personality, insofar as they can be recovered and analyzed via the sum total of extant discourse created by, for, and about the man himself. His book convinces me more fully than any of its myriad predecessors that Constantine viewed himself as the prime mover in the Christianization of the Roman empire, and devoted himself to catalyzing this transformation as quickly and as completely as possible, albeit (usually) with an eye to respecting ancient traditions of compromise and consensus between ruler and subjects. Constantine recognized, as any emperor before him would have, and as Julian after him so clearly did, that the battle for the empire’s spiritual destiny required fighting on an urban battlefield. Once urbanites turned Christian, the pagani would eventually, inexorably, follow suit.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010