Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.05.11 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.05.11

H. A. Drake, A Century of Miracles: Christians, Pagans, Jews, and the Supernatural, 312-410.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. xvi, 312.  ISBN 9780199367412.  $35.00.  

Reviewed by Michael Stuart Williams, Maynooth University (


This book by H. A. Drake is aimed at a semi-popular audience, and is a showcase for his most valuable qualities: an engaging style, a patient awareness of the complexity of the evidence, and a desire to recapture the human element of late-antique Christian belief. It will appeal to anyone wanting to know why fourth-century Christianity is worth studying. Drake does an excellent job of showing how Christianity was remade in this period by the pressures of imperial and episcopal politics. His focus is on a particular Christian rhetoric of legitimation which explained the achievements of Constantine and his successors by the interest of God in their affairs; which permitted the apostate emperor Julian to be written off in hindsight as no significant threat; and which proffered the minor miracles performed by ascetics as proof of God’s presence in the world. But it is not strictly a book about miracles; and for me it fails to capture what is distinctive about miracles in the fourth century.

Drake fixes on two famous occasions in the fourth century CE: the vision preceding the Emperor Constantine’s victory at the Milvian Bridge in 312, and the mighty wind that aided Theodosius I at the battle of the Frigidus in 394. In the decades between them Drake identifies a developing discourse of miracles, in which Christians represented their God as intervening in the cause of a Christian empire. And he complicates this picture with two instances in which an intervention might have been expected and never came: the brief reign of Julian, which seemed for a while to jeopardise the Christian triumph; and Alaric’s Sack of Rome in 410, which seemed to show Christianity endangering the empire. Drake argues that over the course of this century, Christians—especially bishops—became adept at advertising their successes, while minimising and explaining away their defeats. Directing our attention away from miracles and instead to the stories told about them, Drake shows us Christians seizing control of the narrative, to reveal how ‘groups once considered extreme manage to capture control of a movement’ (23).

The modern political resonances here do not make it beyond the subtext. But there is a vision of politics and religion, and one which Drake has set out before. Passing over (for now) his opening chapter, he deals in reverse order with his two major miracles. Chapter 2, ‘Theodosius’s Miracle’, justifies this by identifying a discontinuity between them: the events of the Frigidus were not a reiteration and consolidation of the events of the Milvian Bridge, but set Christianity on a different path. Despite Theodosius’s opponent Eugenius being most likely a moderate Christian, the story as told the following year by Ambrose of Milan made the battle into a victory, reinforced by a miracle, for Christianity over pagan resistance. This, for Drake, amounted to the deliberate imposition of a partisan agenda: ‘the final victory of coercive Christians over their more moderate brethren’ (31).

I am largely persuaded by Drake’s view that Christianity is not inherently intolerant: it was just drawn that way, by wicked ecclesiastics. He is right that we have no strong reason to presume that, ‘if he could, Constantine would have imposed orthodoxy as ruthlessly as did Theodosius’ (49); and he sharply observes that belief in inherent intolerance has meant that, to defend the ‘sincerity’ of Constantine’s Christianity, ‘scholars have had to insist that he persecuted whenever he could’ (50). And yet, I worry that in place of this simplistic image he offers an alternative which is equally unreal: of Constantine the sincere advocate of tolerance frustrated by his advisers. The emperor is then a Kennedy or an Obama, an idealised leader whose putative vision is undone by political reality.

This does not make it false, and Drake can back up his idea of a tolerant Constantine. He is good on why Constantine might have converted to Christianity in the first place: essentially, that Diocletian’s association with traditional divinities necessarily excluded the Christians, whereas embracing them might bring them on board without alienating the rest. And he plausibly reads Constantine’s Oration to the Saints as a manifesto for toleration. But Drake only briefly discusses the emperor’s ineffective interventions at the Council of Nicaea, and in the Donatist controversy. In both cases the bishops continued the argument, and this must have made clear to Constantine the limitations of his approach. He was surely enough of a politician to realise that compromise worked only up to a point; and as emperor he was distinctly unafraid to crush his enemies when the opportunity arose. A truly Constantinian Christianity might have been better than what we ended up with. But I am not inclined to trust emperors much more than bishops.

Chapters 3 (‘Constantine’s Miracle’) and 4 (‘Miracle Doctors’) see Drake make his case for what Constantine had in mind for his miracle, and what others made of it. The vision of a cross in the sky is accepted, following Peter Weiss, as a solar halo: proof of divine support, but otherwise deliberately ambiguous. Eusebius of Caesarea is then found collapsing these productive uncertainties: his account of the vision is glossed in a dream and then interpreted by Christian bishops. They thus took control of the narrative from Constantine, in particular stripping away ‘his belief in his special standing with their God’ (75). From here it is a direct line to Ambrose’s domineering relationship with Theodosius and the other emperors of his day, a trajectory illuminated in Chapter 5 (‘The Miracle of the Cross’) by Ambrose’s account—in the same oration in which he reported the miracle at the Frigidus—of the discovery of the True Cross by Constantine’s mother, Helena. The reining-in of the emperor’s power in such stories was literalised as Helena is seen making the nails into a bridle for her son.

But the next few chapters are something of a miscellany. Chapter 6 (‘Jews in Miracles’) takes off from the later Legend of the Cross to show that popular miracle stories could solidify the often porous boundaries between Jews and Christians: a phenomenon traceable to the fourth century, but not at that stage having much to do with miracles. Chapter 7 (‘Miracle in the Desert’) seems eager to downplay the miracles of desert ascetics as reported in hagiography, as ‘simply by-products of a program designed to train the individual to be indifferent to the troubles of this world and thereby to become worthy of life in the next’ (136). Athanasius’s Life of Antony is Drake’s focus, and that text does indeed emphasise discipline and offers few miracles beyond clairvoyance, cures, and demonic combat. But the more vulgar displays of power on offer in other hagiographies are largely ignored.

Actual miracles are marginal too in Chapters 8 (‘Miracles on Trial’) and 9 (‘Failed Miracles’), on the emperor Julian. Both Julian and his Christian opponents found significance in various key moments of his reign: in his bloodless accession and his undignified death; and in his ultimately unsuccessful effort to defy Christian prophecy by rebuilding the Jewish Temple. But nothing seems really miraculous here: it is the common currency of omens and portents, and what Drake calls in a separate discussion of the Altar of Victory crisis the ‘shared belief in the regular intervention of a deity in human affairs’ (178). He immediately equates this to ‘miracle language’, but it is nothing new or specifically Christian. And while it certainly had the ironic effect of polarising religious allegiances, it makes miracles out of any event—even the wholly mundane and explicable, like Julian’s death—which could be given some special significance.

This is a problem for Drake’s big finish, which detects a crisis for Christian miracle discourse in the Sack of Rome in 410. This was hard to explain away, and so Augustine’s City of God offered a new orthodoxy in which imperial successes and failures were no longer unambiguous evidence of divine intervention. Augustine allowed that miracles might still occur, but (as Drake puts it) ‘they say nothing about the fate of nations’ (217). But few of the miracles in Drake’s later chapters would seem to fall into this category, despite his assertion that he has dealt with ‘one particular type of miracle: the battlefield miracle that promised victory in return for pious behaviour’ (222); later redescribed as a ‘string of game- changing miracles’ (228) across the fourth century. I see only one game-changer: Constantine’s vision before the Milvian Bridge. The rest, even the adverse weather event at the Frigidus, are both less impressive and less consequential. As a result, it is not clear what Augustine is meant to be ruling out in his new regime. The issue, I think, is one that Drake shows himself aware of from the beginning. His introduction is unexpectedly combative, if not (I suspect) entirely straight-faced: ‘Historians’ (he writes) ‘have an uncomfortable relationship with miracles and a problem with the Truth’ (2). It is a discomfort he cannot quite do away with.

His solution, as seen in his opening chapter (‘Historians and the Miraculous’), is to focus on the stories and not on the miracles themselves: ‘Did any of the miracles in this book actually occur? Don’t ask me; I am just a historian’ (9). But miracles are more than their meanings. A miracle story makes a precise historical claim: that this inexplicable thing really happened. It must be more than merely unusual: it cannot be explained away. A miracle must demand a supernatural explanation. This is why Eusebius’s account of Constantine’s vision is the one that matters. Lactantius records only a dream, and the ‘pagan vision’ takes place in a temple. In place of these inaccessibly private experiences, Eusebius has the whole army present for a vision which is not just a trick of the light, but even comes with a helpful caption: ‘by this conquer’. Its significance is not in its subsequent elaborations, but in the fact that the event is impossible. This is what makes it such compelling evidence of divine intervention.

This is how Christian miracles conventionally worked, as in the famous slogan derived from Tertullian: credo quia absurdum. The vision of Constantine loses its value if it is only a solar halo, just as the Resurrection cannot rightly be reduced to a conjuring trick with bones. These manifest miracles are what Augustine found dangerous, and what he rules out in the City of God. And Drake makes a fatal misstep at the start with his hypothetical example of a miracle: a modern woman who makes an unexpected recovery from a terminal illness. This is a mystery rather than a miracle: it permits of a rational explanation. But the real show-stoppers of the fourth century do not fall into this category. Antony’s combat with demons and his healing miracles would not give Augustine pause; but we may look instead to his disciple Hilarion’s stopping a tidal wave in its tracks. True or not, what the storyteller demanded was that you believe that this really happened. Christians who wanted to recruit new followers did not rely on the persuasiveness of interpretations alone. They considered themselves entitled not only to their own opinions, but to their own facts.

Fake news of this sort is no doubt anathema to the conscientious historian. Drake is too often too reasonable to give it the weight I believe it deserves. But his book nonetheless gives an insightful and engaging account of the development of Christian ideology across the fourth century, and is probably all the better for sidelining the doctrinal controversies that might otherwise bog down the narrative. There are plentiful insights and neat turns of phrase, and helpful illustrations including a stunning photograph (sourced from Wikimedia Commons) of a real solar halo. Drake tells his stories with a touch of humour, and he is quite right not to believe them. But for me his century of miracles is just not absurd or excessive enough, and so I cannot bring myself to believe in it.

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