BMCR 2000.10.10

Constantine and the Bishops. The Politics of Intolerance

, , Constantine and the bishops : the politics of intolerance. Ancient society and history. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. xx, 609 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0801862183 $68.00.

“The man with a stiff neck.” Already during the fourth century, everyone seemed to have an opinion about the emperor Constantine. This one supposedly represented a popular tradition, as recorded by the Epitome de Caesaribus. “He preferred to use mockery rather than flattery. As a result, according to a popular saying he was known as ‘Trachala.'” The author of this Epitome then went on to evaluate the emperor and divide his reign into representative periods. “For [the first] ten years [of his reign] he was truly extraordinary. For the next twelve years he was a bandit. For the last ten years he was a little boy, because of his unrestrained generosity.” These characterizations of the emperor and the corresponding divisions of his reign hardly appear in modern studies, and certainly not as any sort of interpretive framework. The reactions of Christians have drowned them out. In their gratitude for Constantine’s support they preferred to call him “angel” and “friend of God.”

For modern scholars, too, interpreting Constantine remains an important enterprise. Also a contentious enterprise. Opinions about the significance of his reign affect our understanding of the mission and expansion of Christianity. If Christianity was already widespread and prominent in imperial society, then the appearance of a Christian emperor represented the culmination of a long process. In contrast, if Christianity was still a small and insignificant sect, then Constantine’s patronage for Christianity was unexpected, and his support was decisive for initiating the rise of bishops and the demise of paganism. Constantine’s own beliefs have likewise long been a debatable issue. Some modern scholars emphasize that he had become a Christian even before his famous vision at Rome in 312, and that he was consistently loyal to his Christian beliefs. Others question the sincerity and depth of his commitment by stressing his apparent concessions to pagan cults, even late in his reign. Yet another contested topic is the interpretation of the sources. The most influential of Constantine’s contemporary interpreters was, of course, Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, who was as innovative as a historian as Constantine was as an emperor. Eusebius had to invent a format for writing a history of the church, and he had no antecedents for writing the life of a Christian emperor. Some modern scholars have marveled at his accuracy in reproducing documents, although others have scorned him as dishonest for the selectivity of his information and his flattery of the emperor. Constantine’s reign stands at the center of a second Roman revolution, which had as many dimensions as the original revolution under Augustus. It included a social revolution, with the transformation of Roman society into a Christian Roman society, a psychological revolution, as the idioms of conversion and orthodoxy provided a new language for articulating notions of self and others, and a historiographical revolution, as narratives of ecclesiastical history began to replace narratives of imperial history.

One prominent interpreter of Constantine and Eusebius during the past twenty-five years has been H. A. Drake. His most important earlier publication is In Praise of Constantine. A Historical Study and New Translation of Eusebius’ Tricennial Orations (1976). We modern ancient historians should have a special place in our hearts for the historian Eusebius, since he often seems so like us: he was obsessive about chronology, he cited original documents, and he sometimes slipped into a truly obscure prose style. Panegyrics brought out the prolix worst in Eusebius’ style, and Drake’s translations and commentaries were very helpful in understanding two of his fulsome orations, one nominally about the new Church of the Holy Sepulcher dedicated at Jerusalem in 335, the other commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of Constantine’s accession in 336. In that book Drake had already begun to present some wider interpretations of Constantine’s reign. He suggested the possibility of distinguishing Constantine’s religious policies from his personal beliefs, and he stressed that the emperor was consistently hoping to find a consensus, even with pagans and heretics: “belief and policy in Constantine were compatible, but not identical” (p. 63).

Drake’s new book, Constantine and the Bishops. The Politics of Intolerance, now extends this distinction between belief and policy by providing an overtly political interpretation of Constantine’s reign. One of its goals is to study the considerable political skills that enabled Constantine to accomplish his objectives. “Politics is…the art of getting things done. It is the art of winning agreement, of mobilizing support, of gaining consensus” (p. xvi). The other main goal of the book is to explain the rise of intolerance within Christianity and the consequent use of state power to enforce Christian beliefs. “In this process, the bishops were pivotal characters” (p. 30). Drake’s book is hence a self-conscious interpretation, to be contrasted with the concern of T. D. Barnes “to establish the basic framework first.” Barnes supplemented his Constantine and Eusebius (1981) with a companion volume, The New Empire of Diocletian and Constantine (1982), that he described as setting out the basic factual framework. Drake pointedly declines to study problems of prosopography, inscriptions, and chronology, and, despite its length, he characterizes his book as a sketch (p. xvii). Drake is hence interested in interpreting the relationship, the diplomacy or negotiation, between a politically shrewd emperor and militant bishops. Constantine “the artful negotiator, patient consensus builder, and ardent judicial reformer” (p. 357) eventually crashes up against impatient and aggressive bishops. This book provides an analysis of the causes, origins, and nature of Christian coercion in which increasingly powerful bishops eventually seized the initiative.

Drake’s book takes its time getting to Constantine. Chapter 2 surveys the interactions among emperors, senate, and army in the early empire, and emphasizes the need for emperors to balance the support of various constituencies. Chapter 3 surveys the nature of early Christianity and concludes that Christian communities became dominant enough to catapult their bishops into prominence. By the end of the third century bishops were powerful enough that emperors had to consider negotiating for their support too. Chapter 4 surveys the changes of the later third century. According to Drake, the persecutions of Christians under the Tetrarchs and their immediate successors were due to advocates of a “hard-line paganism.” The failure of these persecutions was beneficial to the rise of Christianity, because “this approach to Christian-pagan relations was now thoroughly discredited” (p. 153). Chapter 5 surveys Constantine’s early rise to power. Diocletian’s plans for imperial succession had excluded Constantine, the son of an original Tetrarch, and the policy of persecuting Christians had been shown up as ineffective. After his accession in 306 Constantine was looking for religious legitimization as an emperor and “a more flexible and imaginative approach” (p. 157) to dealing with Christians. His vision of the cross in 312 provided him with both. “He was casting around … not only for a god in whom to believe but a policy that he could adopt” (p. 191). Drake is therefore unconcerned about the sincerity of the emperor’s religious convictions in and after 312: “it is better to situate Constantine’s religious development in the context of contemporary power politics and political thought” (p. 191). For Constantine, acquiring the support of a Christian constituency was more consequential than accepting Christian beliefs.

The core of the book is Chapters 6-9. In Chapter 6, Drake discusses how Constantine tried to consolidate support during the years after his victory at Rome in 312. The key was religion, although not necessarily Christianity. Rather than trying to compel allegiance to a particular cult, Constantine conceded a freedom to choose. In the so- called Edict of Milan, he and his fellow emperor Licinius referred only to a “supreme divinity.” On a triumphal arch at Rome Constantine attributed his success only to the “prompting of a divinity.” By linking his rule merely with a generic divinity, Constantine hoped that Christians and pagans could reach an accommodation. Vague language was one tactic: “the ambiguity was intentional” (p. 204). Another was a refusal to resort to coercion. Even when dealing with the Donatists in North Africa, Constantine preferred to summon councils of bishops. In Chapter 7, Drake considers Constantine’s involvement in the theological controversy over Arianism that he inherited upon his conquest of the eastern empire in 324. In his letter to bishop Alexander of Alexandria and the priest Arius the emperor indicated that he was less interested in the theological details and more in unity, first within Christianity, then within the entire empire. At the council of Nicaea he was able to convince almost everyone to endorse his preferred creed. After the council he continued to support bishops who were willing to compromise for the sake of unity. “Constantine was playing the game of consensus politics” (p. 265).

In Chapter 8, Drake discusses how Constantine tried to promote his message of unity, inclusiveness, and noncoercion. In order to compete with bishops’ sermons, the emperor delivered his own public orations. The one extant example is Constantine’s oration entitled “To the Assembly of Saints.” This oration included “a passionate argument for a sophisticated religious policy of pluralism and toleration” (p. 298). In Chapter 9, Drake evaluates the growing imbalance between Constantine’s perspective and the outlook of bishops. The emperor’s reliance on bishops had a downside. In order to speed up the administration of justice, Constantine enhanced the powers of bishops’ courts. According to Drake, the imperial edicts outling these new powers represented social activism. “Constantine was not concerned with the power of the bishop or of the church but with the administration of justice (p. 327).” But to get bishops to participate in this onerous task, Constantine had to indulge in “an act of political horse trading” (p. 348). The trade-off was legislation against heretics, as defined by bishops: “the same Constantine who had won control of the message so brilliantly lost control of his agenda” (p. 351). By agreeing to take on these judicial functions, bishops had acquired leverage over the emperor. “This growing strength of the bishops was an unintended consequence of Constantine’s policies” (p. 467).

In Chapters 10-11, bishops gradually acquire more influence over emperors. One means of doing so was by acquiring control over the narrative of Constantine’s life. In Chapter 10, Drake discusses Eusebius and his biography of the emperor. Constantine had tried, through purposeful ambiguity, to appeal to everyone, both pagans and Christians of different doctrinal persuasions. Eusebius now imposed a much more narrow perspective in his vision of an ideal Christian emperor. In particular, he highlighted the role of bishops in evaluating the emperor’s behavior. Bishops had explained the emperor’s vision of the cross to him, and Constantine had even used bishops as a model for himself, “a bishop of those outside.” Eusebius simply discarded Constantine’s dream of inclusion: “his ideal emperor … had no policy but a Christian one” (p. 392). Another means for bishops to enhance their power was through reliance upon the support of their local congregations. In Chapter 11, Drake discusses some of the consequences. One was a rise in the employment of coercive force against outsiders. Christian communities first used violence against heretics, then against pagans. “Heretics … taught Christians the coercive habit” (p. 416). Militant Christians, among them bishops and monks, could now assert a rhetoric of violence that Constantine had tried to suppress.

The numerous quotations in this summary are meant to help those readers who do not have the interest or patience to read all of the book and extract the basic argument. Yet even though the presentation is a bit languid, the book’s argument is important. Drake in fact suggests a wider objective too. He consistently tries to maintain a distinction not just between personal beliefs and public policies, but also more generally between religion and politics: “whereas intolerance may be a theological problem, coercion is a political one” (p. 465). The use of coercion was a choice, a result of historical contingencies and not a necessary outcome. Drake hence allows himself numerous comparisons with studies of modern politics and modern policy making. He also suggests that by studying these contingencies, it might be possible for us to control “those violent tempers that are ever present in our midst” (p. xvi). In Drake’s perspective, this is as much a book about hatred and prejudice and the use of violence in general as it is about the rise specifically of Christian coercion.

This book’s argument about Constantine and the fourth century will of course be contested, in particular with regard to the true motivations behind the emperor’s writings and decisions and the postulated preference of bishops for the use of coercion. In fact, alternative interpretations are already available in other recent books about Constantine. During the past twenty years by far the most influential book on Constantine has been T. D. Barnes’ Constantine and Eusebius. Barnes provided a much more overtly religious interpretation of Constantine and his reign, and he claimed that Constantine was consistently true to his Christian beliefs from 312, if not earlier. “The apparent ambiguity of his religious attitudes is a sign of caution, not of doubt or hesitation in his own mind” (p. 48). Barnes’ Constantine hence took the initiative in pushing through “a religious reformation” (p. 255). In The Christianity of Constantine the Great (1996) T. G. Elliott presented a Constantine who had become a Christian already during the persecutions under the Tetrarchs. His Constantine was not simply a ruthless politician or a political opportunist. “He was throughout his imperial career a man with a mission” (p. 328). In these books, Constantine rather than the bishops provides much of the impetus.

The reign of Constantine obviously had many facets, and it is difficult for a single study to reflect them all. In this book, too, Drake’s emphasis on Constantine the consensus builder has led him to omit or minimize other aspects of Constantine. Constantine the dreamer is lost. In addition to his visions of Apollo in Gaul and of the cross outside Rome Constantine had many other visions, and he in fact waited for a vision before making any decisions (Eusebius, Vita 2.12.2). Constantine the builder has disappeared. Constantine littered Rome with both churches and gigantic monuments commemorating his own achievements. New Rome, Constantinople, became virtually a theme park to his memory. And then there was Constantine the historian. Constantine would belittle the achievements of earlier emperors by dismissing them in pithy characterizations, Augustus as a “plaything of fortune,” Trajan as “wall ivy” (for putting his name on so many public buildings), Marcus Aurelius as a “clown.” The temptation to find a single key to Constantine’s policies, the thread of consistency that would motivate him throughout his reign, is sometimes overwhelming. Constantine may have been able to reduce some of his imperial predecessors to brief characterizations, but it is unlikely he could have done the same for himself. The author of the Epitome was more perceptive in realizing that throughout his reign Constantine had repeatedly reinvented himself.