BMCR 2005.09.57

Constantine and the Christian Empire

, Constantine and the Christian empire. Roman imperial biographies. London and New York: Routledge, 2004. xvii, 400 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0415174856. $105.00.

This is a most curious book. For this reason, I must address a number of oddities (at almost every level) before I examine the content.

It is obvious from details in the narrative that the author has a considerable grasp of the relevant ancient sources, and the ninety-two black and white photos come from the author’s own collection which he has amassed over a long period of interest — a thirty-year labor of love by an obvious admirer of Constantine. This should be, then, one of the most useful works on Constantine in recent years. Yet, it has serious limitations. The narrative avoids any discussion of debated matters. Further, the text is curiously sparse of references. Most paragraphs (some of which are very long) have one footnote reference — at the very end. Indeed, it is almost possible to count the number of paragraphs in a chapter by counting the number of footnotes. Even direct quotations are often not referenced.

Another curiosity is the arrangement of the bibliography. Almost every chapter has its own bibliography. Such an arrangement can be helpful, but it does mean that many works are listed several times. The real oddity of the bibliographies is that the works are not listed in alphabetical order; rather, the author informs us that “they have been organized topically and chronologically in accord with the subjects emphasized and the presentation employed in this book” (376). Thus, in the section titled “General studies on late antiquity and early Christianity,” Gibbon is listed first, before Lot, Jones, Downey, Brown, Cameron, Chadwick, Frend, Rousseau. Cadoux, Stauffer, Mattingly, Dodds, Markus and Lane Fox, all listed in the order I have given them here. This is an unnecessary and unhelpful arrangement. A further curiosity regarding the bibliography is how the sections correspond to the chapter divisions. There are thirteen sections of the bibliography; each corresponds in some way to the chapter divisions. Chapters 5, 8, 9, 11, and 12 have bibliographical sections with the same name as the chapter title. Several bibliographical sections have titles close to the titles of corresponding chapters, with no clear reason why the titles are not identical, given that the content largely covers the same material. For example, chapter 2 is titled “The Imperial Crisis and the Illyrian Emperors”, the corresponding bibliographical section: “The Imperial Crisis and Diocletian’s Tetrarchic Reforms”; chapter 4: “The Gallic Emperor and the Dying Persecutors” corresponding to “The Gallic Emperor and the Second Tetrarchy”; chapter 10: “The Final Campaign and the Emperor’s Heirs” corresponding to “The Final Campaigns and the Episcopal Struggles.” Other section differences may be more justifiable.

Such curiosities are not, as one might have suspected on first glance, necessitated by some exceptional set of circumstances that brought the book hastily to press. Rather, each feature is deliberately designed by the author to accommodate the primary audience that he has in mind. Odahl wants a wider audience than mere academics. He has written his book to be “both interesting and intelligible to the educated public as well as useful and challenging to fellow scholars.” It is a “reader friendly” book, “written in a lucid and understandable style.” The twelve chapters are for all readers; “curious and intelligent people who just want a ‘good read’ need not go beyond that” (ix). So the author says of his work.

How has this interest in a wide audience affected the book? Odahl claims that his book is “not littered with the arcane debates of scholars” (ix). That is only partially true. What Odahl should have said was that the narrative is free of any of the debates of scholars, whether arcane or not. That would not be a serious shortcoming were such debates adequately addressed in the footnotes. Unfortunately, only some debates are. Others are not, or are addressed in such an abbreviated form as to be misleading.

Odahl’s interest in keeping debate out of the narrative has sometimes caused him to paint a one-sided portrait. For example, with regard to Christian participation in the military, Odahl says: “Early Christians also interpreted the love ethic and pacific admonitions of Jesus as binding regulations for their lives …. they considered the profession of the soldier incompatible with the confession of Christ” (30-31). He then quotes Hippolytus and Tertullian, two of the most rigorous theologians of early Christianity and not always representative. Early Christians and the military is a more nuanced matter, and Odahl’s refers to secondary literature that is over fifty years old, with no reference to the modern debate. The works Odahl cites seem to be mainly those available at the time of the writing of his 1976 dissertation (296, n. 32).

In another place, Odahl seems to assume that classical paganism was failing to meet the needs of those seeking an “eternal spiritual afterlife” (21-30). The condition of paganism is much debated among scholars, and Odahl is certainly entitled to his position on the matter, although his readers surely have a right to expect some indication of the debate about the matter. Nothing of the debate is mentioned in the narrative, nor do the few footnotes for this section provide any indication of a debate. Ramsay MacMullen, who holds a view contrary to that expressed by Odahl here, is listed in the footnote as follows: “On the failure of paganism to meet private religious needs during this era, see: MacMullen …” (294, n. 23). Without look up MacMullen’s comments, one would think that MacMullen supports Odahl’s view here. Related to this, Odahl connects the decline in religious inscriptions in the third century to the anarchy of the times and the resulting loss of pagan respect for the power of the ancient gods (27). He makes no mention of MacMullen’s quite opposite conclusion that religious inscriptions declined at the same rate as all inscriptions, thus the decline in numbers should not be taken to indicate a decline in religious fervor. The kind of compact treatment of debates that Odahl provides often obscures the fact that there is a debate at all.

At times, the effort to keep the narrative free of clutter has resulted in error. For example, Odahl says: “The imperial courts and the military camps of Constantine were thus becoming openly Christian and were setting examples for the remainder of the Roman Empire” (173). Most scholars, however, would maintain that the army was not so quickly Christianized. In another place, Odahl refers to Constantine’s “specific actions clearly indicating that he henceforth expected Christianity to be accepted as the official religion of the Roman Empire” (185). While most scholars would agree that Christianity was clearly the religion of the imperial family, it is another matter to say that it was the official religion of the Empire.

Now to the body of the book. Of the twelve chapters, the first deals with the ancient evidence, both the literary and, more briefly, the material remains. The review is clear, and each piece of evidence is set in its context. Then follow four chapters (of about a hundred pages) that focus on the history of the Roman Empire during the imperial crisis of the third century, through the creation and succession of the Tetrarchy, to Constantine’s successful march on Rome. The middle two chapters (six and seven) deal more with religious matters, as well as the eastern crusade against Licinius. Then follow chapters on “The Dynastic Tragedy and Helena’s Pilgrimage,” “Imperial Concerns and Christian Constantinople,” “The Final Campaigns and the Emperor’s Heirs,” and “The Thirteenth Apostle and the Christian Empire,” covering typical issues of the Christian empire under Constantine. Chapter 12, “The Legacy and Modern Interpreters,” is an all too brief final chapter — four and a half pages, only two of which deal with modern interpreters.

The chapters cover the matters most biographies of Constantine are likely to cover. Where there is a possibility of an event tainting Constantine, Odahl offers explanations that help to make sense of Constantine’s actions and leave Constantine smelling a bit better than he does in many biographies. In many ways, Odahl replaces Eusebius as Constantine’s spin doctor for the modern age, and, on most of the issues, Constantine gets a fairer treatment than he had received from earlier historians, who has judged everything about Constantine from a political angle. Odahl’s more favorable presentation fits into the recent trend of more sympathetic biographies of Constantine, as Odahl recognizes. Odahl sees his work largely in agreement with Timothy Barnes’ books on Constantine ( The New Empire of Diocletian and Constantine and Constantine and Eusebius), but more comprehensive in that Barnes did not address certain matters (e.g., imperial symbols on coins, church building programs, imperial use of apocalyptic imagery) (283).

The problem in evaluating this book is determining whether the likely reader will be the reader for whom much of the book is designed: the general reader rather than the academic. The book’s high price tag (US $105) suggests the academic market, where libraries have resources or the mandate to purchase academic works; it does not seem to be the kind of volume most general readers are likely to purchase. Should the relatively informed general reader decide to engage the volume, however, the author’s design does indeed work: the reader will find quite an exciting story, filled with detailed description (from the intriguing to the gossipy). Odahl manages rather well to bring the various characters in the story to life and to sort out clearly the various relationships of the competitors in Constantine’s rise to power and the various military and political events of Constantine’s life. This is a narrative that is friendly both to the reader and to Constantine, and the volume can be recommended on that basis alone.

For the academic, the story is a little different. One cannot easily go from a detail in the narrative to the primary source from which the detail came. This is true often even for direct quotes. Probably the most useful parts of the book are the short but informative bibliographic essays on various issues, discussing both primary and secondary sources, for Odahl’s knowledge of the materials on Constantine is considerable. Yet even here, one encounters unnecessary frustration, for such notes appear in the footnotes, which unfortunately are not referenced in the index. A short Modern Authors Index of the footnote section would have helped considerably in this regard.

The dusk jacket calls this work “a landmark publication in Roman imperial, early Christian, and Byzantine imperial history.” It is unlikely to become that. It is a good read, but almost every element of novelty makes the book less than it could have been and almost every element designed to make it a good read has made it a frustrating reference-source. Unfortunate.