BMCR 2006.04.03

Il battesimo di Costantino il Grande. Storia di una scomoda eredità. Hermes Einzelschrift 95

, Il battesimo di Costantino il Grande : storia di una scomoda eredità. Hermes. Einzelschriften ; Heft 95. Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 2005. 177 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3515087214 €34.00.

Scholarly interest in the emperor Constantine and his times continues, and understandably so because his reign was a turning-point in the history of western civilization. It seems, however, that in recent years this interest in the monarchy of the first Christian emperor has been increasing. In 2000 Hal Drake published his fascinating and much discussed Constantine and the Bishops. The Politics of Intolerance, followed in 2004 by Odahl’s monograph and Ross Holloway’s study on Constantine and the city of Rome. Only a few months ago a Cambridge Companion on Constantine and his age appeared, and there is presumably more to come in the form of conference proceedings and exhibition catalogues in the near future: it was exactly 1700 years ago that Constantine was proclaimed emperor in York by the troops of his deceased father, a good occasion for organising conferences and exhibitions.1 Apart from these recent major publications there is a mountain of articles and papers on all aspects of Constantine’s life and reign. His Christianity — and in particular the motives he may have had for promoting it — has provoked and will continue to provoke much discussion. Constantine’s dream and vision before the battle at the Milvian Bridge (28 October 312), which, according to the ancient Christian sources, prompted him to convert and acknowledge the Christian god as the one and only god, is a much-debated subject. Much less discussed is Constantine’s baptism shortly before he died on 22 May 337.2 A.’s book is dedicated to this latter event.

There are two main versions of Constantine’s baptism: an eastern one described by Eusebius in his Vita Constantini 4.61-64, and a western one, known as the Conversio Constantini and included in the Actus Sylvestri. A.’s aim is to present an analysis of the sources that refer to Constantine’s baptism and to put both versions and their variants in their historical context. The book consists of three parts: 1. Constantines baptism as described in Eusebius’ VC; 2. Constantines baptism as an element in late-antique doctrinal discussions; 3. the repudiation of the Eusebian version and its replacement by that in the Actus Sylvestri. In part 1 A. sketches the background to Constantine and his conversion, and the reception of the VC in the fourth century before discussing the account of Constantine’s baptism in the VC. According to Eusebius, after he first fell ill, shortly after Easter of 377, Constantine left Constantinople to make use of the hot baths at the outskirts of his city; from there he went to Helenopolis where he offered supplicatory prayers and petitions to God at the shrine of the martyrs, and thinking he was about to die, announced his intention to seek baptism. He then went to Nicomedia and in the suburbs of that city — he probably stayed the suburban imperial villa Achyron3 — the emperor received baptism and shortly after died. A. discusses the Eusebian account in detail, comparing it to other primary sources which refer to the Constantine’s last days (mainly the fifth-century church historians) and to secondary scholarly literature on the subject. A. examines matters such as the character of Constantine’s baptism (which she calls a “battesimo clinico,” p. 44) and its liturgical aspects,4 the emperor’s wish to be baptised in the Jordan (which A. considers an authentic wish rather than a rhetorical device by Eusebius) and the practice of baptism shortly before death. Eusebius does not mention the bishop who baptised him. Jerome ( Chron. a. 337), at the end of the fourth century, is the first to mention that Constantine had been baptized by Eusebius, the Arian bishop of Nicomedia, information that is generally considered reliable by modern scholars. It is often argued that Eusebius omitted mention of his namesake to avoid the scandal that Constantine was baptised at the hands of an Arian. Of more importance, however, is that Eusebius — and A. emphasizes this point (pp. 38 ff.) — focused only on the person of Constantine and generally suppressed the names of others, especially when describing Constantine’s baptism because this was the conclusion of a personal process of conversion.

In the second part A. deals with the later sources that discuss the last days of Constantine. e.g., Jerome, Ambrose, Rufinus, Sulpicius Severus, Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret. Most of these authors do not mention Constantine’s baptism. According to A. they are silent about this event because they wanted to present an orthodox emperor who remained faithful to the Nicene creed. Baptism by an Arian bishop would not fit into that picture. The only exception is Jerome, who accused Constantine of being an Arian.

I am not quite convinced by A.’s argument that mention of Constantine’s baptism was suppressed deliberately by these sources. It seems that the event in general did not receive much attention or raise much interest after Eusebius, and apparently Jerome’s information that the emperor was baptized by Eusebius of Nicomedia did not have much impact or simply was not believed. It might therefore be that for contemporary writers the heritage of Constantine’s heretical baptism was not as awkward as A. presents it (cf. “scomoda eredità” in the title of the book). It was only in the third quarter of the fifth century that the matter was referred to again, in this case by Gelasius of Cyzicus, who explicitly states that Constantine was baptized by an orthodox and not by a heretic (Photius, Bibl. cod. 88).

However, by that time the second version of Constantine’s baptism had probably already emerged (at least orally), which is the subject of the third part of A’.s book. The earliest testimony of Constantine’s baptism by Sylvester can be traced to the Syriac homily by Jacob of Sarug from around 500. However, the Actus Sylvestri of which the Conversio Constantini is part, had a western origin. Conversion and baptism are one event in the Actus Sylvestri and happen at the same time, whereas Eusebius distinguishes between the two both in time and place: Constantine’s choice for Christianity took place in 312 at Rome and the rest of his life can be seen as a process of gradual conversion ultimately culminating in baptism in Nicomedia. A. argues that the Conversio Constantini may have originated in response to the pagan versions of Constantine’s conversion, in which Constantine converted to Christianity because it was the only religion that would grant him absolution for the murders of his son and wife. That may be so, although A. dates the origin of the account rather early (between the last decade of the fourth and the mid-fifth century). However, the wish for a western counterpart to the eastern Nicomedian version of Constantine’s baptism — comparable to the desire in the Greek east to have its own version of the visio Constantini — was probably significant. Even more important, though, for the origin of the Conversio Constantini was a political reason: the account yielded immense status and prestige for the city and bishop of Rome, not only in the Latin west but also vis-a-vis the rising status of Constantinople, the new Rome. A. deals with this aspect (pp. 112 ff.) but she could have emphasised it more. The Conversio Constantini gradually replaced the Nicomedian account of Constantine’s baptism. A Greek version of it was included in the acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787), and in the ninth century Theophanes called the Conversio Constantini the authentic account of Constantine’s baptism ( Chron. AM 5814).

The book concludes with two appendices: the first one on the Persian expedition, which is closely linked to Constantine’s last days, baptism and death, and the second one on the baptism of other fourth-century emperors. There is an index of names and places, and a quite long but useful bibliography of some thirty pages which includes all the important literature on Constantine of the last 100 years or so.

The strength of this book is that it offers a useful survey of the sources on Constantine’s baptism. In her discussion and analysis A. keeps close to these sources. She pays little attention to the rhetorical and political aspects of Eusebius’ account but approaches it predominantly as a historically reliable report. The political implications and consequences of the origin and distribution of the Conversio Constantini deserve more discussion than she gives it, because it is these aspects that make these texts so fascinating. The book could have done with fewer typographical errors (e.g., Fodwen instead of Fowden, Burchkardt instead of Burckhardt). Nevertheless, the book gives insight into the various texts on Constantine’s baptism and it will undoubtedly find its way into scholarly libraries.


1. H.A. Drake, Constantine and the Bishops. The Politics of Intolerance (Baltimore 2000); C.M. Odahl, Constantine and the Christian Empire (London 2004); R. Ross Holloway, Constantine and Rome (New Haven 2004); N. Lenski (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine (Cambridge 2006); Elizabeth Hartley et al. (eds.), Constantine the Great. York’s Roman Emperor, Exhibition Catalogue (York 2006).

2. Before the appearance of A.’s book the main major study on the subject was F.J. Dölger, “Die Taufe Konstantins und ihre Probleme”, Römische Quartalschrift, Suppl. 19 (Freiburg 1913) 377-477. See also Garth Fowden, “The Last Days of Constantine: Oppositional Versions and Their Influence”, JRS 84 (1994) 146-170.

3. R.W. Burgess, ” Ἀχυρών or Προαστείον ? The Location and Circumstances of Constantine’s Death”, JTS ns 50 (1999) 153-161.

4. For which see perhaps rather E.J. Yarnold, “The Baptism of Constantine”, Studia Patristica 26 (1993) 95-101.