BMCR 2018.04.16

Constantine: Religious Faith and Imperial Policy

, Constantine: Religious Faith and Imperial Policy. London; New York: Routledge, 2017. 148. ISBN 9781472454133. $149.95.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

From 312 to 325, Constantine’s reign produced a flurry of important dates, long considered epoch-making. Consequently, the recent 1700 th anniversaries of these events (some still to come) has led to an outpouring of scholarly production on the “first Christian Roman emperor.”1 The volume under review follows this trend, by presenting the proceedings of a conference held in 2013 to commemorate the 1700 th anniversary of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge and the Edict of Milan that followed. The conference’s organizers are to be commended for assembling an impressive roster of Constantinian scholars (albeit all male), and for consciously tackling a topic of long-standing scholarly debate. Indeed, it has been customary to present any mention of the Milan pronouncement with the disparaging qualifier “so-called Edict of Milan.” Edward Siecienski, the volume’s editor, presents this tradition and its historiography in clear yet succinct fashion in his short introduction to the book as a whole.

The first part of the book contains two chapters dedicated to modern debates, with a special emphasis on Constantine’s religious policy. In the opening contribution, Hal Drake builds on his previous work to argue, based on evidence from the Edict of Milan and other, later texts, that Constantine was an inclusive type of Christian, and consequently the oft-assumed binary opposition between anti-Christian pagans and anti-pagan Christians is a false dichotomy. Instead, Drake’s Constantine learned from Diocletian’s example that coercion failed and that it was possible to accept Romans’ multi-faceted religiosity without requiring the worship of any specific divinity. Hence the vague language that has puzzled so many scholars, such as “divine Providence” and “Supreme Being.” Drake concludes by reminding us that this inclusiveness need not imply indifference to religious others or deviants. To the contrary, in the true sense of the word, Constantine was tolerant of religious difference because he despised the religious errors of pagans and “heretics,” but refused to use coercion against them for the sake of the empire’s unity (23).

In the second chapter, Noel Lenski vigorously defends the “Edict of Milan” as a formal edict. Against the skeptical tradition initiated by Otto Seeck, Lenski argues that Lactantius and Eusebius must have copied a lost, original document, a proper edict produced in Milan under Constantine’s aegis. Lenski’s argument rests upon a list of variations between Eusebius’ and Lactantius’ texts (tabulated at 39-40). Going further, Lenski writes that modern editors of both texts have tended to smooth over these differences, thereby obscuring them (40). The purpose of the edict was to end Maximinus Daia’s persecution and to restore properties confiscated from Christians during earlier persecutions (42). Lenski concludes by contrasting the philosophical principle of Galerius’ edict of 311, toleration ( indulgentia), with that of the Edict of Milan, religious freedom ( libertas religionis). He ascribes this notable change in religious policy to Lactantius’ influence, following recent scholarship on this point.

Raymond Van Dam opens part II, devoted to “historiography” in the traditional sense of textual evidence, by presenting speculative reflections on how our two main sources, Eusebius and Lactantius, obtained their information about the events surrounding the Milvian Bridge (59). For Van Dam, Eusebius read the “Edict of Milan” when it was published in the East during the summer of 313 and retroactively applied its view of Constantine as a Christian supporter to the account of 312 that he wrote (books 8-9 of his HE) shortly afterward. Van Dam favors the view that Eusebius would have used a “pagan” account as his main source of information for these events and added his own, Christian interpretation. On Lactantius, Van Dam speculates that he most likely moved to Trier before 310, used a pro-Maxentius account of the 312 events, that he wrote for an audience which could understand some Greek and focused on Eastern events and on Licinius, not Constantine. Incidentally, he also reminds us that Lactantius includes the only contemporary account of Constantine’s famous “vision” (68). Finally, Van Dam speculates (his word, at 71) that Eusebius and Lactantius were sources for, rather than about Constantine, and that they consequently influenced his thinking and his view of his own career when he told it to Eusebius and his fellow bishops later in life (71).

Because of his aura as the “first Christian Emperor,” Constantine seems to have escaped the harsh criticisms that contemporaries poured on his successors for similar religious policies. Mark Edwards surveys “pagan” perceptions of Constantine that had to be disguised “under a mocking incognito,” (75) successively looking at Palladas, Julian and his partisans (Libanius, Themistius and Eunapius), the Historia Augusta, Ammianus Marcellinus, On the Origin of Constantine (the first part of the Anonymus Valesianus), and Zosimus. He does not find the religious hostility or harsh criticisms grounded in religious polarity that some might expect. Instead, Edwards concludes, these writers bemoaned “his dividing the empire, or dissociating office that had hitherto been united,” as well as the “dissipation” caused by his plundering of the provinces for his new capital at Constantinople, over any religious complaint (88). In the end, however, it would seem that some of the evidence presented does not warrant such a categorical conclusion. In particular, accusations by Julian (about the murder of Crispus) and Libanius (against despoiling temples), in addition to some of Ammianus’ jibes, seem motivated by hostility toward Christians, and Constantine in particular. In light of the changing context between each writer, undoubtedly a more nuanced conclusion taking the individual circumstances of writing into account would have been appropriate. For example, should we expect Ammianus and Libanius, writing under the zealous Christian Theodosius, to openly criticize Constantine or Christians for taking treasures away from temples? Would it not be more plausible to assume that, if such jibes and criticisms had to be disguised under milder labels such as “dissipation,” there was a good reason for it?

In the third chapter of this section, David Potter analyzes “information communities” (the intended audience of the work as well as the group from which the information came from) from Constantine’s reign (91). This analysis allows us to see how Constantine’s message changed over time, how it was received, and substitutes the traditional religious perspective for a more instructive regional viewpoint. Potter’s first insight is that Eusebius’ Life is an “outlier,” for it did not seem to have any impact on parallel, contemporary traditions about Constantine (92). This allows him to present alternative, concurrent visions of Constantine from different areas of the Empire. Potter presents three such information communities: the Panegyrics produced in Trier in 310 and 313, another that underlies Zosimus’ account, and a third around Eusebius and his Life. The panegyrics reveal that there never was an official, court version of a religious conversion, but simply a “close connection with a god who brought him victory” (95). Zosimus is more remote from the event, and thus Potter dismisses his text as unhelpful to our detailed knowledge of events (99). Nevertheless, Zosimus’ text shows that the information disseminated following the first civil war with Licinius was not everywhere the same. Finally, Eusebius’ context was different, aimed at justifying Constantius II’s policies to contemporaries. Potter concludes that the first two information communities reveal what Constantine himself wanted contemporaries to know about him much more than Eusebius’ later “fiction” (106). Lactantius, however, seems to constitute an omission in this fascinating chapter.

The third part, on “legacy,” takes a look beyond Constantine’s reign to examine the image that he left to posterity. In the first chapter of this section, George Demacopoulos argues that Eusebius’ Life of Constantine constituted a turning point in the Christian vision of war and violence. For him, the violence of the cross was redeployed to express the “soteriological power of God” in conjunction with the earthly power of Constantine, thus producing the paradoxical notion of the cross as a tool of persecution for nonbelievers. Eusebius expresses the idea that both divine and temporal powers are united in the figure of Constantine, who ends violence done to Christians and “enables the rapid spread of Christianity through a strategic and divinely assisted application of violence through war” (118). Demacopoulos stops short of using the term “just war,” although it would have been interesting to explore the connections between these two ideas. This leads Eusebius to depict violence in positive ways when it benefits Christianity, by channeling the power of the Labarum. Going further, Eusebius legitimizes Constantine’s violence by depicting him as Moses (121 and 125, n. 1). Demacopoulos invokes early Byzantine hymns used to celebrate the Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross, which essentially depict the same integration of the use of violence to save Christians and persecute unbelievers, to support his argument that Eusebius spurred a long Christian vision of religious violence.

In the second chapter of this section, the final contribution of the volume, Peter Leithart examines Constantine’s political legacy during the medieval period. It is well known that Constantine became a model to follow for medieval rulers. But more specifically, Leithart asks, “what did it mean for a king to be a “new Constantine”?” and incidentally, “what did an educated person in ninth- century Byzantium or the Holy Roman Empire know about Constantine?” (130). Eusebius’ legendary portrait disappeared until the sixteenth century. By comparing Eusebius’ depiction with later (Western) texts, Leithart argues that piety is a key aspect that holds Eusebius’ biography together. For him, Eusebius’ Life presented an exemplar of imperial piety, by Christianizing the traditional concept of pietas as part of the author’s blending of Christian and Roman notions to make sense of the new political reality that followed Constantine’s reign (135-6). By contrast, later accounts such as the Acts of Sylvester focused on bishops and the pope as sources of piety and considered Constantine as pious because (in these texts) he submitted to their authority (138). In the end, medieval writers, such as the writer of the Donation of Constantine who emphasized the foundation of Constantinople only to underline the power of the Vatican in the West (140) or Cynewulf who, in Elene, deployed Helena’s founding of the True Cross as an incitement to venerate relics and thus display piety, tended to craft an image of Constantine that served their own purposes, to emphasize what their own view of piety meant, i.e., to obey bishops, clerics and popes, and to venerate holy relics.

As often with Constantine, this book focuses mainly on Eusebius. It would have been interesting to explore the same themes developed here about Eusebius in regard to Lactantius in a more systematic fashion, wherever possible. The volume is a good addition to recent scholarship on “religious faith and imperial policy,” although a conclusion highlighting the main lessons drawn from these multi-faceted studies would have been welcome. Its intended audience is mostly scholars and graduate students. Students of Eusebius, in particular, of late antique religious policy, textual representations of historical figures, in obvious addition to Constantine, should find ample food for thought in this interesting book.

Authors and titles

Foreword by Tom Papademetriou
A. Edward Siecienski, “Introduction”
Part I: Debates
H. A. Drake, “Constantine and Religious Extremism”
Noel Lenski, “The Significance of the Edict of Milan”
Part II: Historiography
Raymond Van Dam, “The Sources for Our Sources: Eusebius and Lactantius on Constantine in 312-13”
Mark Edwards, “Constantine in the Pagan Memory”
David Potter, “Writing Constantine”
Part III: Legacy
George E. Demacopoulos, “The Eusebian Valorization of Violence and Constantine’s Wars for God”
Peter J. Leithart, “Constantine the Pious”


1. See, e.g., V. Vachkova and D. Dimitrov (eds.), Serdica Edict (311 AD): Concepts and Realizations of the Idea of Religious Toleration (Sofia: Tangra, 2014); M. Wallraff (ed.), Religiöse Toleranz. 1700 Jahre nach dem Edit von Mailand (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016); M. S. Bjornlie (ed.), The Life and Legacy of Constantine: Traditions through the Ages (London; New York: Routledge, 2017).