Book Review: Constantine and the Christian Empire

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by Charles Odahl

London & New York: Routledge, 2012. Pp. xxiv, 410. Illus., maps, stemma, chron., notes, biblio., index. $49.95 paper. ISBN: 041564514X

Constantine and His Empire

First published in 2004, in this new edition of his life of Constantine, Prof. Odahl (Oregon State) gives us a revised although by no means hagiographic work. Neither does Odahl depict Constantine as the hypocritical religious tyrant found in some other accounts. Odahl sets Constantine within his times, warts and merits alike. 

Odahl opens with an account of Constantine’s family background.  This includes a short life of his father Constantius and his mother Helena, who met when the former was a junior officer and the latter apparently a bar maid, and may never actually have been married. In the process we also get a quick schooling in the state of the empire and of imperial government in the period around the end of the third century.

Odahl then gives us an account of Constantine’s rise to imperial power during the “tetrarchy,” the period under Diocletian in which power was shared by four emperors, two senior and two junior. From the marginalized son of one the junior emperors, we see Constantine succeed his father as emperor, and then follow his struggles with three or four competing supposedly co-equal emperors, until he emerged as sole ruler.

Odahl covers Constantine’s continuation of the so-called “Diocletianic reforms”, as well as his own new initiatives in government and military institutions, and, of course, his conversion to Christianity. Although Constantine’s conversion is sometimes treated as opportunistic, in Odahl’s view it was perhaps more real than generally believed. 

Odahl also gives us a good look at Constantine’s building programs, including many edifices that still survive, includes a well done account of Helena’ pilgrimage to the Holy Land and her discovery of relics of Jesus, the disastrous family crisis that saw Constantine put to death his eldest son, and more. That more includes Constantine’s religious policy, and his efforts to get rival Christian sects to agree on basic principles which resulted in the Nicene Creed and gave us the canonical Bible, all accomplished, Odahl notes, with considerably less controversy than is usually depicted. 

A volume in the Routledge series “Roman Imperial Biographies, Constantine and the Christian Empire is a very good account of the life and works of one of the greatest of the Roman Emperors.

 

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Reviewer: A.A. Nofi, Review Editor   


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