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Constantine and the Cities: Imperial Authority and Civic Politics, by Noel Lenski

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. Pp. x, 404. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $79.95. ISBN: 0812247779.

Constantine and the Exercise of Imperial Power

Noel Lenski’s Constantine and the Cities is the latest contribution to the continuing scholarly debate regarding the true nature of the emperor Constantine, the sincerity of his conversion to the Christian religion, and the role he wished to play in the history of the faith.

Lenski begins by briefly discussing the ancient sources for Constantine, noting that he became a controversial figure within a generation after his death. Not surprisingly, pagan – and even some Christian – authors denigrated the man’s talents, personal integrity, and true motives for adopting the Christian faith, while sympathetic Christian writers took pains to defend him against the more scurrilous charges. Lenski then follows with a summary of modern scholarly opinion about the first Christian emperor. This covers a wide range of differing interpretations, doubtless reflecting the contradictory images presented in our sources. Lenski then summarizes the historiography of Constantine by noting that:

“The variety of Constantines that came into being in the immediate aftermath of his death and then proliferated into the Middle Ages and beyond shows no signs of diminishing, qualitatively or quantitatively. Constantine simply does not present a single face, a single clear impression.”

The confusion was further compounded by Constantine himself who, over the course of his long career, recalibrated his public image multiple times in accordance with the evolving political and religious situation.

Rather than try to uncover an essential Constantine, Lenski sets out to present a composite image of the man by avoiding the ‘pursuit of fixity’ and instead considers Constantine within the context of “reception theory.”

This holds that historical meaning is determined by interaction and negotiation between the creator of a particular message and the intended audience. The recipients of an official communication play an active role in its interpretation and thus contribute to its historic meaning. These interpretations also vary depending upon the perspective, interests, and religious outlook of the particular group of recipients, resulting in a multiplicity of meanings which, over time, would have narrowed.

In this regard, Lenski views the emperor’s political career through the point of view of the cities of the Roman empire and how they interpreted and responded to Constantine’s messages to protect their interests. Lenski assembles a representative selection of the inscriptions, coins, laws, petitions and responses, confiscations, letters, public orations, and sponsored church constructions to show, at the local level, what religious messages the emperor Constantine was sending to the subjects of his empire at various times in his career and what they understood him to be saying. Lenski covers all this material in a series of chapters that address the various media, and the political and religious constituencies of the Roman world.

From this, Lenski concludes that Constantine’s overall intention was to use the power and resources of the imperial office to steer his subjects in the direction of conversion towards his newly adopted faith while maintaining a limited degree of ‘pragmatic tolerance’ for the traditional religions, which was politically expedient given that Christians initially constituted no more than a small minority among the empire’s citizens at the beginning of the fourth century, and, despite some growth, would remain so over the course of Constantine’s career.

Constantine and the Cities is a very valuable tome for those interested in the nature of religious transformation in the fourth century world, and the role of government in this change, as it collects the disparate and conflicting messages found in Constantine’s official pronouncements and arranges them diachronically in accordance with the changing objectives of Constantine’s propaganda, thus allowing us to trace the evolution of Constantine’s public image over time.

Constantine and the Cities, a volume in the University of Pennsylvania’s “Empire and After” series, edited by Clifford Ando, is indispensable for any serious student of the historiography of Constantine.

Note: Constantine and the Cities is also available as an e-book, ISBN 978-0-8122-9223-7.

Our Reviewer: An Associate Professor of History at La Guardia Community College, CUNY, John F. Shean has written extensively in history, including Soldiering for God: Christianity and the Roman Army. His pervious reviews for StrategyPage include The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today.

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Reviewer: John Shean   


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