Book Review: Constantine: Roman Emperor, Christian Victor

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by Paul Stephenson

New York: The Overlook Press, 2010. Pp. xxvi, 358. Illus., maps, gloss., abbrev., biblio., index. $30.00. ISBN: 1590203240

It is difficult to write a biography of Constantine that satisfies everyone.  This is primarily due to the nature of the evidence we have for his reign, which is often disparate and contradictory.  Even some of the literary works describing his career reveal the heavy hand of subsequent editing.  Much of this difficulty can be attributed to Constantine himself who periodically reinvented himself and his past in light of his changing political situation.  Constantine’s self image was constantly evolving over the course of his long career, making even the most fundamental facts of his life subject to debate.  Modern scholars trying to paint a picture of Constantine are forced to reconcile often conflicting information and then arrange the evidence within a thematic and chronological context.  Constantine has drawn the attention of a number of eminent scholars over the past 150 years, all of whom have crafted individual visions of the man, and marshaled the evidence to support their conclusions.  Thus we have Constantine the cynical Machiavellian manipulator, Constantine the Christian saint, Constantine the megalomaniac, etc.  What is clear from all these approaches is that a scholar can easily select from the evidence those facts that support his case and, by use of source criticism, conveniently dismiss or ignore those facts that contradict it, rendering all these different portraits simultaneously plausible.  Today, even after so many years of research and publication, scholars still cannot agree on who Constantine really was, leading one to conclude that the definitive Constantine biography will probably never be written. 

With these provisos in mind, Stephenson should be commended for even attempting to assail such a difficult topic.  Currently a Reader in Medieval History at Durham, he wrote this book while a professor of Byzantine History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  His work is largely a pastiche of recent scholarly work on Constantine and in some places reads like a dissertation.  What is unique, however, about his contribution is the discussion of issues that are often overlooked by traditional scholarship, such as the attitude of the Roman army towards Constantine the emperor.  Here he covers some of the same ground as my own treatment of the topic in my 1998 dissertation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Militans pro Deo: The Christianization of the Roman Army, now revised and published as Soldiering for God: Christianity and theRoman Army, Leiden: Brill, 2010), which he does not cite in his bibliography.  Stephenson notes that the Roman army was the core constituency for any emperor, which meant that an emperor wishing to initiate a program of religious change had to take the attitude of the army into account.  He argues that Constantine was able to bring the army over to Christianity by demonstrating, through his persistent success in combat, that the Christian God was more efficacious for military victory than His spiritual competitors. The emperor was able to associate the Christian God with the imperial ideology of ‘Eternal Victory,’ thereby laying the groundwork for a theology of Christian warfare that characterized the  spiritual lives of Roman soldiers in the subsequent Byzantine era.

Specialists will take issue with various arguments he makes, but that is to be expected given all of the problems with the historiography surrounding Constantine.  Among these are Stephenson’s discussion of the phenomenon of the Christianization of the Roman world in Chapter 2, which heavily relies on one source (Stark’s The Rise of Christianity).  This is a complex topic with a vast literature, and readers should be warned that his treatment of the subject is too cursory, missing a lot of important scholarship.  Stephenson also gives a rather short, summary description of the nature of the late Roman army and Constantine’s reforms that ultimately is inadequate and misleading, even making statements that are factually incorrect.  Again, there is a vast literature on this topic that readers are advised to avail themselves of for a more complete picture.  Finally, although Stephenson acknowledges Constantine’s heavy-handed approach to Christian controversy, he adopts too uncritically some of the recent attempts by some scholars to recast Constantine’s religious policies towards pagan cults as evenhanded and tolerant.  Although scholars still disagree over when Constantine became a Christian and how Christian he was at any point in his career, it is clear from the surviving speeches, letters, and the laws and edicts he promulgated that, once he openly proclaimed himself a Christian, his preference was for all his subjects to follow his lead.  Constantine famously granted favors to his co-religionists that placed them in a privileged position over, not only other religious cults, but the Roman state itself.  Constantine’s bestowal of unprecedented privileges upon the Christian clergy, which included allowing bishops the right to adjudicate cases outside the Roman legal system, had the net effect of creating a state within the state.  In his 'Oration to the Saints' he displayed a level of contempt and disrespect for
the traditional cults that would not conform to the modern definition of tolerance.  Constantine himself admitted that the Christian community of his time did not have the numbers to force compliance on others, so a policy of coercion was not practical.  Pagan cults were allowed to continue only because he could not shut them down, but he made it clear he would ban them if he could.  Instead, what he did do was shut down selected sanctuaries deemed too disreputable by Christian standards, confiscate the treasuries and artwork of famous temples, and use these assets to decorate his new city and support the institutions of his preferred faith.  Such actions clearly delegitimized and marginalized these cults in the eyes of the empire’s peoples and sent a powerful message as to the religious preferences of the regime in power.  Constantine initiated a process of aggressive Christianization that was followed by almost all his successors, eventually leading to the total monopolization of the spiritual lives of the empire’s peoples by the Christian church.  To a modern readership that is acquainted with the sad history of religious conflict that characterized subsequent European history, the suggestion that  Constantine’s policies were ‘tolerant’ is disingenuous or naïve.

The literature surrounding all aspects of Constantine’s career is too vast for any one scholar to do it justice all in one book, especially one that is designed to reach a wide readership, so the gaps in Stephenson’s discussion are understandable.  Stephenson writes in a very accessible style, and I would recommend this book to any non-specialist who is looking for a basic survey of Constantine’s career.  However, given that many of the facts of Constantine’s life, and the motivations for his actions, are still very controversial, I would caution the general reader to not make this the only book he reads on Constantine.  For those who do wish to read a little further, the author provides an excellent bibliographical essay, organized according to each one of this chapters, that annotates the secondary studies used.  As it stands, the book is a snapshot of the current state of scholarly thinking about Constantine and I urge those readers who wish to pursue this material further to make good use of Stephenson’s bibliography.

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Reviewer: John Shean, LaGuardia Community College, CUNY   


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