Constantine the Emperor

As usual, old stuff gets dragged out when I’m working on new stuff.

This retro review is from November 7, 2012.  (Yes, I am rapidly running out of these.)

Review: Constantine the Emperor, David Potter, 2012.Constantine the Emperor

For an emperor so late in the saga of the Roman Empire, Constantine gets a surprising amount of attention and is up there with the early Julio-Claudian emperors in inhabiting, in however misunderstood, inaccurate, and mutated form, a place in the minds of the putatively educated western public. They know he saw a vision of the cross floating in the sky, heard the words “Conquer, in my name”, and went on to win a major battle and converted to Christianity as the result. And Potter’s claim that he is father of the imperial Roman utterance most widely known, the Nicene Creed, is certainly true.

Of course, Constantine is most simply known as the man who officially made the Roman Empire Christian, and, given that he moved the imperial capital to the newly consecrated Constantinople, it’s fitting many histories of Rome end with his death though the western part of the empire limped on for another 137 years and the last vestiges died in the east in 1453.

I’m of two minds about this book.

Potter tries really hard to make this book user friendly. There is a map of the empire with all the post-Diocletian political sub-divisions noted if not any cities. There are some informative pictures of archaeological ruins and recreations. There is a time line that starts with the capture of the Roman emperor Valerian by the Persians in 260 and emperor Julian’s death in 363. There is a dramatis personae which you will appreciate when trying to keep Constantius, Constantine, Constantia, and Constantus straight or multiple church men named Donatus or Eusebius. Though the book has no index, Potter makes his chapters so short and specifically titled that you can usually find what you are looking for by searching chapter titles. The price of organizing chapters that way is that sometimes Potter deviates from a strictly chronological account.

There is a concluding appendix called “Finding Constantine” and that gives a clue to what makes this book somewhat problematical for the casual reader. Potter is interested in correcting some mischaracterizations of Constantine and his reign from the founder of Christianity’s long anti-Semitic streak as John Carroll argues in Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, A History, the suppresser of Christian truths as in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, or the low-born, usurping bastard who killed his wife Fausta and son Crispus and converted to Christianity in Eusebius of Caesarea’s very influential Life of Constantine  – the main source of the cross in the sky story.

Potter is having none of that. He places Constantine’s proclamations on the Jews in context to show their vicious rhetoric was somewhat stock and matched by things he said about other Christians, typical of a Roman magistrate of the time, and, most importantly, not backed up by large-scale persecution of Jews (except when they pursued circumcision of converts). Whereas Brown sees a sinister corruption of Christianity with paganism to water down the truth, Potter sees Constantine learning from his successor Diocletian’s politically destabilizing and futile persecution of Christians. And, as for Eusebius’ cross in the sky, Potter is having none of it.

In fact, given the relative brevity of the book and wealth of footnotes, this book, in the end, seems intended more for an audience keyed into the many disputes and mysteries of Constantine than casual students of Roman history. Our sources from the period are not that good. There are histories written long after the fact, some judicial codes from the time, and the somewhat useful accounts of Eusebius – who knew Constantine – and Constantine’s tutor Lactantius. We are unsure of the dates of some of Constantine’s military campaigns or when, how, and why Fausta died or why Crispus was executed.

A lay reader could almost get a sense of Constantine the man – his temper, his shortcomings, his ambition, his genuine desire to do justice of a sort for his subjects, his religious conviction – by reading that appendix or the epilogue chapter which sums up the man and the differing interpretations of him through history.

However, I did find some things of value in the rest of the book, in particular the influence, for good and bad, of Diocletian’s example on Constantine, to see the importance of loyalty in his personal relationships – learned from a father who did not forsake the product of an earlier, less socially connected marriage, and the sense of political turmoil and oppression dimly glimpsed through repeated judicial edicts trying to curb the power of the rich in legal proceedings, and Constantine’s insistence the classes remain separate – particularly in regards to the forbidden marriage of the free to slaves or children sold into slavery.

So, not an easy read but there are a few nuggets here for the non-specialist, and I suspect, if you are a specialist, Potter probably argues a good case.

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