In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Don’t blame himPeter Brown
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
Constantine the Emperor 
by David Potter.
Oxford, 368 pp., £25, February 2013, 978 0 19 975586 8
Show More
Show More

Few rulers​ have set in motion developments of such momentous consequence as the emperor Constantine, with his conversion to Christianity in 312 and subsequent halting of the persecution of Christians, ratified a year later in the Edict of Milan. Over the 17 centuries since then, theologians, historians and even novelists, including Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code, have claimed that a change for the worse in the quality of Christianity (the kind of change an earlier age would have ascribed to supra-natural agents like the Devil or the Antichrist) can be personified in this rather flashy Roman emperor. Even those of less apocalyptic temperament, faced by almost any legacy of the late antique world of which they disapprove – anti-Semitism, the secular power of the church, the rise of intolerance, the spirit of the Crusades – blame it on Constantine.

David Potter punctures this inflated image. This doesn’t mean he cuts Constantine down to size: far from it. Potter has done something far more difficult. He has examined, with gusto and an unrivalled mastery of detail, the aspects of Constantine neglected by those who concentrate only on his relations with Christianity. Potter’s study of the mechanisms by which power was built up and brought to bear in the Roman world brings us closer to Constantine than any pious biography would.

The first eight chapters are devoted to a shaken world, with Rome anxious to regain its position after a generation of military defeat and civil war. It had lost its unquestioned military supremacy in the Near East, where it was challenged by the revived Sasanian empire of Iran, and along the frontiers of the Rhine and the Danube. Above all, it had lost its nerve. No one quite knew any longer what it was to be a Roman. As Potter makes plain, this uncertainty worried the ruling classes more than the ravages of any hostile army. ‘The imperial sense of appropriate Romanness’ was cheerfully ignored by many of those who claimed to be Roman citizens; in some regions, the emperor Diocletian registered with horror in 295, ‘Romans’ married their siblings, their children, even their grandmothers! Religious boundaries weren’t observed. Writings in Syriac, relayed throughout Egypt in Coptic translation, and then passed on as far as Carthage, carried the message of Mani (a Mesopotamian prophet and self-styled inventor of a world religion) with disturbing ease across the frontier between Rome and Persia. On top of all this, the ‘self-indulgent idiocy’ of the Christians showed what people who claimed to be good Romans could get up to. ‘They did not follow the practices of the ancients,’ the empire’s four rulers remonstrated in the Edict of Galerius, issued in 311, ‘which their own ancestors had, perhaps, instituted, but according to their own will and as it pleased them, made laws for themselves that they obeyed.’ Seen from this perspective, Christianity was not the greatest challenge to the empire. It was simply the last straw.

This was the world into which Constantine was born in 282, the son of a member of an insecure junta of co-emperors. Power, for the young Constantine, meant winning wars. And war meant civil war: the conquest, region by region and court by court, of the Roman world. Between 306 and 324, Constantine did just this. Throughout, he proved himself a brilliant general, with what Potter describes as ‘the capacity to look into the mind of a potential opponent … and a fundamental ability to command the enormous amount of detail necessary for launching a successful operation’. He knew when to be implacable. Frankish chieftains who had resisted him were thrown to the beasts in front of the good Romans of Trier, in the nasty small amphitheatre (where eye contact with victims couldn’t be avoided) that still stands above the city on the hill of the Petrisberg. As for the soldiers whom he led with charismatic zest from Britain to the European frontier of modern Turkey, they littered the killing fields of northern Italy and the Balkans, having slaughtered more fellow Romans than had ever fallen (except in a few, rare moments of disaster) in the wars between Romans and barbarians along the frontier.

Constantine also knew how to win the peace. He was adroit at co-opting elite citizens, many of whom had supported the regimes he overturned. Potter makes use of prosopographical evidence that’s all too often dismissed as dry as dust. Armed with a Rolodex of Roman upper-class society, he describes how Constantine built up his ‘power set’. It consisted of a mixture of military officers, often of barbarian origin, and grandees drawn from the senate of Rome, the old money of the Roman world. Constantine knew how to get the best out of the more enterprising (and power-hungry) members of this class of traditional power-brokers even when he seemed, to others, to be in the process of founding a brave new world: ‘He understood that power needed to be negotiated,’ Potter writes, ‘that people needed to be convinced rather than commanded, that they needed to accept leadership, that they could not be shifted too far from where their moral compass pointed.’ Constantine worked closely with an inner circle of generals, bureaucrats and blue-bloods committed to creating what Potter describes as ‘an ordered society in which people knew their place and the vulnerable were protected’.

Potter shows that the laws that issued from the imperial chancery were not the rantings of an isolated autocrat. Much Roman legislation took the form of responses to petitions. Like the statute laws of Tudor England, imperial decrees often did no more than echo the language of the petitioners. Potter allows us to hear the grumbles of respectable Roman society about the malaise of their times: the prime concerns of those who petitioned Constantine were the purity of their women and the control of their slaves. In this stridently self-interested cacophony, it’s easy to miss Constantine’s determination, in a cruel and rigid society, to hold the ring. Slaves could be flogged, but they couldn’t be tortured with branding irons or executed: only the state had that power. While more respectable women were to be protected from the violence of local strongmen, barmaids enjoyed no such protection: ‘For such persons, because of the poverty of their lives,’ as the Theodosian Code later put it, ‘are not considered worthy of the consideration of the law.’

Potter doesn’t get to Constantine’s conversion until almost halfway through the book. Other things had mattered more to the young general and would to the ageing emperor. This doesn’t mean that Potter dismisses the role of religion: his opening chapters show that he has an alert sense of the public role of religious belief. He doesn’t deny that Constantine came to believe in Christ in 312, but he revises, in a manner that is more radical for being understated, our idea of what such belief could mean to a ruler of the early fourth century: ‘Constantine,’ he reminds us, ‘would scarcely be the only person in the ancient world to sense, or hope, that he had a divine friend.’ What comes as a surprise to modern readers, however (used as we are to the ambitious claims made by the Christian church in later times) is the extent to which Constantine saw this new loyalty as perfectly consistent with business as usual on other fronts. Altogether, Potter makes plain, ‘the conversion of his empire to Christianity was at first neither a primary goal nor a foreseeable outcome.’ He saw Christianity as the religion of a powerful god and belief in such a god was a source of safety, an inspiration and, above all, seemed to measure up to his own ambition. In 310, Constantine had a light-filled vision at a temple to the Celtic god Grannus in Gaul. The vision was made public. Constantine claimed it promised him many decades of life, in which he would save and rule the empire of Rome. Perhaps he had this vision in the great temple of Grand, set among the wooded ridges of the Vosges, only ten miles from Domrémy, where 1100 years later voices spoke from within a flood of light to Joan of Arc, urging her to save the kingdom of France.

Christ was a god of what Potter describes as ‘private moments’, a god Constantine ‘met on his own and who provided him with guidance on an intensely personal basis’. When Constantine conquered Rome in 312, the flamboyant Christian buildings he erected on the outskirts of the city were seen as personal monuments. They proclaimed, as Potter stresses, ‘a victory for the God of Constantine, but not necessarily … for the Christian God’. From 312 until his death in 337, Constantine dealt conscientiously with the quarrels of Christians, who now felt free to flood his court with petitions that were quite as indignant and extravagantly phrased as those from outraged fathers and anxious slave owners. He read the first draft of the Nicene Creed during one of his many attempts to reach consensus among the bishops. As Potter points out, this means that the Creed, a version of which Christians still recite every Sunday, could be seen as ‘the best-known utterance by a Roman emperor in the modern world’. Yet Constantine remained strangely ‘un-churched’. He wasn’t baptised until he was on his deathbed and may never have attended a service in a Christian church. But he gave the Christians what they wanted: he ensured that Christianity would no longer be ‘shunted aside as “un-Roman” or the practice of eccentrics’. Christians weren’t favoured, however. ‘Although clear about his own beliefs,’ Potter writes, ‘the emperor remained deeply concerned with the welfare of all his subjects and devoted to the notion that he ruled a well-regulated society where people knew their place, Christians included.’

Why for so long have historians found it so difficult to give due weight to the non-religious factors in Constantine’s reign? Perhaps because we tend to see his rule as the harbinger of a Middle Ages dominated by the Christian Church. But it wasn’t clear that Christianity would become so widespread. In 312, Christianity already prided itself on being a ‘universal’ religion. Anybody anywhere could become a Christian. And Constantine ensured that it was easier than it ever had been to do this within the Roman Empire. But Christianity took more time than we realise to adjust to seeing itself as a true ‘majority’ religion: a religion which held that everybody should be Christian. Compared with the continuous din of laws and petitions, the theological wrangles of Christians seemed mere murmurs, of concern to few. But trouble would soon come.

Christianity was able to rally supporters around the implacable banner of truth: universal, non-negotiable truth about God, the world and the human race. The slogan of the Christian teacher Arius in Alexandria was dangerous: ‘I know wisdom and knowledge.’ Arius’ certainty quickly earned him exile from Constantine. But every Christian bishop felt he had the right – indeed, the duty – to say what Arius had said, and many did. The high-pitched buzz of rival claims to absolute truth couldn’t be silenced. In Africa, the division between two Christian communities (known to us, somewhat tamely, as the Donatist Schism) led to a centuries-long dispute without parallel in the history of the ancient world (on which we can now read Brent Shaw’s gripping 2011 study, Sacred Violence: African Christians and Sectarian Hatred in the Age of Augustine). In Alexandria, Potter writes, the historian has to delve down even further to ‘another layer … having to do with what is to us the still murky realm of popular culture, where ideas fused to be reshaped by teachers on street corners as well as in churches’.

Potter doesn’t take us down into that layer. This side of Christianity began to make itself felt in the last years of Constantine’s reign, but it would dominate the next century: the dramatic street fights between rival groups; the ever more extreme claims to truth, often couched for widespread distribution in pamphlets and slogans; the emergence of figures such as Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome (to mention only the Latin West); and the need for each faction to assert that it was the strongest party in town and, by implication, in the empire and the world. The leaders of the Christian churches came to make ever more ambitious claims, one of which was that Christianity should be seen as the majority religion of the Roman world. It was a future Constantine and his contemporaries couldn’t have dreamed of.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.