Don’t blame him

Peter Brown

  • Constantine the Emperor by David Potter
    Oxford, 368 pp, £25.00, February 2013, ISBN 978 0 19 975586 8

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.