From Publishers Weekly
Stephenson, a historian at the University of Durham, successfully combines historical documents, examples of Roman art, sculpture, and coinage with the lessons of geopolitics to produce a complex biography of the Emperor Constantine. Rather than the divinely guided hero of legend who singlehandedly brought pagan Rome to Christian orthodoxy, Constantine is depicted as very much a product of his political environment. Recognizing the growing influence of the Christian Church, he adapted the generally pacifist faith to the Roman theology of victory and created a newly militant Christianity that would sustain his rule. Constantine wisely sought to impose religious toleration on the diverse Roman Empire while discouraging trivial disputes among the Christian faithful. Stephenson examines the variety of religious beliefs in the early fourth century with emphasis on Mithraism, a pagan mystery cult practiced by pre-Constantine soldiers, and on the bitter divisions within victorious Christianity that ultimately led to the Council of Nicaea. Constantine is revealed as a master politician who, while delaying his own baptism for reasons not fully explained in the text, became the ruler of both church and state. 24 pages of illus.; 8 maps. (June)
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Assessing the Roman emperor who embraced Christianity, historian Stephenson casts a critical scholarly eye on much of contemporary propaganda's attributions to Constantine. His vision of the cross before the 312 Battle of the Milvian Bridge, though a later construction of Constantine's apologists, nevertheless inspires Stephenson with a plausible explanation of Christianity's appeal to Constantine and his troops. Elaborating a Roman “theology of victory,” Stephenson delves into pagan cults and rituals practiced in the Roman army, emphasizing the primacy paid to gods associated with winning battles. Rather detailed discussion of evidence in coins, inscriptions, and monuments carries the religious part of Stephenson's narrative and supplements his scrutiny of written sources about Constantine and his actions to attain the imperial throne. Mindful that those flowed from civil wars with rival claimants, Stephenson tempers the insults heaped on those Constantine defeated and handles his adoption of a new, victorious god not as a single personal revelation but as an extended conversion process throughout the late Roman world. Constantine in his times is well illuminated by Stephenson's able and discerning work. --Gilbert Taylor