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Constantine the Great and the Roman Empire and Christianity in the 4th Century
on August 13, 2010
The Roman Emperor Constantine I, or Constantine the Great, is one of the most significant figures in history. Among the reasons for his historical stature are (a) after two generations of divided rule of the Roman Empire by as many as four emperors ("the Tetrarchy"), Constantine reunited the Empire under one ruler; (b) he established Constantinople as a second Rome, or new Rome, transforming it into one of the most important cities in the world, at times "the" most important city; and, most significantly, (c) he converted to Christianity, becoming the first Christian Roman emperor.
CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR is a blend of biography and history. It covers the life of Constantine, though not in minute detail (which, for all I know, might not be possible). In general, it employs a broader historical perspective than the more typical biography, which, I think, is a plus in this instance.
In his Preface, author Stephenson writes that his book is a "narrative" of Constantine's life, and as such is "as much story as history." This suggests that he is aiming more for a popular lay audience than denizens of academia. If so, he is only partly successful. The text is not punctuated by footnotes (although at the end of the book there are 35 pages of rather detailed "bibliographical essays", corresponding to each chapter of the book), but nonetheless the narrative is somewhat denser and more detailed than most popular histories. Reading it is not easy going, though it is not quite at the extreme of strenuous. For data or evidence upon which to build his narrative, Stephenson often refers to, or draws upon, visual representations, such as coins, statues and busts, and sarcophagi, and the book usefully includes sixty color photographs of various of those representations. It also includes eight intelligent and useful maps. My sense is that CONSTANTINE is solid history.
One of Stephenson's central themes is the importance of the Roman Army to Constantine's success, and he makes a persuasive case that Constantine used Christianity, perhaps by accident rather than design, to fire his Army, ultimately making Christianity the "religion of victory". Drawing heavily on other works, such as those of Rodney Stark, Stephenson has many interesting things to say about the reasons underlying the dramatic increase and spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire during Constantine's life. At the time of his birth in 272 Christianity was still somewhat of a minority cult; by the time of his death in 337, it was within the Roman Empire the majority religion, well on the way - thanks in part to the actions of Constantine - to being an established Church with an episcopal hierarchy. As for Constantine himself, Stephenson shows how his conversion to Christianity was a lifelong process rather than a dramatic, instantaneous, revelatory event, as legend has it. Yet another topic of interest to me has to do with the recurring episodes of power politics among the rulers and potential rulers of the Roman Empire, which involved numerous bloodbaths and interfamilial executions and murders. Constantine himself ordered the murders of his first son Crispus and his second wife Flauvia in the year 326, just two years after he had re-united the Roman Empire.
There is a lot to be said for this book, especially for someone like me who is not well-steeped in the history of the Roman Empire or early Christianity. My guess is that any reader will learn enough to make worthwhile the moderate effort required to read the book.