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Constantine the Great: The Man and His Times Hardcover – April, 1994
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From Publishers Weekly
Constantine I founded Constantinople on the site of Byzantium and converted the Roman Empire to Christianity, yet this first Christian emperor "would hardly be recognized as Christian at all today," asserts renowned classicist Grant in a compelling reassessment. A ruthless despot who strove to be a world-conqueror like Alexander the Great, Constantine (280?-337) murdered his second wife and his son, assassinated friends and advisers and extended the death penalty to minor crimes. While cultivating a reputation for almsgiving, the emperor crushed common people with oppressive taxes to finance his reckless wars, extravagant pomp and vast, corrupt bureaucracy. The Christian God whom Constantine revered was a god of power who presumably enabled him to destroy foes, and as Grant makes clear, the emperor's belief that he was constantly in touch with God made him difficult and dangerous. Illustrated. History Book Club main selection.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
Since the very day of his death, Constantine the Great has been the subject of conflicting appreciations. Grant, the eminent historian of Greco-Roman times, clearly demonstrates in this latest book the intense partisanship Constantine aroused in biographers. On the one hand, pious Christians routinely overstated his virtues. They admired his support of the church, his ambitious civil building programs, and his military successes while ignoring his predatory taxation, his enlargement of the imperial bureaucracy, and his murders of perceived enemies. On the other hand, pagan (and later secular) historians routinely exaggerated his faults and scanted his real achievements. Grant has pruned away the exaggerations of both sanctifiers and vilifiers to produce a readable and reliable (if sometimes noncommittal) evaluation. Like most of Grant's books, it is directed to educated readers generally and is suitable for both public and academic libraries.
James F. DeRoche, Alexandria, Va.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Top customer reviews
The author, Michael Grant, is a former Cambridge don and has written a number of well received books on various subjects pertaining to antiquity. Like the reputable scholar he is, Grant takes a careful, measured approach to his subject, always striving for objectivity. He begins his biography with a sober evaluation of the contemporary sources on Constantine’s life, both pagan and Christian. Grant notes the ideological bias that motivates many of the latter sources, discussing the flaws and strengths of such writers as Eusebius of Caesarea, but also recognizes the inherent prejudices of Constantine’s pagan critics (who were many).
This just the facts, ma’am, approach allows the author to reach several well supported conclusions. Grant does a good job of describing Constantine’s strengths: his military prowess (although Grant notes that the majority of his victories were won in civil wars against other Romans); his enormous capacity to plan and implement ambitious, empire wide schemes; his gift for dissembling and conspiracy, absolutely essential qualities in an atmosphere of palace intrigue and backstabbing; and his subtlety in advancing his pro-Christian agenda in the face of a still overwhelmingly pagan elite. Grant also effectively rebuts conjectures that Constantine may have been simply seeking tactical advantage in employing Christianity as a unifying principle and that he may also have had lingering pagan sympathies if not outright beliefs. He documents the emperor’s sincere, unswerving Christian faith.
At the same time, Grant is also careful to examine and evaluate Constantine’s flaws as a ruler and a human being. He notes how Constantine’s basic, soldierly approach to Christianity left him completely unsuited to understanding the torturous, complicated arguments over the nature of Christ’s divinity that resulted in violent, irremediable conflict between schisms, Arianism being one of the most well known. Even more importantly, Grant points out how Constantine’s looking to Christianity as a unifying principle for the empire contained a fatal flaw, his complete failure to consider the fissiparous, quarrelsome nature of the early Christians, their failure to achieve any unity of their own that continues to this day. Grant also describes Constantine’s personal failings, the worst of which undoubtedly has to be the murder of his first born son, Crispus, followed shortly thereafter by the assassination of his wife Fausta. As the author reasonably concludes, these are horrible, unforgivable crimes and simply cannot be excused even during a period as brutal and turbulent as late antiquity. Grant also notes Constantine’s geopolitical failures, the most egregious of these being his decision to provoke a war with the Sassanian Empire (located in what is now Iran) in the face of increasingly serious threats from barbarians in the Danube and along the Rhine.
I recommend this book both to scholars of antiquity and also to laymen who are interested in learning more about this historical period. Those who seek to have their prejudices reinforced, however, would do better to go to the original source and read Eusebius.
Not only were there many items of interest that added to my understanding of the history of his reign, but of all the books about Constantine that I read, Grant's book was one of the easiest and most interesting reads. He really brought ancient history to life.
I highly recommend this book to all who are interested in Roman history.
More information on the Tetrarchy (Constantine lived at the court of Galerius, who was a Caeser under Diocletian and an Augustus after Diocletian and Maximian retired) would have been useful to help give the reader a clearer picture of the times Constantine lived in. The conclusion was a bit disappointing. Grant spends little time discussing the affect Constantine's policies had upon the civil wars fought by his three sons and two nephews, of which Constantius II was ultimately victorious. Also, he spends little time in his conclusion talking about how Constantine's policies effected Constantius II's rule.
All in all, a good book on a difficult subject.