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Constantine: Roman Emperor, Christian Victor Hardcover – June 10, 2010
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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Stephenson, a historian at the University of Durham, successfully combines historical documents, examples of Roman art, sculpture, and coinage with the lessons of geopolitics to produce a complex biography of the Emperor Constantine.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
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Top customer reviews
Caveat: In the edition I have (Overlook Press, 2010), some of the scales of maps at the front are wildly inaccurate; Map 8, the worst example, shows Constantinople's Hippodrome to be some 100 miles in width! Nicomedia is mislocated on Map 5. And the text goes off the editorial rails in the second paragraph of p. 181, where we find the Bosphorus referred to as the Hellespont, and Lampsakos (on the Hellespont) is said to be near Chalcedon (on the Bosphorus); whereas, they are distant some 135 miles as the crow flies, much further apart by an army's land route. I am inclined to attribute these gaffes to the publisher's staff.
Incorporating research into how people convert to new religions, how Christianity is likely to have spread during this time period, and with illuminating references to the development of the military and governmental structure, the minting of coins, and most importantly the emperor's qualifications to rule -- his genius / good fortune / divine protection making him unconquerable in battle -- he gives us a very convincing life story in a clear context.
D. G. Kousoulas still offers a more linear approach if you're looking for a narrative biography. If you don't know anything about the tetrarchy and haven't yet learned the differences among Maximian, Maxentius, and Maximin you might (like the latter) hit your head against a wall until your eyes pop out.
But I agree with more aspects of Stephenson's reconstruction than with any other I've read, especially since he backs it up with the most current scholarship. I think this book also has the best descriptions of the arch of Constantine and the establishment of Constantinople (which he compares and contrasts to other imperial seats of power).
It's also fun! The enthusiasm of the voice reminds me of the popularizing but now musty G.P. Baker Constantine biography, to which I think he even refers at one point. I enjoy how he works out his ideas and I'm grateful to him for sharing them.