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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Stephenson, a historian at the University of Durham, successfully combines historical documents, examples of Roman art, sculpture, and coinage with the lessons of geopolitics to produce a complex biography of the Emperor Constantine.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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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.
The son of monotheists, he was brought up to venerate a single "greatest God", Constantine was the ideal candidate to embrace the world's fastest growing faith, Christianity. His vision and victory at the Milvian bridge has been the keystone of Christianity ever since.
At the time of Constantine's birth, the empire was ruled by four military leaders, two junior with the tittle of Caesar, and two senior with the tittle of Agustus. Together they were known as the Tetrarchs. One of these was his father, Constantius Chlorus. Constantine took over his father's position in 306 CE. He married Minervina and had a son, Crispus in 302 CE. The woman died soon after. In 307, he married Fausta and had three sons with her.
Constantine is best known for his effect on the struggling Christian community. At that time there were many Christians, even more than there were pagans throughout the empire, however, they were disorganized and there were many sects of them.
After many battles and campaigns, Constantine became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. He re-founded the city of Byzantium and renamed it the city of Constantine, or Constantinople. Contrary to popular belief, Constantine did not conceive of this new city as a Christian one, for temples of pagan worship were constructed. And in the city stood a statue of himself with a radient crown in the guise of a sun god. The first known Christian chapel was constructed no earlier than 421 CE. He did, however, take a Christian name, Victor Constantine. He considered himself a divine vehicle and channel for grace.
Constantine had a quick and vicious temper. He murdered his wife, Fausta and first son Crispus. His biographer, Eusebius tried to conceal his evil nature and not much is known concerning their deaths.
Though a Christian, Constantine considered his victories in war above all his other achievements. Constantine's interest was not to effect the triumph of Christianity throughout the lands, but rather to appease the god who had granted him victory.
In those times prostitutes and gladiators were expressely forbidden from receiving baptism because their activities were impermissible for Christians, and so too as commander in chief of the army was Constantine disqualified from baptism. He was not finally baptised until just before his death. Confession of sins was then a one-time event.
The Council of Nicea was convened by order of Constantine in 325 CE. It was then that the bishops hashed out the framework for the Bible. And the date of Easter was agreed upon. The two bishops who refused to agree were exiled. The Council at Nicea is not well documented and was only described by Constantine's biographer, the bishop Eusebius of Caesarea a decade afterwards.
Constantine died on May 22, 337 CE. His body was cremated according to Roman tradition and was not afforded any Christian rites. His remains were placed in a mausoleum in Constantinople.
The book is a looking glass in which one may observe life in the early Roman Empire and the world of Constantine and discover how it worked and how history unfolded in that part of the world. I enjoyed reading it.