And while [Constantine was] praying with fervent entreaty, a most marvellous sign appeared to him from heaven, the account of which it might have been hard to believe had it been related by any other person. But since the victorious emperor himself long afterwards declared it to the writer of this history, when he was honoured with his acquaintance and society, and confirmed his statement by an oath, who could hesitate to believe the evidence?
Eusebius, Life of Constantine 1.281
Making an assessment of Constantine I the Great is essentially a leap of faith, whichever way one jumps. Many of the sources present pure unadulterated glorification of him, while others are vitriolic in their hatred, and, since Constantine is so crucial to the history of the Church, much modern commentary is determined, overtly or otherwise, by the author’s attitude towards Christianity. Even the neutrals can be biased.
‘With This be Victorious’
As Maxentius’ troops prepared for the final showdown, they might have noticed something weird about their enemies’ equipment. Their shields were sporting a symbol that looked like a letter X with a P superimposed on it – the chi-rho symbol of Christianity (the Greek characters Chi (X) andRho (P) are the first two letters of ‘Christ’). Constantine, the devotee of Sol Invictus, had shifted in his religious allegiances once again:
Constantine was directed in a dream to mark the heavenly sign of God on the shields of his soldiers and thus to join battle. He did as he was ordered and with the cross-shaped letter X, with its top bent over, he marked Christ on the shields.2
That, at least, is how Lactantius, writing a couple of years later, narrates the event. However, Eusebius makes no mention of the shield logo or the dream in his account in his Church History, and in his Life of Constantine, completed shortly after the Emperor’s death, he provides a rather different and more elaborate version than Lactantius’, which places the event at an unspecified time before the battle:
[Constantine] said that at about midday [. . .] he saw with his own eyes, in the sky above the sun, the sign of the cross, along with the words: ‘With this, be victorious’.3
That night, said Constantine, Christ appeared to him in a dream and told him to make a copy of the celestial sign, and use it as protection against the enemy. Eusebius later saw the result:
A long gilded spear with a horizontal bar formed the sign of the cross. At the top was a circlet of gold and costly jewels, in the centre of which was the symbol of our Saviour’s name [the chi-rho symbol]. From the crossbar of the spear hung a royal banner, richly embroidered and shimmering with precious stones, all lavishly stitched with gold thread. It is impossible to describe its beauty – or its effect on those who saw it. The banner was square. On its upper part, beneath the sign of the cross and immediately above the embroidered panel, it bore a half-length portrait [ikon] of the devout emperor with his children.4
This new standard came to be known as the Labarum.
There are clearly discrepancies between the accounts, and the question of exactly what Constantine really saw, if anything, is hard to answer, as is that concerning whether we should regard the vision described by the panegyric writer of 3105 as the same as this one. Recent speculation suggests that the vision could have been a ‘solar halo phenomenon’, created when sunlight is refracted through ice crystals in the upper atmosphere and forms ‘light pillars’ or ring haloes around the sun.6 But what really mattered from the Roman perspective was that the vision came from the sun, to which Constantine had hitherto been deeply devoted. It is highly likely that, initially at any rate, he saw a very close link between the Christian God and Apollo and Sol Invictus. He certainly continued to put Sol on his coins and monuments for some years after the battle, ordered military units to pray to the sun as the ‘one god and bringer of victory’, and passed a law in 321 establishing the dies solis (‘day of the sun’, i.e., Sunday) as a day of rest for those working in cities.
The Battle of the Milvian Bridge turned on an attempt by Maxentius to lure Constantine onto a collapsible bridge of boats that he had constructed over the Tiber. The first part of the ploy was executed perfectly, but as Maxentius conducted his withdrawal across the bridge, it gave way. Sculptures on the Arch of Constantine at Rome show Maxentius’ heavily armoured men floundering in the water whilst Constantine’s men pick them off from the bank. In the carnage that followed, the Praetorian Guard were wiped out, and when the drowned corpse of Maxentius was recovered from the river its head was lopped off and paraded round the streets of Rome, before being sent to Carthage. The regime change was complete.
Constantine reassured the Senate that he would exercise clemency, and pretty swiftly declared himself Christian, although his conversion still remains shrouded in mystery. He affirmed his faith quite publicly by having a statue of himself set up depicting him holding ‘a lofty spear in the figure of a cross’, and an inscription that read:
By this sign of salvation, the true mark of valour, I saved your city and freed it from the yoke of the tyrant.7
However, the inscription on the Arch of Constantine, which was dedicated in 315, carefully sidesteps any direct allusion to Christ, and speaks of the ‘prompting of Divinity’ (instinctu Divinitatis).8 Neither was he baptized straight away, although this was quite normal, since the possibility of committing a mortal sin was greatly reduced if you left it as late as possible. In any case, it would be wrong to imagine Constantine as a particularly saintly man: he was held responsible for the deaths of both his wife Fausta and his son Crispus, and pagan writers attributed his conversion to Christianity to guilt over this. His nephew, the Emperor Julian, wrote a satire in which the pagan gods refused Constantine admission to heaven on the grounds that his military successes were insignificant, and that he was a ‘chef and a hairdresser’, whereupon he was forced to seek refuge with Christ, who was offering forgiveness through baptism to ‘whoever is corrupt, stained with blood, abominable and disgusting’. Because Constantine was polluted with his family’s blood, he was only too happy to become a Christian.9
Modern opinion sometimes attributes Constantine’s conversion to cynical self-interest, but this seems unconvincing: Christianity was a minority religion in the Empire as a whole, particularly in the West, the countryside, and among the Senate, and it is notable that once Constantine had made his decision he stuck rigidly to it. He may have felt that monotheism would dovetail nicely with Diocletian’s totalitarian ideology of Empire, but that does not necessarily count against his piety: ‘sincerity is not determinable by historical method; it is, in any case, not incompatible with a belief that consequential action may have political advantage’.10 His conversion looks genuine enough: Christ now had his ‘thirteenth apostle’.
The Senate now acknowledged Constantine as the senior Augustus, with precedence over Maximinus Daia, who still controlled Asia Minor from his palace at Nicomedia. Constantine then made a deal with Licinius at Mediolanum in February 313, which they cemented with a marriage between Licinius and Constantine’s sister Constantia. Then they effectively won over the Eastern Christians, currently being persecuted by Maximinus, by issuing the Edict of Milan, which guaranteed religious tolerance. From that day forth, at least in theory, no Christian could be persecuted for his or her faith.
The Church did well under Constantine: clerics were granted exemption from civic liturgies and from taxation, although rich people were barred from holding clerical office; bishops acquired jurisdiction between Christian litigants; Christian celibacy and virginity were accommodated by revoking the penalties on childless couples that dated back to Augustus’ time;11 the branding of slaves on the face was prohibited, since they were also created in God’s image; crucifixion was also banned, although burning at the stake became a common alternative; and there was an energetic programme of church building that ultimately included St Peter’s at Rome and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Holy Land, which tradition associated with Constantine’s mother, Helena, who was said to have discovered the True Cross during the construction work.
However, rather than showering Constantine with gratitude for all this, the Church started to cause him immense hassle. As the historian Ammianus Marcellinus later said,
No wild beasts are such dangerous enemies to man as Christians are to one another.12
No sooner had the pagans stopped persecuting them, than the Christians started persecuting one another. An early flash-point came at Carthage in a dispute over whether to allow those who had complied with Diocletian’s orders to hand over the scriptures to be priests and bishops. The followers of a man named Donatus, the ‘Donatists’, adopted a hard line on this: they wanted the ‘lapsed’ clergymen excluded; the Orthodox were more conciliatory. Essentially, the argument was about who would become the official Church in Africa. A Church Council ruled against the Donatists, but they would not accept the judgement, and Constantine had to intervene. However, when he convened an Ecumenical Council, the Council of Arles of 314, which endorsed the Church Council decision, the Donatists again refused to accept its ruling. This put Constantine in an impossible position: he couldn’t face punishing his fellow Christians himself, so he simply condemned them as ‘impious criminals’ and passed the buck to God.
Constantine’s Christian Empire
Back on the terrestrial plane, Maximinus Daia, the junior Augustus, found himself out on a limb. He relaxed his persecutions and crossed the Hellespont into Licinius’ territory, but found himself defeated near Adrianople (Hadrianopolis, sometimes called Hadrianople – modern Edirne in Turkey) in April 313. Having lost hope, he committed suicide at Tarsus in the summer. The Empire was down to two Augusti: Licinius and Constantine.
Constantine was definitely the senior, and probably the more ambitious, of the two, and any possibility of lasting harmony diminished when Constantine’s wife Fausta gave birth to a son, Constantinus, in the spring of 316 (see Genealogy Table 6). With dynastic ambitions, Constantine attacked Licinius later that year, and defeated him at Cibalae (modern Vinkovci in Croatia. See Map 7) in Pannonia and again at Campus Adriensis near Adrianople, appropriating the dioceses of Pannonia and Moesia in the process. Then, however, they patched up their differences, and on 1 March 317 they were both confirmed as Augusti and designated three new Caesares from among their respective infant sons: Constantine nominated Crispus (from his first marriage to Minervina) and Constantinus (aka Constantine II, by Fausta), while Licinius’ son born to Con stantia in 315, also called Licinius, completed the trio. The recently deceased Diocletian had established the tetrarchy to prevent precisely this sort of dynasty-building, and the reality of the situation meant that only one dynasty would prevail. Constantine soon moved ahead in that contest when the fecund Fausta gave birth to two more sons, Constantius II (317) and Constans (320 or 323), plus two daughters, Constantina and Helena.
The boundary between Constantine and Licinius’ respective blocs was established at the frontier of the diocesis of Thracia, where it remained until 324. Yet there were fundamental differences between the two Augusti, with Constantine favouring the Christians and Licinius resuming perfunctory persecutions, and the final conflict came when Constantine took the offensive, won a victory at Adrianople on 3 July 324, and then besieged Licinius at Byzantium. The city was duly captured, and Licinius abdicated, having been defeated again at Chrysopolis on the Bosporus. He was executed in 325, and his son was eliminated the following year. Constantius II replaced the younger Licinius as Caesar. Constantine was sole Augustus, and had established his dynasty. But in an episode that the anti-Constantine authors interpret as evidence of his innate nastiness, his son Crispus and wife Fausta also perished and incurred damnatio memoriae:
Crispus’ stepmother Fausta was madly in love with him but did not easily get him to go along. She then announced to his father that he [Crispus] loved her and had often attempted to do violence to her. Therefore, Crispus was condemned to death by his father, who believed his wife. But when the Emperor later recognized the truth he punished his wife too because of her licentiousness and the death of his son. Fausta was placed in an overheated bath and there found a violent end of her life.13
The story has too much in common with the Greek mythical tale of Phaedra, or the biblical story of Potiphar’s wife, for it to ring true. An interesting interpretation is that Fausta was pregnant by Crispus (willingly or not) and died in her bath attempting to induce an abortion.14 So Constantine should perhaps be blamed for inept PR in failing to cover up this sordid domestic mess, but not for murder.
On the world stage, Constantine proceeded to mark his victory over Licinius in the most extraordinary way by establishing Constantinople (Constantinopolis = ‘Constantine City’), the ‘New Rome’. The project got under way in 324 on the site of Byzantium, and Constantinople was dedicated on 11 May 330. In an excellent strategic location, it had its own Senate, free food and cheap wine handouts for its populace – a smart move by its rulers, given that ‘the common people, desperate for its unrestricted consumption, are often moved to stage violent disturbances’15 – and was decked out with the finest monuments available: the serpent column from Delphi (which still stands in the Hippodrome); Phidias’ chryselephantine statue of Zeus of Olympia, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, whose bearded image ultimately became the model for the face Jesus in Byzantine art, replacing his hitherto cleanshaven, androgynous Apollo-like image; and (so it was said) the Palladium from Troy, which Aeneas had taken to Italy, but which was now buried under a 50-metre-high porphyry column surmounted by a statue of Constantine in the guise of Apollo. Under its legendary tutelary powers, Constantinople flourished.
On the whole, Constantine was sensible to acknowledge his responsibilities to his pagan subjects. In 325 he told an assembly of bishops:
You are bishops (episkopoi) whose jurisdiction is within the Church: I also am a bishop (episkopos = ‘supervisor’), ordained by God to overlook whatever is external to the Church.16
Some pagan temples were closed, but Constantine seemed happy enough for a new one to be constructed at Hispellum (modern Spello) in Italy and dedicated to the Imperial family. He promulgated a law forbidding sacrifice (the Eucharist had superseded it), and although the law no longer survives, his son Constantius II passed a similar one that refers to it:
Let superstition cease. Let the madness of sacrifices be exterminated, for if anyone should dare to celebrate sacrifices in violation of the law of our father, the deified Emperor [i.e., Constantine], and of this decree of Our Clemency, let an appropriate punishment and sentence immediately be inflicted on him.17
But sacrifice didn’t stop, and in any case Constantine had some rather more immediate problem-solving to do within the Christian community.
Now that Christianity was officially the religion of Rome, its hierarchy bickered over issues like Church property, patronage and the date of Easter. Significantly, in 325 the Church engaged in a deeply divisive dispute, known as the Arian Controversy. The problem was a fundamental one concerning the nature of the Trinity: were the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost of one and the same substance (homoousios in Greek), or, as the Alexandrian theologian Arius contested, were they of similar substance (homoiousios)? Was Christ secondary to the Father, and had there been a time when he had not existed? That extra Greek letter ‘i’ made one massive iota of difference: if God was too dominant, he might look Jewish; if Christ was too human, he would look like a Greek mythological hero; if Christ was ‘too divine’, he might not seem to have sacrificed very much for mankind; but how could Jesus forgive mankind’s sins if he were not completely divine?
Constantine convened the Church’s first Ecumenical Council at Nicaea, where he and over 250 bishops from all over the Empire thrashed out the problem. It seems that Constantine favoured the homoousian solution, and this was adopted in the Nicene Creed:
We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance [ousias] of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of the same substance [homoousion] with the Father, through whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth.
All but five bishops concurred, but this lack of unanimity resulted in two recalcitrant bishops being anathematized, and Arius being exiled to Illyria. Yet the ‘Arian heresy’ refused to go away. Christianity had discovered sectarianism.
Constantine’s Secular Empire
On the secular front, Constantine forged ahead with many of the policies that Diocletian had initiated. Military and civil careers became truly independent of one another, and Praetorian Prefects and vicarii acquired purely civil ian functions. A new corps of guards (the scholae) replaced the Praetorians, and elsewhere in the armed forces a much clearer distinction was made between the field army (comitatenses) – whose commanders, the Magister Equitum (Master of Horse) and the Magister Peditum (Master of Infantry), were directly answerable to the Emperor – and the frontier troops (limitanei). The number of barbarian soldiers seems to have increased, especially in the higher ranks, and some 40 000 Goths were recruited to defend Constantinople, whose palace guard was made up mainly of Germans.
Constantine’s frontier policy was robust, especially on the Rhine and the Danube, where a stone bridge protected by forts on the north bank was constructed at Oescus (near modern Pleven in Bulgaria) in 328, to match the one previously built at Colonia Agrippinensis in 310 to panegyrical approval:
Furthermore by building the bridge at Agrippinensis you defy the remnants of the defeated tribe and compel them never to abandon their fears but to be in constant terror, and to keep outstretched their hands in submission.18
However, in concert with these bellicose measures, Constantine stationed more and more troops close to or in cities, leading his pro-Diocletian pagan critics to accuse him of denuding the frontier defences and allowing the barbarians ‘unhindered access to the Roman empire’.19 By taking soldiers from where they were needed, and stationing them where they weren’t, it was argued, Constantine allowed discipline to slip and the troops to go soft, and so was personally responsible for the Fall of the Roman Empire.
A government overhaul saw the Magis ter Officiorum (Master of the Offices) take control of the scrinia and the agentes in rebus; the Quaestor Sacri Palatii became the chief legal adviser, and the post was subsequently held by various prominent lawyers; the Counts of Finance (Comes Sacrarum Largitionum and Comes Rei Privatae) dealt with any income and expenditure not controlled by the Praetorian Prefects; the Praetorian Prefects themselves were increased in number and given jurisdiction over the prefectures of Gaul, Italy, Illyricum and the East, with the vicarii of thedioceses answering to them. Constantine’s consistorium (council), which functioned as both a general council and a supreme court, would normally be made up of the highest civil and military officers of the imperial court (the comitatus) as permanent members, augmented by comites (Counts, sing. comes), who served as special commissioners.
The comites now became a third tier, just below the Senatorial and Equestrian orders, in Rome’s already deeply class-conscious hierarchy. Both Senators and plebs could become a Comes at one of three levels: ordinis primi, secundi and tertii. The Equestrian order was divided into its grades of the egregii, perfectissimi (vicarii, duces, provincial governors) and eminentissimi (Praetorian Prefects). Constantine greatly expanded the Senatorial order by elevating many Equestrians to Senatorial rank, and waiving the obligation to reside in Rome or even attend meetings of the Senate. Under Diocletian the Senatorial order had originally been made up purely of the clarissimi (‘most shining’), 500 or so members of Rome’s elite families, but as time went on ‘grade inflation’ set in, and extra honorific levels had to be created: the spectabiles (‘notables’), illustres (‘the honourable’) and gloriosi (‘the glorious’). Eventually, the rank of clarissimus became a meaningless title, and the end result was that the Equestrian order became so devalued that it pretty well disappeared: ‘The fourth century witnessed the transformation of the old “orders”, still closely linked to birth and wealth, into a service aristocracy, in which rank depended on office.’20 Within the system there was, of course, plenty of ‘corruption’, which Constantine could do little about, although those kinds of judgement are often determined by the norms of the society making them: third-century Romans would have been puzzled by many things that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards now regards as sleazy.
Diocletian had introduced laws regulating the freedom of movement of decuriones (town councillors) and coloni (tenant farmers). The decuriones were personally liable for the taxes levied from the local population, and frequently tried to evade these responsibilities by taking refuge in the army, bureaucracy or clergy. This was no longer allowed. Constantine also introduced legislation that prevented coloni leaving their estates:
Any person whatsoever in whose possession a colonus belonging to another is found not only shall restore said colonus to his place of origin but shall also assume the capitation tax on him for the time [that he had him]. As for the coloni themselves, it will be proper for such as contemplate flight to be bound with chains to a servile status, so that by virtue of such condemnation to servitude they may be compelled to fulfil the duties that befit free men.21
The Empire’s tenant farmers were being transformed into hereditary serfs.
Inflation continued to be a problem, although the loot from Licinius’ treasury, confiscations from the pagan temples and new taxes that were levied from merchants and craftsmen (the chrysargyron, or ‘gold-and-silver tax’) and from Senators offset this to a degree. Enforcement was rigorous:
When this tax had to be paid, weeping and wailing were heard throughout the city, because beatings and tortures were in store for those who could not pay owing to extreme poverty. Indeed mothers sold their children and fathers prostituted their daughters under com pulsion to pay the exactors of the chrysargyron.22
This did allow Constantine to issue a new gold coin called the solidus (seventy-two to the librum), which held its value very well, but the revenues were still insufficient to generate an economic recovery, and the rest of the coinage continued to depreciate.
There was little ‘Christian spirit’ in Constantine’s social legislation, especially when it came to women. On the one hand, adultery by the woman immediately justified, and indeed necessitated, divorce by the husband, but on the other, a law of 331 stated that she was not allowed to sue for divorce ‘because of her own depraved desires’ (for instance, if her husband was an alcoholic, gambler or adulterer), but only if she could prove that he was ‘a murderer or a preparer of poisons or a disturber of tombs’. Otherwise she was to lose her dowry, ‘down to a hairpin’, and be deported to an island.23 Even more hard line is a law of 326 concerning the abduction of an unwilling girl:
Since often the watchfulness of parents is frustrated by the stories and wicked persuasions of nurses, this punishment shall first of all threaten them (the nurses), whose service is proven to have been hateful and whose talk is proven to have been bought: the opening of their mouth and throat, which brought forth destructive encouragements, shall be closed by the swallowing of molten lead.24
On the other hand, there was a growing trend towards more humane treatment of slaves. Constantine was concerned, for instance, about slave families being split up when someone’s property was divided:
For who could tolerate children being separated from their parents, sisters from their brothers, and wives from their husbands? Therefore, anyone who has separated slaves and dragged them off to serve under different owners shall be compelled to restore such slaves to single owners [but receive compensation]. And care should be taken that from now on no complaint shall continue throughout the provinces concerning the separation of slaves’ loved ones.25
Constantine’s Baptism and Death
In the author’s collection is a Roman copper alloy nummus of Constantine that was minted at Treveri in 322. On the reverse side is a globe on an altar, and the words BEATA TRANQVILLITAS (‘blessed peace’). In some ways these are the keywords of the final phase of Constantine’s reign. He worked hard on securing his dynasty. In 333 the two Caesares, Constantine II and Constantius II, were augmented by Constantine’s fourth son Constans, and in 335 he appointed his nephews, Hannibalianus and Dalmatius, as ‘King of Kings and of the Pontic Peoples’ and Caesar (in charge of Thrace, Macedonia and Achaea) respectively. His hope must have been, somewhat optimistically, that these blood-related co-rulers would happily cooperate after his death. Admittedly the ‘blessed peace’ was disturbed from time to time: there were campaigns on the Rhine in 328/9, against the Goths in 332 and versus the Sarmatians in 334, although tens of thousands of the latter were then resettled south of the Danube; an attempted usurpation by Calocaerus on Cyprus ended with him being captured and burned alive in 334; in 336 Constantine recovered part of Dacia; and when the Persian Shah Shapur II started to threaten Rome’s Eastern borders Constantine sent Hannibalianus and Constantius II to deal with him.
A diplomatic rapprochement with Shapur II proved elusive, however, so Constantine put together an expedition to conquer and Christianize Persia, during which he intended to be baptized in the River Jordan. However, he fell ill on the way, and his baptism took place near Nicomedia. Ironically, this was performed by Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, who was an Arian. Constantine died on 22 May 337. His body was taken to Constantinople and his sarcophagus placed in the Church of the Holy Apostles. He had set the world on a new path:
Constantine, sitting amongst the Christian bishops at the oecumenical council of Nicaea, is in his own person the beginning of Europe’s Middle Age.26
The Heirs of Constantine
If Constantine had unwittingly started the Middle Ages, there would still be a lengthy period of overlap with the Roman era. The immediate aftermath of his death saw too many Caesares and not enough Augusti: the beata tranquillitas was over. There were a few months of uncertainty, during which the army eliminated any potential Augustus who was not one of his sons: Hannibalianus, Dalmatius, plus all the male descendants of Constantius I Chlorus and Theodora, with the exception of Gallus (aged twelve) and Julian (aged six).
Constantine’s three surviving sons now divided the Empire between themselves: Constantine II became Augustus of the West, Constantius II of the East and Constans of Italy, Africa and Illyricum. Inevitably, though, they fought for supremacy. In 340 Constantine II, who was the senior Augustus, tried to take Italy from Constans, but got killed near Aquileia in the process. Peace then broke out between the two remaining brothers for a decade or so, but during that time Constans lost the confidence of his troops, and in January 350 he was overthrown and killed in a coup staged by Flavius Magnus Magnentius, a military commander who originated from a community of German laeti in Gaul.
Constantius II had been preoccupied with aggression from the Shapur II, but now he marshalled his troops to deal with Magnentius. First, though, he cemented his dynastic position by having his sister Constantina marry his cousin Gallus, who was elevated to Caesar. On the way to confront Magnentius, Constantius II dealt with another commander called Vetranio, whose troops had proclaimed him Emperor in Pannonia in March 350. Constantius II and Magnentius came together at Mursa (modern Osijek in Croatia), near Sirmium on the Danube. In a titanic tussle fought on 28 September 351, Constantius II emerged victorious, but with such ghastly loss of life that the combined casualties ‘were sufficient for any foreign wars and [. . .] might have provided many a triumph and much security’.27 Magnentius escaped to Gaul. There he appointed his brother Decentius as his Caesar, but Constantius II had persuaded/bribed King Chnodomar of the Alemanni to harass them from across the Rhine, and when he brought his rivals to battle at Mons Seleuci, near Gap, he emerged triumphant again. The losing generals took their own lives in August 353.
Magnentius had been a pagan sympathizer, and after his demise Constantius II introduced a whole raft of anti-pagan measures, including the deeply symbolic removal of the Altar of Victory from the Senate House in 357, as well as outlawing soothsaying, astrology and divination:
The curiosity of all men for divination shall cease in perpetuity. Whoever should refuse to comply with these orders shall suffer capital punishment struck down by the sword of vengeance.28
On the other hand, Christian clergy and their sons were to be exempt from compulsory public service and received tax breaks, Bishops could not be tried in secular courts, and Christian prostitutes could only be bought by Christians. Constantius II is often described as an Arian, although he tried to resolve the lingering disputes left after the Council of Nicaea. The argument had become even more polarized between the homoousians and Arian fundamentalists called anomoeans (Greek anomoios = ‘unlike’), who not only denied the consubstantiality of Christ, but held that he was of a nature different to that of God. Constantius II’s efforts to promote a kind of semi-Arianism, which rejected the consubstantiality of Christ but accepted that he was like the Father, made very little headway. He is simply remembered as a heretic.
Constantius II was, nevertheless, sole ruler of the Roman Empire. The last of the great Roman historians, Ammianus Marcellinus, a military officer from Antioch whose lively, informative, but not always impartial work becomes our prime source for events between 354 and 378, presents him as long-bodied, short-legged, always ‘making a mountain of mischief out of a molehill of evidence’, ‘excessively influenced by his wives and his shrill eunuchs and his court officials’, and capable of ‘a cruelty which surpassed that of Caligula, Domitian and Commodus’.29 But whatever his looks and personality, he certainly had plenty to worry about:
Everywhere [Constantius II] saw the Roman empire being dismembered by bar barian incursions: the Franks, Alemanni and Saxons had already taken forty cities on the Rhine and left them in ruins [. . .] The Quadi and Sarmatians had very boldly overrun Pannonia and Upper Moesia; and the Persians were continually harassing the East, whereas previously they had been inactive for fear of being attacked by Gallus Caesar.30
Gallus had turned out to be a cruel Caesar, and his wife Constantina hadn’t helped:
She was a Fury in mortal form, incessantly adding fuel to her husband’s rage, and as thirsty for human blood as he.31
Gallus was also inept, over-fond of gladiatorial shows and prone to roaming the streets at night asking everybody what they thought of the Caesar, and so Constantius II arranged for his ‘disappearance’ by having him recalled to Mediolanum and beheaded in 354. This left Constantius II needing personally to get to grips with both the Rhine and Danube barbarians and Shapur II. With that in mind he dragged Julian away from his studies at Athens to become Caesar at Mediolanum on 6 November 355. Julian had influential backing in the shape of Constantius II’s childless second wife Eusebia, ‘a woman of outstanding beauty and excellence of character [and] kindness of heart’,32 and wrote a Speech of Thanks to her that remains the earliest example that we have of an official speech of praise exclusively for an imperial woman. Julian’s marriage to the Emperor’s sister Helena further secured his status.
Rome’s Empire had not faced such a sustained barbarian threat for around sixty years: Ammianus Marcellinus describes how the Alemanni penetrated deep into Gaul, and narrates at first hand a frightening situation where Silvanus, a general of Frankish origin who was supposed to be confronting the Alemanni, declared himself Augustus at Colonia Agrippina. This ‘struck Constantius like a thunderbolt’, and Ammianus, who fortified his courage by quoting Cicero, was part of a delegation sent to Silvanus that managed to bribe some troops of suspect loyalty into butchering him. Constantius II played his part too, conducting operations against Alemannic tribes from his base at Mediolanum in 355 and 356, and then dealing with threats to Pannonia and Upper Moesia from the Sarmatians, Quadi and a group called the Limigantes, who Ammianus said were Sarmatian serfs, from an HQ at Sirmium down to 359. He returned there ‘like a conqueror’.33
In between those campaigns Constantius II made his one and only visit to Rome, in 357:
A double line of standards went before him, and he himself was seated on a golden car gleaming with various precious stones, whose mingled radiance seemed to throw a sort of shimmering light [. . .] The Emperor’s person was surrounded by purple banners woven in the form of dragons and attached to the tops of gilded and jewelled spears; the breeze blew through their gaping jaws so that they seemed to be hissing with rage, and their voluminous tails streamed behind them on the wind. On each side marched a file of men-at-arms with shields and plumed helmets, whose shining breastplates cast a dazzling light. At intervals were mailed cavalrymen, the so-called Ironclads, wearing masks and equipped with cuirasses and belts of steel; they seemed more like statues polished by the hand of Praxiteles than living men.34
But for his part Constantius II was amazed, dazzled and amused by Rome, her people, traditions and monuments: the buildings of the baths ‘as big as provinces’, the amphitheatre ‘with its top almost beyond the reach of human sight’, the Pantheon ‘spread like a self-contained district under its high and lovely dome’, and, most impressive of all, the Forum of Trajan. Awestruck, he
complained of the weakness or malice of common report, which tends to exaggerate everything, but is feeble in its description of the wonders of Rome.35
The new Caesar Julian also turned out to be a complete star. He recovered Colonia Agrippina, which had been taken by barbarians, and, although according to Ammianus he was outnumbered by more than two to one, his disciplined Roman infantry absorbed the wild onslaught of a coalition of Alemanni led by Chnodomar and his nephew Serapio, and registered a crushing victory near Argentoratum (modern Strasbourg) in 357. He then took the offensive against the Franks across the Rhine, and generally restored the damage inflicted on Gaul by Magnentius’ usurpation and the pro-Constantius II barbarians.
Julian’s success was a little too spectacular for Constantius II’s liking. Jealous and worried, he sent orders for some of Julian’s troops to be redeployed to the East, but their response was to elevate their leader to the rank of Augustus, and to do so in the Germanic manner by raising him aloft on an infantry shield. Whether this was carefully orchestrated or improvised ad lib, it was clearly not a situation that Constantius II was prepared to countenance. However, before he could marshal his army away from the campaign against Shapur II and hurl the Roman world into yet another civil war, he died at the age of forty-four at Mopsucrene, a road station between Tarsus and the Cilician Gates, on 3 November 361 (see Map 8). Rome probably had no inkling of the extraordinary bombshell that Julian was about to drop.
Julian the Apostate: 361–363
Julian ‘came out’. He was pagan. The responses to this are uncompromising, be they ancient or modern, or for or against him:
A pretentious, pseudo-intellectual, anti-Christian bigot whose ambitions greatly exceeded his limited abilities.36
Though it has been my constant endeavour to sing the praises of this hero, yet have I ever found my words fall far short of the greatness of his performances.37
As the younger son of Julius Constantius, one of Constantine’s half-brothers, Julian had probably only survived because of his tender years when his father had been eliminated to make way for Constantine’s sons in 337.38 His early education had taken place at Macellum in Cappadocia, Nicomedia, Pergamum, Ephesus and Athens, and he was taught/influenced by an eclectic selection of influential thinkers, including the Arian Bishop Eusebius, the future bishops Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus, a Christian eunuch called Mardonius and, perhaps most importantly, the neo-Platonist philosopher Maximus of Ephesus.
Neo-Platonism was a kind of reinvented version of Platonic philosophy, but it also placed a strong emphasis on theurgy – a kind of magic that was believed to promote the union of the human and the divine – and Julian got to hear about Maximus’ talents:
He burned a grain of incense and recited to himself the whole of some hymn or other, and was so highly successful in his demonstration that the image of the goddess [Hecate] first began to smile, then even seemed to laugh aloud. We were all much disturbed by this sight, but he said: ‘Let none of you be terrified by these things, for presently even the torches which the goddess holds in her hands shall kindle into flame.’ And before he could finish speaking the torches burst into a blaze of light.39
Julian went to Ephesus and sought out Maximus, who was the prime mover behind his ‘conversion’/‘apostasy’ from Christianity to paganism, which Julian himself dated to 351:
For you will not stray from the right road if you heed one who till his twentieth year walked in that road of yours [i.e., Christianity], but for twelve years now has walked in this road I speak of, by the grace of the [pagan] gods.40
However, he wisely kept pretty quiet about it at the time:
To frustrate any opposition and win universal goodwill he pretended to adhere to the Christian religion, from which he had secretly apostatized. A few only were in his confidence, and knew that his heart was set on divination and augury and all the other practices followed by the worshippers of the old gods.41
His opportunity to reveal his true beliefs came with Constantius II’s death, after which he made his dramatic announcement:
The gods command me to restore their worship in its utmost purity, and I obey them, yes, and with a good will.42
Ammianus Marcellinus gives us more details:
[He] directed in plain and unvarnished terms that the temples should be opened, sacrifices brought to their altars, and the worship of the old gods restored. To make this ordinance more effective he summoned to the palace the Christian bishops who were far from being of one mind, together with their flocks, who were no less divided by schism, and warned them in polite terms to lay aside their differences and allow every man to practise his belief boldly without hindrance.43
Requiring the bishops to espouse religious toleration was a classic example of ‘divide and conquer’:
His motive in insisting on this was that he knew that toleration would intensify their divisions and henceforth he would no longer have to fear unanim ous public opinion.44
But that was as far as he went. The ‘god-fearing’ pagans were to receive positive discrimination, but there were to be no tetrarchic-style persecutions: he said that he did not wish ‘the Galileans’ (Christians) to be put to death or unjustly beaten, and he was proud of his record on this. However, he did ban Christians from teaching rhetoric or grammar. The syllabus for this was pretty well 100 per cent Classical Greek, and Julian felt that it was ‘absurd that men who expound the works of these writers should dishonour the gods whom these men honoured’.45 This was an emotive issue, since these authors were a central part of many people’s cultural heritage, whether or not they were Christian. Equally controversial was his projected rebuilding of the Temple at Jerusalem. This was an act of blatant effrontery to Christian sensibilities. Since the establishment of Constantine’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem had become a major Christian pilgrimage centre, and the Christians hated the idea of pagan sacrifices taking place on the Temple Mount again. So there was widespread rejoicing when the project was abandoned after ‘repeated and alarming outbursts of fireballs near the foundations made it impossible to approach the spot’, and several workmen were burned to death.46
Nevertheless, the old gods went on the warpath in the good old Roman manner as Julian invaded Persia in what might be seen as a ‘war of national reconciliation’ against Shapur II. Setting off from Constantinople in May 362 he arrived in Antioch, where he spent the rest of the year assembling his forces. Unfortunately, the presence of large numbers of troops in the city caused grain shortages, high prices and discontent, and not just among the Christians. The population ridiculed Julian’s goatee beard and satirized him as a monkey, dwarf and ‘the axeman’ because of the number of sacrifices he made; he hit back with a derisory speech entitled the Misopogon (‘Beard-hater’). He had given them some money to make sacrifices:
Accordingly, I hastened thither [. . .] thinking that I should enjoy the sight of your wealth and public spirit. And I imagined [. . .] the sort of procession it would be [. . .] beasts for sacrifice, libations, choirs in honour of the gods, incense and the youth of the city surrounding the shrine.47
But Antiochenes had blown the money on chariot racing, and when he entered the shrine he simply met a priest who told him,
I have brought with me from my own house a goose as an offering to the god, but the city this time has made no preparations.48
Julian hit the campaign trail under sunny skies on 5 March 363 with 65 000 men, including Ammianus Marcellinus. Things went well up to and including an engagement outside Ctesiphon where Julian’s ‘Homeric tactics’49 prevailed. But the Roman high command decided not to besiege the city, lost their focus about their objectives, made some serious errors, which included burning the boats of their river-going fleet, and started to retreat. As the Sasanians were harassing the Romans on 23 June, Julian forgot to put on his breastplate, leaving him undefended against a cavalry spear thrown, as Ammianus Marcellinus says, ‘by no one knows whom’.50 Various other sources spin the story to suit their pro- or anti-Julian agendas: the unknown warrior can be a Saracen (fighting on either the Persian or the Roman side), a Persian or a Roman, and can be Christian or pagan. In any case, the wound was fatal. A few hours later, in his tent, Rome’s last pagan Emperor died in the style of Socrates, engaged in deep discussion with philosophers. History was depicted by the victors in the form of a relief at Taq-e Bostan in north-west Iran, on which Julian’s body, recognizable by his thin features and goatee beard, is trampled by Shapur II.
Christianity Back on Track
Whether Julian could ever have restored paganism to the Roman Empire is one of history’s great counter-factual questions, but it seems an unlikely prospect, as is nicely illustrated by the tale of his supposed attempt to revive the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi. He sent Oreibasios to consult the Oracle there, only for the priestess to prophesy her own demise:
Go tell the king – the carven hall is felled,
Apollo has no cell, no prophetic bay
Nor talking spring; his cadenced well is stilled.51
Julian’s quirky style of paganism never really belonged to the mainstream. He was not in tune with many of the intellectuals of his day, let alone with the rural and urban lower classes where pagan practice was still at its most resilient. Yet the spear that killed Julian did not kill paganism: upper-class and educated families at Aphrodisias in Caria and Heliopolis in Syria were still pagan in the sixth century, and pagan worship carried on in the countryside, often side by side with Christianity. Nevertheless, every ruler of Rome from now on would be Christian.
The last of Rome’s pagan Emperors was also the last of Constantine’s surviving male relatives. He had not appointed a Caesar, and he had no heir of his own blood:
Julian was so spectacularly and incorruptibly chaste that after the loss of his wife he never tasted the pleas ures of sex.52
So the army commanders held an emergency meeting at which they selected ‘a passable candidate’ as Emperor.53 This was Flavius Iovianus (‘Jovian’) the protector domesticus (senior staff officer). He was a moderate Christian, and no reprisals were taken against the pagans, although he did revoke the law that forbade Christians teaching grammar and rhetoric. Jovian managed to extricate the Roman forces by negotiating a treaty with Shapur II under which he ceded large tracts of Galerius’ conquests from the end of the previous century (notably Nisibis) and vacated Armenia. But as he was heading for Constantinople early in 364, he was found dead in his bed at Dadastana, a border town between Galatia and Bithynia. Ammianus Marcellinus reports three uninvestigated theories: he was overcome by the noxious smell of fresh plaster in his bedroom; he was suffocated by fumes from a large fire; or it was just indigestion brought on by overeating.54 And so ‘this dreadful period of uncertainty came to a sad end’.55
1 Tr. Richardson, E. C., op. cit.
2 Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors 44.3–6, tr. Fletcher, W., op. cit.
3 Eusebius, Life of Constantine 1.28, tr. in Moorhead, S. and Stuttard, D., op. cit, p. 41.
4 Ibid. 1.31.
5 See above, p 310.
6 See Weiss, P., ‘The Vision of Constantine,’ Journal of Roman Archaeology 16 (2003), 237–59; Drake, H. A., ‘Solar Power in Late Antiquity’, and Long, J., ‘How to Read a Halo: Three (or More) Versions of Constantine’s Vision’, in Cain, A. and Lenski, N., (eds.), The Power of Religion in Late Antiquity, Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2009, pp. 215 ff.
7 Eusebius, Life of Constantine 1.40, tr. in Jones, A. H. M., Constantine and the Conversion of Europe, London: Macmillan, 1948, p. 83. Jones rightly raises the issue of whether Eusebius translated the inscription correctly.
8 CIL 6 1139.
9 Julian, Caesares 328d–329d; 335a f.; 336a f.
10 Davis, R. P., s.v. ‘Constantine I’ in Hornblower, S. and Spawforth, A., The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd revised edn., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
11 Theodosian Code 8.16.1 (320 CE). See above, p. 51.
12 Ammianus Marcellinus 22.5, tr. Hamilton, W., Ammianus Marcellinus: The Later Roman Empire (AD 354–378), Selected and translated by Walter Hamilton with an Introduction and Notes by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, London: Penguin Books, 1986.
13 Zonaras, Epit. 13.2.38–41, tr. Pohlsander, H. A., ‘Crispus: Brilliant Career and Tragic End’, Historia 33 (1984), p. 101. Crispus’ name is erased on CIL 2 4107, 3 7172, 5 8030, 9 6838a, 10.517; both of them are erased on CIL 678.
14 Woods, D., ‘On the Death of the Empress Fausta’, Greece and Rome 45.1 (1998), 77.
15 Ammianus Marcellinus 14.6.1, tr. Hamilton, W., op. cit.
16 Eusebius, Life of Constantine 4.24, tr. Richardson, E. C., op. cit.
17 Theodosian Code, 16.10.2, 341 CE, tr. in Cameron, A., The Later Roman Empire: AD 284–430, London: Fontana, 1993, p. 74.
18 Panegyrici Latini [VI], 13.1–5, tr. Mynors, R.A.B, op. cit.
19 Zosimus, New History 2.34.
20 Cameron, A. M., op. cit, p.104.
21 Theodosian Code 5.17.1 (332 CE), tr. in Lewis, N. and Reinhold, M. (eds), op. cit., p. 437.
22 Zosimus, New History 2.38, tr. Ridley, R. T., Zosimus: New History, Sydney: Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, 1982.
23 Theodosian Code 3.16.1 (331 CE).
24 Ibid. 9.24.1, (326 CE), tr. in Evans Grubbs, J., Women and the Law in the Roman Empire: A Sourcebook on Marriage, Divorce and Widowhood, Abingdon: Routledge, 2002, p. 181.
25 Ibid. 2.25.1 (325 or 334 CE), tr. Kershaw. S.
26 Baynes, N. A., in Cambridge Ancient History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1939, vol. 12, p. 699.
27 Eutropius, Breviarium 10.12, tr. Bird, H. A., op. cit.
28 Theodosian Code, 9.16.4 (357 CE), tr. Kershaw, S.
29 Ammianus Marcellinus 21.16.11, 21.16.16, 21.16.8, tr. Hamilton, W., op. cit.
30 Zosimus, New History 3.1, tr. Ridley, R. T., op. cit.
31 Ammianus Marcellinus 14.1,2, tr. Hamilton, W., op. cit.
32 Ibid. 21.6.4.
33 Ibid. 17.13.28.
34 Ibid. 16.10.6 ff.
35 Ibid. 16.10.17. See also Edbrooke, Jr., R. O., ‘The Visit of Constantius II to Rome in 357 and Its Effect on the Pagan Roman Senatorial Aristocracy’, The American Journal of Philology, 97.1, 1976, 40–61.
36 Woods, D., review of Tougher, S., Julian the Apostate, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007, in Classics Ireland 14 (2007) p. 141 ff.
37 Libanius, Funeral Oration Upon the Emperor Julian, 123, tr. King, C. W., Julian the Emperor: Containing Gregory Nazianzen’s Two Invectives and Libanius’ Monody with Julian’s Extant Theosophical Works, London: George Bell and Sons, 1888.
38 See above, p. 327.
39 Eunapius, Sophists 435, tr. Wright, W. C., Lives of the Philosophers and Sophists, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1921.
40 Julian, Letter 47, 434d, tr. Wright, W. C., The Works of the Emperor Julian with an English translation by Wilmer Cave Wright, vol III, London: Heineman, 1913.
41 Ammianus Marcellinus 21.2, tr. Hamilton, W., op. cit.
42 Julian, Letter 8, 415d, tr. Wright, W. C., op. cit., written at Naissa to Maximus late in 361.
43 Ammianus Marcellinus, 22.5, tr. Hamilton, W., op. cit.
44 Ibid. 22.5.
45 Julian, Letter 36, 423a, tr. Wright, W. C., op. cit. Cf. Ammianus Marcellinus 22.10; 25.4.
46 Ammianus Marcellinus, 23.1.
47 Julian, Misopogon 361d–362a, tr. Wright, W. C., The Works of the Emperor Julian with an English translation by Wilmer Cave Wright, vol II, London: Heineman, 1913.
48 Ibid. 362b.
49 Ammianus Marcellinus, 24.6.
50 Ibid. 25.3.
51 Quoted by both the Artemii Passio 35 (Philostorgius Historia Ecclesiastica 7. p. 77) and Georgius Cedrenus, Historiarum Compendium I p. 532, Bekker. Tr. Jay. P., in The Greek Anthology and Other Ancient Epigrams: A Selection of Modern Verse Translations Edited with an Introduction by Peter Jay, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.
52 Ammianus Marcellinus, 25.4.1, tr. Hamilton, W., op. cit.
53 Ibid. 25.5.
54 Ibid. 25.10.
55 Ibid. 26.1.