All that we can learn of the author’s secular and Christian education, all that we can guess about the intended destination of his words, conspires to vindicate Eusebius. The appeal to Virgil presupposes Latin; the theological statements follow Western orthodoxy. Since Eusebius does not seem to have tampered with the theology of the sermon, we need not doubt his statement that it was written first in Latin, then translated into Greek by an anonymous secretary of the emperor Constantine.
In reading other apologetic works, we can only guess at the distinction between the implied and intended audience, or between the intended audience and the eventual readership. A treatise dedicated to a persecuting magistrate will be written as though the whole of the pagan world could overhear it; yet the silence of posterity will suggest that it found no reader outside the Church. In the present case, we need not doubt that Constantine could reach whatever audience he wished, and that his own name would have lent his work more dignity than that of any pretended addressee. The audience which the text implies is therefore the audience and occasion of its original performance; among its many claims on our attention, this apology may have been the first to be openly delivered as a speech.
I have said above that a Latin speech implies a Latin audience, and if Constantine is the author, it is obvious that the aftermath of his entry into Rome would have provided the best occasion for such a eulogy of himself and his religion. None the less, it is possible to imagine other settings, since the present version is (after all) in Greek. As it has been usual to propose an Eastern city as the theatre for this speech, we cannot spare ourselves a short itinerary before joining a recent commentator in his journey back to the imperial city.
In the Life of Constantine three cities are distinguished as the objects of his favour: Nicomedia, the capital and his residence for a period of his youth; Jerusalem, where he built a church in memory of his mother’s excavations; and Antioch, which Eusebius styles the metropolis of Eastern Christendom. Both Nicomedia and Jerusalem have been set aside by the tacit unanimity of scholarship, no doubt because the first had been notoriously hostile to Christians, and the second was too remote to have taken part in any trial of strength between the rival despots. Neither, then, would have had the opportunity for that reckless demonstration of support described in chapter 22:
Even the great city is conscious of it, and gives praise with reverence; and the people of the most dear city approve, even if they were deceived by unsafe hopes into choosing a protector unworthy of it, who was suddenly overtaken in a manner befitting his atrocities . . . However, at some time a war of surpassing savagery, a war without a treaty, was foretold to you by tyrants, O godly piety, and to all your most holy churches . . . But you, coming forward, gave yourself up, relying on your faith in God. (Oration, 22)
It is not clear whether the great and the dearest city are a single place or two. The identity of the first should be established by the recurrence of the epithet in chapter 25:
For the whole army of the aforesaid king, subject to the authority of some good-for-nothing who had seized the Roman Empire by force, once the great city had been delivered by God’s providence, was exterminated by many wars of all kinds. (Ibid. 25)
To take the human cipher first, there can hardly be two claimants for this role of good-for-nothing. The successor of Diocletian in the East had been Galerius, who carried on the persecution of Christians, but repealed it on his deathbed in 3ii. His realm was then disputed by Licinius and Maximinus Daia, the first of whom was a tolerant monotheist, while the latter was a fanatical persecutor of the Church. Both (unlike Galerius) could be regarded as usurpers, but only Maximinus lost his troops through the attrition of continuous warfare rather than by a sudden revolution. Since his army is said to have been totally destroyed, we may suppose that he is dead. The great city which is said to have been freed from him is evidently the prize of some great conflict, where his title was uncertain. One city fits all these premisses: in 313 Licinius, having vanquished Maximinus in the field, expelled him from his desperate asylum in Nicomedia, provoking an immediate, prudent suicide. Logic and analogy support us here; for the rest of this long chapter has been devoted to the marvels which foretold the end of Diocletian’s pagan tyranny in Nicomedia, and the capital of Bithynia is singled out for greatness by Eusebius in his Life of Constantine.
Thus chapter 25 declares that the great imperial city of Nicomedia has now been liberated from the tyrant Maximinus. It was reasonable for Constantine to celebrate this victory, for shortly before he had made an alliance with Licinius at Milan, and the two had jointly produced an ‘edict’ which announced the toleration of Christianity. But in that case, the ‘great city’, which is occupied by Licinius, cannot be the ‘most dear city’, which his Western colleague purports to be addressing in this speech. If the speech was delivered soon after 313, while Constantine was still a friend of Licinius, there was only one metropolis that had such a claim upon him. Not only was Rome the matriarch of Latinspeaking cities, she was also the scene of Constantine’s first victory as a champion of Christ. It was on the eve of battle at the Milvian Bridge that the conqueror saw his vision; Maxentius, his opponent, had consulted the Sibylline books, to be misled by their characteristic ambiguity. No time could have been so propitious to the invention of a new stanza for the oracle than the aftermath of Constantine’s occupation of the city, which, according to Eusebius, he cemented by a pompous exhibition of the Cross.
It was difficult at first to portray Maxentius as a violent persecutor, for his record extended only to the banishment of two contentious aspirants to the papacy. Pious defamation was supported by the discovery or invention of correspondence between Maxentius and the prince of Satan’s legions, Maximinus, whose exemplary destruction, if we are right to believe Eusebius, is recorded in the twenty-second chapter of the Oration: ‘. . . who was suddenly overtaken in a fitting manner worthy of his atrocities, which it is not right to recall, least of all for me as I speak with you and strive with all solicitude to address you with holy and reverent speech. . . . What profit was there for you in this atrocity, O monster of impiety?’ (Oration,22). Thus the reverent Constantine contrasts himself with one who, having wasted his imperial patrimony, had now received his death-blow from Licinius. He represents Maximinus as the temporary guardian of Rome, because he hopes to persuade those citizens still loyal to the memory of Maxentius that his policy and power had been dependent on this Herod of the East. Dying in mental agony, and imploring absolution from the avenging Saviour, Maximinus left a brand of infamy on all his former allies, so that, even in this distant province, the victor can present his rival’s death as a concomitant of the same divine event. The Roman Church would now at least be eager, if barely able, to remember its spontaneous recognition of the invader at the time of his approach: ‘There were some in Rome who delighted in the magnitude of these public evils, and field was prepared for battle. But you, coming forward, gave yourself up, relying on your faith in God’ (ibid.). Writing many years later, Eusebius can revise the past more thoroughly than the orator, declaring that all the citizens of Rome came forward with congratulations:
The whole senate as one, along with those who were eminent and distinguished otherwise, received him with blessings and insatiable joy, as though released from prison; they were joined by the whole Roman populace, their eyes and very souls rejoicing, men together with women and their household staff in thousands, crying with unstinting acclamations that he was their redeemer and benefactor. (Life of Constantine, 1. 39)
An encomium pronounced at Rome in 321 acclaims the bloodless victory of Constantine, and says that all the other Italian towns received news of it with corporate displays of jubilation. Constantine is portrayed as a true Augustus, who adorns his faded capital, restores her civic magistrates, and binds the monster Furor, while fulfilling Virgil’s precept to abase the proud and spare his beaten enemies. His special love for Rome, which had enhanced his indignation towards Maxentius, is said to have been augmented by the painful march that brought him to her gates. In 313 spontaneous parades in Rome and Italy are recalled by a Gallic orator, and even when a panegyrist renders thanks for benefits conferred on another city in 312, he can only say that Flavia Aeduorum is almost comparable to Rome.
Constantinian propaganda therefore made it known that he did everything for love of the metropolis. The fact that Rome is named without periphrasis in the twenty-second chapter is no objection to its being equated with the ‘dearest city’; the motive for the sobriquet was flattery, not concealment, and such blandishments can lose their force only by repetition. Latin at least will tolerate such elegant variation: the panegyrist of 313 calls Rome the ‘sacred city’ in his exordium before he interjects its proper name.