THE POLITICAL OCCASION

We may conclude that, while it was the capture of Rome that made this oration possible, and Maxentius’ death that made it necessary, it was only with the fall of Maximinus that the emperor found his voice as the protector, judge, and spokesman of the Church. Up till then, though Constantine’s career had made his piety more conspicuous than his honour, it had never been a Christian piety. He had let himself be credited with a vision of Apollo, and had heard with equanimity that temples grew like flowers beneath his tread. Not only was it necessary, therefore, to defend his usurpation to the pagans; he had also to show the Christians that he knew what god had given him the day. He addressed the larger world through his panegyrists, who informed it that Maxentius was a tyrant, that the city itself had clamoured to be free of him, and that the worst of his atrocities was to draw his people up with such poor generalship that Constantine was forced to drive them all into the Tiber. These eulogists discreetly endear their subject to all nations by ascribing his success to an anonymous divinity, whom some would take for Jupiter and Christians for the bearer of the Cross.

Like Arnobius’ treatise, this Oration is a public deposition by a convert. He demonstrates the vigour of his present faith by turning upon the errors of his past: ‘And would to God that I had been given this revelation a long time ago, if indeed that man is blessed who is established from his youth in the knowledge of God’ (Oration, ii). Encomiasts had adorned the pagan Constantine with the customary virtues of a general, finding room for clemency (or at least the intention of it) in the bloodiest of his triumphs. Yet, as the pagan deities disappear from the panegyrics, so does clemency. The reason is apparent from this speech, which shows that even toleration after victory was felt to require excuse:

Away with you, impious ones (for this is permitted you on account of your incorrigible error) to the sacrifices and immolations of your temples, your feasting and carousing, professing to offer worship in the exercise of pleasure and dissipation, and feigning sacrifice while you are in thrall to your own pleasures. (Ibid.)

Eusebius states that Constantine abolished sacrifice, but he is not borne out by the Theodosian Code or by his own accounts of chance discoveries which moved the indignant Constantine to move against the most immoral cults. None the less, the tolerance of Constantine would seem to have waned as his power increased, together with his piety, both of which are more openly displayed in the decrees that he enacted after the conquest of the East in 324. This paragraph bespeaks an early stage in the development of Constantine’s religious policy: perhaps a date of 314, the year of his first Church Council, would explain a tone so redolent of victory and a temper so consistent with the ‘Edict of Milan’.

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