Constantine and the Cities: Imperial Authority and Civic Politics

Constantine and the Cities: Imperial Authority and Civic Politics

Constantine and the Cities: Imperial Authority and Civic Politics

Constantine and the Cities: Imperial Authority and Civic Politics


Over the course of the fourth century, Christianity rose from a religion actively persecuted by the authority of the Roman empire to become the religion of state--a feat largely credited to Constantine the Great. Constantine succeeded in propelling this minority religion to imperial status using the traditional tools of governance, yet his proclamation of his new religious orientation was by no means unambiguous. His coins and inscriptions, public monuments, and pronouncements sent unmistakable signals to his non-Christian subjects that he was willing not only to accept their beliefs about the nature of the divine but also to incorporate traditional forms of religious expression into his own self-presentation. In Constantine and the Cities, Noel Lenski attempts to reconcile these apparent contradictions by examining the dialogic nature of Constantine's power and how his rule was built in the space between his ambitions for the empire and his subjects' efforts to further their own understandings of religious truth.

Focusing on cities and the texts and images produced by their citizens for and about the emperor, Constantine and the Cities uncovers the interplay of signals between ruler and subject, mapping out the terrain within which Constantine nudged his subjects in the direction of conversion. Reading inscriptions, coins, legal texts, letters, orations, and histories, Lenski demonstrates how Constantine and his subjects used the instruments of government in a struggle for authority over the religion of the empire.


Constantine’s Past

Within two years of Constantine’s death in 337, Eusebius of Caesarea put the finishing touches on his Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine, the single best source we have for understanding this pivotal ruler. Eusebius was perhaps Constantine’s greatest admirer and was unstinting in his praise. He portrays his subject as a latter-day Moses: born to nobility but raised among tyrants, he led his holy people out of the darkness of persecution and into the brilliant light of cosmic victory. Not only had Constantine defeated his every rival with the help of God, he had gone on to wrest concord from the incipient chaos of doctrinal bickering and had begun to point the way toward the final triumph of Christian truth over pagan and Jewish falsehood throughout the oikoumene. Half history, half panegyric, the Life of Constantine leaves unsaid anything that would have compromised Constantine’s reputation—his ruthless land grab of his colleague Licinius’s territory in 316, his murder of his own son and wife, his baptism at the hands of the Arianizing bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia. Instead it leaves to posterity not so much a biography as a hagiography of the first Christian emperor.

If the story had stopped here, we might have had no clear idea of just how complex and difficult a subject Constantine is. But, fortunate for us if not Eusebius himself, the Life was used by few readers in the years to come, and even those who encountered it—especially Socrates and Sozomen—were so keenly aware of its shortcomings that they spent a good deal of effort critiquing and correcting it. Meanwhile, within a generation, a very different Constantine began to emerge from an altogether different set of authors. The first and most important of these was Constantine’s nephew—and imperial successor—Julian, who took great pleasure in assaulting his uncle’s reputation throughout his oeuvre, and particularly in his satire The Caesars. He takes Constantine to task as a braggart whose defeats of rival emperors were insignificant and whose barbarian victories were far surpassed by those of his more illustrious predecessors. He was given to primping . . .

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