CONSTANTINE: Roman Emperor, Christian Victor

By Newell, Jonathan E. | Military Review, May/June 2011 | Go to article overview

CONSTANTINE: Roman Emperor, Christian Victor


Newell, Jonathan E., Military Review


CONSTANTINE: Roman Emperor, Christian Victor, Paul Stephenson, Overlook Press, New York, 2010, 350 pages, $30.00.

Paul Stephenson, professor of Byzantine history at Durham University, has written a masterful biography of the controversial Roman emperor Constantine that gives refreshing new perspectives on the actions and motives of this highly controversial emperor.

Because of Constantine's adoption of Christianity, many previous works have interpreted him as a church figure. Stephenson reorients the discussion by focusing on Constantine's military actions, interpreted through the motif of the Roman "theology of victory." While mystery religions offering personal salvation flourished, Romans still practiced a state religion that sought the support of the traditional gods for the stability of the empire. Over time, rulers sought the support of one main god, a summits deus. Because the aid of this god would bring victory, a ruler could maintain the loyalty of the troops, thus assuring himself of his grip on power. When Constantine battled his rivals in the collapse of the Tetrarchy, he sought the support of the god Sol Invictus (unconquered sun).

During this time, Christianity continued to spread rapidly. Stephenson uses the controversial "sex, health, and arithmetic" thesis to explain the religion's exponential growth. Constantine conflated the identity of Jesus Christ with Sol Invictus, blending Roman and Christian beliefs and gaining Christian support. Once he had consolidated power, Constantine maintained his allegiance to this god of victory, reworking a vision of the god Apollo-Sol into the famous story of a vision from the Christian version of god at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. …

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