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AT THE END OF OCTOBER 312 a Roman warlord was leading his army south from its latest victory toward the capital (fig. 1.1). The struggle for the succession to Diocletian's regime of shared imperial authority was entering a crucial phase. Diocletian's tetrarchy of two emperors and their two lieutenants had given Rome four rulers ready to defend the long frontier against barbarians and the threat of Persian invasion. The division of command had served the empire well. But since Diocletian, with a self-control known to few rulers, had laid down his office in 304, an inevitable power struggle had taken place. In 312 Licinius and Maximinus Daia still figured as members of a reconstructed tetrarchy in the east, although Licinius was soon to eliminate his partner. In the west the struggle was between Constantine and Maxentius, both sons of members of the original tetrarchy. Constantine had almost reached the gates of Rome before his opponent came out to face him at the Mulvian Bridge on the twenty-eighth of October. The victory was Constantine's. Maxentius drowned in the Tiber with many of his army.
Constantine's success is commemorated in a monumental inscription on the Red Cliffs (Saxa Rubra) that overlook the scene of the battle:
Emperor Constantine the Great On the Fifth Day before the Kalends of November in the year 312 here at the Red Cliffs With divine inspiration, Maxentius defeated, Carried the standard bearing the name of Christ into the city Inaugurating a happier era for the human race.
This majestic statement, only the first half of the text but all that can be read today because of the growth of trees on the slope of the cliffs, is not an ancient but a modern inscription, put in place in 1912 on the seventeen hundredth anniversary of the battle by Pope Pius X. The message is a simple interpretation of events. Constantine by divine grace carried Christianity to victory.
But Constantine was fighting to win the empire for himself, not for the Christians. His patronship of the church and, more important, the thoughts, schemes, and anxieties that lurked behind his imperious countenance have been examined by modern historians of every generation. But just as each generation, and sometimes each country, has given us a different Alexander the Great and a different Augustus, so along the bookshelves Constantine wears a score of faces. His biographer, Eusebius bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, who became an intimate of the emperor's late in his reign, made his subject the willing instrument of divine grace. Jacob Burckhardt dismissed Eusebius's portrait as a pious fraud and gave us Constantine the Renaissance prince. Between these extremes there are a host of historians who have attempted to chart Constantine's conversion, progressing steadily on the road to salvation or haltingly unsure, from the time of his vision or dream before the battle at the Mulvian Bridge until he took the momentous step of founding a New Rome, Constantinople, which he inaugurated in 330 and where he accepted baptism on his deathbed in 337.
On that fateful day in 312 Constantine's standard carried his own portrait, as we learn from Eusebius. The name of Christ, in the form of a ligature of its first two letters, Chi-Rho (less familiar in 312, about the time it began to be used, than it is today), was displayed in a wreath made of precious stones and gold which topped the staff. It was, however, significantly less prominent than Constantine's portrait. It is from Eusebius that we have the account of Constantine's vision of the cross-shaped trophy in the sky with the legend "By this conquer"; then of Christ appearing to Constantine in a dream and urging him to adopt the celestial apparition as a charm to protect himself from his enemies. Eusebius assures us that he heard this recollection from the lips of the emperor. And one detail in his account inspires confidence. Constantine, he says, wore the Chi-Rho on his helmet, and a silver medallion struck at Ticinum probably in 315 and coins issued at Siscia in 317-18 show that this was the case. Such an appearance of a Christian symbol was a rare occurrence in the Constantinian coinage.
Our other source of information concerning the Chi-Rho at the battle of the Mulvian Bridge is Lactantius, another Christian and a member of the emperor's circle. Instead of the Chi-Rho crowning the standard, Lactantius reports that the soldiers of Constantine's army bore the Chi-Rho emblem on their shields. For Eusebius both the celestial apparition and the dream occurred some time before the march on Rome. In Lactantius's account, the dream seems to come to Constantine immediately before the battle. He does not mention the portent in the sky. The vision of an army advancing with a wall of shields adorned with the talismanic Chi-Rho is a dramatic one, but if Constantine's dream did occur just before the day of battle while the army was on the march, how, one may ask, was the paint procured to carry out the transformation? All told, Eusebius's version of the event seems more credible, not only because Eusebius heard Constantine's recollections directly from the emperor but also because his account suggests a personal, even hesitant, use of the Christian charm by Constantine at the Mulvian Bridge.
It is certain, nonetheless, that Constantine carried a Christian talisman into battle and that he attributed his success to its power. Constantine's move toward Christianity, however, was far different from the vision that overtook St. Paul on the road to Damascus. Paul's conversion was the result of an overpowering apparition. Constantine's approach to the Christian God was no more a conversion than Sulla's dream in which the Anatolian goddess Ma-Bellona offered him a lightning bolt with which to strike his enemies. It was not conversion, it was accommodation.
At the outset it is important to place Christianity in the context of Rome of 312. What was the community with which Constantine was now allied? In the centuries following the creation of the Augustan regime the energies of the Roman Empire had been drawn in two directions. The first was toward the European frontier, reaching from England and the Rhine to the shores of the Black Sea and fronting on the ever-present threat of barbarian incursion. The second pole that attracted Roman energy was the eastern frontier bordering on Persia but also containing within it Palestine, where revolts by the Jewish population troubled the reigns of Vespasian and Hadrian, and the lands that formed the domain of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra in the third century. From the Balkan provinces fronting on the Danube toward the east there came the new rulers of the empire, beginning with Maximinus Thrax (emperor 235-38) and triumphing in the persons of Diocletian and his associates after 284. From the east there came religion.
In the view of the Romans in the first two centuries of the empire Christianity was an unauthorized and repugnant branch of Judaism. As a consequence of the Jewish revolts the Romans destroyed the temple of Jerusalem and canceled the name of the city from the map. But the religion of the Jews was tolerated because it was a religion established of old and because it identified a nation, albeit a nation whose members were dispersed throughout the Greek- and Latin-speaking lands of the empire. The Christians seemed more like a conspiracy. They adored a Leader who had been executed as a subversive and likely revolutionary. They preached his imminent return in glory to establish a thousand-year reign on earth. Their rites were secret, but in public they affected a snobbish purity and when pressed often defied common sense by enthusiastically embracing martyrdom. They shunned the theater and the arena as much as they did the pagan temples. Such refusal to accommodate their worship into the family of pagan cults was as offensive to their neighbors as the exclusivity of the Jews, but in comparison to the Jews the Christians were far more fervent in their proselytizing. Worse, they seemed to be full of a hatred for the society around them.
The Romans had had experience with such cults before. In 186 B.C., they had suppressed a Bacchic cult that seemed conspiratorial in nature. More recently the cult of Isis had been banned by Tiberius. The Jews too were not immune from repression under Tiberius and Claudius, and Domitian punished "Jewish superstitions" in his immediate family. Thus, in dealing with the Christians Roman officials could count on a general atmosphere of suspicion and dislike among the populace. Nero capitalized on the Christians' unpopularity to place the blame for the great fire in Rome of 64 squarely on their shoulders. Tacitus has left an account of their grisly executions, which excited pity from the usually pitiless Roman throng. From the time of Nero's persecution until the third century the Christians were subjected to accusations which brought them before the Roman authorities in the provinces. Such instances could be called to the attention of the Roman governor, as they were when Pliny the Younger as governor of Bithynia turned to the emperor Trajan for clarification of procedure in such cases. Trajan's reply was that there was to be no hunting down of Christians and that anonymous accusations were not to be countenanced. The government thus kept a hands-off policy, unless faced with a specific charge. Like most Romans Pliny despised the Christians for what the Romans considered atheism (that is, an unwillingness to see their God as part of the pagan pantheon) and punished them if they persisted when charged. But he also clearly felt that they were not a menace to public order and that the accusations of orgies involving men and women who called each other brother and sister and the charges of infant sacrifice leveled against them were unfounded. This was the message he transmitted to Trajan.
The mob, however, believed the Christians to be capable of the worst, and the mob more than once forced actions against them. This was the case in both Lyons and in Smyrna in the late second century. The Martyrs of Lyons came to occupy a prominent place among the Christian martyrs, and at Smyrna bishop Polycarp suffered for the faith. The martyrologies display the unflagging courage of the Christians in its most edifying form, secure that Paradise beckons them in imitating the Passion of the Lord. Cyprian of Carthage, who was to die before the persecution ended, exhorted his fellow Christians when Valerian's repression began in the tone of the martyr's defiance and expectation of a spectacle of divine vengeance on the oppressors:
Let us take these arms, let us fortify ourselves with these spiritual and heavenly safeguards, that in the most evil day we may be able to withstand, and to resist the threats of the devil: let us put on the breastplate of righteousness, that our breast may be fortified and safe against the darts of the enemy: let our feet be shod with evangelical teaching, and armed, so that when the serpent shall begin to be trodden and crushed by us, he may not be able to bite and trip us up: let us bravely bear the shield of faith, by the protection of which, whatever the enemy darts at us may be extinguished: let us take also for protection of our head the helmet of salvation, that our ears may be guarded from hearing the deadly edicts; that our eyes may be fortified, that they may not see the odious images; that our brow may be fortified, so as to keep safe the sign of God; that our mouth may be fortified, that the conquering tongue may confess Christ its Lord: let us also arm the right hand with the sword of the Spirit, that it may bravely reject the deadly sacrifices; that, mindful of the Eucharist, the hand which has received the Lord's body may embrace the Lord Himself, hereafter to receive from the Lord the reward of heavenly crowns. Oh, what and how great will that day be at its coming, beloved brethren, when the Lord shall begin to count up His people, and to recognize the deservings of each one by the inspection of His divine knowledge, to send the guilty to Gehenna, and to set on fire our persecutors with the perpetual burning of a penal fire, but to pay to us the reward of our faith and devotion! What will be the glory and how great the joy to be admitted to see God, to be honored to receive with Christ, thy Lord God, the joy of eternal salvation and light-to greet Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the patriarchs, and prophets, and apostles, and martyrs, to rejoice with the righteous and the friends of God in the kingdom of heaven, with the pleasure of immortality given to us-to receive there, "What neither eye hath seen, nor ear heard, neither hath entered into the heart of man" for the apostle announces that we shall receive greater things than anything that we here either do or suffer, saying, "The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come hereafter which shall be revealed in us." When that revelation shall come, when that glory of God shall shine upon us, we shall be as happy and joyful, honored with the condescension of God, as they will remain guilty and wretched, who, either as deserters from God or rebels against Him, have done the will of the devil, so that it is necessary for them to be tormented with the devil himself in unquenchable fire.
The satirist Lucian saw the suffering of the persecuted Christians in a different light. His view is that of the average citizen of the empire, who saw the Christians as a herd of simpletons, preyed on by swindlers turned prophets and cult leaders.
It was in this context of official restraint but occasional sporadic repression and universal suspicion that the debates between pagan critics and Christian apologists began. The record of the pagan voices was largely erased by the triumphant Christians but the attacks of two of them, Celsus, who wrote in the time of Marcus Aurelius, and Porphyry, who lived on into the opening years of the next century, can be reconstructed from the refutations offered by their Christian opponents. Beside the prejudices of the ordinary pagan citizen, we find in these writers a searching refutation of Christian theology. The Jewish God is a self-contradictory being because He is both omnipotent and at the same time plagued by counter forces. The Christian's idea of God wavered between celestial detachment and all too human passion. Christ is a poor, weak figure hardly measuring up to divinity, whose pronouncements were far from clear and unequivocal. In reality, He was a magician playing on the credulity of the people He encountered in His wanderings. The prophecies of the Old Testament, in which the Christians found foretelling of the coming Christ, are dismissed as vague traditions which only sophistry could turn into the message sought by the Christians. The miracles surrounding Jesus are no more than claimed for various other magicians. Belief in the resurrection must rely on the testimony of a hysterical woman (or two or three such) deluded by sorcery or else suffering hallucinations. The Christian appeal is not by logic but by emotion. The defenselessness of the Christians is proof that their God is powerless to save them.
This anti-Christian literature, however, makes another point by its very existence. Christianity had become sufficiently important that rebuttal was necessary. And so before the third century was much advanced Tertullian could claim, perhaps with less exaggeration than has been thought, that the Christians were experiencing phenomenal growth: "Day after day, indeed, you groan over the increasing number of the Christians. Your constant cry is, that the state is beset; that Christians are in your fields, in your camps, in your islands. You grieve over it as a calamity, that each sex, every age-in short, every rank-is passing over from you to us; yet you do not even after this set your minds upon reflecting whether there be not here some latent good."
At the same time the Christian apologists rose to the challenge with eloquence and the impelling certainty of faith. Furthermore, these Christian luminaries were masters of the Jewish scriptures (in Greek translation, the Septuagint, which had been in common use among the Jews of the diaspora since Hellenistic times) and masters of Greek and Roman classical literature.
Excerpted from Constantine & Rome by R. ROSS HOLLOWAY Copyright © 2004 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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|I||Constantine and the Christians||1|
|III||Basilicas, baptistry, and burial||57|
|IV||The tomb of St. Peter||120|
Posted June 24, 2011
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