David Potter. Constantine: The Emperor. Oxford University Press, 2013. See here to buy the book (and, surprisingly for an Oxford University Press book, you can get it for a low price).
Constantine was a Roman emperor in the fourth century C.E., and he converted to Christianity. David Potter, the author of this biography of Constantine, teaches Greek and Roman history at the University of Michigan.
Here are some of my thoughts about the book:
1. The book is an excellent resource on Constantine’s policies and legal decisions. Potter compares and contrasts them with the policies of pre-Constantinian Rome, details how Constantine sought to protect the vulnerable while preserving class boundaries, and explores Constantine’s ambivalent policies regarding slavery and the Jews. On the Jews, Potter disagrees with James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword. While Potter acknowledges that Constantine used anti-Jewish rhetoric, Potter also mentions privileges that Constantine extended to Jewish leaders. On a related note, Potter says that people in antiquity usually wanted to get along, even though incidents could occur that could incite conflict.
2. I was thinking about Candida Moss’ The Myth of Persecution (see my post about that book here) while reading the early part of this biography. Moss argues that ancient Christians were not singled out for persecution by the Roman authorities. The data that Potter presents overlaps with some of Moss’ arguments: that Decius was ordering sacrifices for the well-being of the empire and not to single out Christians, and that there was a time when Christians could serve in the government. Potter does present the reign of Diocletian as a time when Christians were singled out for persecution, and Moss may overlap with him on this. (I forget what she said about Diocletian in her book, but see here.) Even then, Potter narrates, there were Roman officials who did not want to persecute Christians, and rulers after Diocletian scaled back on persecuting the Christians, primarily to distance themselves from Diocletian, who had abdicated.
3. After reading Potter, I am not entirely clear as to why Constantine converted to Christianity. Potter does not buy into the Da Vinci Code narrative that Constantine did so because there were a lot of Christians in the empire and they were fighting the sun worshipers, and Constantine converted for political purposes, to reconcile the two parties. While Potter admits that Constantine could be a shrewd politician, particularly in how he handled the Christian controversies about Jesus’ divinity, Potter still maintains that Constantine’s conversion to Christianity was sincere. According to Potter, Constantine genuinely came to believe that the Christian god had helped him in battle. Why did Constantine conclude that the Christian god, of all gods, did this? Here, I am unclear. But let’s move on to item 4, and we will explore that further.
4. Potter sifts through the stories of Constantine’s conversion. Potter does not buy Eusebius’ story that Constantine saw a vision of the cross in the heavens, for, even if Eusebius may have gotten that story from Constantine himself, it was late and distant from the time of Constantine’s conversion. Yet, Potter demonstrates that emperors seeing visions of gods who helped them in battle was not unprecedented. Potter seems to be more open to the story that Constantine had a dream that would contribute to his conversion to Christianity. But, in this case, there appears to be doubt that Constantine was dreaming about the Christian god, per se; Constantine may have been dreaming about the sun god and have come to interpret the dream later in reference to the Christian god, plus Potter notes that there were Christians who associated solar imagery with Jesus. Potter raises other relevant considerations: how, prior to Constantine’s reign, an unpopular mountain god became an official solar god because the emperor believed that this god helped him in battle, and how Constantine’s father, Constantius, was not especially adverse to Christians, even though Constantius was a devotee to the sun god. Maybe, for Potter, the best explanation we have for why Constantine converted was that he saw some vision, as previous emperors did of other gods. That could be, but I do wish that Potter explored more the political ramifications of Constantine’s conversion. The inside flap of the book says that “David Potter argues that Constantine’s conversion is but one feature of a unique political strategy that enabled him to seize control of an empire beset by internal rebellion and external threats from Goths and Persians,” and I am unclear as to how Potter believes that was the case.
5. Another question that went through my mind as I read this book was why Constantine fought those battles and tried to expand his empire. This is probably a no-brainer for a lot of people: they would just say that Constantine was greedy and power-hungry! But would that sort of rationale fly in the ancient world? I was not always clear about what Constantine’s rationale was, but there were occasions when Potter offered some insight. In the epilogue, Potter said that Constantine’s choice was to kill or be killed. Potter may have meant that Constantine was powerful and influential enough to be a candidate for emperor, and thus he felt a need to watch his back, or to kill competitors or other emperors before they killed him. There were times when Constantine tried to provide a lofty rationale for his aggression: Constantine would say that he was trying to protect or rescue the persecuted Christians of other lands, for example. But Potter does not really buy that rationale.
6. There were occasions when Potter speculated about Constantine’s thoughts and feelings, and that did tend to humanize Constantine, and even Potter as a writer. Potter wonders if Constantine felt guilt about Diocletian’s persecution of Christians, since Constantine was one of Diocletian’s high-ranking officials. While Constantine’s father, Constantius, put away Helena, Constantine’s mother, Constantine remained close to her throughout his life, and Potter asks if this is because she showed him love during especially difficult times. Constantine may have put to death his wife Fausta, and Potter notes that Constantine did not remarry or take concubines, which was unusual for Roman emperors. Potter inquires if this could have been because Constantine loved Fausta for the rest of his life, even after putting her to death.
7. I think that Potter’s narration of the controversy about Jesus’ divinity could have been clearer, particularly in explaining what different people believed about Jesus. I have to admit, though, that I am a bit spoiled in this regard after having read Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God (see my post about that book here)! I also wish that Potter had explained why Helena chose that sites that she did in Israel to honor Jesus’ birth, his resurrection, etc. I was asked this question in Israel, and I did not know the answer. I vaguely recall reading different ideas since that time: that the inhabitants of the land showed her these sites, that traditions were attached to certain sites, and that Helena was led to them supernaturally. In any case, Potter did have a chapter about the sites in Israel, and I wish that he had explored that question.
8. There was a variety of tidbits of information in Potter’s book that caught my attention, for various reasons. Potter says that the mountain god (who later became a sun god) was unpopular with Romans because of its cultic orgies; that stood out to me, since one can sometimes get the impression from some Christians that all pagans liked orgies in their worship! Potter referred to a common Roman tradition of portraying emperors (or would-be emperors) as reluctant to assume their role; that reminded me of the biblical motif of prophets, judges, and kings (like Saul) feeling unqualified and unworthy for their task, and it also may indicate that Romans, too, valued humility, on some level. Potter talks about Constantine’s rules on Sunday observance, and how Constantine permitted farmers to perform their tasks on Sunday. This stood out to me, not only because I repeatedly heard about Constantine’s blue laws as a kid due to my seventh-day Sabbatarian religious upbrining, but also because I recently heard a Presbyterian sermon about the Sabbath, and the pastor noted that God even forbade the Israelites to work on the Sabbath in plowing and harvesting seasons (Exodus 34:21); God wanted them to trust him, in that situation. Potter talks about how Constantine let church leaders decide civil cases, and Potter seems to believe that was a step down from how things were before. Before, church leaders decided conflicts within the church, and they encouraged people to patch things up. It was more of a family sort of situation, not a situation of deciding who was right and penalizing the person in the wrong. That is an appealing model, on some level. On the other hand, it can be abused. See here and here for some good posts about Matthew 18 and church discipline.
I am glad to have read this book, but it also makes me want to read more about Constantine, to get other perspectives about him and why he did what he did.