- Der Kaiser und sein Gott: Das Christentum im Denken und in der Religionspolitik Konstantins des Grossen
For almost two centuries, the field of Constantine scholarship was dominated by a single, overarching question: Was he, or wasn't he? That is, was Constantine truly converted to Christianity, or was he rather a supremely ambitious politician who simply saw the Christian Church as a vehicle to achieve world dominion? The main proponent of the latter view was Jacob Burckhardt; an English translation of his Zeit Constantins des Grossen is still in print more than 150 years after his work's first publication.
Girardet's book follows a counterargument by Norman Baynes in Constantine the Great and the Christian Church (London, 1929). Here Baynes argued for the sincerity of Constantine's conversion, which followed a test of the Christian God's power at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in October 312. Henceforward, Baynes said, Constantine sought consistently to achieve "the triumph of Christianity and the union of the Roman state with the Christian Church"(Baynes, p. 421n57). Like Baynes, Girardet dismisses any apparent accommodation of the old religion as no more than expediency due to a population, and particularly a Senatorial aristocracy, that remained overwhelmingly pagan. But he has updated Baynes's case, primarily in two ways. First, he accepts the argument that Constantine's "vision of the cross" occurred not in 312 but in 310 and was a "halo phenomenon"—an atmospheric condition that makes ice crystals form what appears to be a cross superimposed over the sun. Second, Girardet not only accepts the authenticity of Constantine's "Oration to the Saints"—dismissed by Baynes as a forgery—but also provides it with a specific date (314) and place (Trier). Girardet has also broadened and deepened Baynes's basic argument. A veteran scholar with a long list of his own writings on church and state in the fourth century, Girardet has read widely, and most of his chapters contain a full discussion of the evidence and literature for each period or topic, followed by systematic and fully annotated discussion.
Nevertheless, an air of staleness hovers over this work. The problem lies in the rigidity of Girardet's approach. Intent on laying to rest once and for all any doubt about the sincerity of Constantine's conversion, he introduces at the outset a monotheism/polytheism dichotomy that serves as an impenetrable defense of his argument. Because there is such a vast and irreconcilable gulf between monotheistic and polytheistic thought, he observes, once Constantine started to believe in a single god, he had no alternative but to reject polytheism completely and utterly. For this reason, Girardet depicts the 310 vision, usually described as a "pagan vision" because the orator who relates it identifies the god as Apollo, as the beginning of a process of conversion [End Page 755] that was fully completed with Constantine's victory in 312. To the same end, Girardet holds that recent scholarship on "pagan monotheism" is mistaken since, at best, such thinking could only be labeled henotheism, and, because henotheists recognize lesser gods, the same gulf does not exist between them and polytheists; therefore, only Christians qualify as true monotheists (Jews do not enter the argument). Accordingly, Constantine's own utterances demonstrate the gulf between the two systems and prove that Constantine was Christian. This approach works well as a refutation of Burckhardt, but it also freezes Girardet into a historiographic time warp. The question of Constantine's sincerity arose as a subset of theology and church history; few serious scholars now see any reason to doubt that Constantine became a Christian. The issue instead is to understand the coercive turn that Christianity took in the decades following Constantine: was it inevitable, because of Christianity's inherent intolerance? To deal with this issue, the important question is, "What kind of Christian did Constantine become...