- Constantine and the Cities: Imperial Authority and Civic Politics by Noel Lenski
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016
Pp. 416. $79.95.
The quest in modern scholarship for the true Constantine has been something of a tug-of-war between two main camps: those who contend that the emperor’s policies were guided entirely by his religious beliefs, and those who view instances of political pragmatism as evidence of religious insincerity. In his Constantine and the Cities, Noel Lenski attempts a middle-ground to these positions. In keeping [End Page 671] with the prevalent twentieth-century image, Lenski portrays Constantine as a man on a mission to effect on an empire-wide level the same transformation that he himself underwent. However, he considers “Christian” and “politician” as coexistent (not mutually exclusive) identities and sifts through the contradictory evidence using a primarily sociological framework to arrive at a “more genuine reading of the emperor” (12).
Lenski’s approach is grounded in an essential political reality. Drawing from Stuart Hall’s adaptation of Reception Theory for systems of mass communication and Jürgen Habermas’s elaboration of Speech Act Theory, he underscores the fact that the emperor’s ability to exercise authority in any given domain required the complicity of his subjects. As such, the study focuses largely on how Constantine engaged his subjects through traditional means of civic discourse, in particular the system of petition and response, in order to gauge their receptiveness to his religious agenda and widen his sphere of authority. The reactions of various communities—and, in turn, Constantine’s reactions to them—contributed to the fashioning of both his image and his policy.
The book is divided into four parts, each consisting of three to four chapters. Part One, “Constantine’s Self-Presentation,” surveys the various representations of the emperor that were being officially circulated. Some he identifies as occurring in phases (Chapter One), whereas others appear consistently throughout Constantine’s reign (Chapter Two). Finally, in Chapter Three he highlights Constantine’s unambiguous self-identification as a convert in communications directed at Christians. Although such an overview might be regarded as par for the course, the organization of this material (including as yet unpublished sources, such as the Misurata hoard) effectively establishes for subsequent chapters that there was a variety of official personae available for Constantine’s subjects to contemplate.
Part Two, “The Power of Petitions,” assesses Constantine’s use of the system of petition and response to execute his religious policy. Lenski makes his case largely on the examples of Orcistus (Chapter Four), whose citizens aligned themselves with the emperor’s Christianizing agenda and were granted their request for civic autonomy; and Hispellum (Chapter Five), a deep-rooted “pagan” community that was granted both an imperial name and permission to establish a cult to Constantine’s dynasty, but with a crucial prohibition on sacrifice. Thus, in the process of fulfilling expectations as a civic leader, Constantine was able to elevate Christian polities and avoid alienating “pagan” ones even as he began the long-term process of converting them. The further examination of cities in the West (Chapter Six) and East (Chapter Seven) that received imperial names and/or civic status indicates that Christian polities were more likely to receive a favorable response if they were removed from the control of non-Christian neighbors.
In Part Three, “Reconstructing the Ancient City,” Lenski explores Constantine’s efforts to make Christianity a part of normative urban life, beginning in Chapter Eight with the transfer of temple goods and their revenue-generating estates to the res privata, which was used to patronize Christian communities via their local leaders. These financial resources, together with grants of imperially controlled land, provided the funding—often in response to petitions from bishops—for Constantine’s extensive church building programme (Chapter Nine). In Chapter [End Page 672] Ten Lenski details the rise of bishops as the principal civic leaders through the bestowal of privileges such as the right to judge civil cases, immunity from curial service, and authority to manumit.
The majority of Part Four, “Alternative Responses to Constantine...