Chapter 1. Constantine Develops
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Chapter 1  Constantine Develops A Sense of Transformation We are fortunate to possess as many of Constantine’s writings as we do. While all are highly mannered and each crafted to the exigencies of individual audiences, they offer at least some understanding of how the emperor constructed his own narrative. From these it is clear that an important part of that story was the notion of transformation.1 This comes out most clearly in his Oration to the Assembly of the Saints, where Constantine laments: “I dismiss all that the awful sway of fortune imposed upon the random presence of ignorance and consider repentance to be the greatest salvation. I can only wish that long ago this revelation had been granted to me, if indeed that man is truly blessed who has been established in his knowledge of the divine ever since youth and has rejoiced in the beauty of virtue . . . . No human education ever helped me in this, but all the gifts that are sanctioned in one’s morals and manners by the reasonable have come to me from God.”2 In his own words, then, Constantine’s life story was one of conversion, effected directly by divine intervention, which transformed him from an unbeliever to a believer. This notion of error followed by personal reform is apparent already in the letter of 314 that Constantine addressed to the Catholic bishops following the Council of Arles.3 It was also the story he told to Eusebius and other bishops at Nicaea in 325.4 It would, of course, have differed slightly with each retelling, and it was no doubt rearranged and embellished over time, but at its heart was the notion of transformation. Constantine’s earliest commentators picked up on this idea and made transformation an important part of their own accounts. This is by all means the case with his earliest Christian narrators, including both Lactantius and Eusebius. Both were contemporaries, and both followed Constantine’s lead in making his personal encounter with God and conversion to Christianity central to their stories .5 But Constantine’s pagan narrators also exploited the trope to paint their less flattering portraits of the same man. Working in the tradition of the Enmannsche 28 Constantine’s Self-Presentation Kaisergeschichte, the author of the Epitome de Caesaribus claims that Constantine was “most outstanding for ten years, a brigand for the next twelve, and for the last ten he was called a ‘spoiled child’ because of his unbounded spending.”6 We find a similar assessment in the related account of Eutropius, who thought of Constantine as “a man comparable to the best emperors in the first part of his reign but only the mediocre in the last.”7 More dramatic still were the accounts of Julian and Zosimus, which, as we saw in the introduction, also focus on conversion , but in terms radically different from those of Lactantius and Eusebius: Constantine ’s turn to Christianity was, for them as well, the central event in his reign, but it was precipitated by his impious crimes against his family and resulted in a radical turn for the worse.8 The narrative of conversion, so central to Constantine ’s own story, thus filtered its way well beyond the emperor and his supporters to become the very basis for judgment both for and against him. Transformation was, in other words, a crucial leitmotif in all Constantinian narratives, beginning with the one invented by the emperor himself and extending out to those radically opposed to him and his program. The Epitome de Caesaribus had broken Constantine’s reign not into two phases but three, each more or less equal in length: 306–315, 315–327, 327–337. This division shows the perceptiveness of its author, for although the analytical framework on which its schematization was based is not entirely convincing, the perception that Constantine’s public persona could be periodized can be verified from the evidence. M. Grünewald has shown convincingly that Constantinian inscriptions shift themes and emphases in definable phases over time.9 In similar fashion, art historians have also argued that Constantine’s portrait styles can be broken into four discrete phases that can be measured chronologically using the datable evidence of the coins.10 Building on these arguments, I would suggest that the entire scheme of Constantine’s self-presentation to his broader public— including not just inscriptions but also coins, portraits, and panegyrics—can be broken into four phases. Thus the Constantine presented to...