Chapter 3. Constantine and the Christians: Controlling the Message
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Chapter 3  Constantine and the Christians Controlling the Message Emperor and Audience An emperor modulated his message not only to suit the advance of time and shifts in circumstance, but also with an eye to his audience. Many of the changes we witnessed in Constantine’s self-presentation in Chapter 1 were traced using that group of sources intended for the widest and most general pool of his subjects: coins, portraits, inscriptions, and panegyrics. There were also media for communicating with more restricted audiences, especially letters and laws, both of which could pinpoint narrower constituencies. Because of the imperfect preservation of our sources, we have very few testimonia to Constantine’s dealings with certain groups that we know to have existed as collectivities but to whom we have few if any imperial communications. In terms of religious groups, these include the Jews, who were a relatively unified if hardly monolithic collectivity and concerning whom we have precisely four Constantinian laws.1 More frustrating still, we have only scanty evidence with which to reconstruct Constantine’s dealings with pagans, a word we use as shorthand to characterize the largest religious class of his subjects, even if these were anything but a homogeneous or centrally organized collective unit.2 The one religious group for whom we do still possess a sizable number of communiqués is Christians. Here too, we would be mistaken to assume that Christians constituted anything like a uniform and cohesive body in Constantine ’s day, or for that matter in any period before or afterward. Nevertheless, we do have the advantage when speaking of Christians that these themselves generally bracketed the messy realities of doctrinal and organizational factionalism that always divided their movement and ideated their collective identity as a cohesive whole. This was also Constantine’s perspective, for although he was fully aware of the multiplicity of conflicts dividing the Christians of his empire, he always maintained the belief that, with God’s help, these were striving toward a unity that he himself was in no small part responsible for instantiating. 68 Constantine’s Self-Presentation In this chapter we will focus on these communications in an effort to map out how Christians might have read their emperor by examining how his messages to them appear to have shaped their interpretations of the first emperor also to be their coreligionist. It is divided into four parts, the first of which examines the meager evidence for Constantine’s earliest dealings with Christians and his conversion . Here we will see that Constantine’s conversion story was by all means a narrative construction, but that it came into being fairly early in his reign and that it entailed real consequences for his dealings with the church. In the second it turns to the question of the identity of the god Constantine insisted was his comrade and helper. For all that Constantine and his message makers were publicizing reports that the Sun God was his “companion” (comes) on coins and in other visual media, from as early as 314 his communications with Christians indicated instead that he identified his helper god as Christ. In the third part, we will look at the relationship he cultivated with bishops, in whose councils he participated and in whose numbers he wished to rank himself. Finally, in the fourth we will see that Constantine came to imagine connections with the church as coterminous with his responsibilities to the empire. High on his list of priorities was thus the obligation to push his subjects, and by extension his empire, toward adherence to the church and compliance with what he believed to be its rules. Early Constantine Constantine initiated his relationship with the Christian church already at the opening of his reign. If we can believe Lactantius, “Once he took up power, Constantine Augustus did nothing before restoring Christians to their worship and god. This was his first legal measure for the restoration of the holy religion.”3 Some have seen in this brief statement a mythologizing retrojection of proChristian politics back to the beginnings of Constantine’s reign. T. Barnes, by contrast, has strongly defended Lactantius’s veracity.4 Although Lactantius is likely right to imply that Constantine relaxed persecutions against Christians shortly after his accession, we have almost no idea precisely what this entailed. Did he simply revoke Diocletian’s persecuting edicts (only the first of which had been enforced systematically in the West), or did he go further by granting the restoration of confiscated...


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