- Was There a Constantinian Revolution?
Most modern accounts of Constantine, whatever their interpretation of the emperor, have given a central place in the logical structure of their arguments to Lactantius' political and military narrative of the years 303–313 in his pamphlet On the Deaths of the Persecutors and to Constantine's own letters and edicts preserved in works of Christian literature, especially in Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History and Life of Constantine and among the documents that Optatus of Milevis appended to his polemic against the Dontatists. Raymond Van Dam's book about Constantine, The Roman Revolution of Constantine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), breaks with this venerable scholarly tradition. He explicitly denies that "Constantine's involvement with Christianity was the defining characteristic of his long reign" (10), quoting the titles of seven books that he takes to typify the approach that he repudiates, whose authors are, in chronological order, Norman Baynes (1931), Andreas Alföldi (1948), A.H.M. Jones (1949), T.D. Barnes (1981), T.G. Elliott (1996), Harold Drake (2000), and Charles Odahl (2004). Van Dam asserts that "before Constantine was a Christian emperor, he was a typical emperor," proclaiming that his book "highlights different, and often alternative, perspectives on the significance of his reign" (11). Now, whereas Constantine did indeed behave very much like earlier emperors, including Diocletian and his colleagues between 293 and 305, in matters of administration and routine government,1 that did not prevent him from adopting fundamental and far-reaching innovations in religious matters.
Van Dam's book is formally divided into three sections with the titles "A Roman Empire without Rome" (19–141), "A Greek Roman Empire" (143–220), and "Emperor and God" (221–353), framed by an introduction entitled "Augustus and Constantine" (1–18) and an epilogue entitled "One Emperor" (354–362). A bare list of chapter titles will suffice to convey the tone and flavor of the book's three sections, each of which has four chapters. The first quartet comprises "Constantine's Rescript to Hispellum," "His Favorite Rooster: Old Rome and New Rome," "'Hope in his Name': The Flavian Dynasty," and "Reading Ahead"; the second "Constantine's Dialogue with Orcistus," "'The Most Holy Religion': Petitioning the Emperor," [End Page 374] "'The Roman Language': Latin and the Greek East," and "Falling Water"; and the third "'Begotten of the Gods': The Imperial Tetrarchy," "'Begotten from the Father': The Christian Trinity," "'Only-Begotten Son': History Becomes Theology," and "The Search for the Christian Doctrine of the Emperor." Van Dam grounds his interpretation of Constantine on his textual analyses of the emperor's rescript to the Umbrian city of Hispellum (ILS 705) and the dossier of inscriptions from Orcistus in Phrygia (MAMA 7.305 = FIRA2 1.95): not only does each have a chapter to itself (23–34, 150–62), but the second also is discussed at length in other contexts (176–84, 196–200, 217–20), while two appendices provide a text and translation of both, preceded by discussion of their dates (363–72). Thus it is his exegesis of the rescript to Hispellum and the Orcistus dossier that provides the logical springboard for Van Dam's central thesis that Constantine was "open-minded" in matters of religion even after 324. This interpretation of Constantine I have long held to be completely misguided.2
Van Dam argues that Constantine "preached religious toleration" to the end of his reign because "he did not insist on universal conversion" (177). This inference from Constantine's unwillingness to "insist on universal conversion" to the conclusion that he "was apparently still quite open-minded" is logically flawed, relying as it does on a tacit premise whose falsity becomes obvious as soon as it is stated clearly. According to the criteria invoked here by Van Dam, any state, ancient, medieval, or modern, would be practicing "religious toleration" if it allowed the spoliation and pillage of Jewish synagogues so long as it did not "insist on universal conversion" for individual Jews to Christianity. Although many decades passed after the death of Constantine before any of his Christian successors required his non-Christian subjects to convert to the new religion of empire, the systematic confiscation of statues...