The Long Century of Constantine

Author: Peter Brown

The Long Century of Constantine

Peter Brown

Under this sovereign a shift began and the consequences were decisive for the future of Europe

Published here are excerpts of a talk given at the conference "Constantine, Eusebius of Caesarea and the Future of Christianity" held at the American Academy in Rome.

Few rulers have set in motion changes of such momentous consequences for the future of Europe as those associated with the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in 312 and his subsequent halting of the persecution of Christians, that was ratified in what we now call the Edict of Milan in 313 AD. Indeed, an air of eerie grandeur has come to surround the person of the first Christian emperor. From the medieval legend of the cry of the angel — Hodie venenum effusum est in ecclesiam Christi: Today, poison has been poured into the Church of Christ (a cry provoked by the legendary Donation of Constantine to the pope) — up to the present, many theologians have held that a mysterious change for the worse in the entire quality of Christianity (such as persons of an earlier age would have been content to ascribe to supra-natural agents, such as the Devil or Antichrist) appear to have been summed up in the person of one, somewhat flashy Roman emperor.

I mean flashy: Constantine was remembered in Gaul 150 years later not, as we might expect, for his relations with the Christian Church but for the fact that he had invented a type of hair cream that enabled him to keep his diadem in the correct position on his head, do we know what was the image of the future — what was thinkable and what was unthinkable in the Christianity of the late third and early fourth centuries? Or, in our interpretations of the utterances and actions of Constantine, are we projecting back on to the expectations of the Christianity of his age images of a Christian future which belong to a later period?

Faced by paganism, Constantine and Eusebius also shared a common view of the present and the possible future. It was a view that was mercifully myopic. It was enough to humble a few gods by repeating on earth Christ's previous victory over the invisible empire of the demons. Eusebius rejoiced at the occasional, one might say almost "surgical", humiliation of the gods in particular sanctuaries. He hailed Constantine's dissolution of the sacred prostitutes of Baalbek. For such cults represented for him a small island of what all paganism had once been. In that case, Constantine's action merely echoed that of Hadrian in abolishing human sacrifice. Both actions showed to the world that the empire of the demons had already fallen.
Constantine's spasmodic acts against pagan temples and rituals, and the strangely take it or leave it quality of his relations with pagans and with pagan worship, have become central to our estimates of Constantine as a statesman. For Timothy Barnes, these puzzling exceptions to what he, Barnes, holds to be the manifest, Christian intentions of Constantine are grudging concessions. They are the result of prudential calculations, in the face of potentially restless pagan populations. For Hal Drake and Jonathan Bardill, the same hiatuses are a precious clue to a very different Constantine: a monarch who wished to unite all his subjects (even those who were not Christians) in the worship of an open-ended Supreme Being, and even (for Drake) the creation of a late antique equivalent to the modern notion of a neutral secular space where religious diversity was not only tolerated but welcome. For David Potter, in his recent biography, it was the sign of a rare political talent that made Constantine "not only one of the most successful emperors of Rome, but one of history's most influential leaders".

I have suggested that Constantine's prudence was bolstered by a distinctive world-view. Eusebius (and, I suspect, Christian
public opinion in general) provided him with a majestic script of the pre-existing fall of the gods. This script lent a sense of cosmic grandeur to his salami treatment of paganism. At the same time, it. imposed on Constantine and on the Christians of his time a firm if tacit limitation of the horizons of the possible. It was enough to "take out" the shrines of a few gods — pour encourager les autres — to show the bankruptcy of them all. God in heaven had already done what mattered. The effects of God's victory over the evil Overseers of this world were bound to show — but in God's good time, not necessarily in Constantine's own days.

Blinkered by this restricted view of the future, Constantine was, effectively, exonerated from a grandiose responsibility to push through a general Christianization of the Roman world. It left him that much more free to do other things — to fight wars, to shake up the justice system, to found cities, to invent brilliantine — whose sheer diversity, and the level of personal engagement which Constantine brought to them, has emerged ever more clearly in recent scholarship on the emperor and his reign.

So where does this leave us? It leaves us, in effect, with two middle-aged men whose world-views had been formed in the late third and early fourth century. They stood at the beginning of a century which in terms of the changes that it witnessed — was one of the longest hundred years in European history. Their distinctive view of the future very rapidly became out of date. I would willingly abuse your hospitality by delivering many more lectures on why this happened. It is enough to say, at the moment, that in 337, it had not happened. The shift from the "thin" universalism of the age of Eusebius and Constantine to the "thick", majoritarian universalism of later generations was not inevitable. It can not be derived directly from the pages of the Gospels. It can not be assumed to have been part of the Christian-ness of the Christianity of the second and third centuries. It represented a profound mutation in Christianity itself. It resulted from an adjustment of the Christian imagination in the course of the fourth century. Changes in the social imagination of Late Roman society as a whole, that happened to one side of the religious history of the period (changes, for instance, in the relations between emperors and subjects, such as are adumbrated in John Dillon's gripping new portrait of Constantine as judge and legislator — a "firebrand, a populist autocrat" determined to "project his voice into the far corners of the Empire"); redefinitions of the nature of the Church; thought about the meaning of time itself: all these developments played a part in the creation of the heavy substance of a majoritarian Christianity. Altogether, the history of the emergence of this particular form of universalism will involve us in the writing of a History of the Christian Future that remains one of the most exciting prospects in the study of the fourth and fifth centuries.

For the time being, it is important to remind ourselves of the Irish adage. We must not "think too sudden". Faced by the course of late Roman history, we must at all costs resist the temptation to press the fast forward button. Many scholars speak as if only "a short step" was required for the age of Constantine to become the age of Theodosius I. It may seem a short step to us. But it was a step over an abyss, into a different age, turned towards very different horizons of the possible. In the age of Constantine, no one knew that Ambrose, Theodosius and Augustine stood at the end of the long fourth century. The world which would produce such figures was as yet unthinkable. By the end of the fourth century, things had changed. A future which Eusebius still painted in pastel colours had come to be blocked out in solid oils. In many areas and among many circles, Christianity had come to think of itself as truly a majority religion. In around 403, Augustine could urge pagans to "listen to the roar of the world — the strepitus mundi" — like the unanimous roar of an entire city gathered in the local amphitheater. They should hurry up and join what was now presented, without hesitation, not only as a world religion, but as the religion of the majority of the world.

Thus, it was in the maelstrom of the long fourth century, and not in 312, that Christianity came of age. Whether one prefers grown ups (with all their faults) to an imagined time of childhood innocence (such as often, even nowadays, invests the Early Church in the days before Constantine with the false halo of some lost golden age) is an open matter. But the one thing of which we can be certain is that Constantine and Eusebius could not have foreseen what great riches as well as what disillusionments and what perils this maturity might bring. For, in the words ascribed to Oliver Cromwell, "He goes furthest who knows not whither he goeth".

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
13 December 2013, page 12

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