Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene

Constantinian Iconoclasm

No, not that kind.

This one deals with the breaking of images of Constantine himself.

Nazarius, an early fourth-century rhetorician, has a nice statement of the psychology of (the absence of) images in his “Panegyric of Constantine” (321). The usurper Maxentius, who controlled the city of Rome for several years before he was vanquished at the famous Battle of the Milvian Bridge (28 October 312), had destroyed images of Constantine, which represented the imperial presence even when the emperor himself was absent (Ecce enim, pro dolor! (verba vix suppetunt), venerandum imaginum acerba deiectio et divini vultus litura deformis [Behold, for sorrow! (words come with difficulty), the violent overthrow of venerable statues and the ugly erasure of the divine visage], Panegyrici Latini IV (X) 12.2).1

Nazarius apostrophizes and castigates the dead Maxentius:

Sed quid tandem adsequeris, caeca dementia? Aboleri vultus hic non potest. Universorum pectoribus infixus est , nec commendatione cerae ac pigmentorum fucis renitet sed desiderio efflorescit animorum. Una demum Constantini oblivio est humani generis occasus. Nunc vero commendabiliorem iniuria tua faciet patientiam eius: avidius expetent quem pictura non reddit. Flagrantiora sunt animorum desideria, cum oculorum solacia perdiderunt. (Panegyrici Latini IV (X) 12.4-5)

But what did you attain in the end, blind madness? This countenance cannot be effaced. It is impressed on the hearts of every person; it does not shine because it is beautified with wax or falsified with paint, but blossoms through the longing of our spirits. The one and only oblivion of Constantine is the end of the human race. But now your injury will make his patience the more commendable: they will long more keenly for him if no picture represents him. The desires of the spirit are more passionate when they have lost the consolation which the eyes provide.


  1. Text and translation from C.E.V. Nixon and Barbara Saylor Rodgers, In Praise of Later Roman Emperors, pp. 614 (text) and 356 (translation).

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

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