A couple of weeks ago, Peter Leithart mentioned Hans Pohlsander’s little book The Emperor Constantine as a “miracle of concision.” I agree with his assessment and wanted to add a few thoughts of my own.
I’d not read this book until I used it for a class I’m teaching this semester; but it is, I think, the single best introduction to the man and his times that I’ve come across. The problems surrounding Constantine and his reign are notoriously difficult, and Pohlsander handles them judiciously without getting lost in the weeds. One finds here an accessible narrative overview that hits the highlights. The book is unencumbered by footnotes or endnotes–this marks it as an introductory and unassuming text, but it is exactly the right approach for this sort of thing. His select bibliography on pp. 111-16 gives the reader what he needs to continue on in his study of the topic (though only works in English are mentioned).
With admirable brevity, Pohlsander covers the Tetrarchy, Constantine’s rise to power and conversion, his wars to eliminate rivals such as Maxentius and Licinius, his building programs in Rome, Palestine, and Constantinople, the religious conflicts in which he was involved (Donatism, Arianism), and the problem of imperial succession after his death. But he also treats the afterlife of Constantine, something perhaps not to be expected in a book this small, dealing, for instance, with the later and spurious accounts of his baptism in Rome at the hands of Pope Sylvester (a claim which can still be read on the base of an obelisk outside St. John Lateran in Rome, where it was placed in 1588 by Pope Sixtus V), as well as the (fanciful) portrayal of Constantine in the Stanze di Raffaello at the Vatican.
A couple of minor quibbles: first, in his discussion of Constantine’s building program in Rome he basically holds to the interpretation of Richard Krautheimer, viz., Constantine’s major church foundations (e.g., St. John Lateran; Old St. Peter’s) were built outside of the monumental center of the city and on private (imperial) land in order to avoid offense to pagans (p. 39). There is some plausibility to this line of thinking, though other explanations are possible. First, in terms of logistics, there was not much space to be had in the city’s old center. Rome in late antiquity was a topographically crowded place. Second, St. John Lateran was built on top of the barracks of the equites singulares, as Pohlsander notes (p. 38); this unit, dissolved by Constantine, fought on the side of the “tyrant” Maxentius against Constantine, and thus the church could be seen as a kind of triumphal monument. Furthermore, it is located near the Sessorian Palace (S. Croce in Gerusalemme), also an important imperial holding: as Jan Gadeyne has suggested (though I’m not sure if he has done so in print anywhere), Constantine may have been creating a new (imperial) axis of power in this part of the city.
Pohlsander makes a similar claim about the church foundations in Constantinople, this time having to do with their names: he wonders if the Church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) and the Church of Hagia Eirene (Holy Peace), names which he claims “would not be offensive to pagans” (p. 71), are more evidence of “a kind of religious neutralism” (ibid.). This is an interesting idea, though I’m not convinced–they are, after all, still churches, right in the center of the city in close proximity to the imperial palace, which possibly gave access to Hagia Sophia. If pagans desired to be offended by the emperor’s outspoken Christianity, there’s still plenty of material here. As Pohlsander himself notes (p. 69), a painting in the portal over the Chalke Gate depicted Constantine slaying a dragon, which he suggests could “represent Licinius, paganism or, more generally, all the forces of evil.” The hypothesis also would not explain the naming of the Church of the Holy Apostles, although it is true that this more explicitly named church is much closer to the walls on the outskirts of the Constantinian city.
Finally, Pohlsander refers to Constantinople without qualification as “New Rome,” whereas it seems to me that the foundation of the city is at least a little more ambiguous than the title implies. Emperors in the late empire built new capitals with some regularity, and it is not obvious that these were designed to “replace” Rome in any major respect. It is true that Constantinople had its own senate, and was something of a blank slate, and so may have been intended as something of a Christian statement. But dissatisfaction with the traditionalist paganism of the Romans of Rome is not the only way of accounting for the new city or its prominence (I should be clear that Pohlsander does not assert this). Emperors in this period almost never lived in Rome (except for the usurper Maxentius), and Constantinople is much better placed strategically than Rome; Pohlsander is clear about its military and commercial advantages. I suppose that what I would like to say is this: while Constantinople in time shifted the empire’s center of gravity to the East, I’m not sure that Constantine had in mind in the 320s or 330s that it would be “New Rome.” There is not any evidence of which I am aware that he himself called it by this designation. The first time it was so called, as far as I know (though I would be very happy to learn of an earlier instance), was in Canon III of the Council of Constantinople in 381, in which a place of honor was claimed for the episcopal see of the the city because it was the “New Rome.” (Constantinople was also called “Second Rome,” and already in a constitution of Constantine was said to have an “eternal name”). 1
But these are, as I say, quibbles, and have to do with matters of interpretation that are perhaps beyond the scope of the book. I shall close by saying (again) that The Emperor Constantine is an absolutely first-rate introduction to its subject.