Today is the anniversary of Constantine’s birth. I’ve mentioned the anniversary of his accession here before and the anniversary of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, as well as the esteem in which he was held by the magisterial Reformers; Peter Martyr Vermigli, for instance, praises him along with David, Solomon, Hezekiah, Josiah, and Charlemagne, while the Presbyterian David Dickson remarks on his importance in convoking the First Council of Nicaea. I’ve also noted Augustine’s praise for Constantine and Theodosius in City of God 5. I’ve also discussed Lorenzo Valla’s demolition of the spurious Donation of Constantine, which supposedly granted the papacy power over the Western Roman Empire.
Today I’d like to a couple of contemporary or near-contemporary reactions to Constantine. The first is from the fourth century epitomizer Flavius Eutropius, who was probably a pagan. In Book 10 of his Breviarium historiae Romanae (Brief Summary of Roman History), its final book, he says of Constantine:
He was a man worthy to be compared with the best emperors in the first period of his reign, with middling ones in the last. Innumerable virtues of mind and body shone forth in him: he was most desirous of military glory, and his fortunes in war were favorable–but in such a way that they did not exceed his industry. For he utterly overthrew the Goths at various times after the civil war, and peace was granted at last; and he invested his memory with an enormous amount of gratitude among the barbarian nations. He was dedicated to civic arts and liberal studies; he strove for a just love from his subjects, which he sought for himself with all liberality and docility. As he was doubtful toward some friends, so was he excellent toward the rest, omitting no opportunity to render them richer and more illustrious. He introduced many laws, some in accordance with the good and the right, very many that were unnecessary, some that were severe; and he was the first to strive to convey the city that bore his name to such a pinnacle that he made her a rival of Rome. (Eutoprius, Breviarium 10.7-8)1
Second, a Christian: the fourth century biblical epic poet Juvencus who, in the wake of the Great Persecution that Constantine helped to end, apostrophizes the emperor at the close of his Evangeliorum libri quattuor (Four Books of the Gospels):
My mind assumed such faith and holy fear
and grace of Christ so shone that it my poem
divine law in its glory readily
assumed the earthly ornaments of speech.
Christ’s peace gave this to me, and peace today,
graciously fostered by the wide world’s ruler,
Constantine, duly touched by worthy grace;
alone of kings he dreads a holy name,
so that, more worthy by just acts, he wins
eternal life throughout immortal time
through Christ, the Lord of Light, who ever reigns. (ELQ 4. 802-12)2