Burkhardt redux

David Potter’s Constantine the Emperor has many virtues. Potter is hugely well-informed about Roman history, and is able to place Constantine in his context like few others. His discussion of Diocletian’s “interventionist” policy (his Price Edict and his edicts regarding Christianity) is superb, as is his sense of the limits of imperial power (often due to the recalcitrance or laziness of local officials, on whom the emperor had to depend for enforcement of his decrees). He has clear opinions on the various controverted issues concerning Constantine, but the book does not have the edge that one finds (and cringes at) in the work of TD Barnes. He writes straightforwardly, without getting bogged down in details or debates.

He also does a grand job of capturing the man Constantine.

The emperor had the sense of timing, the boldness, and the kill of command shared by all great generals. He was, Potter rightly says, not a particularly gentle or kind man. He was passionate in his loves and his hates; passionate too in his devotion to the Christian God, and passionate to see others accept that God. He recognizes that Constantine was both conservative and innovative in his government of the empire. Potter’s treatment of Constantine’s religious policies gets things just right: Constantine didn’t force Christianity on anyone, but allowed free religious practice to Jews and pagans as well as Christians; his vicious rhetoric against Jews was typical of Romans, and did not translate into vicious policies toward Jews. Potter also highlights, rightly, Constantine’s concern to rule all his subjects fairly and justly, and his particular concern to protect the rights of the vulnerable against the wealthy and well-placed.

My main complaint about Potter’s work is his tendency to minimize the impact of Christianity on Constantine’s conduct as emperor. He admits late in the book that his portrait bears some similarities to that of Jakob Burkhardt (p. 297). Potter’s is a kinder, gentler Burkhardtian Constantine, but he is still one who regards his subjects mainly as subjects and whose “aim was first and foremost to wield more power than anyone else in the world” and for whom “the exercise of that power was his paramount concern” (3). At various points in the book, Potter reminds readers that Constantine did this or that for political rather than for religious reasons. His main target is Eusebius, an easy target and one deserving of many shots.

Still, Potter is off balance here. As Potter recognizes, Constantine saw God as a God of battles, and was eager to please Him partly because he wanted to keep winning battles. Constantine wanted the church unified so that God would be pleased and keep the empire safe and unified. It seems likely, then, then when he revised the penal code, for instance, he also did so with some thought to whether his actions would please the God on whose favor Rome’s peace depended. Even if it is true that Constantine drew more on Roman tradition than the Bible in his edicts concerning families (and it is true), one cannot discount the role of Christian faith entirely. If he had been convinced that some policy or other was positively dis pleasing to God, he would surely have abandoned it. (Perhaps this is what happened when he finally decided to leave the Donatists alone.)

Potter’s Constantine is too Burkhardtian for my tastes. Still, in the end Potter’s is one of the best biographies of Constantine that I’ve found.

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