The Constantine and Ashoka of Legend: A Study. I: Introduction

The Constantine and Ashoka of Legend: A Study. I: Introduction May 23, 2008

In previous eras of world history, when an emperor or king converted to a new faith, their subjects took notice. The link between “church and state” was strong; often nations followed their ruler in their religious faith. Thus, when St Vladimir converted to Christianity, it was not surprising that he told his subjects to convert along with him: they were to be baptized or  he would consider them to be his personal enemies.[1] Two of the most famous, and most important, conversions made by a ruler were those of St Constantine and Ashoka. Politically, both were trying to find ways to enlarge and unify the empires they inherited. Constantine found out that in his time that the Roman Empire was in a decline, and Roman hegemony was weakening. Although Ashoka was able to expand his empire, he had to rely upon a large bureaucratic administration to keep it together;[2] as with all bureaucracies, this meant that his empire was inherently unstable.

Although both possessed large, powerful empires, neither of their domains would last long after their deaths. Both of them tried to prevent the inevitable, but neither succeeded. One of the ways both of them tried to reorganize their empires was through their new faith: Constantine with Christianity and Ashoka with Buddhism. It was in the religious landscape where they would establish their legacies. After they had died, if not even during their lives, they became the subject of religious legend. Their conversions were used to show the truth of their respective faiths. From this, they were to become more than religious heroes, but holy men whose lives were meant to be imitated. Yet, who was it that could really imitate them? Other monarchs; their legends were used not only as evangelization tools, but also as representations of what the ideal ruler should be like.[3]

Because Constantine and Ashoka were idealized, assumptions developed as to what kind of life they led. If Constantine is the ideal Christian monarch, or if Ashoka is the ideal Buddhism monarch, then their beliefs had to be entirely orthodox, and their life had to be, at least at some point, exemplary. To the hagiographer, this was a basic foundation which had to be accepted; it was the lens by which any historical material they possessed had to be read. Therefore, it is not surprising that the hagiographical biographies of Constantine and Ashoka were far different from the historical personalities they were trying to portray. Because Constantine called the Council of Nicea in 325, and Nicea was the representation of orthodox Christianity, his hagiographers proclaimed the fact that Constantine was a fully orthodox Christian in all of his beliefs. Thus, if historical sources – pagan or Christian – seemed to indicate that Constantine had only been baptized late in his life, long after Nicea, and by the Arian bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, this confusion was answered by a creative reinterpretation of his life. Eventually, Constantine was said to have been baptized by Pope Silvester. [4] Such a change in his biography was possible, in part, because earlier sources on his life were either neglected, rejected because of who wrote them, or (as it was in the West) difficult if not impossible to study. For Ashoka, the evolution of his biography occurred long after his death. He left many monuments which recorded the laws, policies, and beliefs he held, but they were written in languages which were soon forgotten in India: Kharosthi and Brahmi.[5] Because they were not able to read these monuments, Indian sages relied upon oral tradition and distorted memories for the legends they later composed.

Autobiography is often written for self-glorification.[6] When one sits down to write their own biography, they believe that there is something so worthwhile in it that others can learn from what they have done. But, in writing an autobiography, one must also sit back and look at the development of one’s own life and question why things happened as they did, and this can be quite difficult. In fact, hindsight often gives a different interpretation to events of one’s life than foresight would. This is especially true for a convert. When a convert tells their own life story, they understand their life in two segments: pre-conversion, and post-conversion. They can only make sense out of their past by creating a new understanding of themselves under the heuristic light of their new faith.[7] Indeed, they usually see their new faith as fundamentally changing and perfecting their moral character.[8]

Often hagiographical biographies of converts increase both tendencies, that is, the way autobiographies glorify their subject, but also the way converts understood their life before conversation as being filled with perversion. In developing the life of a heroic or saintly convert, there is the need to develop the story so as to show the extreme dichotomy of the convert and their moral character before their conversion and afterwards. It is the new person, after their conversion, who then becomes a representative of the religious community, highlighting, as it were, the superiority of that community to any other. Thus, while autobiographies make the author seem like a larger than life hero, the development of a hagiographical legend requires not just the glorification of the hero, but a glorification of the hero’s community. It is, in this respect, a kind of community-autobiography where the hero acts as a representation of the community itself. By looking at hagiography this way, we can easily understand how it develops, not as some purposeful diabolical twist on history, but rather as a constructed understanding of history which seeks to explain history in light of the community’s own religious beliefs.[9]

It should not be too surprising that there are many similarities between the literature surrounding Constantine and Ashoka. They both represent the same role – that of the convert king. Because of this role, one can see how they have been used for evangelical polemics based upon their conversions. If a king or monarch, so well known and respected, converts, this shows the value that the religious community they joined must have. Moreover, if they are converted by special signs and wonder, this is treated as a further confirmation of the truth and power that their newfound religious community must possess.

Before examining their respective legends, a brief mention needs to be made about which ones will be examined and why. For Constantine, we will look at those which have been the most influential in history, even if, as it turned out to be for many of them, that they are quite unhistorical. Therefore we will look at the legends which can be traced from the Acts of Sylvester to the so-called Donation of Constantine and finally to the medieval Golden Legend. It was only during the Renaissance that this tradition was rejected, but by then, it had become so ingrained that even those who would come to deny their veracity would still influenced by it. For Ashoka, we will look primarily upon the legends within the Asokavadana – the Sanskrit (Indian) the legends of Ashoka, important because they come from the very land where Ashoka once ruled, but also because they became the basis for the dissemination of the legend of Ashoka into many other lands, such as China. 


[1] See Vladimir Volkoff, Vladimir the Russian Viking (Woodstock, New York: The Overlook Press, 1985), 234.[2] While Ashoka was an absolute monarch, he was seen, not as the source of law but as its support. He saw himself as a public servant, and he listened to his people.  Nonetheless, he still had to rely upon his officials to keep the day to day administration of his empire, and for those provinces which were remote, he gave strong authoritative power to viceroys to rule in his place. Even the ordinary governors were granted great autonomy in how they ruled. See Radhakumud Mookerji, Asoka (London: McMillan and Co. Limited, 1928) 47 – 59 for a good description of his administration.  If the legends surrounding Ashoka have any historical credibility, then revolts described in the Asokavadana seem to indicate that the empire itself was, like the Roman Empire in the time of Constantine, already on the verge of collapse. See, for example, John S.  Strong, The Legend of King Asoka: A Study and Translation of the Asokavadana  (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1989), 208 as an example of one such revolt – that of the city Takasila.

[3]Constantine quickly became the “imperial prototype” by which not only the emperors of  Byzantium but also Western rulers tried to imitate;  see Samuel N. C. Lieu and Dominic Montserrat, eds. Constantine: History, Historiography and Legend (New York: Routledge, 1998), 4.  Roger Corless describes this status for Ashoka within Buddhism. “King Ashoka Maurya, whose decrees were said to have been always for the betterment of the Teaching and never for the expansion of his own power, has become the symbol of the most perfect Buddhist ruler. Many Buddhist rulers have aspired to be like Ashoka, and it is a high compliment to compare a sovereign with ‘righteous Ashoka,‘” Roger J. Corless, The Vision of Buddhism (St. Paul, Minnesota: Paragon House, 1989), 56.
[4]Garth Fowden explains the evolution of this story: “But within months of the baptism […] Eusebius moved from the See of Nicomedia to that of Constantinople, the New Rome. It was only a matter of time until someone confused the New Rome with the Old and decided Constantine had been baptized by ‘Eusebius of Rome.’ Perusal of the pontifical lists did indeed reveal a Eusebius who had briefly sat on Peter’s throne within Constantine’s reign (308); but Silvester (314-35) was eventually fixed upon, for reasons which must have included the prosaic matter of chronology and Silvester’s growing personal reputation,” Garth Fowden, “The Last Days of Constantine: Oppositional Versions and Their Influence” in The Journal of Roman Studies 84 (1994), 153-4.

[5] See Radhakumud Mookerji, Asoka, 246 – 254 for a description and brief grammar of these scripts.
[6] See Sonia Ryang, “Ethnography or Self-cultural Anthropology? Reflections on Writing About Ourselves” in Dialectical Anthropology 25, no. 3-4 (2000), 309 – 12. Sonia, after looking at two examples of autobiography – Anne Frank and Ma Bo (from China), relates the theory of John Sturrock that “singularization or self-elevation is a necessary premise [… that any writer uses] to justify the act of writing about himself/herself,” Ibid., 311.
[7]But the past is not only shattered; the disjointed pieces are reassembled in accordance with the new universe of discourse and its grammar. Some aspects of the past are jettisoned, others are redefined, and some are put together in ways previously inconceivable. One’s biography is, in short, reconstructed,” David A Snow, “The Convert as a Social Type,” in Sociological Theory 1 (1983): 266.

[8]Not only are former identities evaluated negatively but the course and character of the convert’s life history is typically reconstructed as troublesome, misdirected, and even loathsome,” Ibid., 267.
[9] Orrin Klapp’s article, “The Creation of Popular Heroes,” provides a good analysis on the creation of a hero within society, and shows how the hero becomes more than just a person, but a symbol for the society which honors him or her. A society’s understanding of that hero is based not on history; rather, it follows the popular notions which a society expects out of their hero, as he explains, “The hero in social life is thus essentially more than a person; he is an ideal image, a legend, a symbol. The study of growing hero legends shows us that the fame of a hero is a collective product, being largely a number of popular imputations and interpretations,” Orrin E. Klapp, “The Creation of Popular Heroes,” in The American Journal of Sociology 54, no.2 (1948):135.

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