About 75 pages of this book were assigned for one of the MOOC’s I’m taking, and since I’m a bit of an overachiever (at least in College Education 2.0 I’m an overachiever; in the first go-round not so much), I went ahead and read the whole thing. I don’t have the background to really “review” this book, so I’ll just share a few general thoughts about what it was like to read it.
Constantine, as you probably know, converted to Christianity in 312 when he received some kind of mystical sign just before he fought against his rival Maxentius in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. In Constantine’s short-by-modern-standards lifetime, Christianity went from a persecuted minority religion (under Diocletian) to a tolerated one (one of Constantine’s first acts after his conversion was to sign the Edict of Toleration in Milan in 313, which made the persecution of Christians illegal), and then to a favored religion and finally to one that was central to the very culture of the empire. By Constantine’s death in 337, approximately half of the empire had converted, which is astonishing given the size of the empire (huge!) and the fact that only 25 years elapsed between Constantine’s conversion and the conversion of half of his subjects. By 395, according to Professor Freedman in my MOOC, approximately 90% of the empire had converted to Christianity. Can you imagine 90% of the United States agreeing on something – anything?
This book spends a good bit of time quoting from Constantine’s letters to his various generals and government officials, and one of my main reactions was to feel that I was reading a biography of a bureaucrat. It seemed similar to a book that might hypothetically be written by a 23rd-century historian about, I don’t know – the IRS? The DMV? I learned in my MOOC that Constantine was in fact known for his skills as a bureaucrat and manager. He inherited an organized, efficient empire thanks to Diocletian, who cleaned up the mess that was the entire second century C.E., and he made it even more organized. Constantine would have loved Office Depot.
Professor Freedman explained that when Constantine first converted to Christianity, he practiced Christianity as if it were paganism. In other words, he thought of the Christian God as a talisman to protect him in battle, someone he needed to appease if he wanted to win. Christians in general at this time mostly lived out the teachings of Christ as handed down in the Sermon on the Mount: they were pacifists, they practiced compassion and forgiveness and love of enemies, and so forth, which in the Roman empire marked them as more than a little weird. As far as I can tell, Constantine was the first high-profile convert who embraced Christianity wholeheartedly but did not abandon his previous life of warfare and violence. Saul of Tarsus converted (and became St. Paul, of course) after a divine-revelation/probably-a-grand-mal-seizure on the road to Damascus, immediately renouncing the violence of his previous life (as a persecutor of Christians, no less) and changing his name. Constantine does no such thing. He continues to live the opulent life of an emperor with forays as needed into actual warfare: trampling his enemies into the ground and so forth. Is it safe to say, then, that Constantine introduced cognitive dissonance into Christianity, kicking off a long tradition of Christian leaders who behave like barbarians? It seems to me that it is.
As Constantine’s faith deepened (and both Professor Freedman and A.H. Jones make it clear that there is every reason to think that his conversion and faith were genuine, and I have no reason to think otherwise), he started doing things no Roman emperor had ever done: he started getting involved in discussions and decision-making involving doctrine. Traditional Roman religion was meant to be fun: yes, there were sacrifices and those sorts of thing, but mostly one summoned the gods for festivals and those so forth. No emperor before Constantine would have attended ecumenical councils to spend weeks or months debating esoteric matters of doctrine; Constantine not only attended the councils, but he attended as a subordinate. Since he was not a bishop, he was not considered an important decision-maker (although he was certainly deferred to; one might say he was the highest-ranking non-bishop at the councils), but he engaged heartily in the discussion and was the mastermind behind the use of the word “homoousios” at the Council of Nicaea, effectively settling the matter of the Holy Trinity by declaring that Christ is not secondary to God the Father. It doesn’t make sense, but it made the bishops happy.
Professor Freedman described Christianity in the 320’s as essentially rudderless. Powerful and inspirational bishops and other leaders sprang up all over the place – especially in North Africa – and they got together for councils at Nicaea and elsewhere, but there was no central authority over all of them. The pope at that time was still just the bishop of Rome, with no more status or authority than the bishop of Alexandria or Nicomedia or Tyre. As I was listening to Professor Freedman’s lecture, it occurred to me that in some ways Constantine served as sort of a prototype of a pope as we know the position today. He was invested in great pomp and ceremony because he was the emperor (and remember that up until the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Roman emperors were worshipped as gods – can you imagine if there’s a guy you worship as a god who has a vision in a dream and then says, “Actually, never mind – I’m just a guy”?), but he also voluntarily humbled himself before the bishops. Popes are supposed to be humble like that; some are better at it than others.
Of course, though, Constantine wasn’t really the prototype of a pope. He was a bureaucrat, and it seems to me that his primary contribution to history was to normalize Christianity, to bring it under the umbrella of respectability so that, for the next two thousand years, it would become the tool of political and military leaders like him. Professor Freedman hinted at this, suggesting that before Constantine Christianity was a feisty, energetic underground religion, rebellious in the face of authority and ready to embrace martyrdom if needed. After Constantine, Christianity had a big crown on, and a lot of rings that everyone had to kiss.
I am loving this class on the early Middle Ages, although it’s true that I’m moving through it awfully slowly. This book was an academic text – not the sort of thing that one would kick back and read for fun – but it was generally readable, and I do recommend it to anyone looking for insights into this emperor and this ear (although I recommend Professor Freedman’s lectures more).
So interesting, the thing about Constantine wielding Christianity like a pagan religion.
I find the story of how Christianity evolved in the first 500 or so years after Christ really interesting, but also heartbreaking. It could/should have happened so differently.