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Constantine: Divine Emperor or Christian Saint?

The Baptism of Constantine

I REPOSE ON A PULVINAR

The pulvinar was the consecrated bed, on which the images of the gods reposed. To this bed the early Roman Emperors only repaired in the long sleep of death, conscious of the fate which had befallen their progenitor Julius. Recognition by the Senate as divus was a posthumous honour, termed consecratio, following a good reign. Yet divine status was not a simple all or nothing, god or man situation as a ruler could be linked with aspects of divinity. Plutarch drew a direct connection between the actions of a good king and the divine Logos. In this way, though virtuous governance a ruler could become eikōn theou (the image of God on earth). Martial used a similar theme in noting that a statue of Hercules on the Appian Way had been sculpted to resemble Domitian (Imperator A.D. 81-96). So taken was he by the notion of his own divinity that Domitian started insisting formal letters begin with “our lord and god commands so and so” and it was not long, though perhaps driven more by fear than sycophancy, before this form of address became the custom in speech.

Yet not all ancient authors were so fulsome in their recommendation that an emperor should put on not only the purple, but also the mantle of divinity. Philo of Alexandria had even gone so far as to argue that a king could never be divine in either nature or essence (physis or ousia), the best for which a mortal ruler could hope was to imitate the virtues of God. In this way Philo asserts a ruler may be directed by orthos logos (right reason) and that there is nothing on earth more exalted than the king, yet in the end a king is still fashioned from the dust of the earth. Dio Chrysostom was similarly circumspect in advising Trajan to aspire to a semi-divine status and not yield to the temptation of full divinity. Pliny was equally fulsome, one is tempted to say throughly relived, following the accession of Trajan to the purple, in writing: “Nowhere should we flatter him as a divinity and a god; we are talking of a fellow citizen, not a tyrant, one who is our father not our over-lord.” However, come the Antonine period all such inhibition was gone as a terminology began to emerge which connected the Emperor, his Imperial house, and all of his labours and deeds with the divine realm. In such a heady atmosphere, it was almost inevitable that godlike attributions would blur the lines between the temporal imperial and spiritual divine realms to an extent that a highly competent and secure Emperor, or perhaps extremely vainglorious, would take the final step and proclaim himself a living god, born to rule.

Adoratio, or prostration before a god or ruler, which had been practised by the Roman’s for some time, was formalized by the Tetrarchs who began implementing a much stricter form of court ceremonial procedure. Diocletian, it seems, was responsible for the enforcement of a form of adoratio purpurae, in which all attendants at court, even immediate members of his family, were required to fall to the ground before him and kiss hem of his cloak. Further evidence for this elevation to the divine can be seen in the work of panegyrists of the period who reflected the changing times through the employment of a language which firmly placed their rulers in a heavenly realm. There were however some linguistic problems when more than one Emperor was in residence, as can be witnessed through the panegyrist of 291 who was tasked with praising Diocletian and Maximian who were both in residence at Milan (In this instance the writer got around the linguistic problem by referring to ‘geminato numine‘ (twin deities) and describes the worship of the Emperors as though it were taking place in the inner shrine of a temple (vlut interioribus sacariis) Pan. Lat. XI.11.1-3). Another ancient source describes the Emperor as belonging “to that class of superior gods which the chief divinity has appointed for the creation and preservation of all things… [and] is thus raised to the highest ranks of the gods by divine and eternal dispensation.” Little wonder the later emperors were unwilling to go back to the former days where they acted like ordinary senators, and with this sense of separateness, practise of deification postmortem became redundant as a traditional rite.

This trend toward divine status by a living emperor was altered by the accession and conversion of Constantine. Arguably the first Christian emperor (There is much debate on Constantine’s “conversion”, a word which I find highly inappropriate given the context as Constantine’s religious experience was nothing like what we would today term a conversion), Constantine subtly wrought his changes in an Empire which was still predominantly pagan. From around 324, Constantine began discouraging his Greek speaking subjects from referring to him with the partially elegiac name Sebastos. Perhaps a more direct rebuttal of Constantine’s claims to divinity is to be found in Eusebius who recounts Constantine’s admonishing remarks to a bishop who had asserted that upon his death, the Emperor would rule in heaven along side the Son of God. Yet even here we encounter the contradictions which are ever present the reign of Constantine. For although the Emperor chose to rebuke a bishop on this occasion, it is striking, is it not, that a senior member of the church would employ such language in the first place. However the question remains, was Constantine’s reported rebuke a mere public relations gloss for future readers, either by Eusebius or Constantine? This seems increasingly likely when this anecdote is viewed in the context of continued official sanction for the Flavian dynasty cult. The situation is further complicated by the very source which was seeking to distance Constantine from any notion of personal divinity. Eusebius’ account of commemorations post the death of the Emperor suggests that officials honoured the emperor in death as they had done in life: ‘γονυκλιεῖϛ ἠσπάζοντο.’ This is an intriguing turn of phrase as it could be translated as “with genuflections they kissed [the emperor]” or “with genuflections they honoured [the emperor].” If the former, it could indicate that in death, Constantine’s officials were honouring him as they had in life, by kissing the purple. MacCormack notes that postmortem honours were common among earlier emperors, suggesting that Constantine retained the earlier deific Roman funereal custom.

II THE KING OF KINGS

Traditionally Jewish hope for a messiah, God’s anointed saviour, had been invested in the Israelite kings. They were to be both rulers and conquerors, making footstools of the enemies of Israel. Yet for such grand hopes, only one kind, David, had come anywhere near this exalted notion and subsequent generations began to turn to the future for salvation, converting the memory of David into the prototype for a messianic king to come. Ezekiel took up this prophesy, following the Babylonian destruction of the temple in around 587 B.C., and predicted a second David would rule over paradise which would spring from the construction of a New Temple. In a variation on the theme, Isaiah predicted this future messiah would be slaughtered like a lamb for the sins of mankind, but in doing so would bring salvation to both Jews and Gentiles. It did not take long for these cherished hope to take an eschatological turn in which the saviour would bring into being a new age at the end times. Perhaps influenced by this theme, Enoch takes up the refrain in speaking of a God-anointed descendent of David, who would condemn the wicked and raise the just in establishing an eternal kingdom. Philo of Alexandria wrote variations on this theme of kingship and presented God as the supreme king: But in addition to his Jewish heritage, Philo was also Hellenic and wove into his philosophical thinking kingship and Godhead epithets of “charioteer” and “helmsman” from the Homeric age and drew on the concept of the emperor and God as “saviour and benefactor.”

The Christian tradition continued from this this Judeo-Hellenic starting point and consequently accords Jesus the title of king, as in Matthew 2 when the Magi came in search of “he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” The earlier Jewish notion of the king bringing paradise is picked up by Luke who presents Jesus as “the Son of the Highest” who will be given “the throne of his father David,” “of his kingdom there shall be no end” and “he will be called the Son of God.” Perhaps the culmination of the glory comes in Revelations in which Christ is said to bear the title “And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.” The denouement of the eschatological vision has Christ, now in the form of a lamb in fulfilment of Isaiah, taking His place on God’s throne as ruler of the cosmos.

Perhaps what is most illuminating about the passages in Revelation, as with Luke, is that they pull in pagan rites and draw on what would have been well known aspects of the imperial cult: a golden altar, spilling of blood, purification of robes to make them white and worshippers crying out “Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.” All of this is very reminiscent of blessings to honour the imperial family which have been found on inscriptions. Yet this is not mere imitation of an existing practise, rather it is a clear attempt to subsume all previous worship into the one true faith, a feat the author of Revelation attempts by leveraging existing pagan rites while simultaneously condemning all those who worship the “image of the beast.”

Though some of the textual connections between notions of Christ and kingship may be coincidental, in a number of passages collections of significant terms appear which makes it unlikely the correlations could simply have been accidental. In 1 Thessalonians Paul introduces the language of kingship in his discussion of Christ’s second coming to counter prevailing notions that Augustus was the saviour of mankind. Yet perhaps the most striking linguistic issue in the writing of Christian theology came at around the beginning of the second century. Until that time, the names for Christ and God had been meticulously maintained in their original Hebrew forms within the Greek text of the Old and New Testaments. Now, abbreviated Greek titles came into use such as kyrios (Lord) and theos (God). Kyrios is particularly striking as it had traditionally been used as a royal title to suggest the rulers to whom it was given were divine. In this way to use the term when writing of Christ indicated not only a divine but royal status, and this was a status which later Christian apologists would repeatedly turn, dipping into kingship epithets to write of Christ as “king bee,” a term drawn from extant philosophical writing about earthly kings. Origen went further in weaving the connection between the kingdom on earth and the heavenly kingdom to come by drawing on 1 Peter 2:9 in which Christians are described as “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” From this Origen concluded Christians who had driven sin from their bodies and embraced righteousness were kings in their own right. Since Christ ruled over Christians He was rightly to be called “King of kings.” Lactantius continued this theme in depicting God as imperator omnium and thought of Christ as a “living, immediate law” or “a teacher, like a living law.” Eusebius was no less fulsome in his use of regal terminology by drawing on terms such as “all imperial,” “emperor of the universe” or “great emperor.” Though perhaps Eusebius’ most dramatic elegiac reference to Christ came in his Ecclesiastical History in which he quotes a speech he made to the Bishop of Tyre, Paulinus, during the dedication of a cathedral in c. 315:

He the Lifegiver, the Lightbringer, our great Physician and King and Lord, the Christ of God… These things are indeed awe-inspiring and overwhelming, astonishing and amazing, and server as clear proofs that our Saviour is King.

This appropriation of pagan forms didn’t stop at word association. Christian apologists even sought to pull entire works into the machine as Lactantius did when he not only sought to associate the Golden Age predicted by Virgil with the kingdom of God, but went so far as to claim the poet had been a crypto-Christian. Even Constantine took up the baton of appropriation in his Oration to the Assembly of the Saints, presenting a translation of Virgil’s entire poem into Greek along with a commentary on its Christian meaning.

Yet this battle for the philosophical high ground was not confined to words alone. Since the early fourth century a battle had been waged through art where Christ was depicted as a philosopher or miracle worker (When shown as miracle worker during this time, Christ was often shown with a magic wand, an iconography which didn’t die out until the fifth century). While this isn’t that surprising given the accounts of Jesus in the Gospels, what would have struck a contemporary viewer is that “Christ did not present Himself in regal attire, as the people generally imagined the founder of a mighty kingdom would do.” While this artistic vision of Jesus is familiar to a modern audience, the notion of a humble king seemingly “of the people” and dressed simply would have stuck a unique chord in the ancient world. But where early Christian artists were on much more familiar ground was in the characterization of Christ as performing great deeds. Pagan philosophers had written of holy men, such as Apollonius of Tyana, and in usurping this common theme and pagan rites, as described in Revelation, Christian artists fought for command of the iconographic field. The similarities between Christ and the pagan philosophers was highlighted by Lactantius who sought to demonstrate the compatibility between Christianity and contemporary thinking on monotheism. For Lactantius, the quickest route to convincing the unbelievers was to present Christ as a spiritual guide who would save humanity not through suffering on the cross, but as a a philosophical teacher. In this context it is increasingly unsurprising that depictions of Christ on sarcophagi and wall paintings of the period show Him as a philosopher teaching his disciples.

In an attempt to be all things to all people, multiple representations of Christ begin to spring. In some works he is shown as a boy, likely an attempt to draw on a motif, popular in Roman funerary art in the late third century, of the spiritually powerful child prodigy. At other times Jesus was shown as a man with beard and long flowing hair, an iconography which became popular during the reigns of Nero and the Flavian Emperors and sought to convey not only the wisdom, but also the dignity of a charismatic philosopher. Size too, it seems, mattered as early catacomb painting shows Christ in proportion to his followers, but as time passed the style changed and soon Jesus appeared larger and in an elevated position, likely picking up contemporary practise of demonstrating proximity to the gods. Just as in literature we saw how Christ took on a royal visage, so too in art the distance between and elevation above His followers increased and in some works characteristics of traditional depictions of the deified emperor can be seen to denote Christ’s royal status. Another way in which Christ’s kingship was displayed in art began to appear around the time of Constantine and took the form of the Magi presenting gifts to the baby Jesus. These motifs are seeking to exploit the long established iconography of oriental barbarians presenting tribute to the emperor. Any hesitation on this matter is, I think, quashed when we know that many of the earliest depictions of the presentation of gold did not take the form of coins or a casket, but of a golden wreath, the symbol of a ruler.

Yet the nature of apologetics is not just to assert, but also to defend. In their writing and art Christians were not only seeking to assert their claims about Christ’s divinity and royalty, they were also trying to stem the waves of attacks which were coming from their opponents who seized upon Jesus’ miracles to claim He was merely a sorcerer, not a true sage and certainly not the Son of God. Perhaps driven more by the pagan attacks than an understood theological reality, it should be remembered that at this time the Church hadn’t resolved the quandary of whether Christ was of precisely the same substance as God, Christian artists began to move away from images of Jesus as a magical figure who could perform acts of wonder, instead they chose to focus on His royal status and inherent divinity. But once such iconography was applied to Christ, who was the only son and some were saying of the same substance as the one true God, it could no longer be used to depict emperors. This created a quandary for artists of the day and we can see the iconographic turmoil being played out on wall paintings in the Empire. Christ, the Son of God, was shown seated on the globe of the universe and being received into heaven by the Father. Yet in another work the emperor was depicted bestriding the world and being received by God. How could Imperial authorities, the Church and citizens of the empire reconcile these two essentially contradictory notions, according to the now dominant Christian theology. Was it a tit for tat between Christians and pagans or was it a positive reaction toward a hitherto prevailing cult of the emperor now that Constantine had essentially liberated Christians from their bondage and become something of a Christ-like saviour?

III SPIRITUAL AND TEMPORAL MONARCHY

Since the Golden Age of Augustus, the Roman state had drawn its strength through a form of government that was essentially a monarchy. In the war over hearts and minds between pagans and the monotheists of Christianity, such strength of purpose and continuity could be exploited to not only facilitate the desirability of a monarchy in heaven, they could use notions of kingship to bind an ever increasing number of converts to the new faith though the stability of one temporal ruler and one spiritual ruler. Lactantius revolved this notion in his Divine Institutes and Eusebius took up this theme in recounting the first Christian to be martyred during the persecutions by Diocletian. Perhaps what is most interesting about this case is that in refusing to sacrifice to the gods and pour a libation to the four emperors, Procopius is said to have quoted Odysseus’ thoughts on monarchy: “The lordship of many is no good thing; let there be one lord, one king.” While on the face of it this simply seems to be an assertion of the heavenly monotheism of Christianity by Procopius, it is also, when taken in the context of the four emperors, a blow against the secular Tetrarchic government. In this way it was not merely an expression of faith, but an act of sedition against the state. However Eusebius also inverted the logic of Lactantius by arguing that because there is a monarchy in heaven there ought to be one on earth.

Monarchy excels all other kinds of constitution and government. For rather do anarchy and civil war the alternative, a polyarchy based on equality. For which reason there is One God, not two or three or even more. For strictly speaking, belief in many gods is godless. There is on Sovereign and His Logos and royal law is one, not expressed in words of syllables nor eroded by time in books or tables, but the living and actual God the Logos, who directs His Father’s kingdom for all those under and beneath Him.

The triumvirate of logic was completed when Constantine himself launched into the fray in this Oration to the Assembly of the Saints:

if there were not one but many authorities over these innumerable things, there would be share-outs and divisions of elements and [things told in] ancient myths; envy and avarice, dominating according to their power, would mar the harmonious concord of the whole… The Word is himself God and the child of God.

The importance of this development is hard to overstate. Beginning with Lactantius’ bottom to top use of kingship to assert the notion of a monarchy in heaven, moving through Eusebius’ top down approach claiming a king on earth reflected the future kingdom to the Emperor’s adoption of one king and one God, we have a philosophical march from fringe cult to central religion of the empire. Yet this still left an area of doubt, for although applying to Christ attributes of the divine emperor created a mode of understanding Jesus which would resonate with a broader base of citizens, it also left in place a tradition of imperial divinity in which an emperor could be compared too, and even equated with, Christ. The situation was not exactly helped by one of the dominant voices which echoes from this period. To understand why Eusebius doesn’t give the clarity we may have expected, that Constantine is subordinate to Christ who is one with God, we need to delve a little into Eusebius’ own theology.

As we have seen, Eusebius subscribed to the long-established view that a good king ought to try and replicate the presumed heavenly monarchy on earth. This, not unsurprisingly, lead to the comparison that if the Roman Empire was akin to the heavenly realm then Constantine must be akin to Christ as like Jesus, Constantine was God’s representative on earth. Am am compelled toward this argument as I think Van Dam’s argument is persuasive in positing that despite signing-up to the Nicene Creed, Eusebius remained committed to the view that Christ was different from and subordinate to God the Father. By advancing the case for a resemblance between Christ and a mortal ruler, Eusebius was able to keep the flame of his subordinationist views ablaze. Eusebius seems to envisage God working His will through a heavenly and a temporal power, both of whom are named His hyparchos. Although Eusebius never explicitly names Him, it is clear the hyparchos in heaven is Christ, while the hyparchos on earth is Constantine. But it is here we see an important break from one of the traditions of kingship. According to Plutarch, a good king had a direct connection with the divine Logos. In this way, though virtuous governance a ruler could become eikōn theou (the image of God on earth). If this were true of Constantine, he would be Christ incarnate. Although Eusebius’ reverence of Constantine bordered on that level of feeling:

having been furnished by God with natural virtues and having received in his soul the emanations from that place. His ability to reason has come from the Universal Logos, his wisdom from communion with Wisdom, goodness from contact with the Good, and justness from his association with Justice. He is prudent in the ideal of Prudence, and from sharing in the Highest Power has he courage. For he who would bear the title of sovereign with true reason has patterned regal virtues in his soul after the model of that distant kingdom.

He clearly rejected the notion that Constantine was divine:

Far from thinking his present state comparable to that of the All-Ruling God, he [Constantine] is aware that the mortal and perishable state is like a river, ever-glowing and vanishing. And so he longs for the incorruptible and spiritual kingdom of God, and he prays to come into it.

The question now is to what extent was Eusebius, and the Christian church in general, shaped by Constantine, the supreme ruler of the Empire. In other words, is the legacy of Constantine which comes down to us a product of the times, or were the times a product of the man?

Plato and Aristotle asserted that government should be entrusted to the “best man” who, because of his works and deeds, would be akin to a god. Isocrates took up this theme and had written to Philip, father of Alexander the Great, that he should imitate Hercules who was rewarded with divinity in return for his labours. Given the nature of the existing cult of the Emperor, and the desire of peoples in the East to worship living Roman politicians and generals, it isn’t outside the realm of probability that Constantine, have re-united the Empire, entertained the notion that his deeds made him a worthy object of veneration, there is even evidence to suggest Constantine deliberately imitated Christ. At the risk of putting Constantine on the psychologists couch it could be argued that the desire to achieve religious unity not just within the Christian Church but the Empire as a whole, arguably the world as it was known, was something of a messianic objective.

IV DEATH AND RESURRECTION – A CONCLUSION

Ultimately the deciding influence over Constantine’s eventual memory as divinity or saint was not so much the actions of his life, but the mode of his death – or more precisely Eusebius’ description of it – as nothing remains of the funerary complex Constantine had constructed and even its former position is a matter of scholarly debate. Eusebius tells us:

He therefore gave instructions for services to be held there, setting up a central altar. So he erected (egeiras) twelve repositories (thēkai) like sacred monuments (stēlai hierai) in honour and memory of the company of the Apostles, and put his own coffin (autos autou larnaka) in the middle, on either side of which six [coggins] of the Apostles were vertically disposed (ana… diekeinto).

Regrettably Francis Dvornik rejects this account as a fictional interpolator introduced into the text and the weight of such a leviathan of Constantinian research against, along with the uncertainty introduced by the language of the passage, should give pause for thought. However, to my mind it isn’t a fictional account, rather a scribal error, as if the words thēkai and stēlai were transposed then a corrected version of the text would read “So he erected twelve columns (stēlai) like sacred repositories (thēkai hierai) in honour and memory of the company of Apostles.” There are scriptural grounds to support this re-reading of Eusebius as both James, Peter and John are compared to stēlai in the New Testament. Further strength is lent to this argument when we recall that Eusebius refers to the Apostles as columns in the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre to the Apostles. If this argument is considered a bit of a long row and we accept Eusebius’ text as unaltered, sense may still be made of the passage as to compare a casket with a gravestone or marker in a funerary context is practical. This reading I think to be confirmed if emphasis is placed on egeiras and ana… diekeinto, as they clearly express stēlai as vertical. Whatever the form of the building or the minutiae of the internal space, all accounts have a central theme: Constantine. Clearly the layout was intended to present the Emperor in the context of the Apostles, what remains to be seen is his perceived meaning in that context.

At the end of the fourth century, John Chrysostom wrote that the emperors were “no longer near the Apostles, but are satisfied to bury their bodies outside at the porch. And so the emperors have now become the doorkeepers of the fishermen.” Chrysostom argued critically against the notion of men, such as Alexander the Great, being elevated to the level of gods as such men had not been able to restore their kingdom after death. Rather, they should be seen as subordinate to Christ and even to his Apostles. But perhaps what most intrigues about Chrysostom’s words is his calling the final resting place a porch. Surely for Constantine, placed at the centre of a Mausoleum and surrounded by the thēkai of the Apostles, the Emperor was not playing doorman to the followers of Christ. Rather this change in his theological position is due to the work of his son, Constantius, who made alterations to the burial arrangements in the face of growing church strength and powerful internal divisions within Christianity. In removing the thēkai and other relics from the vicinity of the imperial tomb, Constantius had calmed a troubled situation by dissociating the theological issue of the Son’s relationship to the Father with the philosophical issue of the emperors relationship to god. Now a clear temporal, not to mention architectural, divide existed between the mausoleum of a ruler and the church of God – the first instance in a Christian setting if you will of a separation of Church and State. Yet like much of his father’s reign, Constantius’ alterations trod a careful middle ground as there was scope for both sides of the Pagan-Christian divide. The close relationship between the mausoleum and the church gave those Christians who still clung to notions of imperial divinity, a sense of Constantine as analogous to the returned Christ, and scope to worship him as a god descended to earth in mortal form. However the physical separation of the thēkai of the Apostles from the resting place of the emperor probably achieved its purpose and dissuaded such practise leaving Constantine to be remembered as a blessed saint instead of a divinity.


The Baptism of Constantine is licensed under Public Domain.


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