This is the 13th blog in this series which began with Two Versions of Constantine the Great. The previous blog is Constantinianism and the Martyrs. In this blog we will consider the legacy of Constantine in the history of Christianity through the writings of the two modern historians Paul Stephenson (CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR ) and Peter Leithart (DEFENDING CONSTANTINE) as they consider the new capital of the Roman Empire which he established in the 4th Century.
Leithart and Stephenson do evaluate the reasons for Constantine’s rise to power slightly differently and also the degree to which Constantine embraced the Christian faith in shaping his policies and life. Leithart sees Constantine becoming more consciously Christian and believes if we look at him from the eyes of Christians in the 4th Century, his embrace of Christianity is obvious and extensive. Stephenson tends to see Constantine as incorporating Christian ideals into his already existing ideas of imperial power – crediting the God of the Christians with his rise to power, but interpreting these events from the point of view that many previous pagan emperors would have done.
These historians evaluation of Constantine’s legacy is most diverse and even irreconcilable in the comments that are made about Constantinople, the new capital city of the Roman Empire which Constantine creates. Here we see how history is not simply facts but largely interpretation of what is known, surmised, and believed to be true.
Stephenson does not see Constantine as creating a Christian city and thus denies that Christianity was at the heart of Constantine’s rise to power (he sees this as being more military than anything else) nor part of the legacy Constantine wanted to create.
“The prevalence of antique statuary is a strong clue that Constantine did not conceive of his new city, as has so often been said, as a new Christian capital for the Roman empire. Temples were constructed for pagan citizens … The first known chapel in the palace complex, dedicated to St. Stephen, was erected no earlier than AD 421 … a document called the Notitia, written in AD 425, which mentions fourteen churches. If the population at the time were in the region of 350,000 each would have needed to house a congregation of 25,000… Of the fourteen churches that are known to have stood in 425, only three or four can be attributed with any conviction to Constantine. These do not include the first version of the cathedral church of Hagia Sophia, dedicated only in 360.” (Stephenson, CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, pp 201-202 )
Leithart reluctantly admits that Constantinople does not represent a complete break with Rome’s pagan past. However, in direct contradiction to Stephenson, Leithhart sees the signs of the emerging Christianization of the Roman Empire.
“From what we can tell at this distance, Constantinople’s break with the pagan past was not so self-evident. … Notable churches dotted the city including the first form of the Church of Holy Wisdom and the Church of the Apostles, where for a time the emperor was buried. Christian imagery was evident throughout. Yet he also treated the city as a project continuous with the Roman past. … he erected a statue to Tyche, the goddess of good fortune, and at the top of the porphyry column that still stands in the center of the old square of Constantinople, he placed a golden statue of Apollo looking toward the rising sun, whose face was remade into the face of Constantine with an inscription that ‘intended to signify that instead of being a sungod Constantine gave his allegiance to the God who made the sun.” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 119)
However, Leithart accepts the evaluation of the ancient Christian historian Eusebius that in fact Constantine intended for his new capital city to be Christian. Whereas many modern historians discount Eusebius’ history, Leithart is willing to give him credence as a much closer observer of events than we are.
“Inspired by a dream, Constantine founded the city shortly after his victory over Licinius and dedicated it on May 11, 330. Eusebius found no hint of ambiguity. In celebration of his victory over the ‘tyrant’ Licinius, Constantine established the city as an explicitly and thoroughly Christian civic space, having first cleansed it of idols. Thereafter ‘he embellished it with numerous sacred edifices, both memorials of martyrs on the largest scale, and other buildings of the most splendid kind, not only within the city itself, but in its vicinity.’ By honoring the martyrs, the emperor was simultaneously consecrating the city ‘to the martyrs’ God.’ The emperor insisted that the city be free of idolatry, ‘that henceforth no statues might be worshipped there in the temples of those falsely reputed to be gods, nor any altars defiled by the pollution of blood.’ Above all, he prohibited ‘sacrifices consumed by fire,’ as well as ‘demon festivals’ and all ‘other ceremonies usually observed by the superstitious.’” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 119)
As a final comparision, I offer the evaluation of Constantinople as Constantine’s Christian legacy by modern historian Judith Herrin who wrote:
“Constantine brought sculptures from all parts of the empire to embellish his new capital, including the Serpent Column … an Egyptian Obelisk … Statues of pagan gods (Zeus, Heracles)… on imperial coins, Constantine adapted this type using the Tyche (Good Luck, Fortuna) of Constantinople .. Gradually Christian symbols replaced the ancient ones: the Cross is used for the first time in the sixth century and a portrait of Christ in the late seventh. The nature and degree of Constantine’s commitment to Christianity is disputed: his biographer Eusebius (Bishop of Caesarea, 313-c. 340) emphasizes it above all else, while secular historians record his devotion to the unconquerable sun, Sol Invictus … The sacrificial element of pagan cult was gradually restricted; the killing of animals was to be replaced by the bloodless sacrifice offered to the Christian God. … So whether he was converted by the vision of 312, or only when he knew that he was dying in 337, Constantine spent most of his adult life as a patron of Christianity, supporting the previously persecuted communities; he endowed their grand new churches with liturgical objects … It is not clear how many new religious buildings within Constantinople were built by Constantine. He probably planned the church of the Holy Apostles, to which the imperial mausoleum was attached … In a decisive shift from the Roman tradition of imperial cremation, however, Constantine was buried according to Christian rites in the mausoleum…” (Judith Herrin, BYZANTIUM: THE SURPRISING LIFE OF A MEDIEVAL EMPIRE, pp 8-10)
It is amazing that these three modern historians do not agree on a basic fact: how many churches or Christian edifices were erected by Constantine or in his life time in his new capital. Obviously history is not simply fact, which apparently can’t always be established, but history relies a lot on interpretation. This is important to remember when we read ancient historians and modern ones. When reading history, ancient or modern, we learn as much about the historians as about the history they present. Many modern historians distrust Eusebius as a historian, but we see in the modern historians a similar problem: their beliefs form both the basis of the facts they report and the way in which they interpret those facts.
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