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Visions of Constantine

  • Richard Flower (a1)


Early one bright afternoon, seventeen centuries ago, Constantine stood staring at the sun. According to his self-appointed biographer Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, who claimed to have heard the story from Constantine himself, the emperor was on campaign, when, ‘around midday, as the day was declining’ he saw a shining cross of light over the sun, with the attached text ‘By this conquer’. The understandably startled ruler slept on the matter, whereupon Christ appeared in a dream and instructed him to fashion himself a copy of the holy sign, which would protect him against his enemies. He did as he had been told, took Christian clerics as his advisers and, not long afterwards, set off for Italy to fight his rival, Maxentius. The rhetorician Lactantius, writing about twenty years before Eusebius, presented a different tale in his De mortibus persecutorum: Constantine, on the eve of his decisive battle against Maxentius in a.d. 312, at the Milvian Bridge to the north of Rome, was instructed in a dream to ‘mark the heavenly sign of God’ on his shields. Constantine's moment of epiphany, sometimes equated with his ‘conversion’, has traditionally been seen both as one of history's great turning-points and as one of its most enduring enigmas. The interpretation of Constantine's vision(s) is further complicated by an anecdote that appears in an anonymous panegyric of the emperor, delivered in a.d. 310. Having turned off from the road to visit ‘the most beautiful temple in the world’, Constantine was greeted by a remarkable sight: ‘For you saw, I believe, Constantine, your Apollo, accompanied by Victory, offering you laurel crowns, which each brought an omen of thirty years [of life or rule]’.


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1 Eus., V. Const. 1.28.2.

2 Lact., Mort. Pers. 44.5. This was probably a reference to the Chi-Rho ‘Christogram’, formed from the first two letters of ‘Christ’ in Greek. The identification of this symbol is discussed extensively by Girardet at pp. 72–6.

3 Pan. Lat. 6(7).21.3–4.

4 Weiss, P., ‘Die Vision Constantins’, in Bleicken, J. (ed.), Colloquium aus Anlaß des 80. Geburtstages von Alfred Heuß (1993), 143–69. An expanded translation appeared as The vision of Constantine’, Journal of Roman Archaeology 16 (2003), 237–57.

5 Weiss, op. cit. (n. 4, 2003), 246.

6 While rings and ‘crosses’ have been documented, meteorologists and astronomers have so far not recorded any sightings of the words ‘By this conquer’ in either Latin or Greek — at least as far as I am aware. Weiss explained this aspect of Eusebius' account by arguing that the message in the sky was not written in words, but was instead a gloss on the iconographic significance of the heavenly cross: Weiss, op. cit. (n. 4, 2003), 247.

7 Pan. Lat. 4(10).14–15, including a mention of the appearance of the Dioscuri at a battle during the early Republic. On the vision recorded by Nazarius and its relationship to the other accounts, see Nixon, C. E. V. and Rodgers, B. S., In Praise of Later Roman Emperors: The Panegyrici Latini (1994), 341–2, 357–8 n. 61. For a balanced discussion of Weiss' argument and the dangers of placing too much weight on what Constantine did or did not witness one sunny day in Gaul, see Drake, H. A., ‘Solar power in Late Antiquity’, in Cain, A. and Lenski, N. (eds), The Power of Religion in Late Antiquity (2009), 215–26. Jacqueline Long's article in the same volume (at 227–35), entitled ‘How to read a halo: three (or more) versions of Constantine's vision’, also accepts Weiss' thesis, moving on to analyse how the vision was used for different purposes by the three authors who reported it.

8 For these stories, see Suet., Claud. 7; Aug. 6.

9 Burckhardt, J., Die Zeit Constantins des Großen (1853; 18802). The English translation was re-issued in 2007 with a new introduction by Noel Lenski.

10 Barnes, T. D., Constantine and Eusebius (1981), 275.

11 ibid., 275, 258.

12 Cameron, Averil, ‘Constantine Christianus’, JRS 73 (1983), 184–90, at 187.

13 Cameron, Averil and Hall, S. G., Eusebius: Life of Constantine (1999).

14 Drake, H. A., Constantine and the Bishops: The Politics of Intolerance (2000), xvii.

15 ibid., 402, 389, xv.

16 ibid., 271–2.

17 Lenski, N. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine (2005; 20122), 111–36 (Drake), 137–58 (Edwards), 159–79 (Lee), 205–25 (Humfress). The volume as a whole was excoriated by Barnes in a review article in The International Journal of the Classical Tradition 14 (2007), 185–220, where he complained about manifold errors and misinterpretations, although there was relatively little criticism directed against either Drake or Lee.

18 Cameron, Averil, ‘The reign of Constantine’, in Bowman, A. K., Garnsey, P. and Cameron, Averil (eds), The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume XII: The Crisis of Empire, A.D. 193–337 (2005), 90109, at 107.

19 There is not sufficient space to survey all recent publications on Constantine, but also worthy of particular mention are Girardet, K. M., Die Konstantinische Wende: Voraussetzungen und geistige Grundlagen der Religionspolitik Konstantins des Grossen (2007); Dam, R. Van, The Roman Revolution of Constantine (2007); and the volumes which accompanied major exhibitions held at York and Trier: Hartley, E., Hawkes, J. and Henig, M. (eds), Constantine the Great: York's Roman Emperor (2006); Demandt, A. and Engemann, J. (eds), Konstantin der Grosse: Geschichte – Archäologie – Rezeption (2006).

20 ‘Konstantin und das Christentum: die Jahre der Entscheidung 310 bis 314’, in Demandt and Engemann, op. cit. (n. 19), 69–81; Konstantin – Wegbereiter des Christentums als Weltreligion’, in Demandt, A. and Engemann, J. (eds), Konstantin der Grosse: Begleitband zur Landesausstellung ‘Konstantin der Grosse’ (2007), 232–43; Das Christentum im Denken und in der Politik Kaiser Konstantins d. Gr.’, in Girardet, K. M. (ed.), Kaiser Konstantin der Grosse: historische Leistung und Rezeption in Europa (2007), 2953.

21 ‘A politically and historically oriented picture of Constantine's journey to Christianity and of the diverse consequences of this novelty in religious politics during his reign.’

22 The speech is translated in Edwards, M., Constantine and Christendom (2003), 162.

23 Girardet's argument rests, as do other interpretations of the date and venue of the speech, on the reading of chs 22 and 25 of the Oratio (and Girardet surveys alternatives at pp. 109–10). The argument presented here does not, in my opinion, do enough to justify the identification of the ‘unworthy figure’ in ch. 25 as Maximinus Daia, which is important for supporting this early date. As he has done before, Barnes (at pp. 113–18) argues forcefully and coherently that the speech was delivered at Nicomedia in a.d. 325, with the ‘unworthy figure’ being the recently-defeated Licinius. Harries (at p. 167) declares herself agnostic on this issue.

24 On the notion of the ‘Konstantinische Wende’, see especially Girardet, op. cit. (n. 19).

25 ‘A clear allusion to the celestial phenomenon of the year 310, interpreted in a Christian manner since 311.’ For Constantine's comment, see Oratio ad sanctorum coetum 11.1.

26 ‘Through Constantine's law, time in every form now necessarily received a new and Christian rhythm for the whole empire.’ CTh 2.8.1; CJ 3.12.2.

27 The law is CTh 16.2.5.

28 See Eus., V. Const. 4.18–20, 2.44.

29 See especially pp. 158–63, entitled ‘Christianisierung der Oikumene’.

30 Cameron, Alan, The Last Pagans of Rome (2011), 93131.

31 See Wilkinson, K., ‘Palladas and the age of Constantine’, JRS 99 (2009), 3660.

32 See, for example, the dating of the movements of emperors in his Constantine and Eusebius (1981), The New Empire of Diocletian and Constantine (1982), and Athanasius and Constantius: Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire (1993).

33 Barnes is here particularly reacting to Averil Cameron, op. cit. (n. 12).

34 Palladas in Anth. Pal. 10.90.4. Barnes' interpretation of the significance of Palladas' poems for the purely ‘Christian’ nature of early Constantinople pushes the argument further than the more guarded conclusions of Wilkinson, Kevin in his ‘Palladas and the foundation of Constantinople’, JRS 100 (2010), 179–94, at 193–4.

35 Ambrose, De obitu Theodosii 42, 43. Here Barnes is reacting to the suggestion that a stabularia was a person of very low status, and possibly a prostitute, which is found in Drijvers, J. W., Helena Augusta: The Mother of Constantine the Great and the Legend of her Finding of the True Cross (1992), 1516.

36 Aur. Victor, Caes. 28.

37 See, for example, Harries, J., Law and Empire in Late Antiquity (1999); eadem, Law and Crime in the Roman World (2007); Harries, J. and Wood, I. (eds), The Theodosian Code: Studies in the Imperial Law of Late Antiquity (1993; 20102).

38 This argument is also reinforced by querying the authenticity of Const. Sirm. 1 at p. 161 n. 25.

39 Similarly, while Julian is seen as out of touch in his religious beliefs, he is also criticized for his ‘gratuitous attacks on Constantine's legislation’ (p. 317), which were not confined to religious matters.

40 On this issue, see also the sophisticated argument about the dangers of relying solely on either Eusebius or the Theodosian Code in Harries, J., ‘Superfluous verbiage? Rhetoric and law in the age of Constantine and Julian’, Journal of Early Christian Studies 19 (2011), 345–74.

41 Similarly, at pp. 153–4, Harries speculates that Constantine's ruling on unilateral divorce may have been influenced by its recipient, the Christian praetorian prefect Flavius Ablabius.

42 For a similar analysis of Barnes' Constantine and Eusebius see Averil Cameron, op. cit. (n. 12), 185–6.

43 The idea that Constantine regarded the Christian God as the ‘bringer of victory’, and that his promotion of his favoured religion was tied inextricably to his military success and security, is presented forcefully in Stephenson, P., Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor (2009).

44 Some of the most withering criticism is directed towards the ‘consensus’ model put forward in Drake, op. cit. (n. 14).

45 ‘The guiding ideal for him was the citizen community of the populus Romanus as a religious community, as it had once been polytheistic, so now, under and after Constantine, monotheistic and Christian, a religious and faith community.’

46 Eus., HE 9.9.11; V. Const. 1.40.2; Rufinus, HE 9.9.11.

47 While, in reading Constantine's own extant statements about Christianity, Van Dam does identify a turning point in his religious terminology and dealings with bishops, he situates it not in the context of a vision or ‘conversion’ before the defeat of Maxentius, but, rather, in Constantine's encounters with bishops at the Council of Arles in a.d. 314.

48 Similarly, the stark language of right and wrong in Diocletian's rescript against the Manichaeans ‘reflects an intolerance of dissent, which foreshadows the Christian rhetoric against heretics to come’ (p. 85).

49 This reading of such material as Constantinian ‘propaganda’ is also pursued in depth in Grünewald, T., Constantinus Maximus Augustus: Herrschaftspropaganda in der zeitgenössischen Überlieferung (1990).

Visions of Constantine

  • Richard Flower (a1)


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