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The ‘Servant of God’: Divine Favour and Instrumentality under Constantine, 318–25

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 May 2018

Andrew J. Pottenger*
University of Manchester
*Nazarene Theological College, Dene Rd, Didsbury, Manchester, M20 2GU. E-mail:


This article focuses on the doctrine of divine favour and instrumentality as viewed from the emperor's own perspective, in relation to the early development of the ‘Arian controversy’ as far as the Council of Nicaea. While modern writers have focused on explicit statements by Constantine to suggest that unity was the emperor's highest priority, this article reveals a pattern by which he sought to manage divine favour and argues that doing so effectively was of primary importance to him. Such a shift in understanding the emperor's priorities adds to the range of explanations for his later apparent inconsistencies as the actual achievement of unity continually eluded him.

Research Article
Copyright © Ecclesiastical History Society 2018 

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This article is based on a chapter from my doctoral thesis, which examines (from Constantine's point of view) the early stages in his interventions aimed at helping Christians resolve internal conflicts due to schism and heresy. I wish to thank the editorial team, along with Andrew Fear, Geordan Hammond and Svetlana Khobnya, for their valuable input.


1 For examples of this theme from the later Republic through to Constantine's reign, see the references in nn. 2, 3 below and Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors 48.2–12; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 10.5.4–24, 10.6.1–5, 10.7.1–2; idem, Life of Constantine 2.24–42, 2.46.1–3, 2.48–60, 2.64–72, 3.12.1–5, 3.17–20.2, 3.30–32.2; Optatus of Milevis, Against the Donatists, Appendices 3, 5–7, 9.

2 Livy, History of Rome 26.44–5; Plutarch, ‘Marius’ 17–22, ‘Sulla’ 6.1–5, 29.6, and ‘Pompey’ 68.2, in Parallel Lives of Famous Greeks and Romans; Appian, The Civil Wars 2.68.

3 Augustus Caesar, Acts of the Deified Augustus 21, 24; Suetonius, ‘Augustus’ 29, in Lives of the Twelve Caesars; Cassius Dio, History of Rome 68.25.5, 72.8–9; Anon., The Augustan History 24.4.

4 For an overview of the ‘third-century crisis’, see John Drinkwater, ‘Maximinus to Diocletian and the “Crisis”’, in Bowman, Alan, Cameron, Averil and Garnsey, Peter, eds, Cambridge Ancient History, 12: The Crisis of Empire, A.D. 193–337, 2nd edn (Cambridge, 2005), 2866Google Scholar; see also Blois, Lukas de, ‘The Crisis of the Third Century A.D. in the Roman Empire: A Modern Myth?’, in idem and Rich, J., eds, The Transformation of Economic Life under the Roman Empire (Amsterdam, 2002), 204–17.Google Scholar

5 Anon., ‘Aurelian’ 25.1–6, in Augustan History; Eutropius, An Abbreviated History of Rome 9.15.1; Sextus Aurelius Victor, Book on the Caesars 35.7.

6 For example, The Latin Panegyrics 10.4.1–2, 10.11.6, 8.4.1–2, 7.8.1–3 (In Praise of Later Roman Emperors: The Panegyrici Latini, ed. and transl. Nixon, C. E. V. and Rodgers, Barbara Saylor [Berkeley, CA, 1994], 5960, 71, 113–14, 200–1)Google Scholar; cf. Sextus Aurelius Victor, Caesars 39; Eutropius, Abbreviated History 9.26.

7 For views on Constantine's ‘conversion’, traditionally associated with this battle, see Barnes, Timothy, Constantine and Eusebius (Cambridge, 1981), 3453Google Scholar; Elliott, T. G., ‘Constantine's Conversion: Do we really need it?’, Phoenix 41 (1987), 420–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Drake, Harold A., Constantine and the Bishops: The Politics of Intolerance (Baltimore, MD, 2002), 154–91Google Scholar. On the development of Constantine's religious beliefs, see Toom, Tarmo, ‘Constantine's Summus Deus and the Nicene Unus Deus: Imperial Agenda and Ecclesiastical Conviction’, Vox Patrum 34 (2014), 103–22Google Scholar; Edwards, Mark, Religions of the Constantinian Empire (Oxford, 2015), 179–99CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Further background on Roman concepts of patronage can be found in Nicols, John, Civic Patronage in the Roman Empire (Leiden, 2014)Google Scholar; Longfellow, Brenda, Roman Imperialism and Civic Patronage: Form, Meaning, and Ideology in Monumental Fountain Complexes (Cambridge, 2011)Google Scholar; Cooper, Kate and Hillner, Julia, eds, Religion, Dynasty and Patronage in Early Christian Rome, 300–900 (Cambridge, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Constantine referred twice in his Oration to the Assembly of the Saints to an exchange of benefits and gratitude between God and his worshippers. In the first instance, he claimed it would be absurd for human beings to offer gratitude in exchange for benefits given to each other while failing to respond gratefully to God for his aid: Oration 23. The second example ended his speech on a similar note, as he attributed the benefits of salvation and public welfare to Christ, whose continuing help is sought through prayer and worship: ibid. 26.

9 For example, see Lenski, Noel, ‘Introduction’, in idem, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine (Cambridge, 2006), 113, at 10Google Scholar; Dam, Raymond Van, The Roman Revolution of Constantine (Cambridge, 2007), 1011Google Scholar; Potter, David S., Constantine the Emperor (Oxford, 2013), 34.Google Scholar

10 Bardill, Jonathan, Constantine: Divine Emperor of the Christian Golden Age (Cambridge, 2013), 273.Google Scholar

11 Ibid. 1, 271–5, 280–4, 290–9. For Constantine's sense of divine mission, see Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 10.7.1–2; Optatus, Life 2.28.1–29.3, 2.55.1–56.2, 2.64–7, 4.9.

12 Girardet, Klaus, ‘Ein spätantiker “Sonnenkönig” als Christ’, Göttinger Forum für Altertumswissenschaft 16 (2013), 371–81Google Scholar. Girardet relies heavily on Constantine's Oration, to which he assigns an earlier date than most scholars: 16 April 314. For varying views on dating, see Drake, Harold, ‘Suggestions of Date in Constantine's Oration to the Saints’, American Journal of Philology 106 (1985), 335–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lane Fox, Robin, Pagans and Christians in the Mediterranean World from the Second Century A.D. to the Conversion of Constantine (New York, 2006), 642–4, 777–8Google Scholar; Barnes, Timothy, ‘Constantine's Speech to the Assembly of the Saints: Place and Date of Delivery’, JThS 52 (2001), 2636Google Scholar; Constantine and Christendom, transl. Mark J. Edwards, TTH 39 (Liverpool, 2003), ix–xxix. The difficulty in dating the Oration contributes enormously to the challenge of attempting to draw out information concerning what Constantine believed at any point during his religious development. For this reason, it is referred to sparingly in this article.

13 Girardet includes the legions’ prayer that Eusebius attributed to Constantine (see Eusebius, Life 4.20.1) and one of two imperial letters from Constantine to Anulinus, proconsul of Africa: Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 10.7.1–2. In both instances, Girardet too easily follows Eusebius's commentary: cf. ibid. 10.1.2, 10.8.1; idem, Life 4.19–20.2. He also appears to confuse Eusebius's words with the prayer's text: Girardet, ‘Ein spätantiker “Sonnenkönig” als Christ’, 374, 380.

14 I follow Drake's suggestion that conversion (as experienced rather than recalled) involves ‘a number of progressive awakenings’. I also accept Drake's argument that the real question is not whether or not Constantine was a genuine Christian, but rather what kind of Christian he became: see Drake, Constantine, 188 n. 53, 200–1. For further reading about sociological perspectives on conversion, see Roberts, Keith A., Religion in Sociological Perspective (Homewood, IL, 1984), 134–81Google Scholar; Stark, Rodney, The Rise of Christianity (New York, 1996), 1320.Google Scholar

15 For helpful summaries of scholarship on the authenticity and reliability of the documents attached to the work by Optatus, see Frend, W. H. C., The Donatist Church: A Movement of Protest in Roman North Africa (Oxford, 1952), xi–xvGoogle Scholar; Optatus, Against the Donatists, transl. Mark J. Edwards, TTH 27 (Liverpool, 1997), xxvi–xxxi. See also n. 26 below for particular difficulties in relation to the letter to ‘Aelafius’ in Optatus, Against the Donatists, App. 3. Concerning imperial documents contained in Eusebius's Life of Constantine, see Winkelmann, Friedhelm, ‘Zur Geschichte des Authentizitätsproblems der Vita Constantini’, Klio 40 (1962), 187243Google Scholar; ‘Introduction’, in Eusebius, Life of Constantine, transl. Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall (Oxford, 1999), 16–21.

16 Eutropius, Abbreviated History 10.1; Sextus Aurelius Victor, Caesars 40; Lactantius, Deaths of Persecutors 43–4; Eusebius, Life 1.19–22, 1.25–41.

17 Lactantius, Deaths of Persecutors 48.1–12; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 10.5.1–14.

18 On the traditional title for this document, see Anastos, Milton V., ‘The Edict of Milan (313): A Defence of its Traditional Authorship and Designation’, Revue des études byzantines 25 (1967), 1341CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Barnes, Timothy, ‘Constantine after Seventeen Hundred Years: The Cambridge Companion, the York Exhibition, and a Recent Biography’, International Journal of the Classical Tradition 14 (2007), 185220Google Scholar. For convenience, the term ‘Edict of Milan’ will be used in quotation marks.

19 ‘[Q]uo quicquid [est] divinitatis in sede caelesti’: Lactantius, Deaths of Persecutors 48.2. The Latin text and its quoted translation are from Lactantius: De mortibus persecutorum, transl. J. L. Creed, Oxford Early Christian Texts (Oxford, 1984).

20 Lactantius, Deaths of Persecutors 48.2; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 10.5.2–4.

21 Lactantius, Deaths of Persecutors 48.2–6.

22 Ibid. 48.3.

23 Ibid. 48.2–3, 6–12; cf. Barnes, Timothy, Constantine: Dynasty, Power, and Religion in the Later Roman Empire (Malden, MA, 2014), 93–7.Google Scholar

24 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 10.6.1–5; Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, 610, 624–33; Against the Donatists, transl. Edwards, xiv; see also n. 18 above.

25 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 10.5.20, 10.6.1–7.2.

26 Ibid. 10.5.18, 10.7.1; Optatus, Against the Donatists, App. 3. The latter reference is a letter of Constantine to ‘Aelafius’, supposedly a vicarius of Africa during the spring of 314. The difficulties surrounding his name and position among the known vicarii of Africa contribute to doubts concerning this document's authenticity: Jones, A. H. M., Martindale, J. R. and Morris, J., The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, 3 vols (Cambridge, 1971–92), 1: 16Google Scholar; Barnes, Timothy, The New Empire of Diocletian and Constantine (Cambridge, 1982), 145 n. 18CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Corcoran, Simon, The Empire of the Tetrarchs: Imperial Pronouncements and Government, A.D. 284–324 (Oxford, 1996), 329–31Google Scholar; Against the Donatists, transl. Edwards, 181 n. 1. Concerning the authenticity of Optatus's Appendix 3, which has been questioned because of the difficulties of identifying its addressee, see Frend, Donatist Church, xi–xv; Against the Donatists, transl. Edwards, xxviii.

27 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 10.5.20; Optatus, Against the Donatists, App. 3; cf. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 7.30.18–19.

28 Optatus, Against the Donatists 1.22; Potter, David S., The Roman Empire at Bay: A.D. 180–395 (London, 2008), 407.Google Scholar

29 Optatus, Against the Donatists, App. 5 (transl. Edwards, 190).

30 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 10.7.1–2 (The Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius of Caesarea, transl. J. E. L. Oulton and H. J. Lawlor, LCL 265, 2 vols [Cambridge, 1980], 463–5).

31 On the term ‘Arian controversy’, see Hanson, R. P. C., The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, A.D. 318–381 (Edinburgh, 1988), xvii–xxi.Google Scholar For convenience, I have used it in a general and purely descriptive sense.

32 For different views on when the dispute began, see Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, 205–7; Hanson, Search, 129–38; Behr, John, The Nicene Faith, 1: True God of True God (Crestwood, NJ, 2004), 62–6Google Scholar; Gwynn, David M., The Eusebians: The Polemic of Athanasius of Alexandria and the Construction of the ‘Arian Controversy’ (Oxford, 2007), 5969.Google Scholar

33 Eusebius, Life 2.61–2; Socrates of Constantinople, Ecclesiastical History 1.5. For a discussion of the chronological arrangement of the ancient evidence, see Williams, Rowan, Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2nd edn (London, 2001), 4861.Google Scholar

34 Eusebius, Life 1.51.1; Socrates, Ecclesiastical History 1.3; Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History 1.2; Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, 206; Hanson, Search, 131; Williams, Arius, 49; Gwynn, Eusebians, 60–1.

35 Eusebius, Life 1.49.1, 1.51.1–2; Socrates, Ecclesiastical History 1.3.

36 Hanson, Search, 134–6; Gwynn, Eusebians, 61.

37 Eusebius, Life 2.65.1–2, 2.68.1.

38 Ibid. 2.66–68.1.

39 Norman, J. G. G., ‘Melitian Schisms’, in Douglas, J. D., ed., The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (Exeter, 1978), 647–8Google Scholar; McHugh, Michael P., ‘Melitius of Lycopolis’, in Ferguson, Everett, ed., Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, 2nd edn (New York, 1999), 745.Google Scholar

40 Eusebius, Life 2.61.2–62, 3.4.1–5.2, 3.16.1–19.3.

41 Ibid. 2.64–72; Parvis, Paul, ‘Constantine's Letter to Arius and Alexander?’, Studia Patristica 39 (2006), 8995Google Scholar. Parvis draws on arguments by B. H. Warmington and Stuart Hall suggesting that this document was addressed to the synod at Antioch in 325 rather than to Alexander and Arius as individuals. He argues that an official other than Ossius of Cordoba presented the letter, and that the central issue was a disputed episcopal succession. While a fully developed argument opposing Parvis, Warmington and Hall lies outside the purpose of this essay, the following points are offered here in response: the letter may not be addressed to Alexander and Arius as individuals, but I suggest these named persons in addition to their respective supporters are the intended recipients; the suggestion that the issue centred on episcopal succession rather than theology can be dismissed on that basis as well as from the letter's text (for which see, for example, Eusebius, Life 2.69, 2.71.2–7); it remains reasonable to follow Socrates's identification of the person entrusted with the letter as Ossius (Socrates, Ecclesiastical History 1.7), since the bishop is named earlier and functions in a similar capacity as imperial representative to the churches in Constantine's letter to Caecilian (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 10.6.2); this does not mean Ossius embarked on his mission alone and it is reasonable to accept the participation of someone like Marianus the notary: Parvis, ‘Constantine's Letter?’, 92.

42 Norderval, Øyvind, ‘The Emperor Constantine and Arius: Unity in the Church and Unity in the EmpireStudia Theologica 42 (1988), 113–50, at 118–20CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Drake, Constantine, 240–2; Bardill, Constantine, 291–3.

43 Constantine explicitly invoked divine support in addressing ecclesiastical discord: Eusebius, Life 2.68.2–3. Other scholars observe the same link, but not necessarily in relation to this letter; moreover, no known analysis emphasizes the specific issue of divine favour in relation to Constantine's approach to ecclesiastical unity: see, for instance, Drake, Constantine, 320; Stephenson, Paul, Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor (London, 2009), 305–6Google Scholar; Kahlos, Maijastina, Forbearance and Compulsion: The Rhetoric of Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Late Antiquity (London, 2009), 62–4.Google Scholar

44 Eusebius, Life 2.65.1–2.

45 Ibid. 2.65.2.

46 Ibid. 2.68.1.

47 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 10.5.18, 10.17.1. This is not to ignore the more explicitly political dangers Constantine faced. For example, keeping the city of Rome supplied with oil, grain and corn was of vital importance for holding on to power, while the continuity of such provision was believed to depend on divine favour: see Athanasius, Apology Against the Arians 18; Theodosian Code 14.24–5 (ET The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions, transl. Clyde Pharr [Clark, NJ, 2001; first publ. 1952]); Barnes, Timothy, Athanasius and Constantius: Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire (Cambridge, 1993), 178–9Google Scholar; Auffarth, Christoph, ‘With the Grain came the Gods from the Orient to Rome: The Example of Serapis and some Systematic Reflections’, in Wick, Peter and Rabens, Volker, eds, Religions and Trade: Religious Formation, Transformation and Cross-Cultural Exchange between East and West (Boston, MA, 2014), 1944, at 32.Google Scholar

48 Eusebius, Life 2.68.2–3.

49 Ibid. 2.68.2.

50 Ibid. 2.68.2–3, 2.71.1, 3.

51 Norderval, ‘Constantine and Arius’, 115, 118–21; Drake, Constantine, 238–44; Jones, A. H. M., The Later Roman Empire, 284–602: A Social, Economic and Administrative Survey, 2 vols (Oxford, 1973), 1: 86Google Scholar; Stephenson, Constantine, 265–6. However, Edwards describes a Constantine who was perhaps more in tune with the theological issues at stake than it might seem: Edwards, ‘Why did Constantine Label Arius a Porphyrian?’, L'Antiquité classique 82 (2013), 239–47, at 243–7. Additionally, it is unfair to criticize Constantine for failing to comprehend more fully a theological debate that was still developing and which taxed the greatest theological minds during and after his lifetime. Rather than showing a lack of interest, Eusebius claimed that Constantine engaged with doctrinal questions and enjoyed opportunities to declaim to the court on the meaning of various biblical passages: Eusebius, Life of Constantine 4.29. The emperor's Oration reveals the truth of Eusebius's words, although Constantine's Christological assertions in this speech provoke scholarly debate concerning its date and the extent of his ‘Arian’ theology.

52 Ibid. 2.65.1.

53 Ibid. 2.65.1–2 (transl. Cameron and Hall, 116).

54 Ibid. 2.72.1 (transl. Cameron and Hall, 119).

55 Ibid. 3.5.3–6.1.

56 Ibid. 3.6–9 (transl. Cameron and Hall, 123–4).

57 Alastair Logan, H. B., ‘Marcellus of Ancyra and the Councils of A.D. 325: Antioch, Ancyra, Nicaea’, JThS 43 (1992), 428–46, at 429–36Google Scholar; Norderval, ‘Constantine and Arius’, 123; Barnes, Constantine, 121; Drake, Constantine, 251–2.

58 Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, 214–15; Hanson, Search, 152–3.

59 For example, Eph. 6: 10–17. On military metaphors in the New Testament, see Yoder Neufeld, Thomas R., Jesus and the Subversion of Violence: Wrestling with the New Testament Evidence (London, 2011), 122–49Google Scholar.

60 The speech is preserved in paraphrased form in Eusebius, Life 3.12.1–5.

61 Eusebius's acknowledgement appears prior to the speech itself: ibid. 3.11.

62 Ibid. 3.12.3 (transl. Cameron and Hall, 126).

63 Ibid. 3.12.5 (transl. Cameron and Hall, 126).

64 Optatus, Against the Donatists, App. 5 (transl. Edwards, 189).

65 Eusebius, Life 2.29.3, 2.31.2. References include: τὴν ἐμὴν ὑπηρεσίαν (ibid. 2.28.2), θεραπείαν τῇ παρ’ ἐμοῦ παιδευόμενον ὑπουργίᾳ (ibid.), τῷ θεράποντι τοῦ θεοῦ (2.29.3), οἳ θεοῦ θεράποντες (2.31.2), τῷ μεγίστῳ διακονεῖται θεῷ (2.38), ἡμετέρᾳ δ' ὑπηρεσίᾳ (2.46.2), σοῦ θεράποντος (2.55.1), τοῦ μεγάλου θεοῦ θεράποντας (2.71.2), συνθεραπόντων (2.72.1), συνθεράπων (3.17.2). For the Greek text, see Winkelmann, Friedhelm, ed., Eusebius Werke, 1.1. Über das Leben des Kaisers Konstantins (Berlin, 1975).Google Scholar

66 Cf. Ex. 14: 31; Num. 1: 7–8; Rom. 1: 1; Titus 1: 1. For Drake's argument that Constantine styled himself after Paul by appealing to the title ‘man of God’, see Drake, H. A., ‘The Emperor as a “Man of God”: The Impact of Constantine the Great's Conversion on Roman Ideas of Kingship’, Historia 35 (2016)Google Scholar [online journal], at: <>, accessed 13 April 2017.

67 Eusebius, Life 1.12, 1.19, 1.38–9.

68 See n. 66 above.

69 Liddell, Henry George and Scott, Robert, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford, 1976), 792–3.Google Scholar

70 Socrates, Ecclesiastical History 1.14 (for Eusebius's letter defending and qualifying his acceptance of Nicene terminology), 23, 26–7, 36. Apart from the existing political conflicts among Church leaders, much controversy continued over the term ὁμοούσιος and its precise meaning in the Nicene definition, given its non-biblical origin and prior connotations of Sabellian heresy.

71 Drake highlights the notion of competing ‘agendas and priorities that clouded relations between Constantine and the bishops’. His work also emphasizes the variety of contending purposes among the bishops themselves: see Drake, Constantine, 30–1, 235–71, with reference to the Arian controversy.