The first book that I will be blogging through is “Defending Constantine – The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom” by Peter J. Leithart.
As a quick intro (and re-capping a bit the summary I gave previously), Leithart’s book is several things. First, it is a straightforward historical biography of Constantine. It gives a detailed backdrop of the Roman Empire in the late third/early fourth century, focusing on the reign of the Emperor Diocletian and the intense persecution of Christianity in the later part of his reign. It is with this back story that Constantine emerges. Leithart focuses on the traditional questions regarding Constantine. Was his conversion “real”? What was his attitude toward the church? Did he control the church? What was his role in the Council of Nicaea? By any measure Constantine’s life was incredibly influential in the shape of the latter Roman Empire, the development of the Byzantine Empire and the entire arc of Western Civilization. Leithart also has a theological axe to grind. He is concerned with the idea of “Constantinianism”, which is the name given by John Howard Yoder (the influential Mennonite theologian and author of the seminal work “The Politics of Jesus”) to what he and those in his theological camp consider the heretical mindset that has dominated and distorted the Christian church since at least the fourth century. This mindset is focused on how the Church relates to the world, in particular the world of politics and earthly power. This argument is not only theological but historical, and in Leithart’s view the idea of Constantinianism is severely flawed, if not outright false, due to a serious misreading of the history of the fourth century. A final focus of Leithart is on what the life of Constantine tells us about the proper relationship of the Church to earthly political powers and indeed the entire concept and project of Christendom. What we think about this certainly affects how we view political events today and what a faithful Christian response might be. To say the least, Leithart has aimed high. But how does the book itself stack up to its aims? This is where the blogging begins.
Thus far I have read about 80 pages (out of approximately 340) and have gotten to the point in the narrative where Constantine has come to the throne in the Western Roman Empire. He has just won the battle of Milvian Bridge complete with the famous (and disputed) account of the sign of the cross and the sky, complete with the words “conquer by this”. Much of the story thus far has focused on the reign of Diocletian, the intense persecution of the Christianity during the latter part of his reign and the muddled plan of succession that left at one point six separate claimants to the throne. Without retelling the story, two things stand out to me right away.
1. The Roman Empire for much of the third century had been an absolute mess. The popular view (and admittedly, my uneducated view) of the powerful, unchallenged Empire, ruling the known world is to say the least a bit lacking. The glory days of Augustus were long gone and power struggles, revolts, intrigues and economic turmoil were the norm for the better part of a century leading up to the time of Constantine. The church had grown considerably during this time frame and had suffered periodic persecution of differing intensity, but already carried a great deal of influence within the Empire. This was true even of the ruling class. By the time of Constantine, Christians formed an estimated 10-15 percent of the population. This was a minority to be sure, but not entirely powerless from a worldly perspective (and certainly not from a spiritual perspective).
2. Our view of politics in modern times is not helpful in analyzing the politics of the ancient times. Politics, religion and culture were intermingled to the point of at times being indistinguishable. The Roman Empire at all times, but particularly during this time was overtly religious. The Emperors (and particularly Diocletian) during this time frame viewed the entirety of history, politics and cultural life through the lens of religion. We tend to be skeptical of politicians invoking religion, viewing it in terms of populism and propaganda. The individual politicians may or may not be sincere believers but there is always a part of our thinking that wonders where the sincere belief ends and propaganda begins. During this time frame, the belief and propaganda were one and the same. There was no separation. The rulers sincerely saw themselves as part of the divine drama, acting out roles assigned to them by God (or the gods). The arc of history was absolutely for them the will of God (or the gods) being played out on the human stage. Period. No exceptions. Whatever we may or may not think of the acts of any of these rulers, the cynical and manipulative calculation that we tend to almost expect out our political class is virtually absent from these times. To be sure, these rulers were often very skilled politically and knew how to manipulate public opinion. But that manipulation was not just seen as a means to power (which of course it was), but as a legitimate act of faithful allegiance to the divine powers. It was what the rulers were expected to do to fulfill their destined roles. I cannot overemphasize this. This becomes especially important when looking at the actions of Constantine. This is not to excuse any of these actions (or to condemn them for that matter). But it is necessary to understand this dynamic so we view the actions accurately and not through the biases of modernity. At the end of the day our approval or condemnation of the past is often an act of self-delusion or self-righteousness (and for that matter is irrelevant, the past is past, what can we do about it now?). We should look at the past not merely to judge, but to learn. There is plenty of right and wrong in all of these historical actors, but what truly matters is what we can learn for our actions today.
The next section of the book focuses on Constantine as Emperor. Here it gets much more interesting. The next blog post will focus on his actions in reuniting the Western and Eastern Empire and his relationship with Christianity. It will also look at the role this relationship played in his actions.
One last word. Earlier I mentioned the overt religious character of the Roman Empire and its rulers. One aspect that Leithart emphasizes was the centrality of sacrifice. Sacrifices (and by this I mean animal sacrifices, similar to the animal sacrifices of biblical Judaism) were a large and vitally important part of Roman civic life. I will discuss this further in a blog post that focuses on this exclusively. It is therefore incredibly striking to me that when Constantine enters Rome as a victor following the battle of Milvian Bridge it isn’t what he does that is breathtaking. It is what he doesn’t do. Throughout Roman history (and this dates back to the pre-Empire days of the Roman Republic) a military victory was followed (and I mean always) by a sacrifice to Jupiter. Constantine doesn’t do this. With a few exceptions (such as the attempted pagan revival under the Emperor Julian the Apostate) sacrifice disappears from Roman civic life after Constantine. To someone with even the slightest understanding of ancient life, this is stunning. Leithart sees this is a key to understanding Constantine. And with that tease, I will get back to reading and get ready for the next post.