Friday, 6 December 2013

Constantine -
Picture from
I've just finished reading "Constantine: Roman Emperor, Christian Victor" by Paul Stephenson who lectures at Durham University.  I took a fourth-year course on Diocletian and Constantine back when I was a student at Otago University, which is when I was really introduced in the history of what might be called the Late Roman Empire, and it's an area I've kept an interest in since then.  Back then, I was collecting a 15 mm TTG Late Imperial Roman force, so it was timely.

Constantine is probably known to most people, if known at all, as the first Christian emperor.  But for the majority of his life, he wasn't a Christian, and while his influence on what became the Christian church was certainly important, it was his military achievements that made him "Great".  Unfortunately, his considerable military successes are glossed over by almost all the sources that have survived, because they are mostly Christian, and Christianity at the time had a strong pacifist component, completely incompatible with what a soldier-emperor like Constantine required in his followers.

This biography is an excellent introduction to its subject, although revealing little that is new, and at less than eight quid for the paperback edition, won't put a strain on anyone's budget.  As must be the case for almost any biography about a person dead for nearly two millenia, anyone looking for an insight into the mind of it subject will be disappointed, for our sources simply don't allow that kind of investigation.  We simply don't know why Constantine had Crispus, his first-born son, killed, as well as Crispus' mother, let alone what was going through his head at the time he ordered their executions. 

Despite Constantine having had considerable military success, a wargamer specifically won't get anything out of this book.  The sum total of battle descriptions in this book take up something like less than a page.  And that is perhaps as well, because we can't actually be sure the many victories he won were even "his" in the sense of products of his own planning.  When his infantry defeated the opposing catafracts at the Battle of Turin, were the tactics involved planned by him, or his essentially unknown, staff officers, or just more or less spontaneous efforts by the lower ranks?  We don't know.  We are fortunate enough just to know his infantry defeated catafracts, due to the survival of a panygeric delivered to Constantine just after the battle - not a form of reportage noted for its  objectivity.

The main strength of this book, I think, is the way it lays out how that while Constantine certainly was a Christian, at the end, the road to becoming one was long.  There was no sudden "conversion", despite what his contemporary and near-contemporary Christian biographers might claim.  And all the tropes that have been claimed to be specifically Christian regarding his actions all have non-Christian antecedents.  So I enjoyed reading this book, despite its lack of military content, and despite its inevitable focus, in parts, on religion, not normally a subject I have a notable amount of time for.

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