Eusebius of Caesarea, On Christ’s Sepulchre XVI.4, 6

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How the Roman empire under one ruler reflects the sole sovereignty of God

Name of the author: 
Eusebius of Caesarea
335 CE Sep 17th
Title of work: 
On Christ’s Sepulchre
XVI.4, 6
At the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

For a general introduction to Eusebius,please see the commentary on his Ecclesiastical History I.6.6-11.

Appended to around half of the manuscripts for Eusebius’s Life of Constantine is what appears to be an eighteen chapter piece of writing with the title “For the Emperor Constantine on the Occasion of his Thirtieth Year.” The work has become more commonly known as the Oration in Praise of Constantine, and while scholars have not tended to question the authenticity of this writing (see Harold Drake, In Praise of Constantine, p. 30), it seems that rather than one oration, two have become joined, with chapters 11-18 representing a different work. In order to better understand the context from which the above extract comes, we will begin by overviewing this discussion before moving to consider its thematic specifics.

There is variation in the manuscripts of the Life of Constantine in terms of how much of the Oration appears. There is a regular break after chapter 10, and some give a different title to the second half where it does appear: βασιλικός (basilikos). For this reason, it has seemed logical to scholars that two works have been joined together (see Harold Drake, In Praise of Constantine, p. 30-31; for an opponent of this view, see the argument of David S. Wallace-Hadrill, Eusebius of Caesarea, p. 44, 185, who argues for one work with two distinct sections). This becomes more clear when we consider the evidence provided within the Life of Constantine itself, where Eusebius makes three references in book IV to orations that he has delivered (IV.33, 45, and 46). The first of these praises the emperor for standing while Eusebius delivered a lengthy speech on the Holy Sepulchre in the imperial palace, after which the bishop claims he returned home (to Caesarea in Palestine). The second passage describes the festival of the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which occurred in the thirtieth year of Constantine’s reign. Eusebius states that he delivered various orations in Jerusalem at this time, including one describing the features of the Church. Finally, the third passage describes how Eusebius has previously described the features of the Holy Sepulchre, and intends to attach this work to the present one (the Life of Constantine). In addition to this, Eusebius says that he will also add an oration on Constantine’s Tricennalia that he delivered shortly afterwards at the palace in Constantinople. There has been debate as to whether the oration on the Holy Sepulchre described at IV.33 is in fact the same as that mentioned in IV.46, and whether chapters 11-18 of what has come down to us in the manuscripts can be identified with either or both of these passages (for a more detailed discussion, see Drake, In Praise of Constantine, p. 39-43). In order to distinguish between the two works, chapters 11-18, from which the passage above is taken, are referred to as De Sepulchro Christi (On Christ’s Sepulchre, SC for short) in modern scholarship.

Granted, On Christ’s Sepulchre does deal with the theological motives of Constantine for building the Church, and Jerusalem is mentioned in chapter 11 as “this city.” However, the chapters are not reconcilable with the descriptive speech about the Holy Sepulchre’s features which Eusebius describes in IV.46, and seem to depend on preceding material, as the opening of chapter 11 has words which translate roughly as “and furthermore” (φέρε δή, phere dē), suggesting that it likely continues from the ten chapters which precede it (known as the Oration in Praise of Constantine, or De Laude Constantini, LC for short). Timothy Barnes solves the problem by arguing that in September 335 CE, Eusebius delivered a speech at the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and then delivered another speech on this subject at Constantinople in the presence of the emperor. It was Eusebius’s intention, Barnes claims, to append the second speech to the Life of Constantine, but an editor either mistakenly attached the earlier one, or could not find a copy of the later speech (“Panegyric,” p. 101-102). However, a different solution was previously offered by Harold Drake, who has recently restated in an article his own suggested chronology of events. Drake’s version seems to be preferable, and fits in with Eusebius’s own description. Eusebius spoke in Jerusalem in 335 at the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, before travelling to Constantinople where he repeated the oration he had delivered in Jerusalem. Then, he went back to Caesarea in Palestine, before returning again to Constantinople in 336 to give the Oration in Praise of Constantine in the emperor’s presence at the imperial palace (see Drake, In Praise of Constantine, p. 43, and “The Emperor as a ‘Man of God’,” p. 6-7). For Drake, then, the orations mentioned in the Life of Constantine IV.33 and 46 are one and the same. Drake ultimately concludes that perhaps in the busy years of his later life Eusebius decided to combine two speeches, the LC and the SC into a copy dedicated to the emperor Constantine, with as little reworking as was possible. It could be, therefore, that the descriptive elements about the Holy Sepulchre were edited out by Eusebius or a later editor of the Life of Constantine because they were not deemed necessary now that the oration was attached to a text where there already exists a relatively detailed description of Constantine’s orders for the construction of this building (see III.30-40) (Drake, In Praise of Constantine, p. 45). We should, however, treat chapters 1-10 and 11-18 of the text found appended to the Life of Constantine as two separate works. The extract above, from chapter 16, can therefore be considered as from the oration known as On Christ’s Sepulchre (SC).

In the 1930s Norman Baynes proposed that one of the main bases for Eusebius’s presentation of the Christian empire in the Life of Constantine and the text attached to it was the Hellenistic theory of rulers (although it also resembles those of the Assyrians or Persians), in which the ruler is chosen by God, and modelled on him as a beneficent and just governor whose job it is to make sure that God is worshipped appropriately. The work appended to the Life of Constantine has therefore been seen as an important work of political theory (see Baynes, “Eusebius and the Christian Empire”). As Cameron and Hall identify in their commentary on the Life of Constantine, the model employed by Eusebius features a clear element of mimesis, in which the Christian emperor and his empire mirror God and his heavenly kingdom. Aaron Johnson notes that the SC, unlike the preceding oration, does not give much space to the notion of the emperor as a copy of the divine model, with the exposition of the Logos in this work being much less politically charged. As Johnson explains, the SC, which was delivered in the presence of Constantine, had the overall aim of answering critics both of Christianity in general and of Constantine’s Christian activity more specifically (Eusebius, p. 155). Johnson states that we find political theology only in a “limited instance of the well-known Augustus-Christ synchronism,” which we can see in the present passage (Johnson, Eusebius, p. 153). In his later works, notably the Life of Constantine, Eusebius does not simply follow the βασιλικòς λόγος (basilikos logos) model (defined by the Greek rhetor Menander as a form of encomium, and in which a ruler’s origins, military victories, virtues and deeds, as well as his physical appearance were presented), choosing instead to present Constantine in a highly idealised fashion. In this sense, he models Constantine on Moses, drawing on the biblical archetype of a leader marked out by God to rule his people and instigate laws—both figures are described as “servants of God”—, freeing them from tyranny. For instance, Eusebius equates the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea with Constantine’s victory over Maxentius (for discussion of this parallel between Moses and Constantine, see the commentary on Life of Constantine I.12; Cameron and Hall, Life of Constantine, p. 35-36; Michael Hollerich, “Religion and Politics,” p. 321-325 and “The Comparison”; Claudia Rapp, “Imperial Ideology,” p. 685-695).

For Aaron Johnson, the present passage is more focused on Christ than it is on Constantine himself, serving to show that Christ had the ultimate victory over the demons of polytheism (Eusebius, p. 153-154). While the broader context might be more theologically intended, however, we can still glean from Eusebius’s description here an important aspect of his outlook regarding the role of the Roman empire in God’s plan, and in this sense politics and theology ought not to be divided. It is precisely the harmonious cooperation between the institutions of heaven and earth that Eusebius emphasises here. In the LC which precedes the present work, at VIII.9, Eusebius connects the spreading of peace with the spreading of monotheism. However, as Drake points out, in the passage quoted above, Eusebius is more specific, making the argument that Christianity is connected with the empire through both Augustus and Christ (In Praise of Constantine, p. 178, n. 2). Indeed, it was a popular argument employed by various Christian authors, that the Roman empire and its instituting of universal peace, the Pax Romana, coincided with Christ’s incarnation, and this was often conflated with the reign of Augustus (for some examples of other instances of this ideology among Christian authors, see also the commentaries on the Commentary on Daniel IV.9; Orosius, Seven Books of History Against the Pagans VI.22; Chromatius, Sermon XXXII; John Chrysostom, Homily on the Date of Christmas 2). Eusebius, writing of course during the reign of Constantine, when Christianity was the religion of the imperial power, and widespread throughout the empire, similarly emphasises the positive function of Roman hegemony, which stopped nations (ἔθνος, ethnos) from warring with one another, united instead under one rule. Under Constantine, the empire was once again ruled by a sole sovereign, having gone through a period of being governed by more than one emperor. Eusebius has elaborated on this fact, particularly in the Life of Constantine, where Constantine is presented as the saviour of the Roman people from tyranny, and God’s chosen ruler to ensure the dispersing of his word throughout the empire. For Eusebius, it is fitting that the point in time at which Christ came to further disseminate the “knowledge of one God, and one way of religion and salvation,” was the point in time when Rome’s dominion was “vested in a single sovereign.” The symbolism of the empire under one emperor thereby compliments God’s message that there is similarly only one divine ruler, and only one true religion. The concurrence of Christ’s birth with Augustus’s establishment of a Roman monarchy is understood to be the result of divine providence, working towards the eradication of polytheism.

Eusebius thereby understands the Roman empire and the Christian religion as “two roots (δύο βλαστοί, duo blastoi) of blessing” which emerged together to the benefit of all people, both “civilised” (Ἕλλην, Hellēn) and non (βάρβαρος, barbaros). Here, Eusebius essentially contrasts those who spoke Greek with those who did not. The all-inclusive nature of Christianity (contrasting with the exclusivity of Judaism) was something which the early Christian authors frequently emphasised, and this characteristic was viewed as specifically compatible with imperial hegemony, which drew numerous peoples under Roman rule, in this sense providing an opportunity for Christianity to spread more easily (for further discussion of this, see the anonymous Commentary on Daniel IV.9, even if the author of this text does not share Eusebius’s positive view of Rome). In addition to the modelling of Constantine on Moses, mentioned above, Eusebius can therefore also be seen here to make comparisons between the present emperor and Augustus, whose sole rule and promotion of peace prepared the way for the doctrine of Christ to emerge and spread. By recalling this argument here, in an oration dedicated to Constantine, Eusebius links the two rulers by praising a system of governance led by one princeps (for another example of the connection between Augustus and Constantine in Eusebius, see the commentary on the Life of Constantine I.39). The divine power and the Roman power have a common aim, to unite all peoples, even those at the farthest corners of the habitable world (οἰκουμένη, oikoumenē). In this sense, the two powers were mutually beneficial. Rome was therefore backed by Christ, who sought to teach all men that there is but one God. The supreme deity accordingly placed his support behind the Roman empire, which provided a mirror image on earth of the kingdom of heaven. Now that the world had been brought under one harmonious system of earthly rule, it was primed to receive God’s word. In Eusebius’s view, the Roman state was the means by which a universal Christian empire could be realised. As the Roman empire expanded, Christ’s message could spread to new territories. Rome, therefore, served an important theological function, and as such, reaped the reward of divine support of its aims at world conquest.

Bibliographical references: 

Eusebius of Caesarea

Wallace-Hadrill, David S.bookEusebius of CaesareaLondonA. R. Mowbray & Co. Ltd.1960

“Eusebius and the Christian Empire”

Baynes, Norman H.article-in-a-journal13-182“Eusebius and the Christian Empire”Annuaire de l’Institut de Philologie et d’Histoire Orientales (Mélanges Bidez)1934


Johnson, Aaron P.bookEusebiusLondonTauris2014
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Eusebius of Caesarea, On Christ’s Sepulchre XVI.4, 6
Author(s) of this publication: Kimberley Fowler
Publishing date: Tue, 11/28/2017 - 17:56
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