Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine I.12

How Constantine, like Moses, freed his people from tyranny with God’s help

Name of the author: 
Eusebius of Caesarea
337 CE to 339 CE
Caesarea Maritima
Literary genre: 
Eulogy / Panegyric
Title of work: 
Life of Constantine

For a general introduction to the Life of Constantine, please see the commentary on I.8.

In this passage, Eusebius draws a comparison between the emperor Constantine and Moses. Averil Cameron and Stuart Hall have claimed that this is “the most obvious device used by Eusebius in the Life of Constantine to bring home his ideological message,” as Eusebius wishes for the reader to “regard Constantine’s reign as divinely ordained in the same way as Moses was chosen to lead his people out of Egypt and receive the law” (Cameron and Hall, Life of Constantine, p. 35 and 28 respectively for the quotations). Pagans, as well as Christians, would comprehend the comparison of Constantine with Moses, as it had featured in various works (Cameron and Hall, Life of Constantine, p. 33). Eusebius also makes comparisons with Alexander the Great (see the commentary on I.8) and Cyrus, but in these cases he is portrayed as superior. When it comes to Moses, however, Eusebius does not intend to portray Constantine as superior, but rather establish him as equally blessed by the divine to deliver God’s people from tyrannical rule, and lay down divinely inspired laws. As Sabrina Inowlocki explains, Eusebius inherited from writers such as Philo and Clement of Alexandria the notion that Moses was an “ideal political leader, prophet, legislator and priest” (“Eusebius’s Appropriation,” p. 242). According to Hollerich, however, it was not simply Moses’s divinely inspired mission and piety which made him an ideal archetype for the emperor. In addition, the figure of Moses also provided Eusebius with justification for “behaviour that appeared to contradict traditional Christian views on the taking of life” (Hollerich, “The Comparison,” p. 81).

The present passage begins with Eusebius outlining the “typology he will apply to Constantine” (Cameron and Hall, Life of Constantine, p. 192). In the same way as Moses, who was raised in Egypt at Pharaoh’s court, Constantine was also brought up in an enemy palace, that of Diocletian in Nicomedia. Just as Moses did in Egypt, Constantine also learnt wisdom at Diocletian’s court. Eusebius invokes scripture in his description of Moses’s upbringing, but does not cite it directly (see Exodus 1:22-2:10, and Acts 7:18-23). Moreover, his comment that most reject the story as fiction, implies that he has in mind a non-Christian audience. This said, as Hollerich states, the choosing of a “biblical exemplum” would have “special appeal for a Christian audience,” in a way that figures such as Alexander and Cyrus could not (“Myth and History,” p. 425). Indeed, in the Ecclesiastical History VI.19 he defends Origen’s interpretation of Moses from the criticisms of Porphyry. One of the purposes of our passage, therefore, is to show that the miracles shown to Constantine, which have been verified by eye-witnesses, prove the legitimacy of the stories about Moses (Cameron and Hall, Life of Constantine, p. 192). Moses is clearly an important figure to Eusebius. Indeed, the Ecclesiastical History I.2.4 declares that Moses is the prophet who told of Christ’s coming, and in his Preparation for the Gospel and Proof of the Gospel, Moses himself is compared to Christ (this of course is not specific to Eusebius; the author of the Gospel of Matthew sustains a presentation of Jesus as the new Moses). As Hollerich recognises, then, by applying the Moses typology to Constantine, Eusebius effectively implies a link also between Christ and the emperor (“Religion and Politics,” p. 317-324).

As Cameron and Hall have highlighted, the entire Life of Constantine can be understood as structured around the three forty-year phases of Moses’s life: 1) birth and upbringing; 2) the freeing of the leaders’ persecuted people; and 3) the provision of laws, overthrowing of idolatry, and building of the tabernacle (Constantine builds himself a tabernacle to pray in in II.12; see Life of Constantine, p. 193). Like Moses, Constantine destroyed the tyrants, i.e. the persecuting emperors who had preceded him, and freed his people (in 313 CE the Edict of Milan established legal tolerance of Christianity in the empire). There is a double notion of peoplehood implied here, although not stated explicitly, as while it was the existing Christian people who had particularly suffered under the previous rulers, the presentation of Constantine in the text more generally is as a divinely chosen leader who will lead the Roman people as a whole to the true religion of Christ.The idea of the Christians as a “people” does not really appear explicitly in the New Testament, and even before Caracalla’s edict of 212 CE many Christians were Romans, or belonged to a different ethnè. This said, some early Christian authors did try to represent the Christians as a people, or even a “race” (genos) (see, for example, the commentary on Athenagoras of Athens, Supplication for the Christians I). On the presentation of Constantine in this passage as a soteriological figure, we might compare here the inscription which Eusebius claims was beneath a statue of the emperor in Rome, possibly his famous Colossus, which states that through Christ, Constantine freed the people of Rome from tyranny, and restored the senate. Constantine’s propaganda very much emphasised his role in liberating the people from tyrants (namely Maxentius and Licinius), a theme which more broadly had its roots in Greek historiography. For example, see the commentary on the Arch of Constantine, whose inscription states that Constantine “avenged the state in just battle from the tyrant and all his adherents” (see also on the theme of Constantine as a liberator from tyranny Life of Constantine I.39; Nummus depicting the head of Constantine and the labarum spearing a snake (337 CE)).This particular aspect of Constantinian propaganda is here taken up by Eusebius and given an obvious Christian infusion, with Constantine compared to the most famous biblical figure who led his people away from tyrannous rule with the help of the Supreme God. This notion of the Roman people being freed from tyranny can also be compared to the propaganda of Augustus, who presents himself as the restorer of the Republic and the liberator of the Roman people in the Res Gestae: “I raised an army by means of which I restored liberty to the republic, which had been oppressed by the tyranny of a faction” (1.1). This similarity was undoubtedly played up by Eusebius and Constantine himself.

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