Constantine’s triumphal entry into Rome
337 CE to 339 CE
Eulogy / Panegyric
Title of work:
Life of Constantine
Keywords in the original language:
Thematic keywords in English:
For a general introduction to the Life of Constantine, please see the commentary on I.8.
The description of Constantine’s entry into Rome that is given here is an expanded version of the one found in n Ecclesiastical History IX.9.9. The passage essentially acts within Eusebius’s narrative as proof of the emperor’s piety and devotion to the Christian God who had enabled him to succeed in battle and emerge victorious as the sole ruler of the empire. Drawing on the popular themes of jubilation, happiness, and prosperity which were typical of imperial panegyric, the passage asserts that the prosperous future of Rome is now looked forward to by its populace, who have been restored to their former glory and released from tyrannical rule (see Cameron and Hall, Life of Constantine, p. 218). Moreover, we see the Christianisation of one of Rome’s most prominent symbolic traditions, the triumphal entry into the city after a successful military campaign (for one detailed description of such an event, see the commentary on Ovid, Tristia IV.2.1-74, where the poet imagines the glory of Tiberius’s triumph after his return from Germany in 7 BCE) .
The passage begins with a comparison between Constantine and God’s “great servant” (i.e. Moses). This is part of a sustained comparison between the two figures that appears throughout the Life of Constantine, whereby the emperor is modelled after the patriarch in a bid to portray him as a divinely sanctioned leader and legislator (on Constantine and Moses, see the commentary on I.12). Eusebius argues that when Constantine entered Rome after his victory, the people and senate of Rome hailed him as a saviour (σωτήρ, sōtēr) and benefactor (εὐεργέτης, euergetēs) (Constantine’s interaction with the senate after his victory over Licinius is also mentioned in the Panegyricus Latini XII.20, and his address to the senate appears on the Arch of Constantine). However, the emperor, knowing that his help had come from God, the “author (αἴτιος, aitios) of his victory (νίκη, nikē),” did not indulge in these acclamations. The relationship between Constantine and Christ, and Constantine and the Roman senate and the Roman people in general was made apparent, Eusebius tells us, when the emperor ordered a trophy of Christ’s passion to be set up in the hand of a statue of himself (I.40; this is understood by many to refer to the famous Colossus of Constantine). Beneath this statue, Eusebius describes an inscription, which read as follows: “Through this sign of salvation, which is the true symbol of goodness, I rescued your city and freed it from the tyrant’s yoke, and through my act of liberation I restored the senate and people of Rome to their ancient renown and splendor” (translation by Arthur Cushman McGiffert, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, p. 564; in addition to the Life of Constantine I.40, see also Ecclesiastical History IX.9.11).
Interestingly, the second-century Christian author Tertullian, in his Apology XXX.2, makes rhetorical use of the Roman triumph to support his argument that Rome’s rulers are ignorant if they do not comprehend that it is God who allows them to succeed in their dominion. Tertullian dares the emperor to try waging war on heaven, leading it as a captured nation in the triumphal procession, before immediately quashing this concept, declaring that “He (the emperor) cannot.” Despite all the authority and might which Rome has exerted over the people of earth, Tertullian asserts that it simply cannot compete with the authority and might of God. Moreover, XXXIII.4 of the Apology offers a curious illustration of Tertullian’s point by evoking the image of a Roman triumph, where the emperor on a chariot partakes in a procession celebrating and displaying all that he has captured and conquered in battle. Tertullian claims that these glorious displays of the emperor’s power and authority bestow on him such a high degree of honour that it is necessary for a (hypothetical) voice to remind him that he is “but a man.” In Eusebius’s description, Constantine plays down the acclamations of the Roman people and the senate, who are eager to lavish praise upon him. The emperor, Eusebius claims, did not want attention to be drawn away from God, who was ultimately responsible for his victory. This recalls the descriptions of Augustus, who famously did not want to be known as “Lord” (dominus), and was said to have refused temples solely dedicated to him, especially in the city of Rome itself, melting down statues of himself and donating the funds to Apollo (Suetonius, Augustus 52-53). Indeed, the similarity between Augustus and Constantine is implied in artistic representations of the latter, which looked to represent Constantine as “a new Augustus” who would usher in a new age of glory and prosperity for the Roman people (Jaś Elsner, Imperial Rome, p. 61; see the commentary on the Colossus of Constantine).
Eusebius’s description of Constantine’s triumph shows the total reversal of the old relationship between Christianity and Rome, which as we have seen represented in Tertullian, was one of tension, in which the empire did not acknowledge the role played by the Christian God in its success. While in Tertullian’s day the emperor’s triumphs were viewed as idolatrous spectacles, where the emperor was venerated unduly, and God’s hand in Rome’s success was ignorantly unrecognised, Constantine’s triumph is described by Eusebius as the glorious moment at which the emperor played down his own achievements, and recognised God’s role in his triumph.