Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine II.19

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The unification of the Roman empire under Constantine, God’s chosen leader
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.

Chapter 19 of book II acts as a transition, starting with the fall of Licinius and then moving on to detail Constantine’s decrees and letters (for one such example, see the commentary on II.33). These make up the remainder of the second book (see Cameron and Hall, Life of Constantine, p. 236). Drawing upon his Ecclesiastical History IX.11, Eusebius begins by affirming that the impious (δυσσεβής, dussebēs) tyrant, Licinius, has been removed (the language echoes that used of Maximinus in Ecclesiastical History IX.11.1). However, it is X.9.6 of this same earlier work which forms the basis for the account given here, which briefly describes how Constantine and his son Crispus recovered the Eastern empire and formed one united empire as it had once been. In the present, expanded version of events, Crispus is not mentioned by name, despite having had a crucial role as naval commander destroying Licinius’s fleet (see Timothy Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, p. 76). Constantine had his son killed shortly after in 326 CE (the circumstances are debated, but see the account of the late-fifth/early-sixth century Greek historian Zosimus, New History II.29). Crispus is written out of Eusebius’s account, and sole focus is placed on Constantine, whose supreme authority (ἐξουσία, exousia) will heal the broken empire. One of the main points of the passage is to emphasise that the empire is now unified under one emperor, modelled on the reign of the one true God (see Cameron and Hall, Life of Constantine, p. 236). Indeed, the notion of the empire as one body (σῶμα, sōma) is an important one to Eusebius. The Roman empire had long been described as a “body” (on this, see Michael Squire, “Corpus imperii,”). Moreover, the Church was of course conceived of as being the “body of Christ”: see 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 and Ephesians 4:1-16. I.26 of the Life of Constantine states that the emperor “regarded the entire world as one immense body” which was suffering due to its head, i.e. Rome, being oppressed under tyrannous rule. Moreover, I.49 describes the Roman empire prior to Licinius’s defeat as divided into two, resembling night and day, “since darkness overspread the provinces of the East, while the brightest day illumined the inhabitants of the other portion.”

The pious Constantine, then, is the light which breaks through the darkness of tyranny. His victory is commemorated with his adoption of the title Victor (νικητής, nikētēs), and the emperor became the first to recognise the “sole sovereignty of God” (that Constantine took this title after 324 CE is attested in epigraphic evidence; see Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, p. 77). The direct connection between Constantine’s acknowledgement of the Christian deity as supreme, and his taking up of sole rulership of a re-united empire is made abundantly clear by Eusebius. In his Martyrs of Palestine, it is notable that Eusebius places the following criticism of the tetrarchy, drawing upon the words of Homer (Iliad II.204-205), into the mouth of the first martyr he mentions, Procopius: “The rule of many is not good; let there be one ruler and one king.” Constantine now has dominion over the “whole human race” (or at least over the Roman world), but this has only been made possible due to God’s divine intervention, and the emperor’s recognition of this. There is a significant connection here between Constantine and Augustus (for a discussion of this phenomenon, see also the commentaries on the Colossus of Constantine and the Life of Constantine I.39). When Octavian emerged victorious from the civil wars, and the Roman Republic ceased, he took the name Augustus. As Elaine Fantham has argued, the significance of the title Augustus is its connection to the divine – it is not merely honourific, but religious (“Ovid’s Fasti,” p. 200). In Ovid’s Fasti I.609-610, the etymological roots of the name, which means holy, or consecrated, are traced, and the poet suggests that “Augustus” embodies within it the very notion of the empire’s expansion (augeo means to increase/grow). Moreover, its connection to augury (augurium) evokes divine blessing and power. The victory of Octavian, his taking up of sole rulership of the new Roman empire, and the role of the divine in this is therefore embodied in his adoption of the appellation Augustus.

Similarly, Constantine, who like Augustus will take the Roman empire into a new age of prosperity and unity adopts the title Victor, which Eusebius explains was chosen to express his success granted by the Supreme Deity. Paul Stephenson argues that the taking of the name Victor was a “rather literal fulfilment of the exhortation hoc signo victor eris” (rendered in Greek by Eusebius as τούτῳ νίκα, toutō nika) the message Constantine received from Christ through a vision prior to the battle of the Milvian Bridge (see Life of Constantine I.28; Stephenson, Roman Emperor, Christian Victor, p. 216). Indeed, an imperial “Letter to the East” from Constantine, which Eusebius preserves, issued after the victory over Licinius in 324 CE (for a discussion of this document see Life of Constantine II.33), is signed in the name of Victor Constantinus Maximus Augustus. The benefits of a united empire for Christianity were recognised earlier in the third century by Origen, Against Celsus II.30, who argues that if Augustus had not “fused together into one monarchy the many populations of the earth,” then it would have been much more difficult for the message of Jesus to spread. This is partly, Origen suggests, because nations would still be warring with each other, as they did before Augustus’s time. For Origen, Augustus’s sole rulership of a unified empire and the Pax Romana were all part of God’s divine plan to disperse the message of Christ. For Eusebius, Constantine’s supreme authority, which unlike Augustus the emperor rightly attributed to God, is beneficial for Christians in that ill treatment of them ceases. However, his claim is bigger than this; with Constantine as the sole head of the empire, under God’s direction, the entire Roman populace rejoiced in the “expectation of continued blessings in the future.” Blessings for the empire are more secure now that the emperor recognises the one true God.

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Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine II.19
Author(s) of this publication: Kimberley Fowler
Publishing date: Tue, 06/26/2018 - 14:38
Visited: Wed, 04/17/2024 - 08:45

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