Christians in military service
For an introduction to the Life of Constantine, see the commentary on I.8.
This passage forms part of a larger “Letter to the East” from Constantine (II.23-43), which Eusebius quotes in his description of the various laws that the emperor put in place following his victory over Licinius and taking up of sole rulership of the empire. Eusebius narrates in II.20-22 how decrees fully expressing Constantine’s piety and benevolence to the empire at large were sent out, with a large part of this effort implementing measures to aid churches and Christians persecuted in one way or another (e.g. exile, property confiscation) under former emperors. II.23 explains that a document proclaiming these laws was sent out in both Latin and Greek to every region, with two documents for each city: one for the churches and one for the other inhabitants. Eusebius states that he is quoting the latter in the interests of preserving the decree for history’s sake, and to confirm that his account is true. The present text, then, claims to be a direct quote of a copy of Constantine’s decree in Eusebius’s possession, which also bears the emperor’s signature and seal. In total, the Life of Constantine cites fifteen Constantinian documents, of which the letter quoted in II.23-43 is the longest (Timothy Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, p. 239; B. H. Warmington, “Sources of some Constantinian Documents,” p. 94; on the present document, see Hermann Dörries, Selbstzeugnis, p. 43-46; more generally, see Stuart G. Hall, “Some Constantinian Documents”). The authenticity of the document seems quite likely, as sections of it appear on P. Lond. 878, dated to the early-fourth century, and are consistent with Eusebius’s quotation (see A. H. M. Jones and T. C. Skeat, “Notes on the Genuineness”; see also Kyle Smith, Constantine and the Captive Christians, p. 31-32). While it takes the form of a letter, the order for publication throughout the east, which appears at its conclusion, give it the character of an imperial edict.
The above extract describes Constantine’s decision to reinstate those who had once occupied positions in the Roman army and been stripped of their rank due to their choice to proclaim primary allegiance to the Christian God, rather than the emperor. Constantine, impressed at the strength of character that these men had shown in the face of harsh treatment following their confession of Christianity, resolves to give them the choice of either returning to their original military rank, or enjoying retirement should they feel uncomfortable with returning to the army.
The attitude expressed in this passage is not surprising in the context of Eusebius’s narrative. Earlier in the Life of Constantine, at I.28, Eusebius has described to us how prior to his battle against Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge (in 312 CE), the emperor had seen a vision of the cross of Christ, inscribed with the message “conquer/prevail (νικάω, nikao) by this.” Constantine’s victory over Maxentius therefore proved that God supported him, and Eusebius tells us that this partnership between the Christian God and the Roman emperor was subsequently proclaimed far and wide by Constantine (see the commentary on the Colossus of Constantine). When assessing these events, one must of course keep in mind that the narrative comes to us from a Christian writer (Eusebius), wanting to impress upon his audience the role that the Supreme God played in the emperor’s success. However, it is clear that by the time Eusebius is writing, attitudes regarding the compatibility of Christianity and the Roman military had changed since the likes of Tertullian struggled to reconcile the two. This second-century Christian author did not accept Christians within Rome’s military ranks, seeing the two as fundamentally opposed. In his On Idolatry XIX, Tertullian objects to Christians in the Roman army on the grounds that military service necessarily involved idolatry, such as the swearing of an oath of allegiance to the emperor, and in some roles the performing of sacrifices (see also Tertullian, On the Military Garland I.1-4; On the Military Garland XI.1-4; Tertullian is not opposed to the Roman army and its role in the empire’s expansion per se, as is made clear elsewhere in his writings where he asserts Christianity’s support for and prayers for the emperor and his army). Taking a slightly different stance, another second-century writer, Justin Martyr, argued in his First Apology LV.4-8 that the Roman army unwittingly displayed the sign of Christ’s cross in the T-Bar shape of trophies and vexilla. Even though the Roman army is in essence un-godly, therefore, Christ has found a way to permeate it.
The present passage, however, makes clear that in Constantine’s day, it was considered acceptable both to serve in the army and profess Christian faith (on Christians in the army under Constantine, see John Helgeland, “Christians and the Roman Army,” p. 797-815). Scholars have long debated the precise nature of Constantine’s Christianity, especially given that he still maintained links to traditional Roman religion. However, for Eusebius, his religious convictions are made evident from actions such as the issuing of edicts favouring Christians, like the present one. Former concerns about not being able to serve both God and the emperor have mostly disappeared now that the Christian God has been proven to be fully supportive of the imperial head, and has the emperor’s devotion in return. Essentially, through his adoption of the Chi-Rho symbol and incorporation of it on his army standards, Constantine had melded together the empire and God, meaning that split loyalty was no longer at issue (see G. W. Bowerstock, “From Emperor to Bishop,” p. 301; of course, idolatry was not the only issue with Christians being in the army – there were also the moral questions relating to violence and cruelty that often accompanied such a role. On this issue in relation to an earlier source, see the commentary on Tertullian, On Idolatry XIX).
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