Eusebius of Caesarea, In Praise of Constantine III.3-5

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Constantine described in solar imagery reminiscent of that used of Christ

Name of the author: 
Eusebius of Caesarea
336 CE
Constantinople, at the imperial palace
Title of work: 
In Praise of Constantine

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 (known in scholarship as On Christ’s Sepulchre). There is variation in the manuscripts of the Life of Constantine in terms of how much of the so-called 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; see also the introduction to the commentary for On Christ’s Sepulchre XVI.4, 6).

The text quoted above comes from the first oration appended to the Life of Constantine, whose ten chapters are known as the Oration in Praise of Constantine, or De Laude Constantini). Timothy Barnes argues 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 present Oration in Praise of Constantine in the emperor’s presence at the imperial palace during his thirtieth jubilee celebrations (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 into a copy dedicated to the emperor Constantine, with as little reworking as was possible.

In the 1930s Norman Baynes proposed that one of the main bases for Eusebius’s presentation of the Christian empire in both the Life of Constantine and the oration attached to it was the Hellenistic theory of rulers, in which the ruler is chosen by God, and modelled on him as a beneficent and just governor whose job it is the make sure that God is worshipped appropriately. The oration 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, which we see in the present passage. In the extract above we see a combination of some particularly important themes which Eusebius develops across various of his writings; specifically, the notion of the Roman empire ruled by a single emperor mimicking the divine model of one Supreme Deity who rules in heaven, and the use of light imagery, in part to draw comparisons between Constantine and Christ. Eusebius begins here in verse 3 by praising God’s granting of significant years of rule to Constantine, highlighting that the present jubilee celebration is possible through the Almighty’s choosing of Constantine as the Victor (νικητής, nikētēs) over foreign enemies (this designation will be commented upon further below). In turn, the piety (εὐσέβεια, eusebeia) displayed by the Christian emperor has therefore been disseminated throughout the earth (or at least the Roman empire), and the various peoples now ruled by Constantine have the advantage of religious truth (ἀληθής, alēthēs).

Verse 4 employs vivid solar imagery to describe Constantine’s reign over the various lands of the empire, especially in relation to his granting of power to his sons. In this sense, just as the most remote lands on earth are illuminated by the sun’s rays, Constantine’s influence shines like the light (φάος, phaos) of the sun (ἥλιος, hēlios), from which subsidiary “beacons (φωστήρ, phōstēr) and lamps (λαμπτήρ, lamptēr)” emanate. Constantine gave the Eastern empire to his son Constantius II (made Caesar on the 8th of November 324 CE), and it is he who is referred to here as an “offspring worthy of [Constantine].” Drake argues that the use of the demonstrative ὧδε μὲν (ōde men), “this (son) here,” indicates that the young Caesar was present at the reading of the oration, which is possible given that the festivities closing the Jubilee year included the celebration of his wedding (In Praise of Constantine, p. 159, n. 8). The other sons which Eusebius acknowledges are Constantine II (made Caesar on the 1st of March 317), who was given rulership over Gaul, and his brother Constans (made Caesar on the 25th of December 333 CE), who was granted Italy, Africa, and Pannonia. There are four Caesars whom this verse mentions as being “yoked” by Constantine, the final one being Dalmatius, Constantine’s nephew who was made Caesar of the Danubian region on September the 18th 335 CE (as Drake points out, this helps us to date the oration; In Praise of Constantine, p. 159, n. 10). The imperial chariot (τέθριππος, tethrippos), a four-horse chariot equivalent to a Latin quadriga not only serves here to express the overall dominance of Constantine over his heirs, but along with the language of light employed in the passage, contributes to a deeper implied comparison between Constantine and Christ (see Drake, In Praise of Constantine, p. 159, n. 11). The quadriga was associated with the sun god, Sol, and Constantine himself was associated with Sol (as his father, Constantine I had been) in visual propaganda (see, for example, Nummus depicting the head of Constantine and Sol Invictus; the Column of Constantine). By this time, there were also associations between the sun god and Christ. For instance, Clement of Alexandria (writing in the late-second century CE) in his Exhortation to the Greeks XI describes Christ in language which seems to draw upon the motifs associated with the sun god, referring to Christ as the “sun of righteousness” who “rides over the universe” and banishes darkness and death. Another interesting piece of evidence comes from a well-known mosaic in the catacombs of the Vatican Necropolis, known as the Tomb of the Julii (or Mausoleum M). Here, we have the depiction of a charioteer amidst other arguably Christian imagery, in what is argued by many to be a synchronisation of Christ with Sol. The imagery of light seen in the present passage is drawn upon on several occasions by Eusebius in order to convey the Roman empire’s transition from “dark” times of tyrannical rule, to the “light” which the sole God-given emperor Constantine brought. For instance, in the Life of Constantine I.49 the empire is conceived of as divided into two parts which resemble night and day, where “darkness overspread the provinces of the East, while the brightest day illumined the inhabitants of the other portion.” Constantine is therefore presented as the light that pierces the darkness of tyranny, in much the same way as Christ was understood to be the soteriological “light of the world.”

The other dominant theme of this extract, that of the united Roman empire modelled on the heavenly monarchy of God is extremely prominent within Eusebius’s writings. In the Life of Constantine I.49 he affirms that Constantine “regarded the entire world as one immense body,” which had suffered greatly while Rome had been under the rule of tyrants. The characterisation of the empire as a “body” (σῶμα, sōma) whose head was Rome enabled Eusebius to further connect the empire with Christianity, as it recalled the biblical notion of the Church as the “body of Christ” (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 and Ephesians 4:1-16; on the empire as a “body,” see Michael Squire, “Corpus imperii”). That sole rulership under Constantine brought peace and order where once there had been quite the opposite is made clear in verse 4 with the terms “concord” (ὁμόνοια, omonoia) and “harmony” (ἁρμόζω, harmozō) used to describe the reigns of the emperor’s metaphorical chariot, which his four Caesars pull in verse 4. As Drake recognises, Eusebius’s definition of the divine archetype as a “monarchy” develops through chapters IV and V of the oration, and effectively becomes a Platonic definition of the true monarchy as the rule of “mind over appetite,” fitting in with the criticism of the Tetrarchy and its tyrannous rulers that Eusebius works into his writings (In Praise of Constantine, p. 160, n. 14).

In chapter 5 of the extract above, Eusebius makes clear that Constantine, himself imbued with “likeness of the kingdom of heaven,” is mindful to direct his gaze upwards (i.e. to heaven), as he knows that his rulership is at the behest of God. Moreover, the emperor’s governance of the earthly empire is directly modelled on the kingdom of God in heaven; indeed, it is this resemblance that gives his rule its strength. The power of the Roman emperor is directly dependent on that of the Supreme deity, whose heavenly monarchy provides the prototype for ideal earthly rule. Indeed, this connection between Constantine’s acknowledgement— here alluded to by his gaze towards the heavens—of the Christian God as the sustaining power behind his rule, and the emperor’s sole governance of a united empire is made abundantly clear by Eusebius in various places throughout his writings (Constantine was frequently visually represented with a contemplative gaze towards the heavens; for a discussion of this, see the commentaries on the Colossus of Constantine and Life of Constantine IV.15). For example, in the Martyrs of Palestine, his first martyr, Procopius affirms (drawing on Homer’s Iliad II.204-205): “The rule of many is not good; let there be one ruler and one king.” Similarly, in his oration appended to the present speech, On Christ’s Sepulchre, Eusebius argues at XVI.4, 6 that 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” (i.e. Augustus, here drawing on the popular Christian conflation of the birth of Christ with Augustus’s reign). 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 emphasis in the present passage, as well as elsewhere in Eusebius, upon the fact that Constantine’s sole rule mirrors (the term used in chapter 5 is μίμημα, mimēma, denoting something imitated) the divine model of God’s rule also serves to make a comparison between Constantine and Augustus (for further discussion of this phenomenon, see Life of Constantine I.39). After Octavian’s victory in the civil wars he took the name Augustus, and as Elaine Fantham has argued, the significance of this title is its connection to the divine (“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). Therefore, the victory of Octavian, his taking up of sole rulership of the new Roman empire, and the role of the divine in this is embodied in his adoption of the appellation Augustus. As chapter 4 of the above extract recalls, Constantine, who like Augustus will take the Roman empire into a new age of prosperity and unity, adopts the title Victor (νικητής, nikētēs), which Eusebius explains was chosen to express his success granted by the Supreme God over his rivals and foreign enemies. Constantine’s victory, which saw him emerge as the sole ruler of the empire, was commemorated with his adoption of the title Victor (νικητής, nikētēs) in 324 CE after his defeat of Licinius. The emperor signed a letter preserved by Eusebius with the name “Victor Constantinus Maximus Augustus” (see Life of Constantine II.33; see Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, p. 77).

Our passage has much in common both linguistically and ideologically with Eusebius’s description in the Life of Constantine II.19 of the glorious aftermath of Constantine’s victory over the “tyrant” Licinius. Eusebius draws on language used also to describe the defeat of Maxentius that he has described in the Ecclesiastical History IX.11.1. Constantine’s removal of the “impious” Licinius is followed by “the sun once more [shining] brightly after the gloomy cloud of tyrannic power,” and the empire is described as being brought back together again, East uniting with West and the “whole body” (see the discussion above) brought under a “single and supreme ruler, whose sole authority pervaded the whole.” Constantine’s reign is characterised by “bright rays of the light of godliness,” emphasising the role of his piety in his rulership, and the darkness of former days no more plagues the Roman people. The overall picture that we get from Eusebius’s writings is one in which the political stability being enjoyed under Constantine is shown not only to be enabled by the grace of God and his careful selection of a pious leader, but the very mirror image of the model of kingship set out perfectly in heaven. In Drake’s words, “Monarchy, a gift of the Logos to men, is the political counterpart to monotheism” (In Praise of Constantine, p. 32). Moreover, just as Christ acts as the light sent by God to the world which remained until then in darkness, Constantine’s successors as depicted as rays of light coming forth from him to give his manner of pious leadership to all portions of the empire.

Bibliographical references: 

“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

Eusebius of Caesarea

Wallace-Hadrill, David S.bookEusebius of CaesareaLondonA. R. Mowbray & Co. Ltd.1960
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Eusebius of Caesarea, In Praise of Constantine III.3-5
Author(s) of this publication: Kimberley Fowler
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