Prayer to an undefined supreme divine entity asking it to grant eternal life to Constantine
Eulogy / Panegyric
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For a general presentation of the group of speeches known as the “Gallic corpus,” or the XII panegyrici latini, from which this text is extracted, see Latin Panegyric II (10).1.
The text presented here is an excerpt from the panegyric addressed by an unknown rhetor to Constantine in order to celebrate his victory over the usurper Maxentius. To briefly recall the historical context, one should remember that after the abdication of Diocletian and Maximian on the 1st May 305 CE, the new tetrarchy was composed in the East by the Augustus Galerius and the Caesar Maximinus Daia, and in the West, by the Augustus Constantius I and the Caesar Severus. Instead of Maximinus Daia and Severus, people expected Maximian and Constantius I’s sons, namely Maxentius and Constantine, to be chosen as Caesars. Galerius allowed Constantine to join his father in the West, and he took part in the campaign against the Picti in Britain, during which his father died on the 25th of July 306 CE. Galerius then authorised Constantine to become Caesar only, with Severus becoming Augustus. On the 28th of October 306 CE at Rome, the Senate and the praetorian troops acclaimed Maxentius and recognized his authority. Shortly after, Maxentius killed Severus, who was replaced by Licinius as Augustus in the West. Then, between 306 and 312 CE, Maxentius variably controlled Italy up to the Alps, Africa and Sicily, regions which were of course crucial for the supply of Rome. During these six years Maxentius continued to control this huge territory in spite of various military operations led against him. In 312 CE, Constantine led an army towards Italy. After taking Segusio (actual Suse), Milan and Verona, he arrived at the gates of Rome where he definitively defeated Maxentius during the famous battle of the Milvian Bridge on the 28th of October 312 CE. It is before this final battle that Constantine allegedly converted to Christianity, as reported in the different versions of Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine I.26, 28-29 and Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors XLIV.5-6.
Concerning the place and the time when this panegyric was announced, it is commonly assumed that it occurred at Trier in 313 CE, the city where Constantine had established his principal residence at that time. Concerning the dating, in another passage of this speech the orator praises Constantine for having defeated courageous and strong soldiers, and he recalls his two recent military achievements, one “lately” (nuper) in Italy – i.e. Maxentius’s defeat –, and another “not long ago” (paulo ante) against the Franks (IX (12).24.2; see Nixon and Rodgers, In Praise of Later, p. 289-290).
The text presented here appears at the very end of this speech. After relating the preceding expeditions against Maxentius (2-5.3), the orator deals with Constantine’s expedition in Italy, especially the operations in Cisalpina and the taking of Susa, Turin, and Verona and Aquilea (§ 5.4-13), and with the final attack on Rome ending with Constantine’s victory during the battle of the Milvian bridge (14-18). Having described how the Senate and the Roman people welcomed Constantine in the urbs (19-21.4; see Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine I.39), the orator then narrates that immediately afterwards Constantine was required to return to the Rhenan frontier, having in mind some military operations towards the Elbe (21.5). Then, Constantine is described as having submitted some rebel barbarians, probably Franks, who were then punished severely (22-23). The speech ends with a laudatory comparison of Constantine with his father, Constantine’s victories and campaigns becoming thus all the more remarkable (24-25). The orator ends the speech with a prayer addressed to a superior god or spirit, asking that Constantine might live eternally even if his “divine offspring” (divina suboles), that is his son Crispus, has already “made himself known” (successerit) (on the voluntary imprecisions or omissions of the panegyrist in this § 5, especially his silence on Licinius and his hyperbolic qualification of Constantine as being in 313 the maximus imperator, see Baglivi, “Paneg.IX(12),26,5”). This final prayer corresponds to the text presented here. We will examine more precisely the way the orator deals with religious matters, especially the sole god or power supporting Constantine’s actions.
One very interesting point in this text is that the orator is hesitant to qualify the superior force or deity that is supposed to take care of and support Constantine. From the very first lines he justifies his hesitation by the fact that the names (nomina) of this singular force/deity are as numerous as the languages on earth (26.1). In the present extract, he alternatively calls it: the “supreme creator of things” (summe rerum sator, 26.1), the “divine strength and mind” (vis mensque divina, 26.1), and “some power above all heaven” (aliqua supra omne caelum potestas, 26.1). In previous passages, he refers to: “god” (deus, 2.4), “divine mind” (divina mens, 2.5 and 16.2), “divinely” (divinitus, 3.3), “a divine power” (divinum numen, 4.1), “that god creator and master of the world” (deus ille mundi creator et dominus, 13.2). The orator is not only hesitant to name this divine entity/power, but also to qualify its essence. In fact, in § 1, he does not appear to decide whether this supreme deity/power is present in every element of Nature or if it is a distinct entity dominating the whole world.
Scholars have wondered whether the way the orator deals with this dominating supreme entity should be understood as being a direct or indirect consequence of the recent conversion of Constantine to the Christian faith. Among the arguments usually quoted to prove that the Latin panegyrics, especially the ones addressed to Constantine, reflected the religious evolution of this emperor, there is the fact that in panegyric VII (6), pronounced in 310 CE, Constantine is described as having visited a temple of Apollo at Grand, on his way back to the Rhenan frontier, and as having granted many donations to such temples. In this episode, the god is described as having appeared to Constantine in a vision and as having forecasted him a glorious and long life (VII (6).21) (for a bibliographical survey of Constantine’s vision, see Nixon and Rodgers, In Praise of Later, p. 248-249, n. 91 and 92; for a recent rereading of this famous episode which ought to be interpreted in the framework of the political tensions and necessities of the years 309-311 CE and not as paving the way to Constantine’s conversion, see Hostein, “Le Panégyrique latin”). The orator of panegyric VII (6), who was from Autun, then expresses his hope that Constantine will soon be as generous with the temple of Apollo at Autun: “Immortal gods (di immortales) when will you grant that day on which this most manifestly present god (praesentissimus hic deus), after that peace had been established everywhere, may also visit those groves of Apollo, his sacred temple, and the steaming mouths of spring? (...) You (i.e. Constantine) will surely also admire there the seat of your divinity too (numen)...” (VII (6).22.2). As stated by Barbara S. Rodgers, if Constantine is first equated with a god, the following reference to the numen may be voluntarily ambiguous, as we cannot know whether the orator deals with Constantine or Apollo (see Rodgers, “Divine Insinuation,” p. 85). The contrast between this passage of panegyric VII (6) and the panegyric here analysed in which no specific Roman god is associated with Constantine, and in which Constantine is not equated with a deity, is therefore important. This statement of facts does not, however, prevent, as we will see, the orator from sometimes introducing references to traditional Roman religion (see for instance when he alludes to the “sacred Tiber” sancte Thybri, IX (12).16), or at least to a polytheistic religious model – on this second point, see later.
To better understand the meaning of this final prayer, we should study the most relevant passages of panegyric IX (12) in which the orator mentions this supreme deity/power, and above all its role. First, one should note that Constantine is presented throughout the panegyric as favoured by God. The main idea developed throughout the speech is that it is thanks to this divine support that Constantine had so many victories and asserted his power. First, the orator narrates that Constantine shared some secrets (secretum) with that divine mind (mens divina) “which has delegated to lesser gods the care of our peoples and which deigns to reveal itself only to you (i.e. Constantine)” (quae delegata nostri diis minoribus cura une se tibi dignatur ostendere, IX (12).2.5). In this passage the special and exclusive relationship between Constantine and this mens divina is highlighted, yet the orator also deals with polytheistic conceptions by presenting this superior god as supervising minor ones. It would be useless to debate whether the orator expresses here his own polytheistic beliefs or not. The orator of this panegyric evolved in an environment that remained profoundly polytheistic but in which monotheistic beliefs were taking an increasing importance, a process that progressively accelerated from the moment Constantine officially expressed the fact that he adopted Christian faith. The authors of the Latin panegyrics who composed works at the beginning of the fourth century CE, be it before or after Constantine’s conversion, adapted to this context by remaining vague when they dealt with religious issues and by using expressions that could please both monotheistic and polytheistic audiences. One should note, that in the speech of thanks to Constantine pronounced in 311 CE, before Constantine’s conversion, the orator also refers to this divina mens when he deals with the prompt benevolence of Constantine with which he helped the city of Autun. He actually says: “So do natural and abundant springs hasten to flow in order that they could spread everywhere their benefits, so do things sent from the heaven get down quickly on earth, finally so does this divine mind, which governs the entirety of this world (divina illa mens, quae totum mundum hunc gubernat), accomplish immediately whatever it has conceived” (Latin Panegyric VIII (5).10.2). Here, the reference to the divina mens is one of the first of its kind in the Latin Panegyrics, and it may show that these kinds of monotheistic ideas and concepts were known at that time. However, contrary to the orator of the panegyric of 313, the orator of the panegyric of 311 CE refers much more frequently to the gods, even if he does not refer to the emperor’s divine aspect (see the exclamation “immortal gods,” di immortales in VIII (5).7.6; the reference to the “images of all our gods,” omnium deorum nostrorum simulacra in VIII (5).8.4, images which were brought by the inhabitants of Autun to decorate the city for Constantine’s arrival; see the reference to Jupiter in VIII (5).13.6; these references are quoted in Nixon and Rodgers, In Praise of Later, p. 292, n. 20; on the absence of reference to the emperor’s divine aspect, see Rodgers, “Divine Insinuation,” p. 85). We will see that in the panegyric of 313, references to the gods are quite rare, and that the orator clearly focuses on the close relationship between the supreme deity/power and Constantine, in order to please the ruling emperor.
In a later passage of the panegyric studied here, when the orator deals with the fact that Constantine crossed the Alps with only a quarter of his army, he explains it by the fact that the victory had been previously “divinely” (divinitus) promised to him (see IX (12).3.3). It is important to note that this passage is the only one dealing with the fact that thanks to this divine inspiration, Constantine knew that he would defeat Maxentius before the campaign in Italy. The panegyrist does not deal much with any vision or dream of Constantine forecasting his victory. As a consequence of the fact that no correspondence between this panegyrist and Eusebius’s and Lactantius’s narratives can be found, we cannot answer the question of whether the panegyrist had heard about Constantine’s vision (about Constantine’s vision, see Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine I.26, 28-29; Lactantius On the Deaths of the Persecutors XLIV.5-6; on this point see Nixon and Rodgers, In Praise of Later, p. 293).
Then, in the following paragraph, Constantine is presented as taking advice from this “divine power” (divinum numen), which explains why he defeated Maxentius (IX (12).4.1). In a similar way, the orator later asserts that it is this “divine mind,” divina mens which forced Maxentius to fight against Constantine in very bad conditions, and thus made Maxentius lose. The nature of this divine superior entity is described more precisely in IX (12).13.2. The orator narrates that this “god creator and master of the world” sends through thunderbolts positive and negative messages. He later makes a comparison with Constantine and asserts that thanks to Constantine’s “divine power” (numine tuo), his “throwing weapons” (tela) knew whom to kill or preserve among his enemies and petitioners. This passage is interesting for two reasons. First, this nameless god has the attributes of Jupiter, especially the thunderbolt and the fact that he is the ruler (dominus) of the world. However, there is one major difference with Jupiter, as the latter was not considered as the creator of the world. As a consequence, this “god creator and master of the world” should be interpreted as a “synthetic” one that the orator may have used in order to speak to both a pagan audience and a ruler who had recently expressed his wish to convert to Christian monotheism (on that point see Nixon and Rodgers, In Praise of Later, p. 313-314, n. 80). The second important point is that the orator does not say that Constantine is a god, but he explicitly associates him with a divine power (numen), granting him extraordinary capacities – in this case a supernatural power over his weapons. As rightly emphasized by C. E. V. Nixon and Barbara Saylor Rodgers, in this panegyric “Constantine has not yet lost all of his divine attributes” (see Nixon and Rodgers, In Praise of Later, p. 293). They thus quote another passage (IX (12).22.1) in which the orator says that Constantine possesses perpetual motion (perpetuus motus), which is a usual attribute of divinities, and which, in this case, is the attribute of the divinity that is part of Constantine (see Nixon and Rodgers, In Praise of Later, p. 327, n. 140). However, having studied most of the religious vocabulary in all the Latin panegyrics, especially when the words caelestis, divinus, divinitas or numen are associated with one emperor, Barbara Saylor Rodgers arrived at the conclusion that “the equation of emperor and divinity judged by terminology and the frequency of appearance, is more evident in the earlier speeches,” that is in speeches prior to the one presented here (see Rodgers, “Divine Insinuation,” p. 73-74, 100-104). The last interesting passage we can notice in order to better understand which role is assigned to this superior deity/power, is an excerpt from the text presented here. As is quite typical in a final part of a panegyric, the orator expresses his wishes that the ruling emperor will live eternally. Thus, the supreme deity is explicitly praised for extending Constantine’s reign eternally (26.1).
The text presented here is thus particularly useful for understanding the evolution of the theological justification of imperial power under Constantine, a theological justification that was based on the fact that Constantine was supported and protected by this unique divine entity, who is presented as being both the creator and the ruler of the world. The fact that the whole panegyric is infused with numerous but vague references to this unnamed superior divinity, and yet still retains some references, even if marginal ones, to Roman traditional religion (see e.g. the reference to the god Tiber, or the admission of the existence of various gods, which are, however, presented as “lesser gods” compared to the “divine mind” (IX (12).2.5)), is representative of the ability of the orator (as of most of the authors of the Latin panegyrics composed at the beginning of the fourth century) to please audiences of both monotheistic and polytheistic beliefs and influences. The fact that the orator of the panegyric of 313 CE deals repeatedly with the protection extended by the superior divine entity to Constantine has to be interpreted as part of a strategy that consisted of pleasing the newly Christian Augustus. However, the imprecision of the vocabulary used to refer to this unique divine entity should not be interpreted as the reflection of the orator’s hesitation or ignorance towards the religion beliefs newly adopted by Constantine. The orator knew that, when he spoke about religious matters and theological justification of the imperial power, only the vaguest vocabulary could be used because, at that time, it served as a rhetorical tool by which he might ensure the widest acceptance of his speech.