Comparison of Constantine with Alexander the Great
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, after the abdication of Diocletian and Maximian on the 1st May 305 CE, the new tetrarchy was formed, with the East under the rule of Augustus Galerius and the Caesar Maximinus Daia, and the West under 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. After Galerius allowed Constantine to join his father in the West, Constantine took part in the campaign against the Picti in Britain, a campaign 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 – he was then replaced by Licinius who became Augustus in the West. Then, between 306 and 312, Maxentius variably controlled Italy up to the Alps, Africa and Sicily, regions that were of 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 (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 (on the military campaign, see Levi, “La campagna”; Mennella, “La campagna”). It is before this final battle that Constantine allegedly converted to Christianity as reported, according to two different versions, in Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine I.26, 28-29; Lactantius On the Deaths of the Persecutors XLIV.5-6. Concerning the place and the time when this panegyric was pronounced, it is commonly assumed that it occurred at Trier in 313 CE, the city in which 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 comes from the first part of the speech in which the orator exposes the events that occurred before the campaign against Maxentius in Italy. The orator first deals with the Constantine’s determination to free Rome from the control of the tyrant, while ensuring at the same time the defence of the Rhenan frontier (§ 2). Then, to highlight the courage of Constantine he recalls that the latter prepared the fight against the usurper only with a quarter of Maxentius’s troops (§ 3). Then, after having compared Maxentius and Constantine (§ 4), the orator inserts an ornamental comparison between Constantine and Alexander the Great, ultimately praising Constantine. This part corresponds to the text presented here. The two other parts of the speech deal respectively with the narrative of the expedition in Italy (§ 5.4-21.1-4), and with the expedition against the Franks (21.5-23). We will consider how this development in which the orator compares Constantine with Alexander the Great fits in the traditional model of this kind of comparison used by Roman authors. Second, we will put in perspective the message conveyed by this development by comparing it to other sources of the same period using the same comparison between the two leaders.
The main aim of the orator when he uses this comparison is to prove the superiority of Constantine over Alexander. To do so, he uses various arguments. First, Alexander’s army was numerically much more impressive than that of Constantine, but this numerical inferiority was compensated for by the moral qualities of Constantine, especially by the fact that he had a superior virtus. His second argument is that Alexander the Great had to defeat enemies who were much less difficult than those of Constantine. For Alexander, only one fight (proelii unius) had been sufficient to defeat each of them. Moreover, the Eastern peoples enumerated, namely the Medes, the Syrians, the Parthians and the Asians, peoples who are supposed to represent roughly all the conquests of Alexander, are presented as being neither tough, nor warlike enemies. The orator thus uses stereotypes often applied to Eastern peoples, such as, for instance, the levitas of the Medes. Levitas is a term whose meaning can vary according to the context in which it is used, but it usually refers to the inconsistency and the flippancy of some Easterners, contrary to the Romans, who are characterized by gravitas, that is a mix of seriousness and dignity. For instance, in Livy’s digression in which he compares Rome’s strength with that of Alexander in order to evaluate which one would have won had they fought each other, he deals with the anti-Roman opinions he has been trying to counter in these terms: “But there was forsooth the danger—as the silliest of the Greeks (levissimi ex Graecis), who exalt the glory even of the Parthians against the name of the Romans (contra nomen Romanum)—are fond of alleging, that the Roman People would have been unable to withstand the majesty of Alexander’s name (maiestatem nominis Alexandri), though I think that they had not so much as heard of him” (Livy, History of Rome IX.18.6, Benjamin O. Forster’s translation in LCL slightly modified). In the extract presented here, it seems that the orator refers to the leves Medi in order to highlight the fact that they were not tough soldiers. The orator then highlights the Syrians’ and Parthians’ inability to fight, before alluding to the fact that the Asians would have accepted and even asked to submit themselves to Alexander’s mastery. According to Barbara S. Rodgers, this last remark echoes the fact that “Alexander liberated the Greek cities in Asia but made all others tributary as before” (Nixon and Rodgers, In Praise of Later, p. 303, n. 32).The fact that the Eastern peoples who refused to fight because of their cowardice and softness were said to easily accept being enslaved is a commonplace that the orator repeats in IX (12).24.1: “It is easy to conquer timid and unwarlike (imbelles) peoples such as the pleasant Greece and the delights of Orient produce, who can barely support, in order to protect them from the sun, a light cloak and silken garments, and who, if they ever get into a dangerous situation, forget freedom and beg that one allow them to be slaves.” The message of the orator is simple: Alexander cannot be compared with Constantine, as the enemies he fought were not serious ones. It is interesting to note that in Livy’s comparison between the strengths of Alexander and Rome, in which he concludes upon Rome’s superiority, one of the arguments he also develops is that Alexander fought against weak Eastern leaders and armies. He thus quotes the example of Darius’s armies that he assimilates with armies of “women and eunuchs,” and he even concludes that Alexander not only took advantage of the weakness of Darius’s armies, but was also ‘contaminated’ by these Eastern vices (see Livy, History of Rome IX.17.16-18.5).
The second argument brought by the orator is that unlike Alexander, Constantine succeeded in defeating much tougher soldiers during his campaign in Italy against Maxentius’s armies. To prove this point, the orator argues that they were armed “with every weapon in the way of the first rank (more primae classis),” referring thus to the ancient – but of course disused – partitions established by the king Servius Tullius, partitions which separated various censorial classes to which were assigned different kinds of weapons (the most famous narrative of these censorial classes is Livy, History of Rome I.43). By echoing this ancient practice, the orator wanted to assert that Maxentius’s men were very well equipped. Moreover, when the orator implies that by choosing Maxentius’s side, these soldiers would have ceased to be Roman (“who, for shame, shortly before were Roman,” pro nefas) paulo ante Romani), it is obviously an exaggeration.
Finally, it it obvious that in this passage, the main aim of the orator is to prove that Constantine as military commander was far superior to Alexander the Great. We have seen that this kind of speech fits in with the continuity of Livy’s excursus in which he also compares Rome and Alexander to assert the superiority of the first. However, it seems that this theme was very in vogue among the Gallic rhetors of the end of the third and beginning of the fourth century. Indeed, in the panegyric of the emperor Maximian that had been delivered on the 21st April 289 CE, on the occasion of Rome’s birthday, the orator also develops the idea that the praised emperor surpasses Alexander. In this case, the reason mentioned is that Alexander restored his realm to one king only – the Indian king –, whereas numerous kings had become the clients of Maximian (II (10).10.3). The necessity of finding eulogistic and hyperbolic motifs to praise the ruling emperors explains of course this kind of use of the comparison with Alexander. However, one should note that there also existed another tradition, which consisted of presenting the ruling emperor as a second Alexander. This tradition was extensively used under Augustus, and is also attested for other emperors such as Domitian (see Silius Italicus, Punica III.612-613; Statius, Silvae IV.1.40-41) or Hadrian (see for instance Hadrian’s frontier policy in Britain (CIL VII, 498)). Often the comparison is implicit and comes via reference to the fact that the ruling emperor will in the future submit the Bactrians or the Indians, or will reach the Ganges.
Moreover, it can be noted that Constantine himself was sometimes assimilated to the figure of Alexander, in a perspective that radically differs from the one exposed in this panegyric. For instance, at the very beginning of the Life of Constantine, the Christian author Eusebius of Caesarea makes parallels between the two rulers (see Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine I.8). After having first recalled that Constantine started his reign at the age at which Alexander died and that his reign lasted twice as long as that of Alexander, Eusebius praises Constantine for having succeeded in establishing world-wide dominion. The parallel with Alexander’s empire is implicit when Eusebius enumerates, through a combination of topoi and of actual contemporary military campaigns, that Constantine succeeded in submitting peoples from the far West, North, and South. Then, the comparison becomes explicit when Eusebius deals with the conquests in the far East. As Constantine did not of course travel as far as Alexander towards the East, Eusebius argues that Constantine diffuses “the effulgence of his holy light to the ends of the whole world, even to the most distant Indians.” This is an assessment which is of course far-fetched, but which shows how it was important for Eusebius to find correspondence between every aspect of Alexander and Constantine’s policies. In the text presented here, when the orator enumerates the peoples submitted by Alexander, he does not deal with India or the Indians. The reason for this silence is that the reference to India would have implicitly shown that Alexander remained the leader who had actually reached the most extreme Eastern borders. Finally, the question of whether, under Constantine’s reign, his assimilation to a new – and Christian – Alexander the Great was officially orchestrated and spread via coins or monuments has been debated. In another passage of the Life of Constantine, Eusebius narrates that Constantine ordered to be represented on gold coins “with the eyes uplifted as in the posture of prayer to God,” and on public portraits “the eyes upraised to heaven, and the hands outspread as if in prayer” (see Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine IV.15). The upward gazing eyes are well attested on coins minted during his reign, but also on the head of the colossal statue of Constantine, now preserved in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, in the Capitoline Museums (see the gold medallion from Siscia minted between 326 and 327 CE; Gold medallion depicting the head of Constantine and the emperor walking while holding spear and a trophy (327 CE); Solidus depicting the head of Constantine celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of his rule (335 CE); Colossus of Constantine). Some scholars have defended the thesis that the heavenward gaze was used not only to signify Constantine’s conversion, but also to echo representations of Alexander the Great portrayed in a similar way (see the debate in Eusebius of Caesarea, Life of Constantine IV.15). This connection is made more clear on Constantine’s coinage by the fact that the emperor is portrayed wearing a diadem, the Greek symbol of kingship. Whether we accept this hypothesis that the representations of Constantine with the the heavenward gaze were inspired or based on representations of Alexander or not, what appears clear from Eusebius’s presentation of Constantine as a new Alexander is that the Christian bishop also wanted to show that Constantine was animated by superior goals: to take the message of God to the farthest extremes of the oikoumenè. Any Christian reinterpretation of the comparison/association of the ruling emperor – here Constantine – with Alexander the Great is however totally absent from this extract from the speech of 313 CE presented here. As we have seen, the aim of the orator was first of all to fit in with a tradition, well attested by Livy’s digression about the superiority of Rome over Alexander, which consisted in arguing that, because of his superior virtus and of his qualities of military commander, the Roman emperor – here Constantine – was logically far superior to Alexander the Great.