09.10.06, Van Dam, The Roman Revolution

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David Gwynn

The Medieval Review 09.10.06

Van Dam, Raymond. The Roman Revolution of Constantine.. Cmbridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. 441. ISBN: 978-0-521-88209-5.

Reviewed by:
David Gwynn
Royal Holloway, University of London

The age of Constantine the Great has never lacked for scholarly attention. The conversion of the first Christian Roman emperor and the impact of his reign upon the Empire and the Church have been assessed and reassessed in numerous studies, which have appeared almost annually in recent years. In this intriguing contribution to the debates, Raymond Van Dam has conceived a new approach that avoids the traditional Christian-centred interpretation of Constantine. Taking his model (and his title) from The Roman Revolution of Ronald Syme, Van Dam seeks to set Constantine within his wider social and political as well as religious context, and so to re-evaluate his contribution to the transformation of the Later Roman Empire.

Like Syme's famous study of Augustus and the Roman transition from Republic to Empire, Van Dam's book is in no sense a biography. The structure is more fluid and the canvas explored much broader. Constantine's own life and personality receive only limited attention, and similarly there is little in-depth analysis of the literary sources for his reign, with the partial exception of Eusebius of Caesarea. Instead, Van Dam exploits a number of previously undervalued sources, particularly inscriptions. He constructs a tripartite argument, tracing across three sections the political, social, religious and ideological impact of Constantine upon the fourth century and beyond.

Section I (A Roman Empire Without Rome) opens with one of the most famous inscriptions from Constantine's reign: the rescript that the emperor sent to Hispellum in Italian Umbria in c.333-335 (Chapter 1; the text and a translation are helpfully provided in Appendix 1). The common interest in this inscription lies in its approval by the openly Christian emperor for a temple of the imperial cult dedicated to his Flavian family. While Van Dam does discuss this theme, his primary interest lies in setting the inscription within the shifting status of Italy and Rome in the Empire (Chapter 2) and the evolution of Flavian dynastic ideology (Chapter 3). Constantine accelerated the political marginalisation of the city of Rome which had already begun in the third century, most notably of course through his foundation of "New Rome," Constantinople. Nevertheless, Rome remained a focus for dynastic propaganda. Constantine drew on Tetrarchic precedents in his exploitation of monuments, coins and panegyrics to proclaim his image, but, as Van Dam observes, he differed markedly in his emphasis on a Flavian family identity. Hispellum received Constantine's permission to adopt the name Flavia Constans. The monumental head and hand from Constantine's colossal statue in Rome (Chapter 4), itself a reworked monument of his defeated rival Maxentius, expresses at several different levels his imperial image and his complex relationship with old Rome.

Section II (A Greek Roman Empire) opens with another inscription, the pillar that preserves Constantine's dialogue with Orcistus in central Asia Minor (Chapter 5; text and translation in Appendix 2). Like the text from Hispellum, the Orcistus pillar highlights again the importance of the petition relationship between the provinces and the emperor. The religious changes that Constantine brought to the Empire added a new dimension to that relationship, and the citizens of Orcistus were carefully ambiguous in avoiding identifying their precise religious affiliation (Chapter 6). Their petition was also presented in Latin, the language of administration, rather than the more popular Greek (Chapter 7). Here it is unfortunate that Van Dam was unable to consult Fergus Millar's A Greek Roman Empire: Power and Belief under Theodosius II (408-450) (2006), a work which addresses the same theme a century after Constantine. The tension between Latin and Greek in the fourth-century Empire merits further attention, as is hinted by Van Dam in his references to the importance of language in early Christianity and in the reign of Constantine's nephew Julian 'the Apostate'. For the citizens of Orcistus, the success of their petition merited permanent commemoration (Chapter 8), a physical symbol of one of the most valuable themes of this book, that it is essential to trace questions of administration, language and ideology on a local as well as on an imperial scale.

Certain limitations weaken Van Dam's presentation of the thought- provoking material collected in these two Sections. References to Diocletian, the Tetrarchy and the third-century "crisis" of the Empire occur throughout the eight chapters. Yet there is not always sufficient analysis of the social and political precedents set by Constantine's predecessors in the Tetrarchy, which must qualify any assessment of his reign as a "Revolution." The absence of a traditional biographic structure, although part of this book's appeal, likewise makes the argument at times rather shallow, particularly in the assessment of Constantine and his motives. Sections I and II of The Roman Revolution of Constantine are therefore best read in combination with a work which provides that wider background in greater detail, such as T.D. Barnes' Constantine and Eusebius (1981).

Section III (Emperor and God) takes Van Dam's argument in a new direction. "Modern scholarship typically discusses the development of Christian theology separately from political philosophy" (226). Yet as he rightly insists, such a separation makes little sense, especially in studies of the Later Roman Empire. The authority of the emperor and the authority of God or the gods were permanently intertwined. This was strongly visible under the Tetrarchy, with its ideology of harmony and the close association of the Tetrarchs with Jupiter and Hercules (Chapter 9). Constantine's interaction with Christianity must be set within this context. But the Christian Emperor faced a new challenge with the theological controversies that divided the Church when he attained sole rule in 324 (Chapter 10). The Council of Nicaea that Constantine summoned in 325 failed to resolve the disputes that had begun with a conflict between the presbyter Arius and his bishop Alexander of Alexandria over the relationship of the Son and the Father. These disputes inevitably impacted upon Eusebius of Caesarea's conception of Constantine as God's representative on earth and upon Constantine's representation of himself and his relationship with Christ (Chapter 11). The image and legacy of the first Christian Roman Emperor were to remain the subject of debate for centuries to come (Chapter 12), a debate that Van Dam and ourselves as his readers are still engaged in today.

Van Dam is emphatically correct that the gulf between theology, political philosophy and history in modern scholarship urgently needs to be closed. His book is a step in that direction. The difficulties that this challenge faces, however, are reflected in his own argument. Van Dam is not a theological specialist, as he clearly acknowledges (259 n.9), and this is visible for example in his at times rather simplistic approach to the so-called "Arian" controversy. Thus he has made little use of Lewis Ayres' Nicaea and Its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology (2004), preferring the more straightforward but increasingly outdated work of R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy 318-381 (1988). The theological debates of the fourth-century were more nuanced and less polarised than Hanson and in turn Van Dam tend to imply, and this to a degree weakens the interesting political-theological assessment of Constantine and his successors presented in Van Dam's final two chapters. Perhaps the way forward lies in more collaborative work between specialists in the different disciplines, although this of course is far more simply said than done.

This is not an easy book for a student to read. The structure and argument can be difficult to follow, and the evidence cited does not always receive the required degree of analysis. Nevertheless, at a time when so many books on Constantine have flooded onto academic shelves, it is a significant achievement to have opened new approaches and raised new questions, and this Van Dam has undoubtedly done. Seen on these terms, The Roman Revolution of Constantine is a worthy contribution to Constantinian studies and to the ongoing reinterpretation of Constantine and his age.

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Author Biography

David Gwynn

Royal Holloway, University of London