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Constantine as Liberator
An Evaluation of the Self Representations of the Emperor through Eusebius’ Life of Constantine and the Arch of Constantine
By James Nycz
I. The Conversion of the First Christian Emperor…?
The Western Roman emperor is lying on his deathbed. The previous emperor, Diocletian, had famously split the highest office among four with two senior and two junior emperors to ensure a political balance. But this balance is threatened by the impending power vacuum given that the current emperor in the west, Constantius, is approaching his final hours. Constantius has a son though, who from an early age was targeted by the other emperors on account of his superior faculties, thus posing a threat to their power. Coming from a post in the eastern half of the empire, Constantine arrives to his father in Britain just in time to relieve Constantius of his greatest worry: the prospect of no successor. His father bestows on him the title of emperor, breathes his last, and Constantine—now dressed in the imperial garb—leaves the palace in a funerary procession for his father and his army proclaims him emperor.
Constantine then begins to consolidate his control over the lands that his late father had ruled, but his focus does not remain internal for long. His gaze turns to Rome, where the Roman people suffered under the rule of the despotic emperor Maxentius. On campaign to free the people of Rome from the oppression of a tyrant, Constantine and his army witness a vision of a cross of light in the sky. Wondering at the significance of this sign, that night Constantine dreams that the Christian God appears to him with that same sign, proclaiming that if Constantine bears this sign of the cross in battle, he will be victorious. Now Constantine’s army, having heeded the words of God in Constantine’s dream, meets Maxentius’ army at the Tiber river. Maxentius commands his army across the bridge, but miraculously, the bridge collapses, killing Maxentius and giving Constantine’s army the victory.
This is the story of the conversion of the first Christian emperor of Rome; or, at least it is the story told after Constantine’s death by a bishop from a city in modern day Israel, Eusebius of Caesarea, in his account titled the Life of Constantine. How much of this conversion narrative from Eusebius can we trust today? In this paper, I will examine Eusebius in tandem with the Arch of Constantine, a monument commissioned by Constantine and the Senate after his victory over Maxentius, to ask the question of whether this conversion was actually as public or ground-breaking as Eusebius might have us believe.
II. Constantine’s Many Representations
Constantine is depicted as a liberator in both Eusebius’ Life of Constantine and on the Arch of Constantine. Both of these sources, however, contain biases that must be addressed. Eusebius expresses a strong affinity for Constantine. He explicitly states that Constantine lived a godly life and worshiped God, in addition to his singing of Constantine’s praises throughout the text. The Arch of Constantine artificially links Constantine with past emperors by appropriating architectural features of works commissioned by those emperors. Constantine is also unsurprisingly represented in the Arch’s historical depictions in a favorable light. Therefore, while these sources cannot exactly tell us a true history of the events they describe and depict, they nonetheless provide us with insight into both the differing nature of each of their representations of Constantine as well as who composed each of their audiences. In this way, though both of these sources emphasize Constantine’s role as a liberator, Eusebius takes a religious leaning whereas the Arch has a political bent. Eusebius paints Constantine as a father figure and his liberation of Rome as a restoration of sanity at the “head” of the . On the Arch of Constantine however, the father-figure element is still apparent, but is less explicitly religious in its undertones and more focused on the political aspects of Constantine’s liberation: strong leadership and prosperity for the city of Rome.
III. The Christian Liberator
Eusebius’ work — likely intended for a more religious audience considering Eusebius’ role as a bishop and his past writings on ecclessiastical history — frames the city of Rome as the head of a body, this body being the Roman empire, thus evoking church imagery. Eusebius claims that Constantine “regarded the entire world as one immense body, and perceived that the head of it all, the royal city of the Roman empire, was bowed down by the weight of a tyrannous oppression.” So in order to restore the state of the empire, Constantine must restore Rome to order. However, the implication of this is that not only could the state of Rome be considered the “head” of this “body” of the empire, but due to the influence of the emperor — whether pernicious or beneficent, the former in the case of Maxentius and the latter in the case of Constantine — the emperor himself could also be considered the “head” of the “body.”
The use of the terms “head” and “body” evoke imagery of the relation of Christ to his Church. This doctrine is summarized by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as, “Three aspects of the Church as the Body of Christ are to be more specifically noted: the unity of all her members with each other as a result of their union with Christ; Christ as head of the Body; and the Church as bride of Christ.” This doctrine stems from multiple instances of similar descriptions of the Church in St. Paul’s account in the New Testament. By using this rhetoric, Eusebius does not only view Constantine as christlike, but demonstrates in — what Eusebius is reporting to be — Constantine’s own worldview this Christian viewpoint of the role of the emperor. The current head, Maxentius, was corrupt, thus serving as a crippling weight to the empire. And so if Constantine became the head, he would not just be similar to Christ as the “head” of a “body,” but he would also be similar to Moses as a liberator of his people — an allusion made throughout the text both explicitly and implicitly.
Eusebius’ depiction of Constantine here as head of the empire is also reminiscent of the father imagery demonstrated in both the Roman and Christian traditions such as the “head of household” being the paterfamilias (“father of the family”). In Eusebius’ description of Constantine’s father, Constantius, he clearly favors his form of governance in comparison to his contemporaries: “In short, while his colleagues oppressed all men by the most grievous exactions, and rendered their lives intolerable, and even worse than death, Constantius alone governed his people with a mild and tranquil sway, and exhibited towards them a truly parental and fostering care.” Given Eusebius’ unceasing praise and high regard for Constantius, this passage is representative of Eusebius’ view of what good governance in general should look like: clement and pastoral. This characterization evokes not only the Christian tradition of viewing Christ (and God in general) as a shepherd to his people and as a forgiving force, but also the venerated title of Pater Patriae (“Father of the Fatherland”) bestowed upon Roman leaders and emperors throughout Rome’s history . This title is even attributed to Constantine on coinage, though this title would become less popular during and after his time. Eusebius thus connects Constantine and his father to both the traditions of Christianity and Rome for his audience.
Though his allusions to Christianity are more overt, possibly suggesting the makeup of his audience is Christian, Eusebius’ influence on our characterization of Rome’s political establishment is representative of the overlap between Christian and Roman political concepts. Both emphasize forgiveness (or clemency) as well as moderation. Eusebius could also have been attempting to set an example for future emperors on how to properly govern in a way that satisfies both the requirements of a Christian and the traditional role of a Roman emperor.
IV. The Political Liberator
Whereas Eusebius’ depiction of Constantine’s liberation of Rome is explicitly and unapologetically Christian, with less explicit nods to the Roman political establishment, the Arch of Constantine wholly flips this depiction. Through the Arch, Constantine (and/or the Senate) is primarily concerned with evoking the memory of past Roman emperors and cultivating his image as the rightful and legitimate political — not necessarily moral — leader of Rome. The references to Constantine’s Christianity on the Arch are minimal and are masked in either ambiguous language or in typical Roman imagery.
Inscription of the Arch of Constantine
The most salient Christian religious references on the Arch are located on the inscription, though their references are still very roundabout:
To the Emperor Caesar Flavius Constantine, the Greatest, Pius, Felix, Augustus:
inspired by (a) divinity, in the greatness of his mind,
he used his army to save the state by the just force of arms
from a tyrant on the one hand and every kind of factionalism on the other;
therefore the Senate and the People of Rome
have dedicated this exceptional arch to his triumphs.
Though this inscription clearly describes Constantine as “Pius Felix” (“Pious [and] Lucky”), these terms are not explicitly religious in a Christian sense given that the connotation of “pius” enjoyed a long history in Rome as a characterization of Roman kings and eventual emperors, even serving as an epithet of the epic hero Aeneas. However, “Pius Felix” became increasingly used as one of the emperor’s many titles during the fourth century CE, correlating with the Christianization of the empire and the emperorship. Though this is not an explicit reference to Christianity, it could represent the emperor’s potential wish to be viewed in a more religious nature.
Also in this description, however, exists the use of “inspired by (a) divinity.” In Latin, the ambiguity of this phrasing (dīvīnitātis genitive, singular) is especially apparent because it makes use of the lack of specification required since Latin does not have an indefinite article. Constantine could be using this phrasing for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it allows him to allude to Christianity while not being too explicitly Christian. This indicates that the Senate and Roman people (as the inscription denotes) might not have been receptive to direct references to Christ or the Christian God during Constantine’s reign.
This ambiguous phrasing also allows for an interpretation of the inscription for both the Roman and Christian traditions, appealing to a broader audience. For a Christian, the divinity could be their God, whereas for a practitioner of Roman religion the divinity could be the goddess of victory — which I will expand upon later. Constantine also could have political reasons for using this specific wording on his inscription. Instead of ascribing his victories to God’s work entirely (as Eusebius describes Him as “the author of his victory”), a strategy furthered aided by the ambiguously religious language, he is able to take more credit by centering himself in the friezes that describe his victory over Maxentius and liberation of Rome.
Overall, the inscription on this public monument is fairly vague when it comes to the nature of Constantine’s religion. However, it seems to be the most overtly Christian — if it could be described that way — aspect of the Arch. Though the inscription lacks the distinctly Christian message that might be expected from Eusebius’ story, the inscription certainly invokes a connection to Rome’s political past and especially the precedent of past emperors. In particular, the inscription’s fourth line regarding a “tyrant” and “factionalism” is reminiscent of the first emperor Augustus, and his public account of his own deeds in the Res Gestae Divi Augusti: “I raised an army with which I set free the state, which was oppressed by the domination of a faction.” Similar to Augustus, Constantine justifies his campaign against the city of Rome with the language of the “liberator” and similarly demonizes a certain “faction” as the main problem. The images of the Arch further contribute to this expression of a connection to Rome’s political past for Constantine’s self representation.
The Images of the Arch of Constantine
In the images on this Arch, there exists a strong sense of conservatism in Constantine’s portrayal of himself while the allusions to Eusebius’ account of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity story are completely absent. Constantine deliberately repurposes past monuments built by the emperors Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius in order to evoke these men in his own representation. Brenk characterizes this co-optation of past architectural features as “political propaganda” aiming to evoke Roman tradition and legitimize his rule, especially given that Constantine comes from a lower-class birth. This is consistent with his other buildings as well, which similarly did not evoke explicitly Christian imagery, with the main theme for his construction projects being “preservation and conservation.”
One aspect of this arch that could be seen as non-conservative would be its explicit religious imagery, though it is still Roman to its core. On the north plinth the Goddess of Victory is depicted writing on shields. This could be a way of Romanizing the story of Constantine’s vision from God so that it is compatible with all Roman audiences, though this is unlikely since the story of this conversion is not well represented on the Arch. Roman religious imagery is evident throughout the monument such as on the spandrels of the Arch, where river gods are also depicted underneath the frieze detailing Constantine’s liberation of Rome. The use of religious imagery on the Arch is entirely based in Roman religion, indicating that the public audience for this monument might not have been receptive to a Christian message when it was constructed.
The Arch’s religious imagery when it comes to Constantine’s achievements is particularly lacking, especially compared to Eusebius’ narrative in which God features prominently as the primary agent of Constantine’s victory. In the historical frieze, entirely from Constinine’s time that stretches the circumference of the Arch, Constantine — not any divine figure — is placed at the center of the narrative and is shown to be primarily responsible for his success in the liberation of Rome. Again in contrast to Eusebius’ narrative, Constantine is at the center of his achievements throughout the frieze, either in the literal center of the section of the frieze or noticeably prominent.
The events that are chosen to be depicted after the defeat of Maxentius are an oration in the forum and the distribution of money to the people of Rome — political, not religious, acts. This is very different from the depiction Eusebius offers where he claims that the symbol given to Constantine by God was then plastered all over monuments in Rome, even including an inscription that was supposedly placed below a statue of Constantine in the “most frequented part of Rome” that is very similar to the inscription on the Arch:
BY VIRTUE OF THIS SALUTARY SIGN, WHICH IS THE TRUE TEST OF VALOR, I HAVE PRESERVED AND LIBERATED YOUR CITY FROM THE YOKE OF TYRANNY. I HAVE ALSO SET AT LIBERTY THE ROMAN SENATE AND PEOPLE, AND RESTORED THEM TO THEIR ANCIENT DISTINCTION AND SPLENDOR.
The religious imagery continues when Eusebius says that “senate and people … seemed … to be born again into a fresh and new life.” This contrasts greatly to the messages Constantine’s political imagery broadcasted on the Arch, suggesting Eusebius’ religious audience was not as prominent in the public of the city of Rome at this time.
Overall, the images on the Arch of Constantine tell a very different story than Eusebius. Instead of a devoutly Christian leader who flaunts his Christianity throughout the city of Rome — especially in its most prominent parts — the Arch presents a primarily political, not moral picture. The public nature of this monument suggests that a wider audience than Eusebius’ must not be receptive to a Christian message and that Constantine might see it as more important to highlight his own political achievements than to publicly ascribe them to a higher power.
The Location of the Arch of Constantine
Underlying the public nature of the rhetoric and imagery of this monument is where it is physically placed in the city of Rome. The location of the Arch of Constantine in the city of Rome is crucially important to understanding the audience of Constantine’s message and his political motivations in the erection of the monument. Located at the base of the Palatine hill, situated off of the Via Sacra and Colosseum, and just a stone’s throw away from the Forum and Circus Maximus, this monument is centrally located to other important landmarks of Rome. As such, the central place of the Arch signals the importance of this monument — and by extension, its message — to the emperor himself as it is situated in one of the most public places Constantine could have placed it.
Figure 1: Map of of the Palatine Hill and Imperial Palace Depicting the Location of the Arch of Constantine
The Arch is situated at the bottom of the Palatine hill overlooking the Via Sacra, an ancient, religious, and politically significant road. Placed at the foot of the imperial palace, this monument could be understood by the everyday people of Rome as a declaration of Constantine’s proudest achievements as well as his ideology and admirations. Near the Colosseum and Circus Maximus, the monument is clearly intended not just for elite Romans, but for anyone who visits or lives in the city. The placement of the Arch on these roads specifically could indicate either a featuring in or a reference to the imperial triumph. The triumphal route at this time likely passed through or was near the Arch. Given its prominent placement, Constantine’s politically-focused message, as well as its references to his oration in the Forum and generosity to the Roman people, are not surprising. Constantine is adapting his message to not just invoke the past politics of Rome, but also to remind his subjects of his accomplishments, thus securing himself a place in its history.
Eusebius’ Life of Constantine and the Arch of Constantine both advance the narrative of Constantine as a liberator, but each in a different sense: religious and political, respectively. This difference in the nature of Constantine’s depiction exists in each of these sources to better fit the intended audience of the source. Eusebius’ work is unapologetically Christian and it is likely that as a bishop and member of the imperial court, he is writing to a learned Christian audience that is consequently small in number. When he writes to this audience, he makes connections between Constantine and the Bible (particularly Moses and Jesus) while also praising his actions for the Christian community. Eusebius plays up not just the biblical imagery of Constantine, but his own religious practice. The absence of explicit Christian iconography and inscriptions from the Arch of Constantine, on the other hand, speaks to a hesitancy on the part of Constantine to utilize explicitly Christian imagery. In this public monument situated in the heart of Rome, Constantine instead shies away from the likely controversial (at least to the broader public) Christian narrative in favor of a political narrative that highlights his achievements for the city and serves to connect him to the glorious emperors of the past.
James Nycz (College ’21) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Political Science and Classical Studies.
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