In This Article Constantine

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Sourcebooks
  • Exhibitions
  • Conference Volumes and Collected Studies
  • Recent Monographic Studies
  • Framing the Debate
  • Christianity
  • Paganism
  • Law and Society
  • Administration and Economy
  • Constantinople and Rome
  • The Holy Land
  • Art
  • Architecture
  • Constantine in Legend

Classics Constantine
by
Noel Lenski
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0127

Introduction

Constantine takes his place alongside Augustus and Justinian as one of the longest-reigning and most influential emperors in Roman history. His rule stretched for thirty-one years, from 306 to 337 CE, and witnessed the reconsolidation of the Roman Empire into the hands of a single monarch and the conversion of the social and administrative superstructure to Christianity. Much that characterizes the last three centuries of the Roman Empire and thus the period known as Late Antiquity took its start in the reign of Constantine. This includes the growth of a vastly expanded imperial bureaucracy, the rise of Byzantium-Constantinople as a world capital, the conversion of the Roman aristocracy, the rise of the bishop as a major player in civic and imperial politics, the introduction of imperially mediated ecumenical councils, the introduction of Christian principles into Roman law, the infiltration of Christian rhetoric and symbolism into the Roman military, the rearticulation of daily life around Christian rituals and feast-days, the rise of the holy man and the Christian cult of the saints, the growth of Christian forms of art and architecture, and the reconstruction of Palestine into a Christian Holy Land. The shifts ushered in—or in many instances simply presided over—by Constantine paved the way for the transition from classical Antiquity to the Middle Ages in both East and West, and many of these changes continue to exercise influence on the western world today. Constantine’s reign presents a number of problems for the student of ancient history. The single most common question confronted by scholars of Constantine has been the sincerity and timing of his conversion. Although sources report that this occurred in the period of his war with Maxentius in 312, some have suggested it actually took place earlier and others that it was never fully realized whatsoever. In fact, much evidence remains that Constantine continued to reverence pagan deities, particularly the Unconquerable Sun (Sol Invictus), down to the close of his reign. We are fortunate, however, to possess an unusually high number of writings from Constantine’s own pen which make it fairly certain that, from an early date, Constantine considered himself a devotee of the Christian god. The emphasis on Constantine’s religiosity has, unfortunately, often obscured other important aspects of his reign which were equally epochal. Constantine was, for example, a military genius who succeeded in defeating two imperial armies as well as numerous barbarian nations and in securing the frontiers of the empire throughout his reign. He was also a master politician capable of reunifying the eastern and western halves of the empire and of reintegrating an expanded senatorial aristocracy into leadership roles after these had been largely snubbed under the Tetrarchy. Finally, he was a skilled administrator who reformed the currency, expanded the imperial bureaucracy, and streamlined the justice system to the advantage of his subjects. Recent studies have tended to emphasize these accomplishments achieved by Constantine as Roman emperor rather than continuing to focus on him qua homo religiosus. In so doing, they have brought into even sharper focus why it is that Constantine earned his place in history but also in legend as one of the greatest emperors of Rome.

General Overviews

Numerous introductory studies of Constantine have been written since the 1930s, some of which are still of use. Some of these are listed in Framing the Debate. More recent studies include Bleckmann 2003 for German readers, Marcone 2002 for readers of Italian, and Pohlsander 1996 for readers of English. Lenski 2011 offers broader coverage but is divided into thematic chapters, each of which is easily digestible. The most concise survey of political and military history in Constantine’s reign that could still be called comprehensive can be found in Lenski 2011 at pp. 59–90.

  • Bleckmann, Bruno. 2003. Konstantin der Grosse. 2d ed. Reinbek bei Hamburg, Germany: Rowohlt.

    E-mail Citation »

    The most incisive of the many introductory volumes on Constantine in German. Shows a comprehensive knowledge of the sources and a willingness to confront the complexities of Constantine’s reign head on.

  • Lenski, Noel, ed. 2011. The Cambridge companion to the Age of Constantine. Rev. ed. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Intended as an introduction to all aspects of Constantine and his reign. Includes sections on political history, religion, art and architecture, social and legal history, and foreign policy.

  • Marcone, Arnaldo. 2002. Costantino il Grande. Rome: Editori Laterza.

    E-mail Citation »

    The best introduction in Italian, with extensive discussion of political and military history in addition to careful treatment of religious issues. Shows broad familiarity with debates in the secondary literature.

  • Pohlsander, Hans A. 1996. The Emperor Constantine. London and New York: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203287743E-mail Citation »

    Very brief introduction focused primarily on political history that offers a solid narrative in sparing prose. Well researched and documented for an introductory volume.

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