C.M. ODAHL, Constantine and the Christian Empire. London: Routledge, 2004. Pp. xviii + 400. ISBN 0-415-17485-6. STG £60 (Hb).
Review by David Woods
This is the latest volume in the series Roman Imperial Biographies, and fills one of the more obvious gaps. Some of the volumes in this series have been disappointing, while others have been excellent. This belongs among the latter group, and will undoubtedly remain the standard biography of Constantine for many years to come. The author declares (p. ix) that he had wanted to write a biography of Constantine that would be ?both interesting and intelligible to the educated public as well as useful and challenging to fellow scholars?. He has succeeded admirably in this task.
The book contains 12 chapters which vary in size from about 40 pages to a mere 6 pages, but average about 20 pages. The first discusses the main surviving sources for Constantine, while the last provides an extremely brief survey of modern attitudes towards him, but the bulk of the book is devoted to a step-by-step chronological treatment of the main phases in his life. Hence the book begins at the beginning and ends at the end, always a good sign. A second virtue of this book is that it is well-written and easily readable throughout. In particular, the author avoids the temptation to engage in overly detailed, even polemical, discussion of those topics or problems which most interest him. The third virtue of this work is that it contains excellent endnotes. The text itself consists of 284 pages, but the endnotes fill another 83 pages. These cite the ancient sources, sometimes quoting them at length, and, more unusually, provide fair and accurate surveys of modern secondary literature, even where the author rejects the viewpoints offered in such literature ! Hence those who wish to pursue a topic in more detail are enabled to do so. This approach is in marked contrast to that adopted in some current biographies of Constantine which provide little or no help in such matters. The final virtue of this work is that it is extremely well illustrated, with 92 black-and-white photographs and 8 maps. Some of these photographs are fairly standard (the Arch of Constantine in Rome, the Ticinum silver medallion, and so on), and one may find them in almost any book dealing with the early 4th century, but many are not. The various scenic shots or cityscapes are particularly interesting, and great care has obviously been taken in choosing such material.
Factual errors are rare. On p. 63, Odahl identifies the official who allegedly presided at the attempted conscription into the army of a young Christian called Maximilian as the ?Numidian governor Dion?, but the text makes it clear that, if he existed at all, Dion can only have been the proconsul of Africa. More common are errors of interpretation where Odahl repeats common modern (mis)interpretations of ancient sources without making it clear that the ancient sources do not actually support these statements. For example, he describes the lead-sealing which Maximilian refused to accept as ?the idolatrous ?dog-tag? worn by Roman soldiers?. The passion of St. Maximilian says nothing to suggest that this sealing was idolatrous, and there is no other evidence that Roman soldiers wore ?dog-tags?, that is, identity-discs. As I have argued elsewhere, this element of the passion betrays a knowledge of the lead-sealings which the Mohammedan authorities forced Christians to wear about their necks, as a sign that they had been registered for the poll-tax, from the early eighth century onwards (Collection Latomus 279 (2003), 266-76). It is just one of several pieces of evidence pointing to the fact that the passion of St. Maximilian is a complete fiction, probably of eighth-century date. Nor is there any reason to feel anymore confident concerning the authenticity of the passion of St. Marcellus (p. 64), another text which Odahl takes far too seriously. The same is true of the passion of Julius the Veteran (p. 66). Moreover, it is unclear to me why Odahl should prefer to refer us to Ruinart (1689 !) for all these texts when better editions are much more easily accessible in H. Musurillo, Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford, 1972).
One occasionally wishes that Odahl could have adopted a more critical stance towards the surviving literary sources. He is sometimes inclined to paraphrase rather than analyse. This can create problems when it comes to the interpretation of the more controversial passages. For example, most readers will be vaguely aware that Constantine claimed to have received a sign from God, a vision in the sky, before his defeat of Maxentius in AD312. So what did he really see, if he saw anything at all ? Odahl combines and paraphrases several different literary accounts in his discussion of this incident (pp. 105-6) without answering this key question. Infuriatingly vague references to ?revelatory experiences? and ?celestial revelations? only leave the reader puzzled. But hidden away in the endnotes (pp. 319-20, n. 15), he reveals that most modern scholars now accept that Constantine probably saw a ?halo phenomenon? created by sunlight refracted through ice crystals in the upper atmosphere. The key paper by P. Weiss to which he refers us on this subject is now available in revised and expanded form in English (Journal of Roman Archaeology 16 (2003), 237-59).
Again, the anachronistic description of the second civil-war between Constantine and his eastern rival Licinius in 324 as a ?crusade? grates (p. 162), all the more so when one realizes that the characterization of this conflict as a religious war between the good Catholic Constantine and the wicked pagan Licinius depends almost entirely on the evidence of bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, as Odahl himself admits (p. 343, n. 26). Yet Roman emperors had been fighting civil-wars long before Christianity achieved any political prominence. Greed, jealousy, and paranoia, must have played their traditional roles in the deteriorating relationship between Constantine and Licinius. Religion can only have been a minor factor, no matter how it served Constantine himself, or the more servile bishops, to pretend otherwise subsequently.
In conclusion, Odahl has produced a highly readable volume which will provide a new generation of students with an excellent introduction to the life and times of Constantine the Great. One can only hope that someone will send a copy to Mel Gibson and that he will produce the film which this subject so richly deserves (but, please, do not let anyone send a copy to Oliver Stone).