Yes, I have just read two biographies of Constantine very close together. It actually works, both books have a certain focus. And with the reliability or paucity of the source material, there are different interpretations to be set out.
Like David Potter’s book, Stephenson also takes some time to set the scene. For Potter that was the administrative and imperial state before and after Diocletian. For Stephenson, it is the religious state of the Roman empire in the late third century. Where Potter was happy to sideline the topic of religion, Stephenson wants to set out his views on Constantine’s conversion: a real conversion but due to his identification of the Christian God as a pagan style victory giving god. This is contrasted with early Christian pacifism and an army that was among the slower parts of society. While Potter was sharp and analytical, Stephenson (although clearly knowledgeable) doesn’t build his arguments quite as tightly – they sometimes seem a bit speculative.
The book doesn’t just focus on religious issues. The military and governmental sides are also covered, making the book perhaps more rounded that Potter’s. One interesting discussion looks at Constantine’s development of Rome and Constantinople. After looking at how Constantine adapted the work of his rival Maxentius in Rome, he suggests that another rival Licinius started work on Constantinople before having his contribution more successfully removed from history. Both authors do see a similar motivation in refounding the city, as Potter described the previous use of Nicomedia as an administrative centre. Ultimately the emperor was looking for a fresh start in his own image.
As a character both pictures of Constantine feels similar in many ways: determined, ruthless but often tolerant and morally led in decision making. Despite twisting religion to suit his own views and ends Paul Stephenson’s Constantine feels less cynical than David Potter’s. Stephenson does though point out the bias of our biographical sources – usually religious – and suggests that our image would change if we had accounts from other backgrounds. This is probably the best introduction to the emperor that I have read (actually, I’d suggest Mike Duncan’s podcast), but it’s not without its odd twists and nuances – particularly some of the speculation. Personally I preferred Potter for the better defined scope and analysis.
Constantine must be among the best known Roman emperors, but it sometimes seems like there are less popular history books and historical fiction on him than I might expect. I guess that makes sense in a way, what exciting narrative scenes exist are too wrapped up in his conversion to Christianity – not exactly a fashionable topic. It seems hard to find writing about Constantine that isn’t really part of the larger story of the rise of Christianity or the decline of the Empire. His great predecessor Diocletian feels even more obscure. Maybe the story is too political, not enough scandal and sex appeal?
This book by David Potter bills itself as a biography of Constantine, but it’s more limited than that: the majority of the book sets up the role of the Emperor and his administration before and after the reforms of Diocletian. Constantine only really comes into play after the first third, and only really gains power in the final third. Potter looks at how Constantine conformed to and retreated from those conventions as Emperor. The focus is there rather than his Christianity or his military exploits – though clearly both are covered as part of a general picture. It’s an interesting take, and it does help to put his career and decisions in proper context.
David Potter paints a complex picture of Constantine. A man whose religion and image would be carefully adjusted over time. He is astute enough to dismiss some of the mythical stories – the failed assassination attempt by Maximian, for example – and set out our ignorance on others – the circumstances of the death of his son and exile of his wife Fausta, As a character Constantine comes across as power hungry and ruthless, but also cautious and tolerant. It’s a detailed and authoritative portrayal, but unfortunately one that can come across as a little dry and perhaps a little lop sided in places.
Catharism is probably the best known Medieval heresy. It has popped up in Dan Brown and Bernard Cornwell books, and in Iron Maiden songs. People may be familiar with the crusades against it, famous quotes like “Kill them all; let God sort them out”, and even with the general idea of dualism with a split between good and evil, spiritual and physical. In another sense it isn’t well known at all, much of what we know comes from anti-Cathar propaganda or rebuttals.
In this book Moore looks again at the response to heresy in the medieval church and particularly the Cathars. He finds little to hold on to where they are concerned; it seems that the idea of the heretics being an organised group with a church structure and doctrine was a construction of writers within the catholic church. The local heretics may have had reformist motives, complaints against clerical corruption, a desire to follow the bible more literally, or a desire for greater local independence – but aspects of their behaviour was taken and fit into a stock idea of a dualist heretic but churchmen who had been reading a bit too much classical literature!
In the earlier part of the book, Moore seems very comfortable with the sources, and convincing that there was no true heretical organization. We see reformers of various types, some integrated within the church, some not. Later on, as the book hits the 13th century, there seems to be a bit of extrapolation, that we should continue to interpret these later events in a similar manner to the former. This may be reasonable – it is a very subtle book, possibly too subtle for me and I will have to leave judgement to those with a greater familiarity with the era.
Aimed at a general audience, but with some scholarship behind it, this is an interesting if difficult read and probably not one for beginners. The conclusion of the book leaves the traditional narrative disrupted and muddied, but that’s the way history often is. It’s worth reading for those familiar with the topic, but look elsewhere for an introduction (The Perfect Heresy by Stephen O’Shea perhaps?).
The apostle Paul has a bit of an image problem – he’s often seen as the man who took Jesus ideas and distorted them creating the rigid, repressive elements of Christianity that we still know and love today. In this book, from 1997, he sets out to place Paul in the context of his time and culture and to re-evaluate his work.
For Wilson, Paul has to be seen within the Jewish culture of his time, rather than as an early Christian. He sees Paul’s work as that of a liberal reformer (opening the church to gentiles, removing restrictions) who expected Jesus to return soon (rather than setting up a structure for a long lasting church). His views on women and homosexuality are portrayed as usual for his time and his culture. It was in the time after Paul that the gospels were actually compiled and for Wilson, these writings have as much Paul in them as Jesus – without a source unaffected by him, it becomes hard to charge Paul with a distortion of the message.
At one point Wilson describes Paul as the “first Romantic poet”. He clearly likes Paul as a character and seems to often think the best of him, there is plenty of speculation (he speculates that Paul as a temple guard could have been present at the crucifixion). Despite that, Wilson is critical at other points – looking for independent sources. Through both speculation and scepticism, the author is open about his methods, which perhaps helps the book veer away from being too uneven.
A history of Christian relics seems like a niche thing, and in truth it probably is, but if there is ever to be an accessible introduction for a popular audience it is this book by Charles Freeman. Working chronologically from early Christians in the Roman empire to the resurgence in the counter reformation, Freeman places relics at the centre of medieval life – motivating travel, boosting economic development and influencing the design of art and architecture.
There are tonnes of anecdotes crammed into the 270 pages. Some of these are on the light end of things – like Saint Hugh of Lincoln, a popular English bishop who (to French outrage) attempted to steal part of the “arm of Mary Magdalene” at the Abbey of Fecamp. He eventually managing to chew off a finger to take home to Lincoln, where he was much praised for his initiative. Other stories are darker – the veneration of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln (no relation) or William or Norwich, a boys allegedly murdered by the Jewish community and used as an excuse for persecution.
Attention is given to how relics played into wider themes including the rise of anti-semitism, popular religion versus that of the central church organization, the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade, and finally the rise of the reformation and scepticism.
Freeman keeps away from giving too much modern judgement on these relics and miracles, instead describing the processes and changes in medieval thinking over time. I liked that, it would be too easy to become heavy handed or condescending when presented with some of these far fetched icons; by avoiding that trap the book has a light, neutral tone that allows the material to speak for itself.
Back in August, I wrote a post on Peter Adamson’s podcast series The History of Philosophy (Without Any Gaps). You can find more in depth thoughts in that post but, to be brief, I liked it a lot. It was clear, fun with an approachable structure that moved forward and built on what had gone before (both in philosophy and in the in-jokes). Adamson, a university professor, created the show in collaboration with the Leverhulme Trust and had on an array of academic guests to talk over the topics in detail.
The first section involved the greats of Greek philosophy – Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It also covered many of their predecessors (this is “without any gaps” after all) with such big names as Thales of Miletus and Pythagoras. So where do we go next? Well, in his Late Antiquity section we begin with more Greek philosophers (including more household names) before moving on to the dominance of Plato and Aristotle in neo-Platonism, and finally the early Christian church.
Continue reading Post 55: History of Philosophy part 2
As you may have noticed from this blog, I listen to a decent amount of podcasts. One of my favourites is Robin Pierson’s History of Byzantium. I was pleased to find that they recently had on a special guest, one of my favourite history writers, Tom Holland. As the podcast had reached a handy stopping point just after Islam had exploded onto the world stage, it was a perfect chance to begin trying to shed some light on the origins and early stages of the religion and the arab invasion. The author of a recent book on the subject aimed at a popular audience, Holland was an ideal choice to start things off.
Continue reading Post 54: Tom Holland vs The History of Byzantium