I’m not usually one for gruesome stories and gore, but when reading about Constantine, this stood out. The pagan emperor Maximinus Daia persecuted Christians before being defeated by the more tolerant emperor Licinius (who was in turn defeated by Constantine). After his defeat but before his death he did issue an edict of Edict of Toleration, granting Christians rights. It didn’t do much to restore his reputation amongst them, and some gleefully recorded his slow, painful death.
From the Christian author Lactantius:
When he saw that he was trapped, Maximinus took his own life with poison. Before this, he had filled himself with food and wine, as those who think they are doing it for the last time usually do, and then he took the poison. Because of the effect of the food and drink, this did not cause the rapid death he had expected but a malign weakness similar to the plague, and his life was prolonged for a time amidst great pain. His intestines started to burn with unbearable pain, which drove him mad. For four days, he picked up dry earth with his hands and devoured it like a starving man, he beat his head against the walls and his eyes leapt from their sockets. Finally, he lost his sight and had a vision in which God judged him surrounded by servants dressed in white. He shouted like someone being tortured and claimed that he had not done it, but others. Finally, as if giving way to the pain, he began to confess to God, pleading and imploring Him to take pity on him. In this way, moaning in pain, as if he were on fire, he delivered up his pernicious spirit amidst a kind of detestable death.
I did find the article Portrait of a Persecutor by Mar Marcos an interesting defence of sorts of an unimpressive emperor. Without doubt Maximinus was below par, but we only really have some very lopsided sources to go on for quite how nasty he was. Some of the details, particularly the death are standard cliches – the similarly gruesome descriptions of Galerius’ death are similar to the death of Antiochus IV as recorded in Maccabees. Unfortunately we have to work with the sources we have, but it does make for some good reading.
As another stranger aside, it seems that some people have interpreted these descriptions to show that Maximinus had Graves’ Disease or Thyrotoxicosis. I’ll leave that one as medical diagnosis is not my strong point, even when it isn’t at a range of 1700 years.
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.