Part 4 of my work on Christian Kingship, looking at the ideologies of power surrounding the first Christian Emperors of Rome. Comments and suggestions are welcome.
The Emperor as Pius and Victor
It did not take long for Constantine to begin to fundamentally alter the way the office of the Roman Emperor was viewed. The office of the Emperor had many pagan connotations that would be unseemly in a Christian context. Constantine may have understood the Christian faith poorly, as most historians assert, but he was prudent enough to realize that if he was to be at all sincere with his conversion that many of the pagan trappings of the imperial authority would have to be done away with. He did not, however, try to abolish hundreds of years of Roman tradition all at once and attempt to substitute something completely novel in its place, like some new Roman Akhenaten. Instead, he modified Roman imperial protocol like a surgeon, skillfully removing parts that had to go, replacing them with well established Christian customs and making the best of the old Roman ideals that remained.
Immediately after his victory at the Milvian Bridge, he offended the aristocracy of Rome by failing to perform the customary victory rites at the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus when entering the city. It had been customary for centuries for every emperor, upon his ascension, to go straight to the temple the first time he entered the city to perform offerings to the state god. This glaring neglect of protocol offended conservative Roman sensibilities.1 He introduced a further novelty by dropping the imperial title Invictus, or “unconquerable,” which had been used as an official epithet of the Roman Emperor as far back as Severus Alexander (222-35) and as an unofficial title as far back as Trajan. It was certainly dropped because of its connotations of sun worship and the cult of Sol Invictus. Constantine replaced it with the more ambiguous title Victor, which implied all of the same images of victory as Invictus but without the pagan trappings. This compromise was acceptable to both Christians and pagans alike.2
His adoption of the new epithet as well as his failure to sacrifice to Jupiter Capitolinus both attest to the military nature of Constantine’s conversion. His initial commitment to Christianity in the years immediately after his victory at the Milvian Bridge “was inextricably bound up in his own understanding of his military success.”3 Constantine viewed his victory as a result of his obedience to the Christian God,4 giving the Christians a modern example of the Old Testament model of the faithful and militarily victorious king. Here was not some ancient David or Hezekiah, centuries removed from common experience, but a living man. For the first time since the Maccabbean era, the Lord God of Israel had granted a military triumph to His chosen one.
This idea obviously had many precedents from Biblical history. Constantine and his circle were quick to apply the ancient ideas of the king as the Lord’s anointed to the Roman Emperor, as was the Church. Thus, it was not long before sincere Christians and shallow sycophants alike began to refer to Constantine’s “Divine Face” and his “Sacred Countenance,” which almost became unofficial epithets of the Emperor.5 Constantine tried very hard to portray his role as the first Christian emperor as an event supreme importance in salvation history, a probably very sincerely believed this. The Emperor and the ecclesiastical writers of the age tried to foster this image by comparing Constantine’s acts to things mentioned in the Scriptures. Thus, Eusebius calls him the “most beloved of God” and compares his victory at the Milvian Bridge to the victory of Moses over the Egyptian chariots and invokes the triumphant hymn of Moses and Miriam as a fitting description of Constantine’s triumph. Conversely, all those who opposed Constantine were “haters of God” and “enemies of religion.”6 When the Emperor finally died, he was buried in the Church of the Twelve Apostles in Constantinople (which he himself had built) amidst statues of the twelve apostles of Christ, even in death identifying himself with the anointed of the Lord. After his death, and even a little during his life, he was referred to as the “Thirteenth Apostle”7 and hoped by his internment in the Church of the Twelve Apostles “that he should thus even after death become the subject, with them, of the devotions which should be performed to their honor in this place.”8
Besides drawing on a rich reservoir of Biblical images, Constantine also drew on the vast heritage of Roman tradition to create his new image. As mentioned above, he substituted the title Invictus, offensive to Christians, with the title of Victor, which placated Christians and pagans alike. A further change came in the redefinition of the classic epithet given to Roman Emperors since the beginning: Pius. To classical Roman thought, the blessing of the gods upon the state was bestowed if the rulers and the people demonstrated the virtue of pietas. Though it is the etymological root of the English word piety, the Roman understanding of it is considerably different. While the word piety in a Christian context denotes a kind of humble devotion, the Latin pietas had a more social connotation and meant fulfilling one’s duty to family, clients, the state and the gods. It invoked the idea of justice, exemplified by a rightly ordered society in which everyone gives their superiors their due: children to parents, parents to family (gens), individual gens to the state and the state to the gods. It was this rightly ordered society that secured the blessing of the gods upon the state, the pax deorum. This peace of the gods consisted solely in material blessings. But it was a societal effort; if any element was missing, whether it be on the state or the familial level, the gods would not bless the nation.
Glaringly absent from the classic idea of pietas to the gods was any notion of obedience to the gods. The idea of Jupiter or Minerva issuing commandments or ordinances like the God of Israel would have seemed strange to an ancient Roman. The gods were not something to be obeyed, but something to be placated. Their worship consisted not in hymns of praise and thanksgiving for the intrinsic goodness of Jupiter, but it a series of sacrifices and liturgies performed according to hallowed custom, where the heart of the individual worshipper was not as important as the insistence that the rites be performed according to meticulous adherence to tradition. They thus took on a kind of magical flavor. With Constantine’s conversion comes the idea, which had always been prevalent in Judaism and Christianity, that a ruler must demonstrate active obedience and allegiance to God, as opposed to the kind of passive placation that characterized most pagan liturgies. “The idea that any sort of day-to-day service or perpetual allegiance was owing to divinity had little currency [among the pagans]…You only made offerings, or promises of offerings, in order to gain favor from powerful beings.”9 This fulfilling of vows, sacrifices and the proper acting out of liturgical rites characterized the pietas that the Romans owed the gods collectively and individually.
Constantine, by his confession of the Christian faith, redefined the concept of pietas, though this transformation seemed to be more of a slow change in thought on the part of the late Roman world than any kind of concerted effort on the part of the Emperor. With his obedience to the heavenly vision to paint the chi rho on his soldiers’ shields and his subsequent victory, the Christian idea of securing God’s blessing on the state implied the idea of obedience to God’s law and to the moral precepts of the Gospel. This image was backed up by the Biblical imagery of the pious king, like David or Asa. The result was that military victory, in terms of which Constantine viewed his immediate conversion, was connected with piety. This was not new in the Empire, but in the novel Christian understanding of the word pius it was something new. Never before had people, much less rulers, been obliged to love and obey the divinity, only placate it. In the post-Constantinian empire, Pius and Victor went hand in hand.
The Christian emperor had to be pious in his personal and public life, which meant living morally, obeying Church law, governing justly and loving God. The exercise of piety certainly would involve patronizing the Church, and Constantine certainly did this by exempting the clergy from other civil obligations, granting the Church immunity from taxation and building several lavish basilicas. This type of piety brought God’s blessings to his people, which the ancient Christians usually equated with victory over hostile enemies, bountiful harvests, and the spread of the faith. It was especially in the context of military victory that Pius and Victor were connected.
By the late 4th century, a standard set of characteristics of a good Christian emperor had developed, complete with a court protocol. The Christian writers of the Constantinian period did much to emphasize that the power of the Christian emperor came from God and was not the result of popular acclaim or military might. It was the anointing of God, just as it was with David and Solomon, which made the emperor. The idea of authority to rule coming from heaven was something eastern in origin and originally foreign to the Greco-Roman mind, but by the 4th century years of autocratic rule had gradually accustomed the citizens of the Empire to the idea. Diocletian had begun the process of ritualizing court protocol along eastern lines, and Constantine and his successors continued to do so in a Christian context. Two examples of this protocol help demonstrate this: Constantine’s entry to the Council of Nicaea in 325 and the trip of his son and successor, Constantius II, to Rome in 357.
Constantine had set a remarkable precedent by calling the first ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325, an example that would be followed by future Byzantine emperors seeking to imitate the piety of Constantine. Eusebius’ description of Constantine’s entry into the council chamber in of pivotal importance, for it demonstrates both the exalted image that the emperor tried to portray by his appearance and the ceremony surrounding his entrance, and the first beginnings of an integration of civil and ecclesiastical ceremonies. It is worth quoting at length:
[Constantine entered the chamber] like some heavenly messenger of God, clothed in raiment which glittered as it were with rays of light, reflecting the glowing radiance of a purple robe, and adorned with the brilliant splendor of gold and precious stones….it was evident that he was distinguished by piety and godly fear. This was indicated by his downcast eyes, the blush on his countenance, and his gait….he surpassed all present in height of stature and dignity of form….As soon as he had advanced to the upper end of the seats, at first he remained standing, and when a low chair of wrought gold had been set for him, he waited until the bishops beckoned him, and then sat down, and after him the whole assembly did the same.10
This is far removed from the republican modesty of Augustus! This example demonstrates how clearly ideas about authority and the image of power had changed by the Christian era. Notice that his piety is ascertained by his “downcast eyes” and serious countenance. Christian emperors, as the anointed of God, tried very hard to appear as “other” from the rest of humanity. Out of deference, the bishops remained standing until the Emperor sat down, but lay people who supplicated the Christian emperors of the east usually were required to do more homage, such as prostrations. The idea of one emperor anointed by God fit in well with Christian theology. After all, if there was but “one body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all”11 as St. Paul had taught, why not also one emperor ruling earth in God’s name? The concept seemed appropriate to Christian thought. Christian emperors at Constantinople consequently transformed their courts into conscious imitations of the heavenly court, thus proclaiming their piety and displaying their power. Perhaps this was done in imitation of the way the early Christian liturgies were meant to mimic the heavenly liturgy revealed in the Apocalypse. Either way, the message got across. Eusebius himself understood this court symbolism and said of Constantine’s banquet following the opening of Nicaea, “One might have thought that a picture of Christ’s kingdom was thus shadowed forth, and a dream rather than a reality.”12
About half a century later, when Constantine’s son Constantius II visited the city of Rome, the image of the emperor as “other” than the people had been more refined. The imperial procession is described by Ammianus Marcellinus:
[E]scorted by formidable troops…he was conducted, so to speak, in battle array and everyone’s eyes were riveted upon him with fixed gaze….while the standards preceded him on each side, he himself sat alone upon a golden car in the resplendent blaze of shimmering precious stones, whose mingled glitter seemed to form a shifting light….And their marched on either side of him twin lines of infantrymen with shields and crests gleaming with glittering rays, clad in shining mail….Accordingly, being saluted as Augustus with favoring shouts, while hills and shores thundered out the roar, he never stirred…as if his neck were in a vice, he kept the gaze of his eyes straight ahead, and turned his face neither to the right nor to the left, but (as if he were a lay figure) neither did he nod when the wheel jolted nor was he ever seen to spit, or to wipe or rub his face or nose, or to move his hands about. And although this was affectation on his part, yet these and various other features of his more intimate life were tokens of no slight endurance, granted to him alone, as was given to be understood.13
Every motion and expression of the Emperor here is meant to convey the message that he is far removed from the daily lives of his subjects. Everything from the exalted golden throne upon which he sits (which Ammianus assures us that nobody except him was ever permitted to sit on)14, to the image of his stone-faced immobile head, “as if his neck were in a vice”, is meant to display his regal power by exalting the person of the Emperor far above mere mortals. After all, if imperial authority is given by God, why not make certain that everybody knows it?
Making sure that everybody knew it was the job that court ceremony took on in the Byzantine world. Constantius’ visit to Rome was meticulously choreographed down to the minutest detail in order to convey a message of divine power to his subjects, serving the purpose of a primitive commercial.
This “advertising” of the divine power of the emperors was temperately encouraged by the Church, which was always ready to remind the emperors that their power was derived from God, whether encouraging them to exercise it or to refrain from doing so. St. Ambrose, for example, reminds the western Emperor Eugenius upon his ascension that “as you wish to be held in respect, allow us to respect Him from whom you would like to prove that your authority if derived.” 15 This simple statement alludes to the way in which the divine authority of the emperors could work for or against the imperial image. If the emperors “allow us [the Church] to respect Him [God],” then they prove by their deeds that their authority comes from God and will receive the praise of the Church and the blessing of God. But if they do evil, then they only prove that they abuse God’s authority, and thus incur an even more severe condemnation on themselves by God and the Church. Ambrose seems to be lightly censuring Eugenius here, saying that the emperor would like to prove his authority came from God, and insinuating that perhaps Eugenius was not being as good a steward of God’s authority as Ambrose thought he should have.16
What is the picture we get of Church and State relations at the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Middle Ages? How had the image of the Christian emperor developed from the time of Constantine into the early 5th century? Constantine had made the connection between the faith and the empire a military one. God rewarded the pious emperor for his obedience by blessing him with military victory. This ideal, accompanied by a desire to distance himself from the cult of Sol Invictus, prompted Constantine to adopt the imperial epithet Victor, which he used widely. Indeed, of all the letters and imperial edicts of Constantine recorded for us by Eusebius, all of them are given in the name of “VICTOR CONSTANTINVS.”17 The “victory” was at first military in nature, but afterwards came to symbolize the victory of the Christian empire over the evils of paganism. Victory was ensured by Christian piety, which Constantine redefined, exchanging the pagan idea of pietas as duty done properly for the Christian idea of piety as obedience done out of love. This piety was shown forth by patronizing the Church, repressing heresy (sometimes by calling an ecumenical council), funding Church building programs and defeating pagan barbarians. The truly godly emperor was both Pius and Victor, and the two were inseparably connected.
Taking the idea of themselves as God’s anointed partly from Biblical precedents and partly from trends already latent in the late empire, the Christian emperors made wide use of ceremony to display their power and convey the ideal that their authority was directly from God. This idea was strongest in the Byzantine world, where elaborate rites of court ceremony developed and where emperors were exalted to the point where, like Constantius II on his lofty gold throne, they were portrayed as being utterly “other” than the rest of humanity. Though a Christian emperor, Constantius II might as well have been a pagan statue of some god or goddess being born along his litter in a procession, so stone-like was his countenance. Church leaders called the emperors to task, admonishing them to live up to their public profession of faith and rebuked them sharply if they did not. The rebuke of Ambrose to the emperor Theodosius I when the latter massacred the citizens of Thessalonica is the most widely cited example of this sort of ecclesiastical censure, and by the time of Ambrose and Theodosius (c.388) the Church was well enough established that the Emperor willingly submitted to Ambrose’s censure and did public penance for his sin. This image of an emperor doing penance at the behest of a bishop, along with the later images of Henry IV at Canossa and Henry II at Becket’s tomb, is a prime example of the secular power bowing its knee to ecclesiastical reprimand. A good emperor could not afford to recklessly abuse his power like some Persian potentate, but nor could he afford to haphazardly throw it away to the people, as in the Greek democracies. Rather, he had to wield the sword of temporal authority firmly with the justice of God backing him up, but with an attitude of reasoned temperance and a determination to be a good steward of God’s authority. Beginning in the era of Ambrose, the Church began to take on the role of tempering the edge of the secular sword.
1 Michael McCormick, Eternal Victory, (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1986), 101
2 Ibid., 21, 104-5
3 Ibid., 101
4 The strategic blunder of his foe Maxentius (who abandoned a well fortified position within the city of Rome in order to engage Constantine at the bridge) probably helped Constantine a little bit, too.
5 Michael Grant, History of Rome (Michael Grant Publications: London, 1979), 313
6 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 9.9, 10.9.
7 Grant, 313
8 Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 4.60
9Ramsay MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire: A.D. 100-400, (Yale University Press: New Haven, CT., 1984), 13
13Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae, 16.9,4-11
15 St. Ambrose, Letter 57
16Ambrose invoked the ideal of the pious Christian ruler both to get things done and refrain from getting them done. For example, he calls the piety of Theodosius into question in order to convince the emperor not to force the Church to fund the rebuilding of a burnt synagogue (Letter 40) and in another place uses the same argument to get the same emperor to make amends for his actions in Thessalonica (Letter 51). Thus, an appeal to the emperor’s pietas could get him to do something or refrain from an action.
17Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 3