Eusebius’ Account of Constantine’s Conversion

Written by on June 22nd, 2013. Subject: History. Filed in Roman, about Eusebius Constantine

|||Eusebius, Averil Cameron, and Stuart George Hall. Life of Constantine. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. Read The Life of Constantine online|||

Icon depicting the Council of Nicea But since the victorious emperor [Constantine] himself long afterwards declared it to the writer of this history, when he was honored with his acquaintance and society, and confirmed his statement by an oath, who could hesitate to accredit the relation, especially since the testimony of after–time has established its truth? He said that about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, In hoc signo vinces. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle. Bk 1, 28.1.

Historians cannot but help putting their own positions into the works they write. A lover of any subject is more apt, in my opinion, to be freer with his praise of a subject if he or she indeed puts the pen to paper to tell the world about who or what he values. Eusebius, as an early historian, is not immune from this critique. Unlike other ancient historians, Eusebius is writing as a Christian, a fact which offers both him and us a unique, and, at his time, new worldview. The fact that he is a Christian permeates the whole text, and distinguishes his work from those of Suetonius and Tacitus, as well as many other historians before him, in its apologetic as well as mystical scope. The darkness of persecution is ending in the Empire, and the dawn of Christianity has arrived. It is at this precipice that Eusebius begins his story. This essay will focus on the Life of Constantine, a work which is written as a panegyric account and as history. In its essence it forces the reader to ask what Eusebius intended to tell us, the reader, about Constantine the man, the Emperor, and Christian, and whether or not his presentation is accurate.

Eusebius’ Life of Constantine tells the life, military campaigns, and final conversion to Christianity of the Emperor Constantine. Emperors who preceded Constantine relied heavily on the popular, and sometimes unpopular, tenets of polytheistic state religions, religions which used superstition, power, and human virtue, to expand conquests, boarders, and immorality. Early in his career, we discover that Constantine is not completely immune from this mentality. According to Eusebius, Constantine spent time contemplating which gods or God he should honor to aid him in his ruling, (Bk. 1, 26.2). He chooses the Christian God, invoking His aid in conquering his enemies, being ultimately solidified in his choice by a “mystical” sign in the sky which becomes a symbol, not only of Constantine’s ruling and monarchy, but also of Christ’s victory over the forces of evil, (Bk. 1, 28.1 and 29). The sign had such a tangible impact on the Emperor that, according to Eusebius, he, from that point on, surrounded himself by priests and bishops and began educating himself in theology, (Bk. 1, 32.2). This is certainly significant to Eusebius who, it is presumed, would have been very familiar with the status of Christianity in the Empire, as well as the horrible persecutions Christians had suffered at the hands of previous emperors. His enthusiasm for Constantine can thus be easily understood.

Eusebius is very much concerned with portraying the Emperor in a positive manner, showing Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity as being directly tied to some virtue that made him seem almost divine, (Bk. 1, 24). After his initial conversion, Constantine becomes fearless in battle, as when he overcame the tyrant, (Bk. 1, 37), eager to expand the Christian religion to the Romans, (Bk. 1, 41), and a vessel of the Lord, being able to interpret dreams and prophesy certain plots against his life, (Bk. 1, 46). Ultimately, Constantine, because of his conversion, will become the defender of Christians and the final arbiter on matters of religion and piety in the Empire, as the story of Licinius, whom he justifies conquering because of his oppression and persecution of Christians, (Bk. 2, 3) shows us.

Constantine is a leader who, through his profession of the Christian faith, “gets everything right,” so to speak. It is Christianity that makes Constantine merciful toward his conquered enemies, (Bk. 2, 11.1); it is Christianity which causes Constantine to be spare prisoners of war, (Bk. 2, 54.2); it is Christianity that gives him the grace to reject honors, sleep, and the general comforts of his life, (Bk. 2, 14.1 and 2) in favor of an austere renunciation of the world. He, of course, does not leave the throne to live as a desert father, but Eusebius, nonetheless, sees his rejection of praise as a type of humility so necessary in the Christian life, (Bk. 2, 11 & ff).

After conquering friend and foe alike, (Bk. 3, 66), Constantine sets out to take care of the secular affairs of the Empire, (Bk. 4, 1). Eusebius relates that the Empire under Constantine will enjoy relative peace, as a series of measures will be taken to bring barbarians and other factions into the Empire. The Goths and Samaritans will submit to his rule, (Bk. 4, 5-6), and he will make peace with Persia, sealing, as Eusebius calls it, the “undisturbed tranquility of the whole world,” (Bk. 4, 14).

As a testament to the veracity of Constantine’s piety, Eusebius goes to great lengths to show how his love for wisdom–the Logos, (Orations, II 1-2) matures over the course of his life, thereby allowing him to make a profession of faith, which resembles very closely the profession of faith of the Council of Nicaea. He was enraptured by prayer, praying for hours on end, (Bk. 4, 22), and could listen for hours to discussions on religious topics, as when he listened to a discussion about the tomb of Christ, (Bk. 4, 33). He sees it as his mission to protect the religion of Christ, directing, by decree, that the first and last days of the week should be solemn days, (Bk. 4, 18). This, again, is a significant step since the consecrating of days of the week to prayer and solemnities shows more than just a mere dabbling with Christianity on the part of Constantine. Furthermore, according to Eusebius, Constantine begins to exhibit the theological virtue of charity (Bk. 4, 26.2), the true virtue of justice, (Bk. 4, 26.3) and allocates enormous resources of statue funding to financing the spread of Christianity, placing heavy emphasis on the value of renunciation, virginity, and, what Eusebius calls “godly philosophy,” (Bk. 4, 28).

Constantine’s influence on the Empire and the Church was not insignificant, being referred to, both by himself and others, as the “bishop of all things outside of the church,” (Bk. 4, 24) and a model of reflection by those under his care, (Bk. 4, 1-2). Christians, previously persecuted by the ruling elite in Rome, found in Constantine a cause for hope. And this hope, was shared by the faithful as well as bishops and priests alike, so much so that they bestowed on him the power to seal Synodal decrees, (Bk. 4, 27.2), a power which all but assured his influence over the matters of the Church, herself.

Eusebius delivers a glowing account of the Emperor and his life. There is not one point where he is remotely critical of Constantine, and it appears as though he is writing not so much to tell the story of Constantine, but rather to memorialize him, under whom he, Eusebius, operates. It is entirely possible that all these things happened as Eusebius says they did, but it is difficult for this author to believe that Constantine’s motives are as pure as he wants us to believe. In the next article, I will offer the reader a critique of Eusebius’ motives for writing the Life. Although his contribution to historical biography is without question, there are, nonetheless, problems which demand our attention.

About John Heitzenrater

John W. Heitzenrater is a teacher of history at St. Peter’s Classical School, is a visiting lecturer at the Walsingham Society for Christian Culture, and a guest instructor for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth. He graduated from the College of Saint Thomas More and is currently finishing his Masters degree with the University of Dallas where his thesis will explore Individualism and Personalism in Catholic Social Thought. He can be reached at [email protected].

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