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Constantine, Panegyric and Conversion

09 Jun

I’ve been reading a collection of late antique panegyrics in Nixon and Rodgers (1994). Most of these are fairly standard though they do include some historical references not found elsewhere. The most interesting one for me (so far, I’m not done with the book) has been a panegyric in honor of Constantine delivered in Trier, probably in 313. 1

There’s a lot of historical information contained in this. It is largely an account of Constantine’s campaign against Maxentius, culminating in the Battle of Milvian Bridge and there are details I haven’t found elsewhere. But what has most fascinated me about this is that the panegyrist (who is anonymous) doesn’t seem to know what to do regarding Constantine’s religion. For those less familiar with these (I’m lumping sources titled as “Orations in honor of …” in this class as I can’t see a distinction), such speeches are generally filled with references to divinities and prior to this, including in earlier speeches in honor of Constantine, these references are to the traditional Roman Gods. As recently as 310, Constantine is referred to as divine and under the special protection of Apollo. 2

By 313 this had changed. The panegyrist expresses surprise that Constantine has ignored inauspicious omens and gone against the advice of soothsayers in offering battle. His patron God is not named and in fact the author considers him/her to be a mystery, known only to the Emperor, but clearly having dominion over lesser divinities. 3

Later the author asks, “… tell us, I beg you, what you had as counsel if not a divine power?” This nameless God, while creator of the world is also given Jupiter’s attributes, including casting thunderbolts. At the close of the panegyric this god is referred to as, “… you, supreme creator of things.” 4

The panegyric contains classical references. It is nothing like, for example, the orations given by Ambrose for Valentinian II and Theodosius. However something has changed and the (almost certainly pagan) author seems a bit at a loss as to how to deal with it. Constantine is given divine properties, but the panegyric contains a mix of attributing this divinity to the Emperor and to his relationship with this new, unnamed God. There is no story of a miraculous vision at Milvian Bridge and nothing about Constantine’s soldiers having any sort of symbol with them during the battle. In fact, the only way to equate this with Christianity is through the events of the subsequent quarter-century.

I found this panegyric fascinating. Eusebius provides a story of a sudden, extreme conversion, one which I’ve always discounted as a later invention, mostly (nothing to say Constantine didn’t have a dream or even was converted through it but he shows a lot of sympathy to the traditional gods for at least the next decade). Still, there is a distinct change in tone between the Panegyric given in 310 and that of 313. Constantine’s religious allegiance was different and this change appears to be associated with the campaign against Maxentius. Reports of this change were public enough to be picked up by an orator in Trier. Also interesting is how the panegyrist addresses it. He’s open in stating that he doesn’t know Constantine’s god but it is one who is new and different, and very powerful. Constantine is not exactly divine, but full of divinity anyway due to his relationship with this deity. It’s one of those moments of transition which show up in sources sometimes, before people have had much time to put a spin on things. Seriously cool stuff and I apologize for the brevity (new apology for me) but things are very busy right now and I wanted to get something on this out.

1 Nixon and Rodgers (1994), “XII. Panegyric of Constantine Augustus,” pp. 288-333. For this book I’ll reference the Latin verse locations as well as the pages of the English translation.

2 In Nixon and Rodgers (1994) see “VI. Panegyric of Constantine,” pp 211-53, particularly a first reference to his divinity at 1.5-2.5, pp. 218-21 and his relationship with Apollo on 21.4-21.7, pp. 248-51.

3 This combination of themes is covered at the beginning of the panegyric in Nixon and Rodgers (1994) at 2.1-2.6, pp. 295-6.

4 In Nixon and Rodgers (1994); for the initial quote, 4.1, p. 299; this god having Jupiter’s powers, 13.2-3, pp. 313-4; as supreme creator, 26.1, p. 332.

C.E.V. Nixon and Barbara Saylor Rodgers, eds., In Praise of Later Roman Emperors: The Panegyrici Latini, with introduction, translation, and historical commentary. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press (1994). ISBN: 978-0-520-08326-4.

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