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The Age of Constantine the Great , by Jacob Burckhardt

Die Zeit Constantins des Gro├čen - Jacob Burckhardt


Constantine the Great



The Roman Empire and its neighbors during the third and fourth centuries of our era, with an emphasis on the half century from the rise of Diocletian to the death of Constantine - such is the general topic of Die Zeit Constantins des Grossen (1853), which was the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt's (1818-1897) first major work and one of the relatively few books he published before renouncing the writing of books for publication altogether.(*) Early though the book was in his career, his inimitable prose style is already present, as is the (then) idiosyncratic view of history Burckhardt had already developed.


Unlike most historians at that time,(**) Burckhardt did not focus on "great men" and "important events," which he saw as exceptional one-offs no science of history could incorporate (only record), but rather on the matters he viewed as amenable to a science of history - culture in the broadest sense, including social and economic relations.


Nonetheless, Burckhardt did not avoid the discussion of great men and important events. Indeed, Diocletian and Constantine the "Great" come in for a lot of attention in this text, though Burckhardt's primary interest in Diocletian is his unique attempt to solve the recurring problem of how to replace an emperor without an empire-convulsing period of warfare between rival pretendants to the throne and musing on how Diocletian was able to keep his co-rulers in line, even convincing his co-emperor Maximian to retire with him after their 20 year co-rule. (Constantine put a quick end to Diocletian's idea, but more about him later.) Otherwise, Diocletian is portrayed as a particularly successful exemplar of a long string of former generals made emperor by their essentially private armies. Burckhardt's real focus is on which structural aspects of third century Roman politics/power centers made this chain of emperor/generals possible.


Alongside this focus on political/social/cultural structures instead of on individuals/events, Burckhardt's discursive style admits extended passages revealing what was then known about social, political, economic and cultural life in the major Roman provinces in the third and fourth centuries (Burckhardt holds that the city of Rome's political, economic and cultural significance was minimal at this time, when the rulers had their residences in York, Trier, Split, Antioch, etc., the Senate was toothless, and the armies were no longer raised on the Italian peninsula but in the provinces, often among the newly re-settled "barbarians"), and even a little of the same about the Empire's neighbors. The sections on Egypt were particularly fascinating.



Model reconstruction of Diocletian's palace in Spalato (now Split, Croatia); portions are still standing today.



Burckhardt examines at length the evidence for the state of Greco-Roman religion and concludes that the life had gone out of the old beliefs, that philosophy had placed the gods to the side to endlessly regard their own perfection or had abstracted them away altogether, that Greco-Roman mythology had been reduced to a conventional ornament for art and literature, that serious drama had disappeared leaving only the crudest kinds of comedies and farces, and that a syncretism consisting primarily of religions and superstitions originally to be found in the North African and Near Eastern provinces, as well as Persia, occupied the spiritual energies of the Roman people. Christianity was just one of these, but Burckhardt argues that it had the advantage of promising a very simple way to eternal bliss, whereas its competitors required more complicated exertions to attain their heavens.(***) 


A particularly striking example of this syncretism was provided by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (now better known as Heliogabalus), who was a priest of Elagabalus, an aspect of the Semitic god Baal. He had Jupiter replaced by Elagabalus in the official pantheon, had the huge slab of black stone which was the god's manifestation brought from Emesa, built him an enormous temple in the center of Rome, then brought the corresponding relics of the Isis/Astarte/Venus/Demeter/Urania goddess(4*) from Carthage and married the two gods in an elaborate ceremony. He even moved the Ur-Roman fire of Vesta into the new temple of Baal and Isis. Apparently, this was a bit too syncretic for some - the priestly emperor was murdered and the stone shipped back to Syria.(5*)


But to return to the promise of immortality, Burckhardt argues at length that the Greco-Roman view of an afterlife as joyless shadows in Hades with a few heroic exceptions on the Isle of the Blessed had changed during the crises of the third century into an obsession with "the other side." Increasingly, "real life" was moved from the here and now to a blissful afterlife that was not part of the traditional religion but was an important component of the Eastern religions pouring into Rome. Interestingly, Burckhardt portrays Neo-Platonism as a symptom of this shift in the Zeitgeist. In fact, with the exception of Plotinus and Porphyrius, he sees Neo-Platonists in the third and fourth centuries as fabulists and frauds occupied with magic and demonology.


There is so much else packed into this book, including an insightful overview of all aspects of late imperial art and literature and an examination of what could have brought Diocletian in the eighteenth year of his reign to let loose a terrible scourge against the Christians, but I must try to end this review. So let me say a few words about the eponymous figure, Constantine. 


In direct opposition to the picture drawn in hagiographies of Constantine by Eusebius (whom Burckhardt calls der widerlichste aller Lobredner - the most repulsive of all panegyrists; later he calls Eusebius the first throughly dishonest history writer of ancient times) and other Christian propagandists, Burckhardt's Constantine is an unprincipled opportunist with one purpose in mind: sich und seine Herrschaft zu behaupten - to assert/maintain himself and his rule. When his father, who had moved up to Imperator Augustus when Diocletian and Maximian retired, died in York, his army declared Constantine Augustus. This was the beginning of a typically complicated and lengthy civil war out of which Constantine emerged as last man standing, and in the process of which he turned on his ally and brother-in-law, Licinius. All of the contenders and their families were killed, including the widow and daughter of Diocletian, who himself committed suicide rather than respond to a probably fatal summons from Constantine and Licinius. Such was his thanks for giving up the reins of power. A few years after the end of the civil war, Constantine had his own son, Crispus, and his own wife, Fausta, killed. So it could hardly startle that he also had his sister's eleven year old son killed. But do let Burckhardt tell you the story of a ruthless man without any hint of moral conscience. It makes quite a contrast with the received notions. 


At Constantine's death another bitter civil war erupted in which the rest of his family killed each other and a significant percentage of the empire's population, leaving one son, the new emperor, Constantius, and the young nephew, Julian, who was the last in Constantine's line. Now he is an emperor who greatly interests me...


This lively and richly detailed picture of the late Roman Empire has replaced Burkhardt's classic on the European Renaissance as my favorite book from his hand. Be sure to read the second, corrected and expanded edition first published in 1880. The large-format, beautifully printed edition I read, published by Phaidon-Verlag (Vienna) in 1935, is particularly generously provided with 200 full-page illustrations. This enrichment is quite likely unique to this edition.



(*) This book has been translated into English under the title The Age of Constantine the Great. I discuss this renunciation in my review of Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen, which is one of the posthumous paste-ups Burckhardt's executor put together.


(**) There do seem to be more exceptions now than then -  in fact, there are entire schools of such exceptions now - but these seem to be restricted to the academic ghetto.    


(***) Burckhardt makes the case that the Romans viewed the monotheisms like Christianity and Judaism or dualisms like Zoroastrianism as too foreign to readily incorporate into their syncretism. Judaism and Zoroastrianism held themselves strictly apart from the melting pot, while Christianity was busy digesting large chunks of Neo-Platonism as it became increasingly sophisticated (and hierarchical).


(4*) The second century Syrian-Greek Lucian of Samosata wrote a biting satire, Of the Syrian Goddess, about the worship of the Syrian version of this goddess. An equal opportunity heretic, Lucian did a number on the entire Greco-Roman pantheon in his satires. Curiously, the Romans (via the Greeks) had much earlier incorporated another version of this goddess - Cybele, magna mater - into their pantheon. The same is true of the worship of Isis, which was known in Rome since the times of Sulla. But the Roman people wanted a version that was not domesticized, that was still surrounded by the trappings of the "mystical East" (which, often enough, included drunken orgies, quite thoroughly excluded in the domesticized Cybele and Isis cults). 


(5*) Supposedly the young emperor had a real gift for causing outrage - it is reported that he prostituted himself in the imperial palace, but it is probable that many of the stories told about the young man are slanders used to justify his murder. One cannot be sure exactly why he was murdered at the ripe old age of eighteen.