Seeking Worldly Things: the Ninth-Century Constantine the Great

Early medieval western European societies were characterised by an intrinsic tension, sometimes latent but never resolved, between the domains of the secular and the religious, set within a Christian framework – at any rate, that’s the hypothesis of this research project. The legacy of the late Roman Empire was of course essential in establishing this tension, and this blog examines one particularly interesting example of how it did so. [1]

One of the earliest occasions for arguments over the relation between clerics and external authorities was the Donatist controversy. Its origins lay in the imperial persecution of Christians in north Africa in the early fourth century. Hardly had this persecution ended than one group of Christians (known later as Donatists) accused another (who called themselves catholics) of having surrended to it, betraying the Christian faith instead of choosing glorious martyrdom. The arguments became increasingly bitter, with each group electing rival bishops. This escalation meant that after Constantine the Great’s embrace of Christianity, it was difficult for imperial authorities not to get involved.

And involved they duly became. A key source for the early stages of this dispute is a letter from Emperor Constantine himself to the catholic bishops. Stating of the Donatists that “so great a madness persists in them when with incredible arrogance they persuade themselves of things that it is not right either to say or to hear”, the letter makes it pretty clear whose side the emperor was on.[2]

But what made Constantine especially angry was the Donatists’ audacity in having appealed to him as emperor: “… I have discovered that they demand my own judgment! So strong and persevering is the wickedness of these men!” For Constantine, that meant that the Donatists “are seeking worldly things (saecularia), abandoning the heavenly (caelestia)” (a line that is unfortunately omitted in the standard English translation). The clear implication is that the Christian emperor’s judgement is worldly, that of the bishops’ heavenly.

Yet is Constantine’s letter all that it seems? Recently, the German historian Klaus Rosen has suggested not.[3] He points to various textual anomalies – possible dependence on other texts, problems with the wording, and so on – to argue that in reality it’s a forgery. An important plank of his argument is that the letter is preserved only in a single, ninth-century manuscript from Tours (Paris BnF. lat. 1711 – unfortunately not yet digitised), created some half a millennium after the supposed origin of the text it encloses. That’s not actually so unusual – lots of important Roman texts are preserved only in much later copies. But it means that strictly speaking, all we can say for certain is that the letter must have been written after c.314 (the events it describes) and before c. 850 (the date of the manuscript).

Rosen’s argument is chiefly about the conversion of Constantine to Christianity, which he thinks took place later than the current orthodoxy has it: the letter appears to contradict this by suggesting a thoroughly Christian Constantine already in 314, so it’s important for Rosen to show why it can’t be trusted. But he also ventures to connect it to disputes concerning a rather later emperor: Louis the Pious. Rosen draws particular attention to a rubric, probably written in the ninth century, which summarises the letter as follows:

“Where he [Constantine] says that the Donatist party are litigating like outsiders, denouncing, appealing, and wanting the emperor to hear them after the judgement of bishops.”[4]

Rosen never quite says that the entire letter itself was forged in the ninth century, and actually that seems to me somewhat unlikely. But he’s surely right to draw attention to the manuscript transmission, and to the rubric showing that the letter was being read, not just transcribed. In other words, an important context for the letter – and if we are to be hyper-rigorous, the only absolutely secure one – is ninth-century Tours, when it was copied out and interpreted; and that, at a time when (some) bishops were moving towards an attempt to depose one of Constantine’s imperial successors, on the grounds of the superiority of episcopal judgement, just as (Pseudo-)Constantine had set out.

The point is often and rightly made that much of the intellectual heritage of the late Roman empire was preserved thanks to Carolingian scriptoria. But what Rosen and the letter of Constantine encourage us think about is what these scribes themselves thought they were doing. Were they selflessly saving texts for 21st-century historians of late Rome, or were they more concerned with relating this material to their own ninth-century present? The answer is of course probably the latter: and that, I suggest, should give us pause for thought.

Has this post changed your views on the topic?

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[1] Many thanks to Conrad Leyser for bringing the text on which this blog concentrates to my attention.

[2] Translation in Optatus: Against the Donatists, ed. and tr. M. Edwards (Liverpool, 1997).

[3] Klaus Rosen, Constantin der Grosse, die Christen und der Donatistenstreit 312-314. Eine Untersuchung zu Optatus von Mileve, Appendix V, und zum Verhältnis von Staat und Kirche im 4. Jahrhundert (Paderborn, 2011).

[4] “ubi dixit quia pars Donati quomodo forenses sic litigant ut denuntient et appellent et imperatorem desiderent audire post episcoporum iudicata”.

5 thoughts on “Seeking Worldly Things: the Ninth-Century Constantine the Great”

  1. This is a great blog, Charles, and much appreciated. The only annoying thing is that the more I follow this blog, the more I realise that when you get to publish a monograph on all of this, it has a good chance of being impossible to find and will probably cost a ridiculous amount of money. That is, unless you manage to get on the telly or something between then and now.

    When you’re out of the JSTOR/Library loop, why must it be made so difficult to engage with the academic history put out by publicly funded institutions? What’s annoying is that for alumni, it seems impossible to keep up with everything unless you have stupid money (and especially if you have an eye on trying for higher degrees or something of that nature).

    JSTOR actually has an Alumni Access program now for participating institutions – I’m surprised (or maybe I’m not?) that Sheffield isn’t signed up. I’m more surprised that nobody seems to care about this since it definitely indicates the ‘value’ of a Sheffield degree for going on to further study, whether real or perceived. The signal it sends is that ‘Sheffield alumni won’t need JSTOR access after they graduate’, for pretty much the same reasons they didn’t teach Latin at my state school. It really reflects poorly on the reputation of the institution.

    I hope the faculty makes a fuss about this at some point. In any case, keep this awesome blog going, Charles, and I’ll try to get a mortgage out come publication.

    1. You might want to find out if your local public library offers the inter-library loan service. If it does, then this is probably the cheapest way for you to obtain books and journal articles which you’re interested in reading, depending of course on how many books and journal articles you order. For example, if you place an online ILL order through Oxfordshire’s public library system, it will cost you 6.50. If they are unable to obtain your item from another authority, they will attempt to obtain it from the British Library, which will cost you an additional 6.15. Now I have to admit that I’ve never used this service, but this is only because I don’t live in England. However, I have and continue to use the inter-library loan service of the San Diego Public Library, a service which has been very successful in obtaining my ILL requests. Of the 300 or so ILL orders I’ve placed (5 dollars per request) over the last two years, I’ve received around 290 of them, many of which have come from the Library of Congress. If the inter-library loan service of the public libraries in England is as successful in obtaining ILL requests as the inter-library loan service of San Diego’s Public Library, then there’s a good chance you’ll be able to keep up with quite a lot, if not everything, in your field of interest, assuming of course you’re willing and able to pay the fees. The inter-library loan service of the public libraries may not be Open Access, but it surely is the next best thing.

    2. Thanks Jamie as ever for your comments (and sorry for the slight delay in replying), and thanks to Travis too for helpful comments. Publication plans are some way off, but you’re right that the book that I’m planning probably won’t be open access, though I hope it won’t be at the higher end of the academic pricing bracket (ie more c. £60 than £100+, and maybe less). So ILL might be your best option come 2019, when I’d like to see the book out (assuming your local library hasn’t been closed down – or that you’re not doing a higher degree by that point!).

      However, in the meantime, I do have a couple of spin-off articles in the pipeline, which will be open access and available for free to anyone in the world (free, that is, after the university has paid very hefty APC charges on my behalf, because this is a publicly-funded project). I’m also planning an open access conference proceedings in due course. Open access monographs do exist, but there remain complicated issues around them (not least that some people still prefer to read on paper, and there are also questions about long-term storage – you yourself have consulted books published decades ago: can you guarantee they would still be there if they had been online only?). If you’re on Twitter, you might like to follow the university’s open access account for up-to-date commentary and advocacy.

      It’s a good point about JSTOR: I imagine that Sheffield will at some point sign up, but you might hasten it along if you raise it with alumni services.

      And I’m afraid telly appearances are not very likely in the near future!

  2. As a completely different side-note: in the following book – – due out soon (shameless plug)(unfortunately not Open Access to the best of my knowledge), at least two articles touch closely upon the use, re-use and abuse of the “Constantinian heritage” in the Carolingian Empire. The first of these, by yours truly, is about the way Frankish and Spanish bishops, as well as Charlemagne himself (or whoever wrote his letters for him) were fully aware of Constantine’s problematic status, and would actually use that ambiguity to make their points during the Adoptionist controversy, rather than invoking either the friendly neighbourhood Constantine OR the fratricidal Arian potentate (“Hey remember Constantine?”, says Elipandus of Toledo, “Yeah that whole Church unification thing seemed like a good idea, but remember…”; “Oh yeah I do remember”, quoth Charlemagne, “he was kinda weird — but not to worry, I read my historiae and have learned from his mistakes!”). The other article, much more interestingly, focuses on all the other models for rulership that the Carolingians could and would invoke in their ongoing attempts to deal with bishops, the ecclesia, and All That – in this specific case, Reccared (but a companion piece is due out soon as well, I have been told).
    In all this, arguments are constructed _around_ models provided by rulers past. At issue was the question how secular rulers should (have to) deal with their ecclesiastical colleagues, the bishops – and vice versa. And in that debate, everybody seems to have been aware that Constantine was a double-edged sword at best, but one that could therefore be wielded to enforce a dialogue as much as to silence opponents. In that context, regardless of whether or not this is a genuine letter copied by a ninth-century scribe, or an outright forgery, I would be wary to look at this as an outright endorsement of episcopal superiority, but partially also as a way to offer different approaches to an ongoing challenge.

    (As the dispute between Alcuin and Theodulf in 802 showcases, for example, the question to what extent the emperor would be directly responsible for the goings-on in his realm was a hot issue that was actually debated, not just used as an argument to justify a deposition).

    1. Thanks Rutger! I agree with you that Constantine was a ‘resource’ for the Carolingians. Very much looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of “Religious Franks” (out next week, says Amazon), and to reading yours, Janneke and Irene’s work. And I agree that we need to think less about opposing parties and conspiracies (a la Magnou-Nortier), and more about heated conversations in a context of uneven transmission of late antique texts. I think Rosen’s right that a ninth-century scribe coming across this text would be able to make the mental leap to connect it with contemporary goings-on, but I hesitate to presume that it was actually faked. That said, writing my most recent post reminded me that some ninth-century clerics *did* play fast and loose…

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