Tag Archives: Constantine

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.

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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”.