Category Archives: History

Constantine: Divine Emperor or Christian Saint?

Here is the final publication paper I wrote for my Undergraduate Ancient History degree. Perhaps a little long for a blog post, but I thought it worth posting the culmination of several years study. I hope you enjoy.


Constantine’s rule presents a unique moment in European history where the notion of one God and one faith began to toughen and harden. Within this general milieu of religious, political and social change, we see a unique problem for a Roman Emperor: how to reconcile the traditional deification of a ruler in a religious context which only allowed for one Christ King. This essay will examine this aspect of the “Christianisation” of Imperial Rome, which can be seen as a microcosm for understanding how the Empire as a whole eventually transitioned from pagan polyglot to monotheistic society.


The pulvinar was the consecrated bed, on which the images of the gods reposed. To this bed the early Roman Emperors only repaired in the long sleep of death, concious of the fate which had befallen their progenitor Julius. Recognition by the Senate as divus was a posthumous honour, termed consecratio, following a good reign. Yet divine status was not a simple all or nothing, god or man situation as a ruler could be linked with aspects of divinity. Plutarch drew a direct connection between the actions of a good king and the divine Logos. In this way, though virtuous governance a ruler could become eikōn theou (the image of God on earth).[1] Martial used a similar theme in noting that a statue of Hercules on the Appian Way had been sculpted to resemble Domitian (Imperator A.D. 81-96).[2] So taken was he by the notion of his own divinity that Domitian started insisting formal letters begin with “our lord and god commands so and so”[3] and it was not long, though perhaps driven more by fear than sycophancy, before this form of address became the custom in speech.[4]

Yet not all ancient authors were so fulsome in their recommendation that an emperor should put on not only the purple, but also the mantle of divinity. Philo of Alexandria had even gone so far as to argue that a king could never be divine in either nature or essence (physis or ousia),[5] the best for which a mortal ruler could hope was to imitate the virtues of God.[6] In this way Philo asserts[7] a ruler may be directed by orthos logos (right reason) and that there is nothing on earth more exalted than the king, yet in the end a king is still fashioned from the dust of the earth.[8] Dio Chrysostom was similarly circumspect in advising Trajan to aspire to a semi-divine status and not yield to the temptation of full divinity.[9] Pliny was equally fulsome, one is tempted to say throughly relived, following the accession of Trajan to the purple, in writing: “Nowhere should we flatter him as a divinity and a god; we are talking of a fellow citizen, not a tyrant, one who is our father not our over-lord.”[10] However, come the Antonine period all such inhibition was gone as a terminology began to emerge which connected the Emperor, his Imperial house, and all of his labours and deeds with the divine realm.[11] In such a heady atmosphere, it was almost inevitable that godlike attributions would blur the lines between the temporal imperial and spiritual divine realms to an extent that a highly competent and secure Emperor, or perhaps extremely vainglorious, would take the final step and proclaim himself a living god, born to rule.[12]

Adoratio, or prostration before a god or ruler, which had been practised by the Roman’s for some time,[13] was formalized by the Tetrarchs who began implementing a much stricter form of court ceremonial procedure. Diocletian, it seems, was responsible[14] for the enforcement of a form of adoratio purpurae, in which all attendants at court, even immediate members of his family, were required to fall to the ground before him[15] and kiss hem of his cloak.[16] Further evidence for this elevation to the divine can be seen in the work of panegyrists of the period who reflected the changing times through the employment of a language which firmly placed their rulers in a heavenly realm.[17] There were however some linguistic problems when more than one Emperor was in residence, as can be witnessed through the panegyrist of 291 who was tasked with praising Diocletian and Maximian who were both in residence at Milan.[18] Another ancient source describes the Emperor as belonging “to that class of superior gods which the chief divinity has appointed for the creation and preservation of all things… [and] is thus raised to the highest ranks of the gods by divine and eternal dispensation.”[19] Little wonder the later emperors were unwilling to go back to the former days where they acted like ordinary senators, and with this sense of separateness, practise of deification postmortem became redundant as a traditional rite.[20]

This trend toward divine status by a living emperor was altered by the accession and conversion of Constantine. Arguably the first Christian emperor,[21] Constantine subtly wrought his changes in an Empire which was still predominantly pagan. From around 324, Constantine began discouraging his Greek speaking subjects from referring to him with the partially elegiac name Sebastos.[22] Perhaps a more direct rebuttal of Constantine’s claims to divinity is to be found in Eusebius who recounts Constantine’s admonishing remarks to a bishop who had asserted that upon his death, the Emperor would rule in heaven along side the Son of God.[23] Yet even here we encounter the contradictions which are ever present the reign of Constantine. For although the Emperor chose to rebuke a bishop on this occasion, it is striking, is it not, that a senior member of the church would employ such language in the first place. However the question remains, was Constantine’s reported rebuke a mere public relations gloss for future readers, either by Eusebius or Constantine? This seems increasingly likely when this anecdote is viewed in the context of continued official sanction for the Flavian dynasty cult.[24] The situation is further complicated by the very source which was seeking to distance Constantine from any notion of personal divinity. Eusebius’ account of commemorations post the death of the Emperor suggests that officials honoured the emperor in death as they had done in life:[25] “γονυκλιεῖϛ ἠσπάζοντο.”[26] This is an intriguing turn of phrase as it could be translated as “with genuflections they kissed [the emperor]” or “with genuflections they honoured [the emperor].” If the former, it could indicate that in death, Constantine’s officials were honouring him as they had in life, by kissing the purple. MacCormack notes that postmortem honours were common among earlier emperors,[27] suggesting that Constantine retained the earlier deific Roman funereal custom.


Traditionally Jewish hope for a messiah, God’s anointed saviour,[28] had been invested in the Israelite kings. They were to be both rulers and conquerors, making footstools of the enemies of Israel.[29] Yet for such grand hopes, only one kind, David, had come anywhere near this exalted notion and subsequent generations began to turn to the future for salvation, converting the memory of David into the prototype for a messianic king to come.[30] Ezekiel took up this prophesy, following the Babylonian destruction of the temple in around 587 B.C., and predicted a second David would rule over paradise which would spring from the construction of a New Temple.[31] In a variation on the theme, Isaiah predicted this future messiah would be slaughtered like a lamb for the sins of mankind, but in doing so would bring salvation to both Jews and Gentiles.[32] It did not take long for these cherished hope to take an eschatological turn in which the saviour would bring into being a new age at the end times. Perhaps influenced by this theme, Enoch takes up the refrain in speaking of a God-anointed descendent of David, who would condemn the wicked and raise the just in establishing an eternal kingdom.[33] Philo of Alexandria[34] wrote variations on this theme of kingship and presented God as the supreme king:[35] But in addition to his Jewish heritage, Philo was also Hellenic and wove into his philosophical thinking kingship and Godhead epithets of “charioteer” and “helmsman” from the Homeric age[36] and drew on the concept of the emperor and God as “saviour and benefactor.”[37]

The Christian tradition continued from this this Judeo-Hellenic starting point and consequently accords Jesus the title of king, as in Matthew 2 when the Magi came in search of “he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.”[38] The earlier Jewish notion of the king bringing paradise is picked up by Luke who presents Jesus as “the Son of the Highest” who will be given “the throne of his father David,” “of his kingdom there shall be no end” and “he will be called the Son of God.”[39] Perhaps the culmination of the glory comes in Revelations in which Christ is said to bear the title “And he hath on his vesture and on his thigh a name written, KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.”[40] The denouement of the eschatological vision has Christ, now in the form of a lamb in fulfilment of Isaiah, taking His place on God’s throne as ruler of the cosmos.[41]

Perhaps what is most illuminating about the passages in Revelation, as with Luke, is that they pull in pagan rites and draw on what would have been well known aspects of the imperial cult: a golden altar, spilling of blood, purification of robes to make them white and worshippers crying out “Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.”[42] All of this is very reminiscent of blessings to honour the imperial family which have been found on inscriptions.[43] Yet this is not mere imitation of an existing practise, rather it is a clear attempt to subsume all previous worship into the one true faith, a feat the author of Revelation attempts by leveraging existing pagan rites while simultaneously condemning all those who worship the “image of the beast.”[44]

Though some of the textual connections between notions of Christ and kingship may be coincidental,[45] in a number of passages collections of significant terms appear which makes it unlikely the correlations could simply have been accidental.[46] In 1 Thessalonians Paul introduces the language of kingship in his discussion of Christ’s second coming to counter prevailing notions that Augustus was the saviour of mankind.[47] Yet perhaps the most striking linguistic issue in the writing of Christian theology came at around the beginning of the second century. Until that time, the names for Christ and God had been meticulously maintained in their original Hebrew forms within the Greek text of the Old and New Testaments. Now, abbreviated Greek titles came into use such as kyrios (Lord) and theos (God). Kyrios is particularly striking as it had traditionally been used as a royal title to suggest the rulers to whom it was given were divine. In this way to use the term when writing of Christ indicated not only a divine but royal status,[48] and this was a status which later Christian apologists would repeatedly turn, dipping into kingship epithets to write of Christ as “king bee,” a term drawn from extant philosophical writing about earthly kings.[49] Origen went further in weaving the connection between the kingdom on earth and the heavenly kingdom to come by drawing on 1 Peter 2:9 in which Christians are described as “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” From this Origen concluded Christians who had driven sin from their bodies and embraced righteousness were kings in their own right. Since Christ ruled over Christians He was rightly to be called “King of kings.”[50] Lactantius continued this theme in depicting God as imperator omnium[51] and thought of Christ as a “living, immediate law” or “a teacher, like a living law.”[52] Eusebius was no less fulsome in his use of regal terminology by drawing on terms such as “all imperial,”[53] “emperor of the universe”[54] or “great emperor.”[55] Though perhaps Eusebius’ most dramatic elegiac reference to Christ came in his Ecclesiastical History in which he quotes a speech he made to the Bishop of Tyre, Paulinus, during the dedication of a cathedral in c. 315:

He the Lifegiver, the Lightbringer, our great Physician and King and Lord, the Christ of God… These things are indeed awe-inspiring and overwhelming, astonishing and amazing, and server as clear proofs that our Saviour is King.[56]

This appropriation of pagan forms didn’t stop at word association. Christian apologists even sought to pull entire works into the machine as Lactantius did when he not only sought to associate the Golden Age predicted by Virgil with the kingdom of God,[57] but went so far as to claim the poet had been a crypto-Christian.[58] Even Constantine took up the baton of appropriation in his Oration to the Assembly of the Saints, presenting a translation of Virgil’s entire poem into Greek along with a commentary on its Christian meaning.[59]

Yet this battle for the philosophical high ground was not confined to words alone. Since the early fourth century a battle had been waged through art where Christ was depicted as a philosopher or miracle worker.[60] While this isn’t that surprising given the accounts of Jesus in the Gospels, what would have struck a contemporary viewer is that “Christ did not present Himself in regal attire, as the people generally imagined the founder of a mighty kingdom would do.”[61] While this artistic vision of Jesus is familiar to a modern audience, the notion of a humble king seemingly “of the people” and dressed simply would have stuck a unique chord in the ancient world. But where early Christian artists were on much more familiar ground was in the characterization of Christ as performing great deeds. Pagan philosophers had written of holy men, such as Apollonius of Tyana, and in usurping this common theme and pagan rites, as described in Revelation, Christian artists fought for command of the iconographic field.[62] The similarities between Christ and the pagan philosophers was highlighted by Lactantius who sought to demonstrate the compatibility between Christianity and contemporary thinking on monotheism. For Lactantius, the quickest route to convincing the unbelievers was to present Christ as a spiritual guide who would save humanity not through suffering on the cross, but as a a philosophical teacher.[63] In this context it is increasingly unsurprising that depictions of Christ on sarcophagi and wall paintings of the period show Him as a philosopher teaching his disciples.[64]

In an attempt to be all things to all people, multiple representations of Christ begin to spring. In some works he is shown as a boy, likely an attempt to draw on a motif, popular in Roman funerary art in the late third century, of the spiritually powerful child prodigy.[65] At other times Jesus was shown as a man with beard and long flowing hair, an iconography which became popular during the reigns of Nero and the Flavian Emperors and sought to convey not only the wisdom, but also the dignity of a charismatic philosopher.[66] Size too, it seems, mattered as early catacomb painting shows Christ in proportion to his followers, but as time passed the style changed and soon Jesus appeared larger and in an elevated position, likely picking up contemporary practise of demonstrating proximity to the gods.[67] Just as in literature we saw how Christ took on a royal visage, so too in art the distance between and elevation above His followers increased and in some works characteristics of traditional depictions of the deified emperor can be seen to denote Christ’s royal status.[68] Another way in which Christ’s kingship was displayed in art began to appear around the time of Constantine and took the form of the Magi presenting gifts to the baby Jesus. These motifs are seeking to exploit the long established iconography of oriental barbarians presenting tribute to the emperor. Any hesitation on this matter is, I think, quashed when we know that many of the earliest depictions of the presentation of gold did not take the form of coins or a casket, but of a golden wreath, the symbol of a ruler.[69]

Yet the nature of apologetics is not just to assert, but also to defend. In their writing and art Christians were not only seeking to assert their claims about Christ’s divinity and royalty, they were also trying to stem the waves of attacks which were coming from their opponents who seized upon Jesus’ miracles to claim He was merely a sorcerer, not a true sage and certainly not the Son of God.[70] Perhaps driven more by the pagan attacks than an understood theological reality, it should be remembered that at this time the Church hadn’t resolved the quandary of whether Christ was of precisely the same substance as God, Christian artists began to move away from images of Jesus as a magical figure who could perform acts of wonder, instead they chose to focus on His royal status and inherent divinity. But once such iconography was applied to Christ, who was the only son and some were saying of the same  substance as the one true God, it could no longer be used to depict emperors.[71] This created a quandary for artists of the day and we can see the iconographic turmoil being played out on wall paintings in the Empire. Christ, the Son of God, was shown seated on the globe of the universe and being received into heaven by the Father. Yet in another work the emperor was depicted bestriding the world and being received by God. How could Imperial authorities, the Church and citizens of the empire reconcile these two essentially contradictory notions, according to the now dominant Christian theology. Was it a tit for tat between Christians and pagans or was it a positive reaction toward a hitherto prevailing cult of the emperor now that Constantine had essentially liberated Christians from their bondage and become something of a Christ-like saviour?


Since the Golden Age of Augustus, the Roman state had drawn its strength through a form of government that was essentially a monarchy. In the war over hearts and minds between pagans and the monotheists of Christianity, such strength of purpose and continuity could be exploited to not only facilitate the desirability of a monarchy in heaven, they could use notions of kingship to bind an ever increasing number of converts to the new faith though the stability of one temporal ruler and one spiritual ruler.[72] Lactantius revolved this notion in his Divine Institutes[73] and Eusebius took up this theme in recounting the first Christian to be martyred during the persecutions by Diocletian. Perhaps what is most interesting about this case is that in refusing to sacrifice to the gods and pour a libation to the four emperors, Procopius is said to have quoted Odysseus’ thoughts on monarchy: “The lordship of many is no good thing; let there be one lord, one king.”[74] While on the face of it this simply seems to be an assertion of the heavenly monotheism of Christianity by Procopius, it is also, when taken in the context of the four emperors, a blow against the secular Tetrarchic government. In this way it was not merely an expression of faith, but an act of sedition against the state.[75] However Eusebius also inverted the logic of Lactantius by arguing that because there is a monarchy in heaven there ought to be one on earth.[76]

Monarchy excels all other kinds of constitution and government. For rather do anarchy and civil war the alternative, a polyarchy based on equality. For which reason there is One God, not two or three or even more. For strictly speaking, belief in many gods is godless. There is on Sovereign and His Logos and royal law is one, not expressed in words of syllables nor eroded by time in books or tables, but the living and actual God the Logos, who directs His Father’s kingdom for all those under and beneath Him.[77]

The triumvirate of logic was completed when Constantine himself launched into the fray in this Oration to the Assembly of the Saints:

if there were not one but many authorities over these innumerable things, there would be share-outs and divisions of elements and [things told in] ancient myths; envy and avarice, dominating according to their power, would mar the harmonious concord of the whole… The Word is himself God and the child of God.[78]

The importance of this development is hard to overstate. Beginning with Lactantius’ bottom to top use of kingship to assert the notion of a monarchy in heaven, moving through Eusebius’ top down approach claiming a king on earth reflected the future kingdom to the Emperor’s adoption of one king and one God, we have a philosophical march from fringe cult to central religion of the empire. Yet this still left an area of doubt, for although applying to Christ attributes of the divine emperor created a mode of understanding Jesus which would resonate with a broader base of citizens, it also left in place a tradition of imperial divinity in which an emperor could be compared too, and even equated with, Christ. The situation was not exactly helped by one of the dominant voices which echoes from this period. To understand why Eusebius doesn’t give the clarity we may have expected, that Constantine is subordinate to Christ who is one with God, we need to delve a little into Eusebius’ own theology.

As we have seen, Eusebius subscribed to the long-established view that a good king ought to try and replicate the presumed heavenly monarchy on earth. This, not unsurprisingly, lead to the comparison that if the Roman Empire was akin to the heavenly realm then Constantine must be akin to Christ as like Jesus, Constantine was God’s representative on earth.[79] Am am compelled toward this argument as I think Van Dam’s argument is persuasive in positing that despite signing-up to the Nicene Creed, Eusebius remained committed to the view that Christ was different from and subordinate to God the Father. By advancing the case for a resemblance between Christ and a mortal ruler, Eusebius was able to keep the flame of his subordinationist views ablaze.[80] Eusebius seems to envisage God working His will through a heavenly and a temporal power, both of whom are named His hyparchos.[81] Although Eusebius never explicitly names Him, it is clear the hyparchos in heaven is Christ, while the hyparchos on earth is Constantine. [82] But it is here we see an important break from one of the traditions of kingship. According to Plutarch, a good king had a direct connection with the divine Logos. In this way, though virtuous governance a ruler could become eikōn theou (the image of God on earth).[83] If this were true of Constantine, he would be Christ incarnate. Although Eusebius’ reverence of Constantine bordered on that level of feeling:

having been furnished by God with natural virtues and having received in his soul the emanations from that place. His ability to reason has come from the Universal Logos, his wisdom from communion with Wisdom, goodness from contact with the Good, and justness from his association with Justice. He is prudent in the ideal of Prudence, and from sharing in the Highest Power has he courage. For he who would bear the title of sovereign with true reason has patterned regal virtues in his soul after the model of that distant kingdom.[84]

He clearly rejected the notion that Constantine was divine:

Far from thinking his present state comparable to that of the All-Ruling God, he [Constantine] is aware that the mortal and perishable state is like a river, ever-glowing and vanishing. And so he longs for the incorruptible and spiritual kingdom of God, and he prays to come into it.[85]

The question now is to what extent was Eusebius, and the Christian church in general, shaped by Constantine, the supreme ruler of the Empire. In other words, is the legacy of Constantine which comes down to us a product of the times, or were the times a product of the man?

Plato and Aristotle asserted that government should be entrusted to the “best man” who, because of his works and deeds, would be akin to a god.[86] Isocrates took up this theme and had written to Philip, father of Alexander the Great, that he should imitate Hercules who was rewarded with divinity in return for his labours.[87] Given the nature of the existing cult of the Emperor, and the desire of peoples in the East to worship living Roman politicians and generals, it isn’t outside the realm of probability that Constantine, have re-united the Empire, entertained the notion that his deeds made him a worthy object of veneration,[88] there is even evidence to suggest Constantine deliberately imitated Christ.[89] At the risk of putting Constantine on the psychologists couch it could be argued that the desire to achieve religious unity not just within the Christian Church but the Empire as a whole, arguably the world as it was known, was something of a messianic objective.[90]


Ultimately the deciding influence over Constantine’s eventual memory as divinity or saint was not so much the actions of his life, but the mode of his death – or more precisely Eusebius’ description of it – as nothing remains of the funerary complex Constantine had constructed and even its former position is a matter of scholarly debate. Eusebius tells us:

He therefore gave instructions for services to be held there, setting up a central altar. So he erected (egeiras) twelve repositories (thēkai) like sacred monuments (stēlai hierai) in honour and memory of the company of the Apostles, and put his own coffin (autos autou larnaka) in the middle, on either side of which six [coggins] of the Apostles were vertically disposed (ana… diekeinto).[91]

Regrettably Francis Dvornik rejects[92] this account as a fictional interpolator introduced into the text and the weight of such a leviathan of Constantinian research against, along with the uncertainty introduced by the language of the passage, should give pause for thought. However, to my mind it isn’t a fictional account, rather a scribal error, as if the words thēkai and stēlai were transposed then a corrected version of the text would read “So he erected twelve columns (stēlai) like sacred repositories (thēkai hierai) in honour and memory of the company of Apostles.” There are scriptural grounds to support this re-reading of Eusebius as both James, Peter and John are compared to stēlai in the New Testament.[93] Further strength is leant to this argument when we recall that Eusebius refers to the Apostles as columns in the basilica of the Holy Sepulchre to the Apostles.[94] If this argument is considered a bit of a long row and we accept Eusebius’ text as unaltered, sense may still be made of the passage as to compare a casket[95] with a gravestone or marker in a funerary context is practical. This reading I think to be confirmed if emphasis is placed on egeiras and ana… diekeinto, as they clearly express stēlai  as vertical.[96] Whatever the form of the building or the minutiae of the internal space, all accounts have a central theme: Constantine. Clearly the layout was intended to present the Emperor in the context of the Apostles, what remains to be seen is his perceived meaning in that context.

At the end of the fourth century, John Chrysostom wrote that the emperors were “no longer near the Apostles, but are satisfied to bury their bodies outside at the porch. And so the emperors have now become the doorkeepers of the fishermen.”[97] Chrysostom argued critically against the notion of men, such as Alexander the Great, being elevated to the level of gods[98] as such men had not been able to restore their kingdom after death. Rather, they should be seen as subordinate to Christ and even to his Apostles. But perhaps what most intrigues about Chrysostom’s words is his calling the final resting place a porch. Surely for Constantine, placed at the centre of a Mausoleum and surrounded by the thēkai  of the Apostles, the Emperor was not playing doorman to the followers of Christ. Rather this change in his theological position is due to the work of his son, Constantius, who made alterations to the burial arrangements in the face of growing church strength and powerful internal divisions within Christianity. In removing the thēkai  and other relics from the vicinity of the imperial tomb, Constantius had calmed a troubled situation by dissociating the theological issue of the Son’s relationship to the Father with the philosophical issue of the emperors relationship to god. Now a clear temporal, not to mention architectural, divide existed between the mausoleum of a ruler and the church of God – the first instance in a Christian setting if you will of a separation of Church and State. Yet like much of his father’s reign, Constantius’ alterations trod a careful middle ground as there was scope for both sides of the Pagan-Christian divide. The close relationship between the mausoleum and the church gave those Christians who still clung to notions of imperial divinity, a sense of Constantine as analogous to the returned Christ, and scope to worship him as a god descended to earth in mortal form. However the physical separation of the thēkai of the Apostles from the resting place of the emperor probably achieved its purpose and dissuaded such practise leaving Constantine to be remembered as a blessed saint instead of a divinity.[99]



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Kelly, C. 1998: ‘Emperors, Government and Bureaucracy’. In CAH XIII: The Late Empire, A.D. 337-425. Edited by Averil Cameron, Peter Garnsey. Cambridge England: Cambridge University Press, 1998, 138-83.

Leadbetter, W. 2006: ‘A Byzantine Narrative of the Future and the Antecedents of the Last World Emperor’. In Byzantine Narrative: Papers in Honour of Roger Scott. Edited by John Burke, Ursula Betka et al. Melbourne: Australian Association for Byzantine       Studies, 2006

MacCormack, Sabine 1981: Art and Ceremony in Late Antiquity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mathews, Thomas F. 1999: The Clash of Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Meggitt, J. 2002: ‘Taking the Emperor’s Clothes Seriously: The New Testament and the Roman Emperor’, The Quest for Wisdom: Essays in Honour of Philip Budd. Edited by Christine E. Joynes. Cambridge: Orchard Academic.

Moles, J. 1990: ‘The Kingship Orations of Dio Chrysostom’. In Roman Poetry and Drama, Greek Epic, Comedy, Rhetoric. Edited by Francis Cairns and Malcolm Heath. Leeds: Francis Cairns.

Nixon, C.E.V., Rodgers, Barbara Saylor 1994: In Praise of Later Roman Emperors: The Panegyrici Latini: Introduction, Translation, and Historical Commentary, with the Latin Text Of R.A.B. Mynors. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Price, Simon 1984: Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor. Cambridge;   New York: Cambridge University Press.
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Rees, Roger 2002: Layers of Loyalty in Latin Panegyric, AD 289-307. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Salway, Bene 2007: ‘Constantine Augoustos (not Sebastos)’. In Wolf Liebeschuetz Reflected: Essays Presented By Colleagues, Friends, & Pupils. Edited by John Drinkwater & Benet Salway. London: Institute of Classical Studies.

Smith, R. 2007: ‘The Imperial Court of the Late Roman Empire, c. AD 300-c. AD 450’. In The Court and Court Society in Ancient Monarchies, edited by A. J. S. Spawforth. Cambridge, UK ; New York : Cambridge University Press.

Van Dam, Raymond 2003: ‘The Many Conversions of the Emperor Constantine’. In Conversion in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages: Seeing and Believing. Edited by Kenneth Mills and Anthony Grafton. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester   Press; Suffolk, UK : Boydell & Brewer, 2003.
―, 2007: The Roman Revolution of Constantine. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Weinstock Stefan 1957: “Victor and Invictus”. In HThR 50, 211 – 247

Whitmarsh, Tim 2001: Greek Literature and the Roman Empire: The Politics of Imitation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wilken, Robert Louis 2003: The Christians as the Romans Saw Them. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Zanker, Paul 1995: Maske des Sokrates. Translated by Alan Shapiro. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.


[1] Plut. Ad Princ. 780e-781a.
[2]  Mart. 9.64-65. Martial then plumbed the depths of sycophancy by asserting that Domitian’s achievements had so surpassed those of Hercules that the emperors’ visage should not have been cast on a mere demigod, but on Hercules’ father Jupiter: Herculeum tantis numen non sufficit actis: Tarpeio deus hic commodet ora patri. Mart. 9.101.
[3]  Suet. Dom. 13.2. “dominus et deus noster hoc fieri iubet
[4]  Brent 1999: 169-77.
[5]  Philo, Embassy, 114.
[6]  Philo, Laws, 4. 186-88. “[kings] ought to wish to conduct themselves in everything for the best, and the best is to use all their energies to assist people and not to injure them; for this is to act in imitation of God, since He also has the power to do either good or evil, but His inclination causes Him only to do good…. Therefore it is right for good rulers of a nation to imitate Him in these points, if they have any anxiety to attain to a similitude to God.”
[7]  For a detailed analysis of Philos philosophy of Kingship see Goodenough 1938: 86-120.
[8]  Philo, Embassy, 81, 98, 114.
[9]  Moles 1990: 330-31; Whitmarsh 2001: 214.
[10] Pliny, Pan. 2.3. “Nec vero ego in laudibus tuis ponam, quod adventum tuum non pater quisquam, non maritus expavit
[11] Deissmann 1927: 351-2; Nixon and Rodgers 1994: 51-52, 53 n. 1; Canepa 2009: 100.
[12] Deus et dominus natus is to be found on the coins minted for the Emperor Aurelian. See RIC V.I, Aurelian nos. 305-6.
[13] For an in-depth treatment of the subject and relevant sources see Avery 1940: 69-71.
[14] “Primus Diocletianus adorari se ut deum jussit, et gemmas vestibus calceamentisque inseri,” Jerome, Chron. 2312.
[15] Procop. Pers. 2.9.
[16] “Although no ancient reference to the actual kissing of the purple has been found, it is evident that such must have been the custom for the following reasons:(1) the mere act of taking the purple in the hand would certainly not have been considered an act of veneration; (2) the original idea of proskynesis included both obeisance and kissing, Avery 1940: p. 67 n. 15; see also Smith 2007: 172-73, 176, 214-16.
[17] Rees 2002: 186-87.
[18] In this instance the writer got around the linguistic problem by referring to “geminato numine” (twin deities) and describes the worship of the Emperors as though it were taking place in the inner shrine of a temple (vlut interioribus sacariis) Pan. Lat. XI.11.1-3.
[19] “etiam ipse in eorum deorum numero constitutus est, quos ad facienda et conservanda omnia divinitas statuit principalis… divini numinis et inmortalis sortitus licentiae potestatem in principalibus deorum ordinibus collocatur.” Materni. Math. 2.30.5-6.
[20] Price 1987: 98-99.
[21] There is much debate on Constantine’s “conversion”, a word which I find highly inappropriate given the context as Constantine’s religious experience was nothing like what we would today term a conversion. In this regard I follow the argument of MacCulloch 2010: 190-215, 291-93. For an even more detailed study see Baynes 1981.
[22] Benet Salway has pointed out, this seems to be because Sebastos was not merely the Greek translation of Augustus, but the honorific used in the cult of the Emperor. Salway 2007: 37-50.
[23] “These words, however, Constantine heard with indignation, and forbade the speaker to hold such language, exhorting him rather to pray earnestly on his behalf, that whether in this life or in that which is to come, he might be found worthy to be a servant of God.”
[24] Dvornik 1966: 654-55.
[25] For Eusebius’ enigmatic comment about divine honours bestowed upon Constantine during his life see Eusebius, Life. 1.9.
[26] Eusebius, Life. 4.67.1.
[27] MacCormack 1981: 117-18.
[28] Psalms, 2:7; 45:7, 11.
[29] Psalms, 110:1.
[30] Beskow 1962: 123-27; Dvornik 1966: 314, 318-19.
[31] Ezekiel 40:1-47:5; 47:6-12; Dvornik 1966: 314, 323-24.
[32] Isaiah 53; Dvornik 1966: 339-47.
[33] Enoch 45:3; 46; 48:2; 51:4-10; 55; 61:10-18; 62:15; 68:38-41; Dvornik 1966: 314, 368-78; Beskow 1962: 127-28.
[34] “Now for a king there is no fitter name than father, for what the father in family life is to the children the king is to the state and God is to the world, — God who under the immutable laws of nature has joined in indissoluble union two things most excellent, governorship and guardianship.” Philo, On Providence 2.3.
[35] Goodenough 1935, 39-40; Beskow 1962, 189-90 discusses Pythagorean and Stoic concepts in the writing of Philo.
[36] Beskow 1962: 200-8.
[37] Beskow 1962: 210-11.
[38] Matthew 2:2.
[39] Luke 1:32-35.
[40] Revelation 19:16.
[41] Revelation 22:1-3.
[42] Revelation 7:9-10.
[43] Brent 1999: 200-1, 205-8.
[44] Revelation 13:15; Brent 1999: 196-97.
[45] Meggitt 2002: 156-57.
[46] “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ;… But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared.” Titus 2:11-13; 3:4.
[47] On the notion that the Pax Augusta suggested that the virtue of peace was incarnate in Augustus and his rule represented the beginning of a Golden Age see Brent 1999: 60-66.
[48] Howard 1977; Beskow 1962: 45-61; Dvornik 1966: 591-94.
[49] Dvornik 1966: 600-5.
[50] Beskow 1962: 219-30.
[51] Lac. DI. 5.19.25, 6.8.12, 7.27.15; on the problems associated with determining if the term has an imperial or military meaning see Beskow 1962: 182-84.
[52] Lac. DI. 4.17.7, 4.25.2.
[53] Eusebius, In Praise of Constantine. 3.3.
[54] Eusebius, In Praise of Constantine. 5.2.
[55] Eusebius, In Praise of Constantine. 15.2.
[56] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 10.4.
[57] Benko 1980: 670-71.
[58] Lac. DI. 7.24.
[59] Constantine, Oration to the Assembly of the Saints, 19-21; for a modern commentary on Constantine’s use of Virgil see Benko 1980: 671-72.
[60] Jensen 2000: 45-46 (as philosopher), 120-24 (as miracle worker). When shown as miracle worker during this time, Christ was often shown with a magic wand, an iconography which didn’t die out until the fifth century.
[61] Dvornik 1966: 428.
[62] Zanker 1995: 297.
[63] Digeser  2000: 74-78.
[64] Zanker 1995: 292-97.
[65] Zanker 1995: 276-77, 290-92.
[66] Zanker 1995: 297-304.
[67] Zanker 1995: 304-5, 307-31.
[68] Beskow 1962: 12-13, 22-25; Jensen 2000: 94-103.
[69] Deckers 2007: 105. Although the view on the kingly  significance is refuted by Mathews 1999: 80-86.
[70] Barnes 1981: 164-66; Mathews 1999: 67-68; Wilken 2003: 159-60.
[71] MacCormack 1981: 129-31.
[72] Digeser 2000: 40-45.
[73] “If the world were to be shared between more than one king, then each will certainly have a lesser portion of its wealth and strength, since each will abide within the bounds of his allotted share. In like fashion, if there were more than one god, they will all have less power, since the others will have only so much for themselves. Virtue in its perfection is sooner to be found in totality then in some small fraction of totality. If God is perfect, as he has to be, he cannot be so unless he is one, so that everything can be within him.” Lac. DI. 1.3.6-7.
[74] Eusebius, Martyrs of Palestine 1.1-4.
[75] De Ste. Croix 2006: 43; Barnes 1981: 150-51; Van Dam 2007: 355.
[76] Beskow 1962: 263-68.
[77] Eusebius, In Praise of Constantine. 6.8.
[78] Constantine, Oration to the Assembly of the Saints, 3, 9.4.
[79] Kelly 1998: 140; Dvornik 1966: 614-22.
[80] Van Dam 2003: 141-44; Van Dam 2007: 311-12.
[81] Goodenough 1935: 39.
[82] Drake 1976: 57; Drake 2000; 529 n. 98.
[83] Plut. Ad Princ. 780e-781a.
[84] Eusebius, In Praise of Constantine. 5.1-2.
[85] Eusebius, In Praise of Constantine. 5.5.
[86] Dvornik 1966: 177-87.
[87] Isocrates, To Philip, 111-15.
[88] Price 1984: 26-35, 51-52; Fishwick 1987-2005: vol. 1, 9-11.
[89] Eusebius, Life. 4.62.1-2; for general comments on on Constantine’s Jesus complex see Van Dam 2003: 140.
[90] Beskow 1962: 97.
[91] Eusebius, Life. 4.60.3.
[92] Dvornik 1966: 758-59, with n. 147.
[93] Galatians 2:9. “And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision.”
[94] Eusebius, Life. 3.38. “This was encircled by twelve columns (according to the number of the apostles of our Saviour)”
[95] Further reason to believe that casket was meant could be drawn from the arrival in Constantinople in 336 of relics of the Apostle Andrew and the Evangelist Luke. Procopius, Buildings, 1.4.9-24; Burgess 2003: 24-28. For a discussion of the sources which claim the relics arrive in 357 see Burgess 2003: 5, n. 2.
[96] There is also the text of Procopius from the sixth century in which he uses larnakes and thēkai essentially interchangeably in describing the tombs of the emperors. Procopius, Buildings, 1.4.19.
[97] John Chrysostom, Adversus Judaeos et Gentiles Demonstratio 9; see also Dvornik 1966: 760-62.
[98] For arguments about the status of Alexanders deification, was he the thirteenth god or an invincible god, see Weinstock 1957, 235, n. 143.
[99] Van Dam 2007: 317-53.

Alexander’s Invasion of Persia

“It is one of the paradoxes of history (and of historiography) that this king… should have been handed down finally in history as an enigma.” “Indeed, there is no figure about whom more writers are more at variance.” Yet what is so surprising about the fog which surrounds the myth and man who was Alexander is it need not have happened, for the Great King had set the precedent of appointing an official historian, Kallisthenes, and invested much time and energy in the dissemination of his image throughout his empire. Yet an unfortunate combination of non-surviving contemporary literary sources, few surviving official and unofficial records, and the immense effusion of myth, legend, lies and fact which surround so great a figure as Alexander, leaves the modern historian with a sea of contradictions through which a navigable path to the shores of fact is often hard to find. Yet among the flotsam and jetsam is some lagan, such as the works of Lucius Flavius Arrianus Xenophon, more commonly known as Arrian. Yet even this inestimable source for the life of Alexander warns against attempts to drag the god back down to earth for mortal judgement. With such sentiment resonating from the ancient world it is little wonder, at the remove of more than two millennia, we are unable to be sure how Kallisthenes died in 327 nor why Alexander visited the shrine of Ammon in 332. Within this context, placing Alexander’s motivation for the invasion of Persia is difficult at best.

One of our best ancient sources, Arrian, gives his method for piecing together the historical record at the start of his Anabasis Alexandrou. Wherever histories of Alexander concur they are recorded as true. Where they differ the more plausible should be selected. It is not uncommon for students of history to read this passage and, with the approbation of their own professor ringing in their ears regarding their use of the historic record, leap to the conclusion this Arrian fellow had a slap dash approach to history and take an ever increasing amount of salt with their reading of the Anabasis. I would argue this is to misunderstand the nature of history and to do a disservice to an ancient scholar. If history teaches us one thing, it is just how uncertain the historic record can be. As a result historians are always balancing what is recorded against what they believe is probable about the life or events concerned. As a result I think we can have greater faith in a historian of the ancient world who is aware of the difficulties posed by the historical record and cognisant of his own bias* than we can of another writer who delivers their entire work as though it were produced without fear or favor.

Looking to Alexander’s motives for his invasion of Persia, the first which strikes us is heredity. Plutarch asserts, so dark was the shadow Philip cast over the young Alexander that the boy would despair there would be nothing important left to conquer. Following his father Philip’s assassination, Alexander not only inherited the throne of Macedon but also hegemon of the League of Corinth and with it leadership of the Persian campaign.** In this sense Alexander was continuing a work already begun by his father while also wanting to prove his own mettle in the crucible of war. Though circumstantial, I would also argue that Alexander’s route of conquest, described by Arrian, neatly retraces the path Xerxes took during his invasion of Greece in 480 and echoes a sentiment of revenge for the events of the earlier Persian war.

Finance too played a role to let slip the dogs of war. As Cicero was later to write: “Great sums of money are the sinews of war.” While Arrian suggests that Alexander began his reign heavily in debt, it should be remembered that Alexander’s relative poverty provided the ideal “rags to riches” story that ancient writers, as concerned with morality tales as they were with history, would have readily embellished. Yet while Alexander was not, perhaps, as poverty stricken as some ancient authors make out, it is clear he did begin his reign with some financial difficulties, in part due to Philip’s poor management of the Macedonian resources that had allowed him to acquire a standing army in the first place. In much the same way militarism in other centuries has proved a catalyst for war, the necessity to maintain the standing army as a power base proved a powerful motivator for a young king who was keen to expand using the vast wealth of the Persian empire. This ties in with the warrior ethos, which Alexander seemed to exude in spades. Arrian expresses Alexander as being filled with a desire for endless conquest. N. G. L. Hammond, citing Diodorus Siculus, takes Alexander’s thirst for conquest a stage further arguing Alexander actually aimed to conquer the whole world, in which the Persian campaign simply becomes a stepping stone to further glory. But I think this takes a line of thought, most likely a post Alexandrian construct, and places more emphasis on the situation than our explicit sources can truly support. Rather I suspect Alexander was simply a bellicose genius, initially hard pressed militarily to maintain his hegemon and stricken with a wanderlust. Driven by a need to give a fragmented Hellenic world, shattered by the Persian invasion, a sense of unity and purpose who ranged far and wide not to conquer the whole world, but simply to conquer what lay over the hill.

* I understand this is a very simplistic discussion of the source material concerned, but the scope of this article prevents an expansion on the theme to look at problems in the Anabasis such as Arrian’s acceptance of Ptolemy’s account because as a king it would have been unbecoming for Ptolemy to lie (Arr. preface).

** Though not within the scope of this article, it should be noted here that Alexander’s ascension to head of the League of Corinth was not uncontested. Though barely mentioned by Arrian (2.13.4-6) it is documented in the other ancient sources as a great trial for the young king (Diod. 17.62-3; Curt. 6.1; Just. 21.1). Even after his triumph Alexander was always having to keep a close eye on the home front while fighting abroad and the uneasy situation never allowed Alexander to fully trust his Greek allies or even his Macedonian court.

Age, Evil And A Better World

Age hit me the other day. To be precise it hit my right hamstring. It was cold and I got up too quickly. These were the words of old men, who I have mocked remorselessly over the years, coming from the mouth of a babe (here I mean it in the child sense); or one who use to be a babe. Now age gnaws at me in winter, an ever present reminder that after the heady immortality of youth, I grow old and wither on the vine.

Yet there are several great upsides to this changing of seasons. I get to wear tweed, spend a quiet night at home with a port and a good book, shunning the strobe lights and shoddy DJ’ing at the local club. I also have the privilege and delight of making comments like ‘for those of you old enough to remember…’. Or in the more jocular words of the inimitable Stephen Fry: ‘for those of my age, weight and shoe size’. Thankfully weight has not yet become an issue. Lamentably my weight remains as constant and low as my bank account. But I seem to be nesting in a sub argument. So let us return to age and its upside, remembrance.

Simon Schama wrote ‘history is a living instruction, or it is nothing. Not a spare time luxury, but a requirement of informed citizenship’. History, both recent and ancient, holds the key to who we are and is a powerful tool to explain why. Throughout the narrative of our world, there is the ever present aspect of evil. Evil has taken many shapes and many forms in its long and ignoble history. My father knows its most recent history well and fought it during the Second World War, when the hordes of Nazi ideology ran over the face of the earth. He, and millions like him, fought to make a ‘better’ world. But when he sees the massacre of civilians in ongoing wars, the bombing of markets and state sanctioned genocides, he does wonder if it made that much of a difference. But when he sees headlines like ‘5 Things Apple Must Do to Look Less Evil’ he knows it did make a difference.

That some people believe they are under oppressive censorship because their news app is at the mercy of ‘notoriously temperamental App Store reviewers’ it is a better world. For many censorship is being dragged from their home in the middle of the night and beaten to death.

That some believe the biggest problem is that App store rules are not published, causing developers to censor themselves, hurting innovation and generating conformity, it is a better world. For some unpublished rules make their very existence a crime. See police take them to a place of execution or force them to languish in prison for nothing more than having been brought into this world.

Life is far from perfect. But for some of us it is a far, far better place than it ever has been. We have the wonders of medical science to improve our physical being. We have nearly unbridled access to other peoples thoughts, lifting our consciousness to new heights. For some of us it is an amazing place. And if some of us labored as ceaselessly toward helping the lives of others as we spend complaining about our own lot. If we took as much responsibility as we do care. If we realized we are given gifts and resources not just for our own enrichment, but so that we have the power to help others. We stand a chance of creating a better world for all, not just for some.

In the final analysis does it matter if Apple is less ‘evil’ in the greater context of the world? For me it does, because it shows that in some sunny corner of the globe, triviality has vanquished genuine suffering. In such places it is a better world.

Company Men

In Calcutta a statue was erected to Lord Bentinck, Governor-General of India. Its inscription bears citing at length as it is testament to the moral zeitgeist with which the British believed their empire to be infused:

[To] William Cavendish Bentinck, who during seven years ruled India with eminent prudence, integrity, and benevolence; who, placed at the head of a great Empire, never laid aside the simplicity and moderation of a private citizen; who infused into Oriental despotism the spirit of British freedom; who never forgot that the end of Government is the happiness of the governed; who abolished cruel rites; who effaced humiliating distinctions; who gave liberty to the expression of public opinion; whose constant study it was to elevate the intellectual and moral character of the nation committed to his charge, [This Monument] Was erected by men who, differing in race, in manners, in language, and in religion, cherish with equal veneration and gratitude the memory of his wise, reforming, and paternal administration.

‘Veneration and gratitude’, the rulers of empire believed, was owed to a new and truly British form of patriotism; the championing of liberty at home and creation of a maritime, commercial empire overseas. Viscount Bolingbroke spoke for this new breed of patriot:

The Empire of the Seas is ours; we have been many Ages in Possession of it; we have had many Sea-Fights, at a vast effusion of Blood and Expense of Treasure to preserve it and preserve it we still must, at all Risks and Events if we have a Mind to preserve ourselves.

The rulers of this new Empire would not succumb to the hubris of Rome, where addiction to territorial gain had resulted in despotism at the center of over-extended frontiers. Their liberty would be founded on religious freedom, or as they would define it freedom from the ‘slavery’ of Roman Catholicism; no taxation without the consent of parliament; habeas corpus and regular elections with ever increasing suffrage. Above all liberty to the British meant the guarantee of the rights enshrined in Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights, and for the nation builders of the seventeenth & eighteenth centuries, their most recent and therefore most hallowed 1689 Bill of Rights. These liberties were to be exported over the waters to create an ‘empire of liberty’. The builders of this mercantile blue-water empire were to immunize their endeavors by preferring business opportunities over territorial conquest; commercial and military ventures should be mutually exclusive.

By the end of the eighteenth century this idyllic vision of an empire of farmers & traders, inhabiting lightly garrisoned outposts, sending the fruits of their labor back to ‘Old Blighty’ had transformed into a military empire with nearly a million slaves in the Caribbean; the 50 million inhabitants of the sub-continent had transitioned from suppliers and consumers into subjects of the Raj:

Stupendous fortunes had been made, not by making men free but by making them servile; not by probity but by corruption; not by a benign and responsible diffusion of that wealth to the natives but by the most shameless coercion and extortion.

‘So just how had Britain ended up with the wrong empire?’

From its beginning the British Empire founded its success on addiction. A smoke, a cup of tea, a sweet treat, and later, a pipe of opium. To foster this addiction it was necessary to turn what at first had been exotic delicacies into daily needs. In search of these products, and the wealth which flowed from them, the most successful company in the British Empire was established. Granted its charter by Queen Elizabeth I, the Honorable East India Company would amass sales which amounted to almost one fifth of Britain’s annual imports. Profitability was increased, and secured, as the Company carved out an ‘empire within an empire’, annexing territory to ensure the smooth running of business. Sir John Kaye noted that when local rulers were ‘deprived of their rights and revenues, they were held to be not territorial, but titular sovereigns’. What this ‘sovereignty was to be, without territorial rights or territorial revenues, it is not easy to see.’

Diminution of authority was to be the fate of the King of Oudh in 1856, when the Company set its sights on his lands to become ‘a component part of the empire’. The King would not yield, forcing the company into a more aggressive stance; annexing Oudh and declaring it part of British India. Acts such as this provided the first vital ingredient for the dish of vengeance that Indians would serve to the British in 1857. A native ruling class dispossessed of their power & prestige.

Edmund Burke, who had largely written the regulatory act which was designed to contain and reverse the personal empires within empire, created under the spurious pretext of securing liberty and fair trade in the far flung corners of the globe, raged that the English had not compensated for the power they held by supplying good works:

Were we to be driven out of India this day, nothing would remain to tell that it had been possessed, during the inglorious period of our dominion, by anything better than the ourang-utang or the tiger.

To correct these errors it was not necessary to examine the propositions of liberty. Instead the right men and the right measures needed to be found. Such men and measures would be found in the person of Thomas Clarkson, one of the leading anti-slavery campaigners of his day, who traversed the land in an attempt to extirpate ‘this evil’. But this blight on the vine of liberty would not be easily dispelled and its abolition proved to be ‘more than ordinarily great’ for the ‘evil in question began in avarice’:

‘For these reasons the Slave-trade may be considered, like the fabulous hydra, to have had a hundreds heads, every one of which it was necessary to cut off before it could be subdued.’

But subdued it was; slavery being abolished in British colonies in 1833. Yet such reforms also brought with them proselytizing zeal. Britons hoped oriental eyes would open to the indisputable wisdom of Europe (which is to say Britain), laying aside their disgusting practices; perhaps even abandoning their gods and accept the promise of Christ. As William Wilberforce wrote: ‘Our religion is sublime, pure and beneficent. Theirs is mean, licentious and cruel’.

If native inhabitants of distant lands would not willingly lay aside their rites & customs, officials showed a capacity to resort to more direct methods. In 1829 Bentinck outlawed the custom of satí; after consultation with Hindu sacred writings he found it to have no sound theological basis. Although the practice was not wide spread and even abhorred by some Indians, it still represented the first direct attack on traditional belief. Such direct attacks engendered fears in the native population. Ram Mohun Roy, although an advocate of the abolition of satí, believed that the removal of the superstitions and corruptions which had been engrafted on the Hindu religion should be accomplished quietly and unobservedly. Ram Mohan Roy feared that the British reforms would not stop at curtailing the more egregious beliefs and customs of Hinduism:

While the English were contending for power they deemed it politic to allow universal toleration and to respect our religion, but having obtained the supremacy their first act is a violation of their profession, and the next will probably be, like the Muhammadan conquerors, to force upon us their own religion.

Fear that British administration stood for the introduction of Christianity created an environment that instigators of the 1857 mutiny would exploit to devastating results. The coming mutiny now had a disaffected ruling class and a population fearful that their religion, and their souls, were in peril.

Nemesis walked alongside the British in India, seeming at times like an old friend. In the bazaars and cantonments future foes greeted each other as though they were family. They lived, as Cicero wrote, in the most illusionary tense of all, the present; like small children not knowing from whence they came nor wither they go. As with old friends, relations between the British and Indians, which had once been worked on with vigor and care, fell by the wayside. People and institutions took each other for granted. Respect, even deference, was replaced with an attitude which shouted ‘go to hell – don’t bother me!’. The men-on-the-spot did little to allay concerns or revert attitudes to the more conciliatory tones which had marked the Company’s first endeavors in India; succumbing to the pressures of an Evangelical lobby that gained increasing momentum.

To remove the financial obstacles to conversion, the Company amended the law which had previously forfeited the inheritance of any Hindu who renounced their faith. Hindus declared that such acts afforded:

Strong cause and suspicion that such an innovation is only a prelude to others, that the security in person, property and religion, hitherto ensured to the native subjects, is in danger of being taken from them.

By the late 1850’s Anglo-Indian relations resembled a piñata. The Company had transitioned from trading partner to Imperial ruler. Maharajas, Badshahs, Nawabs & Wālis had been dispossessed of their authority and taxes, forcing from work hundreds of thousands of their dependants. Missionaries were traveling the highways and byways in search of new converts, striking at the heart & soul of India; yet British possessions in India seemed secure. Despite what had happened the native levies remained predominately loyal, ensuring the security of British rule; so long as they followed their British counterparts and held the thin red line. They would following their British counterparts, right up to the matter of equipment.

‘The English who conquered Persia and defeated the Czar of Russia have been overthrown in India by a simple cartridge,’ whooped the octogenarian King of Dehli at the height of the 1857 Mutiny; more specifically it was the grease rather than the cartridge, though the later would also become a source of controversy. The storm began to brew in January 1857 when detachments from the Bengal native infantry were sent to Dum-Dum, near Calcutta, for training on the handling & care of their new rifles.

The controversy centered around the belief that the grease used in the production of the cartridges was of a material that would be offensive to both Hindus and Muslims. Discontent among sepoys was nothing new, but when combined with the distribution of chapattis the situation takes on the look of an omen.

A stranger would enter a village and seek out the chowkidar (watchman) and present him with four chapattis. The chowkidar would then be instructed to bake four more and then deliver them to a neighboring village. While the British attached no importance to the act, Indians interpreted these phenomena as a sign that the Company would end all distinctions of caste and religion with everyone sharing a common diet.

These events showed the extent to which the Raj had lost credibility with its subjects and defenders; sepoys and the native population were prepared to believe the worst about their officers and Company administration. Increasing numbers of European women traveling to India, the enlargement of Christian missions and an officer class which was loosing touch with its native troops, pushed tensions to breaking point. Sadly British officers made the fatal decision of retreating behind a barrier of prejudices which weakened their position. ‘How can you expect devotion on the field when you are a stranger to your men in cantonment?’

Divisions between native troops and British commanders became increasingly strained as the authorities began breaking up regiments which showed signs of sullenness and intractability. The hope was that their fate would harden the discipline of their comrades. The psychological effect proved to work in reverse, pushing sepoys, already hosts to terrifying phantoms, into making the first move; lest they be the target of British musketry and grape shot.

As pockets of resistance to British discipline spread, authorities increased the crack downs. News of this action traveled like wildfire, often ‘maliciously propagated by active emissaries of evil’ who attempted to suborn troops. Into this military friction the civilian population was soon drawn, though ‘the love of liberty had far less prompted this outbreak than a lust for plunder.’ Tax assessment was heavy, grain shortages were pushing up food prices and impoverished villagers were eager to take advantage of the situation in an attempt to relieve their poverty. The state of affairs now spiraled out of control as insurrection became a civil war.

Caught off balance, with its military resources stretched to breaking, the British rejoinder was slow. Operations were holding exercises designed to protect what they could while more men and equipment was marshaled. Public sentiment played a vital role in this regard, but it to would take time to mobilize. Indifference to the happenings in India vanished in the Summer of 1857 as editors printed the most harrowing details of the insurrection which gripped the subcontinent. By the Autumn rage abounded in the columns of the British press as news of the wholesale defection of sepoys and the massacres of women and children at Meerut, Delhi, Jhansi and Cawnpore poured into the living rooms of the British Empire. The mood was captured by Charles Dickens who wrote:

I wish I were commander-in-chief in India. I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested.

‘The lion hearts of our soldiers yearned for revenge upon these blood-thirsty villains’ and the British public demanded payment in blood from the native ‘villains’ and retribution on a Government, more specifically the Company, which it felt had caused the disaffection of the native peoples and mutiny of the sepoy troops. The Tory opposition, led by Disraeli, launched an attack on the government’s policy which it claimed had abandoned principles and beckoned in the disaster:

In olden days, and for a considerable time – indeed, until, I would say the last ten years – the principle of our government of India, if I may venture to describe it in a sentence, was to respect Nationality.

In the abandonment of this principle the Company had forfeited its right to rule India, or so Disraeli argued. Its place should be taken by the Queen whose government would publicly pledge to safeguard property and uphold native traditions. In short the ‘empire of liberty’ would return under the aegis’ of the British government and the religious zeal of the Company whose centralizing policies had stripped the Indians of their inheritance would be abolished. The new order would minister to its peoples with greater sensitivity, promising that all its subjects would be treated equally, their rights would be upheld and their religions respected.

From this proclamation sprang a two headed mythology of the mutiny. Indian nationalists grasped the straw of widespread rejection of the Raj, transforming it into an affirmation of a national will. The British saw the events as a moral struggle between good and evil sustained by the courage of the Christian faith. For them it was a dire warning that if British rule should end in India, millions of people would be abandoned ‘to the most cruel of fates – the anarchy, the rapine, and the bloodshed of their contending chiefs and tyrants’.

This later British memory also carried with it the specter of racism. Prevailing British opinion now saw a native population which had turned against its saviors. Through revolt they had not just rebuffed a corrupt government, they were rejecting everything that Victorian morality cherished. But the work of civilizing had to go on; the manner of which assumed two alternatives. The first was for the British to rule their Indian subjects as their natural superiors. The second was to prepare the population for self governance, once they had been tutored in how a country ought to be run. Any excesses which had been perpetrated in subduing the mutiny were necessary, or so the British believed, to prevent the nation of India from sliding into the mire of barbarism and chaos.

Such a patronizing general consensus ignored the key lesson of the mutiny; that a people who had ruled a continent for over three thousand years would not subject itself to permanent degradation.

Madmen Raging Against the Sacred

First, let me thank you for the wonderful comments I have received, asking how I have been and why I have not written something for what seems like a long while…

It has been an unpardonably long silence since I last wrote an article for this blog, but it has been writing, I am very happy to say, which has kept me from this labor of love.

University is back in full swing and I have worked on nothing else, in the lamentably few moments of time away from the coal face I can claim each week. This semester is a look into the middle ages. My first short essay was written on Papal involvement in the Crusades.

So, while I appreciate I may sound like a crashing bore and the worst kind of pseudo-intellectual twazzock, alienating the few readers I have, here is that essay. And I do promise to write something else soon.

Madmen Raging Against the Sacred

Since its instigation by Pope Urban II in 1095, crusading had become the sword with which the Christian church would smite its adversaries and maintain the sacred boundaries of Christendom; enlarging them when the ‘salvation’ of infidels was necessary. Being penitential in nature, the crusades differed from other acts of war. Knights could now achieve both secular and spiritual booty in the crucible of battle. A contemporary observer, Gilbert of Nogent wrote:

In our time God instituted holy warfare, so that the arms-bearers and the wandering populace… should find a new way of attaining salvation; so that they might not be obliged to abandon the world completely, as used to the be case, by adopting the monastic way of life… but might obtains God’s grace to some extent while enjoying their accustomed freedom and dress, and in a way consistent with their own station.

That the crowds attendant in 1095 shouted ‘deus le volt!’ (God wills it!), at Pope Urban’s call for the first crusade, presages this outlook. Tens of thousands thronged to the appeal, allowing a great army to march on the Holy Land; to reclaim ‘the venerable places which the Savior had deigned to sanctify and make glorious with His bodily presence.’

Into this context crashed the Fourth Crusade. In an age of violence this shocked an unshockable world. One eye-witness wrote of these crusaders:

Madmen raging against the sacred… these forerunners of the Antichrist, chief agents and harbingers of his anticipated ungodly deeds, seized as plunder the precious chalices and patens;… Christ was now disrobed and mocked… although his side was not pierced by the lance, yet once more streams of Divine Blood poured to the earth.

The Fourth Crusade is an exemplification of violence in the name of God, swinging, as a pendulum do, from piety to the most egregious acts of barbarism and cruelty.

The judgment of history on this most vicious crusade has indeed been harsh. Edward Gibbon, in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, mourned that crusading had ‘checked rather than forwarded the maturity of Europe’. Steven Runciman went further in decrying that ‘the Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is the sin against the Holy Ghost’. Runciman went on to write that ‘the harm done by the crusades to Islam was small in comparison with that done by them to Eastern Christendom’.

The Fourth Crusade made flesh all that was, and is, wrong with the crusading spirit. Far from uniting Christendom, it rent the church into schisms, destroyed the last vestiges of the Eastern Roman Empire and reinforced an adversarial status quo between the Christian West and Islam which continues unto the present day. All this is scarcely conceivable, but for the role of the Papacy.

The First Crusade had been largely unchallenged and met with great success; mostly because the various Muslim potentates were too distracted by internecine strife to make a concerted effort at combating this new-found wave of religious colonization. Subsequent crusades would not receive the same reception. Fighting back through the means of jihad, Muslim leaders frustrated Christian goals. Christendom responded by forming more crusader armies, many of which petered out as their leaders quarreled or died of natural causes. Into this atmosphere was elected Pope Innocent III, a man who would become the greatest Pope of the medieval period.

In the midst of [all his] affairs, he [Innocent III] quiet fervently longed for the relief and recovery of the Holy Land and anxiously mulled over how he could achieve this more effectively.

Since Pope Urban II invocation in 1095, crusading had been both a spiritual and secular struggle. Under the pontificate of Innocent III this took on a more muscular and intensely personal meaning for both the Pope and the leaders of Christendom. The Vicar of Christ saw a definitive link between a successful crusade to the Holy Land and the moral reformation of what he believed to be a degenerate society. Success in the Levant represented the imprimatur of God on the spiritual restoration of His people. Innocent’s interest in a Holy War is embodied in his call for the Fourth Crusade, a call that reverberated with ardent puritanical zeal.

Following the pitiable collapse of the territory of Jerusalem, following the lamentable massacre of the Christian people… it cried out and wailed to such a degree that due to incessant crying out, its throat was made horse, and from incessant weeping, its eyes almost failed… still the Apostolic See cries out, and like a trumpet it raises its voice, eager to arouse the Christian peoples to fight Christ’s battle and to avenge the injury done to the Crucified One…

Firebrand rhetoric of this nature hit its mark, in an age when honor and oath were life and death. Having suitably motivated the spiritual, Innocent turned his astonishing administrative abilities to the secular. ‘All towns, as well as counts and barons, should provide crusaders for two years at their own expense’. The omission of Kings from this list cuts to the heart of Papal involvement in the Fourth Crusade. Innocent III, ‘acutely conscious of his responsibility as the head of Christendom, intended to reassume papal leadership of the holy war.’ But pragmatic reasons played their measure in this decision. The two leading regal lights of Europe, Richard I of England and Phillip II of France, were locked in mortal combat. Their pride and enmity had caused the Third Crusade to fail and more recent events would deprive the Pope of their swords. Richard succumbed to a crossbow bolt and Phillip’s licentious nature meant he would not, and could not, take the cross again and lead a crusade.

Deeply aware that many in Western Europe had criticized the church for not providing sufficient financial support in previous crusades, Innocent issued an edict that the clergy should outfit and finance the expedition as well as preach its importance. This was accomplished through an unprecedented papal tax; the Pope and cardinals would pay one tenth of their incomes while other clergy would pay one fortieth. In this way the Pope hoped to forge the course of events through both his words and his purse.

It should not be thought that spiritual conscious was the soul, let alone sole, motivator for the pontiff. Ecclesiastical support was a necessary response, primed to motivate a recalcitrant laity. It was also the only means by which a moratorium on knightly debts and the protection of estates at home for landed crusaders aboard could be achieved.

Regardless of these protections and the money raised by the Church, crusading remained a dangerous and costly business; even before the sword had left its sheath.

I am quite anxious about my lands and my loans because, if I return (God willing), I will return burdened with many debts, and it is in my interest that they will be paid off from my lands.

It has been estimated that it cost a knight four times his annual income to fund a crusade, forcing men to mortgage or sell their lands and property rights. In such cases they usually turned to the church, the only institution with the resources to buy deeds and lend money. Yet such backing was still not enough and in many cases knights were forced to turn to wealthy nobles for patronage or live off the spoils of war to survive in the East. Without these supports destitution loomed and many magnates were broken on the wheel of crusade.

With the possible destruction of a family dynasty in the offing, it is not surprising that many were slow to set out for the Holy Land. Yet set out they did. A noble’s position in society and chivalric code urged him to the crusade. If this were not enough, it was certain that no measure of success in the lists could win the same level of admiration as that of taking the cross. There was also the sheer joy of battle and the chance of winning lands and enhanced political power. So a rich and complex mix of motives drove men to the hurl their resources and physical power into a violent struggle in a distant land.

Once unleashed, such a multifaceted combination of power, personalities and beliefs proved an unwieldy leviathan. The Fourth Crusade veered from its original aim, the reconquest Jerusalem, and ended in the sack of Constantinople; earning for itself the ignominious title of the crusade against fellow-Christians. Having lost control of the situation, Innocent III was forced to admit:

Oh, the depth of the riches of God’s wisdom and knowledge! How incomprehensible are His judgments and beyond understanding His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been His counselor?

An admission, if ever there was, that even the Pope does not have a direct line to God.