Monday, March 25, 2013


Kay Ehling, Gregor Weber (ed.), Konstantin der Grosse zwischen Sol und Christus. Zaberns Bildbände zur Archäologie. Darmstadt: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 2011. Pp. 144. ISBN 9783805342926. €29.90.

Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst (

Version at BMCR home site

In this beautifully executed and richly illustrated volume, fifteen German scholars discuss the whole range of problems concerning the 'conversion' and religious identity of Constantine the Great. The essays are all well written, aiming at a wider audience (there are no footnotes, only a short bibliography at the end of each chapter), and each of them is accompanied by well chosen photos of artefacts and by maps. Even though the book has less than 150 pages, its large size and (unfortunately) very small print in two columns guarantee that it contains a great amount of information.

The opening chapter by Wolfgang Kuhoff sketches the political and military developments from the death of Constantius in July 306 to Constantine's victory over Maxentius at the Milvian bridge in October 312. Next Gregor Weber describes the role of rulers' dreams and visions in late antiquity and their relevance for the interpretation of the divergent reports about Constantine's vision of the cross (if it was that) before the battle at the Pons Milvius. Kay Ehling discusses in detail the significance of a silver medallion minted by Constantine on the occasion of his decennalia in 315, the same year in which his famous arch in Rome was completed. On this large coin (a 'Schaumünze') Constantine wears the 'Christogram' on his helmet, a clear and early statement of what he stood for. In 'Sarapis contra Christum,' Ehling also discusss the religious policy of Constantine's opponent Maximinus Daia and the central role of the god Sarapis, in his solar aspects, in Daia's struggle against Constantine. Martin Wallraff points out that in 315, in spite of the display of the Christogram on Constantine's helmet on the medallion of that year, the emperor also erected his arch without any Christian elements but with a medallion depicting Sol-Helios, and that even as late as 324 he had himself presented as Helios in an image in the newly founded Constantinople (even shortly before his death in 337 Constantine presented himself in the solar quadriga on a coin). Apparently, Constantine's program was 'Christus und Sol' (45), and Wallraff situates this aspect of his religious policy in the context of late antique solar piety (pagan and Christian). Johannes Wienand shows, however, that representations of the deity Sol on coins begin to disappear after 318 and that after 324 Constantine increasingly uses Christian symbolism. All this shows the very gradual nature of the christianization of this emperor. In the longest article in this volume, Steffen Diefenbach presents a somewhat technical survey of Constantine's building activities in Rome, especially as regards basilical churches and their close relationship with pre-existing sepulchral constructions (tombs and mausolea) and concludes that by these activities Constantine created a connection between emperor cult and the Christian cult of the dead and thus 'den Kaiserkult unter dem Vorzeichen der christlichen Heiligenverehrung weiterentwickelte' (80).

Karen Piepenbrink discusses the foundation of Constantinople on the site of Byzantium (between 324 and 330) and sketches briefly the city's new topography and the emperor's building activity which, she says, 'weist generell keine eindeutige religiöse Konnotation auf, sondern enthält christliche wie pagane Elemente' (87). The emperor built not only churches there but also pagan temples. Bruno Bleckmann describes the course of the lingering war(s) between Constantine and Licinius. Ernst Baltrusch deals with Constantine's attitude towards the Jews and argues that the emperor's fierce anti-Jewish utterances in letters and elsewhere and his often pro-Jewish legal measures should not be regarded as contradictory; the first are to be viewed in light of the legal and political situation of the times. Heinrich Schlange-Schönigen sketches the life of Helena, Constantine's mother, with special emphasis on her famous journey to the Holy Land and the post-Constantinian development of the legend of her finding of the True Cross. Constantine's abortive plans to invade the Sasanian Empire in the last year of his life are dealt with by Andreas Luther who pays special attention to the question why the emperor started this endeavour. Christian Gliwitzky presents us with a fine study of the portraits of Constantine, their place in the history of imperial portraiture, and their influence on later emperor portraits. Hartmut Leppin contributes a good essay on the agreements and the differences between the early and later Christian historians of antiquity in coping with the positive and negative features of the reign of Constantine. Finally, Alexander Demandt tries to answer the question, "Wer war Konstantin der Grosse?" and sketches both the ruthless power politics and the impressive achievements of Constantine in creating a Christian Empire.

The essays are uniformly written by the best German specialists in Constantinian studies. Consequently, they are of a high level (even though the target audience is not the scholarly world). Most of them are a pleasure to read. I recommend this superbly illustrated book to all readers interested in the history of late antiquity.

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