Charles Matson Odahl starts off Constantine and the Christian Empire with a survey of the sources for Constantine’s life, including Constantine’s biography and the church history by Eusebius of Caesarea, who knew Constantine personally; the anonymous “Origin of the Emperor Constantine”; other ecclesiastical and general histories; the panegyrics (formal speeches delivered in praise of the emperor as a rhetorical exercise); and the many polemical and other writings of the Christians of that time. Material remains of buildings constructed during Constantine’s reign, coins, and inscriptions are not neglected.
The rest of the book is basically chronological in structure, starting from a brief overview of the situation of the Roman Empire leading up to Diocletian’s establishment of the tetrarchy. A brief epilogue continues the story from Constantine’s death into the succeeding reigns of members of his family. A final, very brief, chapter looks at Constantine’s legacy.
The narrative portions of what happened when were well done. The discussion of Constantine’s conversion and the heavenly sign before the battle of the Milvian Bridge was interesting, and the theological controversies with the Donatists in North Africa and with the Arians in the East were made comprehensible enough to follow what was going on.
It must be said, though, that Odahl is very pro-Constantine. This is not a nuanced portrait of the Great Man. Nothing is allowed to reflect badly on him. Even the Phaedra-like events leading to the deaths of his son, Crispus, and his wife, Fausta, are passed over as rapidly as possible, and afterwards only referred to as the ‘dynastic tragedy’. Sort of thing that could happen to anyone really, poor Constantine, not his fault.
It is possible that this is part of Odahl’s stated aim of avoiding arcane scholarly squabbles (not necessarily a bad thing – the theological squabbles which have to be covered are quite arcane enough to be going on with), but it left me feeling dissatisfied. In the end, the book was too detailed to be an introduction but the portrait of Constantine was too simplistic for anything else. I know Constantine is considered to be a saint in the Eastern Orthodox churches, but I wasn’t really looking for hagiography.