Constantine and the Cities

Imperial Authority and Civic Politics

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Noel Lenski
Empire and After
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , February
     2016.
     416 pages.
     $79.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780812247770.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Constantine and the Cities is a significant contribution to recent scholarly discussion of Constantine and the Christianization of the Roman Empire. Noel Lenski’s book, as he sets out in his introduction, stands out from recent Constantinian scholarship in light of his hesitance in creating a singular portrayal of the famous emperor. From the outset, Lenski is cautious not to construct a “coherent and unified” Constantine, but rather to allow for a multifaceted, fluid depiction of Constantine that takes into account the realities of Roman imperial authority and the negotiation of power (6). The utilization of reception theory regarding Constantine’s interaction with cities and individuals has been much-needed, and Lenski excels in this regard. He masterfully balances between the two traditional portrayals of Constantine––either as a relentlessly-evangelizing Christian ruler or as a religiously-exploitative politician. Lenski takes seriously that Constantine’s persona is neither a total self-production nor a later embellishment of his imperial image, but a mixture of the two.

Constantine and the Cities is divided into four sections that elucidate how Constantine negotiated power. In the first section (chapters 1-3), Lenski examines modes of communication between the emperor and his subjects, particularly through coins, inscriptions, and portraits. The second section (chapters 4-7) analyzes the various ways in which imperial subjects used petitions in order to receive elevated titles and imperial privileges—such as civic autonomy. In Lenski’s analysis, he shows how Constantine was in dialogue with such cities and often expressed favoritism toward those who conformed––or at least tolerated––his religious program. The third section (chapters 8-10) examines how Constantine encourages the transformation or construction of certain cities into sites of Christian worship. In particular, Lenski reveals Constantine’s manipulation of the traditional imperial financial system in order to starve out certain pagan sites of worship, as well as how he redirected funds into church construction projects. The shift of finances and physical buildings elevated the civic authority of bishops, whom Lenski regards as newly-empowered power brokers under Constantine. The fourth and final section (chapters 11-14) deals with Mediterranean cities that did not openly fit into Constantine’s religious agenda, such as Athens, Antioch, and Alexandria. In these chapters, Lenski explores how these pagan and “mixed” urban centers interpreted Constantine’s actions and edicts within their own civic agendas, as well as how the emperor reacted to opposition from both pagan and “heretical” opponents. Lenski makes clear that Constantine had to balance carefully his Christianizing religio-political agenda and the desires of pagan-inclined cities.

Overall, Constantine and the Cities stands out among recent scholarship in both the classics and religious studies due to Lenski’s ability to utilize a wide variety of sources: coins, letters, petitions, architectural layouts, and statues. Such comprehensive use of fourth-century material remains contributes significantly to the reader’s understanding of Constantine’s self-portrayal and civic portrayal beyond the typical written sources. Lenski tactfully treats Constantine as more than a simple historical figure that can be analyzed and neatly categorized as Christian or pagan, naïve or manipulative. Instead, Constantine and the Cities presents the multitudinous ways by which Constantine and his subjects created—and recreated—his imperial persona through late ancient media.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Chance Everett Bonar recently received his Master of Arts in religion with a concentration in the Bible at Yale University and will be pursuing his Ph.D. at Harvard University.

Date of Review: 
June 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Noel Lenski is Professor of Classics and History at Yale University. He is author ofFailure of Empire: Valens and the Roman State in the Fourth Century A.D. and coauthor of The Romans: From Village to Empire and A Brief History of the Romans.

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