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Andrew J. Pottenger, "Developing Imperial Doctrines of Power in the Rhetoric of Constantine the Great on Internal Ecclesiastical Conflicts," Ph.D. Thesis, University of Manchester, 2018.
Memorialized as the first Christian emperor, Constantine I (r. 306-337) stands as one of the most paradoxical, enigmatic, complicated, and ambiguous figures in the later Roman Empire. The ambiguities and contradictions of Constantine’s imperial reign are many.His coin imagery, public inscriptions, and legislation allow multiple interpretations, rendering it difficult to ascertain what he truly believed at any given point in his reign after the pivotal year of 312. He ordered his oldest son’s execution for unknown reasons and may have been responsible for the death of his wife. He released both Christian and Jewish clerics from compulsory public services.But he threatened to burn alive any Jews found guilty of stoning Jewish converts to Christianity, forbade conversion to Judaism, and wrote viciously against Christians who continued timing their celebration of Easter according to the Jewish Passover.Constantine summoned and participated in the Council of Nicaea to resolve a serious theological dispute among Christians, lending his authority to its decision by punishing Arius with exile. However, he chose the bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia—one of Arius’ most powerful supporters—to conduct his baptismal ceremony shortly before his death on 22 May 337.
My dissertation examines Constantine’s involvement in controversies within Christianity itself, focusing on the years from the traditional date of his conversion in October 312 until the death of Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, in April 328. During these years, Constantine publicly professed to be a Christian and became increasingly aware of conflicts dividing the churches over matters of both organization and belief. By exploring imperial motivations and perspectives, I investigate how and why Constantine applied his power to the problems of internal divisions among churches. What might Constantine have assumed about his imperial responsibility and authority to resolve ecclesiastical conflicts? How would the emperor’s understanding of his role as well as his view of such controversies affect his actual use of power in regard to these issues?
To answer these questions, I examined five collections of surviving imperial correspondence associated with Constantinian authorship which deal with ecclesiastical divisions, analyzing them for thematic consistencies in their rhetoric, taking account of the emperor’s figurative as well as explicit language. Based on the results of my investigation, I argue that three prominent themes found in Constantine’s rhetoric indicate his assumptions regarding imperial power to resolve the ecclesiastical problems of schism and heresy. These assumptions operated as ‘doctrines of power’ that guided Constantine’s use of his authority in these matters. First, he believed that divine favor legitimized his reign. Second, he thought adhering to the principle of ecclesiastical unity helped him maintain heavenly beneficence. Third, he assumed imperial compromise was the proper response to ecclesiastical intransigence. These doctrines of power, developed under Constantine in response to church conflicts, were not systematically produced ideological constructs set forth in advance. Rather, they were operating assumptions which shaped rhetorical habits as the emperor responded to ecclesiastical divisions on an ad hoc basis.
In Chapter One, I introduce five collections of imperial documents to address questions of Constantinian authorship, reliability, provenance, and chronology. Four of these collections are in works by Eusebius of Caesarea, Optatus of Milevis, and Athanasius of Alexandria. Eusebius (d. 339) is often called Christianity first church historian, and he was also a biblical commentator and theologian. He included several letters of Constantine in both his Ecclesiastical History and the Life of Constantine. Optatus was a North African bishop of the later fourth century to whose polemical treatise, Against the Donatists, is attached a dossier of ten documents. Six of these are letters of Constantine. Athanasius succeeded Alexander as bishop of Alexandria in June 328, and immediately engaged with opponents who rejected him for both political and theological reasons. Many of his surviving writings, such as his Apology Against the Arians, seek to exonerate himself in the face of attempts to unseat him as bishop and experiences of exile. Most of Athanasius’ career took place after Constantine’s death, but he included several letters of Constantine in the second part of this Apology. A fifth group of imperial letters survived among various ancient documents originally compiled by Hans-Georg Optiz and published in 1934. This compilation of extant manuscripts in Greek, Latin, and Syriac provides a convenient trove of resources for reconstructing the period.
Chapters Two through Five analyze linguistic consistencies in Constantine’s letters by drawing out discernible themes and identifying the three ‘doctrines of power’. In Chapter Two, I treat the doctrine of divine favor and instrumentality. I build a case for reading Constantine’s assertion of authority over ecclesiastical matters through the lens of traditional claims concerning an emperor’s role maintaining divine favor. Constantine’s methods when working with various bishops showed a concern for preserving his God’s blessing, actively encouraging these leaders to hold to what he perceived to be proper ecclesiastical procedure and beliefs.
In Chapter Three, I outline Constantine’s evolving doctrine of ecclesiastical unity, illuminating his vision for Christian consensus. I contend that two sets of imagery run parallel throughout the emperor’s letters: one of ‘madness and reason’ and another of ‘sickness and healing’. While images of madness and reason generally evoke the theme of schism, Constantine applied metaphors of sickness and healing to theological disputes. Through consistent application of such figurative language, Constantine delineated two types of desirable Christian unity corresponding to different kinds of division.Regarding schism, he sought unity in terms of uniform practice, custom, and ritual consistent with his vision of a rational cosmic order. In the case of theological conflicts, he desired the healing of a common relational bond between Christians that minimized differences in favor of consensus.
Chapters Four and Five deal with the doctrine of ecclesiastical resistance and imperial compromise, exploring how Constantine sought ecclesiastical unity. These chapters maintain that the emperor viewed ecclesiastical divisions as resistance against his authority despite his efforts to see them resolved through such established mechanisms as a synod or church council. Chapter Four focuses on Constantine’s language of ‘obstinacy’ in his letters concerning the Donatist schism.First, I survey how Roman authorities viewed Christian obstinacy. Persecution acted as punishment for resisting imperial authority from the reign of Trajan in the early second century up to Galerius’ proclamation of toleration just before his death in April 311. With this context in mind, the chapter explores Constantine’s use of similar language in his written responses to the Donatist schism. Chapter Five then examines Constantine’s attempts to resolve theological conflict between partisans of Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, and Arius, one of his presbyters. This chapter centers on the emperor’s use of ‘aesthetic arguments’ in his letters to articulate, explain, or justify his commands. Such imperatives were frequently softened by a vocabulary of ‘possibility’. When Constantine first heard about the Donatist schism around 313, he approached that conflict expecting that obedience to his lawful will would overcome divisions. Later, he learned to anticipate resistance and accept the need for compromise.
Chapter Six builds on the foundation of the previous chapters by examining how Constantine applied these doctrines of power during his last decade of rule. Focusing on those of his written decisions that show apparent shifts in his stance on Arius, Eusebius of Nicomedia, and Athanasius, I argue that his seeming capriciousness is an extension of his approach to power and church unity. This final chapter demonstrates from later examples of Constantine’s correspondence that each of the three doctrines continued to guide the emperor as he engaged with ecclesiastical politics following the Council of Nicaea in 325 until his death in 337. The emperor discharged his power by dispensing justice concerning charges by various ecclesiastical factions surrounding Arius, Eusebius of Nicomedia, and Athanasius. To do so, Constantine relied on the authoritative weight of his physical presence (such as summoning disputants to appear in court, or by promising to visit a region in order to reward or punish) and adhered to a loose, judicial interpretation of Nicaea’s theological decision as ecclesiastical law. Constantine died before a resolution could be found to the ecclesiastical conflicts he dealt with during his reign. These doctrines of power did not help him restore unity, but they did serve to aid him as he worked with the bishops toward such a solution.
Exploring these matters from Constantine’s perspective, taking account of a broad range of his words, provides a more detailed view of imperial in relation to the churches beyond an emperor’s traditional pontifex maximus role. This project illuminates Constantine’s exercises of leadership with respect to ecclesiastical structures. The linguistic analysis pursued in this study shows how imperial rhetoric described forms of unacceptable contention while also projecting a vision of ecclesiastical unity. This method reveals previously unnoticed connections between Constantine’s rhetoric and that of his imperial predecessors, thus helping to disentangle his more paradoxical statements where, for instance, he spoke harshly yet counselled patience in the same document.
By way of conclusion, I offer two key re-interpretations of this emperor’s reign that are relevant to studies of the broader ‘Constantinian era’ and the later Roman Empire. First, Constantine is better understood as an emperor who happened to be a Christian rather than the traditional ‘Christian emperor’ designation. He was a Roman emperor of the early fourth century before he was anything else. But this does not make his conversion to Christianity less plausibly genuine nor does it suggest any evaluation of his faith or orthodoxy. Second, he did not establish Christianity as the empire’s official religion nor did converting his subjects to Christianity form the principal motive behind his religious policies. He declared his religious preference, but compelled no one through law or violence to become Christian. Rather than memorializing Constantine as constraining attachment to a particular form of Christianity, a more accurate picture is the pragmatic one. Constantine saw his primary task as maintaining the favor of his chosen God by uniting this divinity’s worshippers, whom he identified as Christians.
 Ambiguity in Constantine’s reign features prominently throughout Jonathan Bardill, Constantine, Divine Emperor of the Christian Golden Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
 Cod. Theod. 16.8.2, 16.8.4; cf. Cod. Theod. 16.2.1, 16.2.2.
 Cod. Theod. 16.8.1, 16.8.5; Euseb., Vit. Const. 3.17-20.
 Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History (2 vols.; Loeb Classical Library; Kirsopp Lake and J.E.L. Oulton, trans.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932) and The Life of Constantine (Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall, trans.; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999).
 Optatus of Milevis, Against the Donatists (Mark Edwards, trans.; Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1997).
 Athanasius of Alexandria, Apology Against the Arians (M. Atkinson and Archibald Robertson, trans.; Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 4: Athanasius, Select Works and Letters; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971).
 See Hans-Georg Opitz, Athanasius Werke 3.1: Urkunden zur Geschichte des Arianischen Streites (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1934).
 Some similarity exists here with the Roman ‘theology of victory’ described in Paul Stephenson, Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor (London: Quercus, 2011), 7-9. However, my study examines the exertion of power into the internal affairs of the churches rather than exploring how Christianity in general might have served the emperor’s purposes for his empire.
 Few historians have attempted to argue for a more precise understanding of what ‘unity’ meant for Constantine. Øyvind Norderval attempted to do so concerning church unity from the perspective of Constantine’s failure to achieve it. See Øyvind Norderval, ‘The Emperor Constantine and Arius: Unity in the Church and Unity in the Empire’, Studia Theologica 42:1 (1988), 113-150. I approach the subject of unity through the lens of what the emperor wanted in the first place rather than account for his inability to accomplish his goal.
 Scholars such as Timothy Barnes, Harold Drake, and Jonathan Bardill describe how Roman authorities viewed Christians as deserving punishment for refusing to sacrifice. See Bardill, Constantine, 76; Timothy Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 20; Harold Drake, Constantine and the Bishops: The Politics of Intolerance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 140-141.
 There are several significant works exploring aspects of speech and imperial power, such as Fergus Millar, The Emperor in the Roman World, 31 B.C.-A.D.337 (London: Duckworth, 1977); Peter Brown, Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity: Towards a Christian Empire (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992); Literacy and Power in the Ancient World (Alan K. Bowman and Greg Woolf, eds.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); and Clifford Ando, Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000). A number of important studies deal with letter writing in Greek and Roman societies, for instance, Stanley K. Stowers, Letter-Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1989); Simon Corcoran, ‘State Correspondence in the Roman Empire: Imperial Communication from Augustus to Justinian’ in State Correspondence in the Ancient World: From New Kingdom Egypt to the Roman Empire (Karen Radner, ed.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); Antonia Sarri, Material Aspects of Letter Writing in the Greco-Roman World, 500 B.C.-300 A.D. (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017). There are, however, no other known analyses of Constantine’s letters, aside from this chapter in my thesis, showing how this emperor attempted to persuade Christians to restore ecclesiastical unity.
 I engage in this chapter with Harold Drake’s emphasis on ecclesiastical politics between the years 325-337 by examining this latter period of Constantine’s reign from a judicial perspective. See Drake, Constantine and the Bishops, 250. See also Harold Drake, ‘Nicaea to Tyre (325-335): The Bumpy Road to a Christian Empire’, L’ Antiquité Tardive 22 (2014), 43-52. I am grateful to Professor Drake for sending me this article.
Andrew J. Pottenger completed his Ph.D. at the University of Manchester in 2018. He has published an article based on parts of a chapter in his thesis in Studies in Church History, Vol. 54: Church and Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2018). He previously served as Teaching Assistant in Church History and Theology at Nazarene Theological College, and is a member of the Ecclesiastical History Society.
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