By David Potter
July is a month of historic anniversaries. The Fourth of July and Bastille Day celebrate moments that have shaped the modern world. No less important is the 25th of July. This Thursday will mark the 1707th anniversary of Constantine’s accession to the throne of part of the Roman Empire (the part that included York in the UK). Within five years he would have taken over a good deal of the rest of the Roman world and converted to Christianity, setting in motion the transformation of the Roman Empire, and subsequently, Western Europe into Christian societies.
Although Constantine took the throne in York, Rome is the city where Constantine rules this summer. This past fall the Superintendenza speciali per bene di Archeologici di Rome began celebrating the 1700th anniversary of Constantine’s occupation of Rome and conversion to Christianity with a spectacular exhibition in the Colosseum: “Constantino 313 d.C”. The exhibition’s location couldn’t be better, nor could its content be more spectacular. Thousands of people who pass through every day can look out at the great arch celebrating Constantine’s victorious entry into the city. The exhibition puts on view an extraordinary range of unique objects enabling us to appreciate the complexity of the world in which Constantine lived, the remarkable nature of his career, and his relationship with the extraordinary woman who was his mother.
Helena is most often remembered today for something she didn’t really do—that is, discover the fragments of the True Cross on a trip to Jerusalem. What she seems really to have done was give her son the strength and confidence to succeed, even after she was dumped so his father could make a more political marriage. That’s a difficult story, so maybe it’s better to remember her with a myth and a visit to the beautiful Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, built where her Roman palace once stood down the street from the massive Church of San Giovanni in Latereno. The same myth appears at the shrine holding her remains in the Church of Santa Maria in Ariceoli. There she resides as a sort of patron saint of the Capitoline and Rome’s eternal empress.
It is appropriate that mother and son greet us as we enter the exhibition. First we see the great colossal bronze portrait of Constantine, brought here from the Capitoline Museum, and then another masterpiece from the same collection, the statue of Helena in the unusually chaste form of the seated goddess Venus. Behind her we meet other actors in this period with busts of other rulers, including a remarkable portrait of Maxentius, who died fighting Constantine in the decisive battle of the Mulvian Bridge. Before he left Rome on the day of the battle he left his imperial regalia in a chest in his palace on the Palatine. These were uncovered a few years ago and are now a stunning part of this exhibition.
It was on the way to Rome that Constantine converted to Christianity. The exhibition, combining treasures of early Christian art with masterpieces of contemporary paganism, helps us understand just how momentous a moment that was. Paganism was anything but a dead letter when Constantine became emperor; he himself was deeply attached to the Invincible Sun, originally a Middle Eastern version of the Classical Sun God believed to have brought victory to an emperor’s armies in a civil war that raged a few years before Constantine’s birth in AD 282. This God was important, but he was scarcely the only eastern God to be garnering attention. In the exhibition we see images of the god Mithras creating the universe by slaughtering the primordial bull, of Serapis (a savior god from Egypt), of Isis (likewise Egyptian and likewise bringing fresh hope to mortals), and of Jupiter Dolichenus (a Syrian God standing on the back of a bull). But then there are the traditional gods of the state, such as Hercules. We can see amulets that people wore to protect themselves from evil spirits and even the occasional evil spirit. At the same time, in the early Christian art so well displayed here, we can see how traditional pagan motifs were given new Christian meaning, just as Constantine was coming to realize that the sun was a symbol of resurrection and the Sun God of his father might really be the God of the Christians. It was Constantine who declared Sunday, or as he put it, the Sacred Day of the Sun, a holiday.
The exhibition also shows us Constantine in the context of other emperors. He was never supposed to have been emperor. His selection was the result of the angry reaction of a group of army officers to the prospect of a new emperor being sent from the Balkans to rule over them. We’re reminded here that Constantine was a political revolutionary before he was a religious revolutionary. He succeeded because he understood that revolutionary leaders must speak the language of their people, hear their concerns, and share their values. If we were to move from the Colosseum along the edge of the Forum, we’ll see memorials to a couple other Roman revolutionaries—the ones we remember every year through the months of July and August. July, of course, recalls Julius Caesar, and August his successor, the emperor Augustus. Without them, there wouldn’t have been a Roman Empire for Constantine to rule.
David Potter is the author of Constantine the Emperor and is Francis W. Kelsey Collegiate Professor of Greek and Roman History and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Greek and Latin at the University of Michigan. His books include The Victor’s Crown (OUP), Emperors of Rome, and Ancient Rome: A New History. Read his previous articles for the OUPblog.
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Image credit: Constantine and Helena. Mosaic in Hosios Loukas. 11th century. Photo by anominus. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.