Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Review of Constantine and the Christian Empire by Charles M. Odahl

I have now read, in whole or in part, about a dozen biographies of Constantine the Great, from the original Vita by Eusebius Pamphilus written over 1,600 years ago, to several penned by excellent modern scholars. Hands down, however, Constantine and the Christian Empire by Charles M. Odahl is the best of them all. Comprehensive but never dry, dense with facts and references but also with relevant illustrations, this book draws the clearest and most compelling portrait of Constantine of any that I have read.

When researching an historical figure whose role remains the subject of intense debate to this day, it can be difficult to sift through the historical bias to find the real man. In the case of Constantine, we have a great majority of ancient sources which laud the man, and an even larger majority of modern commentators who vilify him. Odahl, however, avoids both of these extremes. Though obviously an admirer of Constantine, Odahl presents a balanced portrait which neither excuses the emperor's faults nor ascribes evil motives to even his overtly pious acts.

Specifically, I was impressed that Odahl:
  • Presented Constantine as a human being--not as a saint or, conversely, as a soulless politician.
  • Took the account of the vision of the Cross in the sky seriously, without ascribing it to some bizarre natural phenomenon or claiming that Constantine simply made it up.
  • Didn't make Constantine out to be a false Christian who only embraced the faith based on some political calculation.
  • Gives a very detailed and compelling account of the great tragedy of Constantine's reign--the execution of his son Crispus and his wife Fausta.
  • Dismisses neither the effusive biography of Constantine written by Eusebius of Caesarea nor the vicious attacks of the pagan historian Zosimus, but incorporates both into his narrative.
  • Has such an impressive grasp of the numismatic evidence -- including some illustrations of Constantinian coinage that I had never seen before.
So in short, if you are looking for a readable, accurate, fair, and intriguing biography of Constantine, this is the one. It may be just a tad heavy for a general reader, but for someone with even a passing interest, it will be an enjoyable read. If you're anything like me and like to go to the original sources after reading a book like this, I heartily recommend The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine by Eusebius Pamphilus, bishop of Caesarea.