The army and politics -- fourth century style

Çemberlitaş, a Roman column that gave its name to a district in İstanbul, is one of the visible signs of the time when the city was the capital of the Roman world.

October 30, 2011, Sunday/ 18:49:00

Visitors to Turkey can be thrilled and awed when they see the amazing Roman-era ruins in places such as Pergamum, Ephesus, and Assos. Tarsus has its gate, dating from the time of Anthony and Cleopatra. The Septimus Severus Bridge still stands proud over the Çendere Çayı near Adıyaman. The mosaic museum at Antakya is one of the most impressive in the Mediterranean, but now even it is threatened with being overshadowed by a brand new state-of-the-art museum in Gaziantep which has been built to house the beautiful finds from Zeugma.

In İstanbul the visible signs of the time when this great city was the capital of the Roman world include the impressive city walls, and the mighty Aya Sofya Museum (formerly a mosque, built as a church) whose soaring dome never ceases to amaze tourists. Aya İrini, within the walls of Topkapı Palace, is a favorite venue for concerts. The old Roman Hippodrome is now a public park, but the road and path layout has kept to the original circuit; tour groups standing by the serpent columns have this ring pointed out to them by their guides.  Çemberlitaş has given its name to a tramway stop, but all that is left of this Roman triumphal column are blocks of marble, bound together by iron rings after earthquake damage in the Middle Ages (hence its Turkish name: “stone with rings”). But this column was built to support a massive statue of the Emperor Constantine, for whom the city of Constantinople was named.

Travelling north from Kadıköy on the Asian side of the city, there would seem to be very little to show that the Romans were ever here. But Üsküdar, once known as Chrysopolis -- an inspirational name meaning “the City of Gold” -- was the site of a major battle in which Constantine defeated his last remaining rival for the throne and became the sole Emperor, uniting the whole Roman Empire. A new biography of this Roman warrior-emperor has been published by Paul Stephenson. Constantine’s first biographer was Eusebius, who wrote in the 4th century AD, and who deliberately made his a Christian biography, emphasizing the religious aspects of Constantine’s story.

What can be added to the story of the life of a man who has been the subject of biographers for some 17 centuries? Stephenson sets out to write a biography that, although based on detailed scholarly research, is readable. He confines academic references to a 30-page “Primary Sources” and “Biographical Essays” section at the end of the book. So the text flows well, without numerous interruptions for footnotes.

Stephenson does eventually get around to telling the exciting story of the Roman emperor, who in July 306 in York became one of the four Roman emperors, called tetrarchs, who each ruled a part of the divided Roman Empire. Intent on unifying this fragmented empire Constantine marched on Rome. At the Battle at Milvian Bridge in October 312 he dispatched one of his brother tetrarchs, leaving him the sole ruler in the West. At Chrysopolis he defeated the eastern side and so left no other ruler standing. Following his rise to sole power, he founded a new capital on the Bosporus, and this part of the Roman Empire began to see its glory days.

But before he reaches this story, Stephenson sets the scene with a detailed analysis of the Roman world at the time of Constantine. His premise is that Constantine’s success “was founded on a Roman understanding of the interactions between faith and power. In order to understand the profound changes this brought for the later Roman world … we must first understand a little more about both.”

So, the first third of the book is devoted, not to any part of the story of Constantine, but to an exploration of three main areas. Stephenson first of all helps us to understand the position of the Christian faith in the Roman Empire before Constantine. As the Christians did not participate in state religion and veneration of the emperor, seeing it as idolatrous and contravening the worship of the one God, they were viewed as significant betrayers of the interests of the state, and often punished as useful scapegoats when things went wrong for the state.

Stephenson devotes many words to developing an understanding of the Roman army. Constantine understood only too well, as an army man himself, that the “army could destroy the Emperor, so to retain power the Emperor had to retain control of the army.” The theology of the Roman army, Stephenson reveals, was one of trusting in whichever god gave them victory at a particular time.

Finally reaching the story of Constantine (assuming that the reader has stuck with it so far: many may have given up waiting for action rather than political analysis) Stephenson claims that the secret of his success and what gave him the ability to rise to sole power was that he understood how to fuse the vigor of faith with the power of the army. He depicted himself in coins, titles and statuary as “Constantine the Unconquered and Unconquerable Victor.”

Aged 30, as an experienced campaigner, he played a waiting game, securing his control of the western provinces. Following the victory at Milvian Bridge he exalted and praised his army with phrases such as “Valor of the Army” and “Glory of the Gallic Army” when he processed triumphantly into Rome. Constantine at this time gave credit for his victory to the sun god.

This is a political biography. Stephenson’s main thrust is that following victory at Chrysopolis, Constantine reinvented his previous history. By this time, Constantine had become a Christian, and Stephenson believes that this was a gradual process. But in order to give the army a victorious God, he believes Constantine creates a revision of history, to give the soldiers the assurance that their victorious leader was specially chosen for this role by his victorious God. Constantine recounted some years later that in a vision he had before the battle of Milvian Bridge, he supposedly saw the Greek letters Chi (for Christ) and Rho (for Rex, king) and heard a voice say to him “by this sign: conquer.”

As evidence, Stephenson traces how Constantine replaces his devotion to the sun god with devotion to Christ. He also looks at how the city built to commemorate Constantine’s victories, Constantinople, was not an exclusively Christian city because of the many polytheistic statues Constantine had erected. As for Constantinople itself, the site of the city was chosen to symbolize that a united empire had a city straddling Europe and Asia. It was equidistant from the Rhine and the Euphrates. The Çemberlitaş was planted in the exact center of the city, which was planned as a Nikopolis -- a victory city.

Rulers in the city straddling the Bosporus who have reigned since Constantine have equally found that an army can destroy an emperor. The cult of Mithras in the Roman army, described by Stephenson, has many parallels with the ocak of the janissaries. Many an Ottoman Sultan was forced either to exert his rule over the janissaries or be overthrown by them.

Modern Turkish history is not devoid of a power struggle between the army and politicians. Maybe the issues that Constantine grappled with, and some of his tactics for ensuring equilibrium, are not such ancient history after all.

“Constantine,” by Paul Stephenson, published by Quercus (2011) 9,99 pounds in paperback ISBN: 978-085738166-8


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