The Constantinian Circle and the Oration to the Saints

The editors have chosen to end this volume with the Oration to the Saints ascribed to Constantine, because the reign of that emperor (306—37 ce) produced a decisive change in the situation of the Christian apologist and the character of his audience, whether real or nominal. It could no longer be pretended that the first aim of the writer was to defend the legal status or the morals of Christians; it was now his expressed intention to convert the pagan world, though it could hardly be supposed that this conversion depended chiefly on his literary success. Constantine declared himself a Christian in 312, denouncing the persecutors and expressing a private wish that Christianity would become the common faith of all his subjects. His successors maintained his policy with more zeal, and by 400 it was pagans who were obliged to be discreet in the exercise of their religion. If we can speak of apologetic writings after Constantine, we can only mean that such writings offer an intellectual defence of Christianity, not that they were written to obtain relief from jeopardy or distress.

With the exception of Lactantius, who was Constantine’s contemporary, apologists had hitherto said little of themselves, and where a personal motive is recorded, as with Arnobius, the propensity to self-effacement seems to be all the greater. In the Oration, however, it is obvious from the outset that the orator is Constantine, that his audience is the clergy, and that his cardinal aim is thus to define his own relation to the Church. Even if the Oration were a forgery, and these properties were therefore purely formal, its uniqueness would commend it to the literary historian, and its contents would shed light on the new conditions under which Christians were addressing both the world and one another in the fourth century. In this essay, however, I shall argue that, of all the apologetic texts discussed in the present volume, this is the one whose audience, date, and venue can be identified with confidence, and that its author is the only one whose life we are not obliged to reconstruct primarily from his written works.

Such conclusions are, of course, of interest to the biographer of Constantine, but not to him alone. If Constantine is the author of the speech, its motives and effects can be divined with greater accuracy than those of a fictitious or pseudonymous composition. We can at least hope to identify the circumstances that prompted its delivery, the personal designs that were advanced by the author’s homage to the religion of his audience, and the works by other hands which might be expected to betray his influence. Moreover, we should be able to guess what literary genres would have served the author as models. If he were Eusebius (for example), he could have turned to the Socratic, or perhaps the Philostratean, apologia; but as he was Constantine, we find instead that there are predictable affinities with the Latin panegyrics which he commissioned to mark and vindicate decisive moments in his rise to power.

The Oration to the Saints is an appendix to Eusebius’ Life of Constantine, and, if it was composed for a particular occasion, it would have lasted about two hours. The orator and audience are identified in the rubric: ‘Constantine Augustus to the Assembly of the Saints’. It is mentioned only once before, in the Life of Constantine (4. 32):

The King used to prepare his compositions in the Roman tongue, and translators who were commissioned for this task turned it into the Greek language. As an example of the translated speeches, I shall append to the present exercise the one which he himself entitled ‘Of the Assembly of the Saints’, having dedicated the work to the church of God, so that no-one may suppose that my testimony about his words is a mere conceit.

For those who are unfamiliar with the speech, I begin with a summary of its contents. Then I shall attempt to determine whether it was composed in Greek or Latin; next, whether its intent was exoteric or esoteric—that is, written to convert the unbelieving, to pacify a dispute among believers, or to illustrate the piety of the author. I shall undertake to show that it was a Latin speech, conceived without any reference to internal controversies, and therefore could indeed be the work of Constantine, provided that he wrote it not long after his conversion, and delivered it in Rome. In support of this conclusion, I shall show that the insecurity of his tenure in the first years of his reign supplies the motive for his writing a speech which at a later time would have been made otiose by his success. Finally, I shall demonstrate that the theological arguments which Constantine borrowed from Lactantius in support of his royal ambitions were adopted after his conquest of the East by Greek apologists, who thus became not only his political beneficiaries, but his literary heirs.

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