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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol I:
The Life of Constantine with Orations of Constantine and Eusebius.: Section 7

Early Church Fathers  Index     

§7. General Characterization.

Before trying to gather into continuous statement the traits of character which have been examined, a few general characterizations must be mentioned at least. Beginning at the bottom, the unfriendly, or hostile, or at the least unsympathetic, heathen testimonies generalize him as at least relatively and on the whole both great and good. The general tendency of heathen testimony is to represent him as admirable in the early part of his reign, but execrable, or less admirable, in the latter part; that of Christian writers is to represent a growth of excellence, which raises him to saintship at the end. This is most natural. Favoring Christianity was itself a moral fall to a heathen, and bestowing money on Christians would be robbery. The turning of his character was with his changing face towards Christianity, and culminated in the overthrow of Licinius. Licinius fought really as the champion of heathenism. The adherents of a lost cause are characterizing their victor. It is like an ex-Confederate characterizing Lincoln or Grant. The point of view is different. Honest and true men in the South thought Lincoln a curse, and often in popular verdict his character was “black.” The popular proverb quoted by Victor (Epit. p. 51), “Bull-necked for ten years, for twelve a freebooter, and for ten a spendthrift (immature child),” has just the value of a Southern popular opinion of Lincoln, or a rural Northerner’s of “Jeff Davis.” Indeed, the first might summarize at times the Southern popular verdict of Grant; the second, a frequently expressed estimate of Lincoln’s conduct in the emancipation of slaves; and the third, their view of the enormous expenditure for pensions of Union soldiers, even as it was fifteen years ago. But even the rather severe Victor, who reports this proverb, finds Constantine “most excellent (commodissimus) in many respects,”—in respect of certain laws, in his patronage of the arts, especially that of letters, as scholar, as author, in the hearing of delegations and complaints (p. 51). Again, “Praxagoras, though a heathen, says that in all sorts of virtue and personal excellence and good fortune, Constantine outshone all the emperors who preceded him” (Photius, Cod. 62, ed. Müller, p. 1). And finally, the heathen Eutropius, who characterizes from his standpoint so admirably, 3046 though he naturally finds that “in the beginning of his reign he might have been compared to the best princes; in the latter part, only to those of middling character,” nevertheless records “that innumerable good qualities of mind and body were present in him,” and that he was “deservedly enrolled among the gods,”—using the meruit which he uses also of Aurelian, but not generally, and not even of Constantius. On purely heathen testimony, therefore, Constantine, taken by and large, was comparatively remarkable and admirable. A moderate Christian characterization is that of Theophanes (p. 29): “Pre-eminent for masculine strength of character, penetration of mind, well-disciplined power of thought; for unbending righteousness, ready benevolence, thorough majestic beauty of countenance, mighty and successful in war, great in wars with the barbarians, invincible in domestic wars, and so firm and unshaken in faith that through prayer he obtained the victory in all his battles.” p. 435 Remembering, therefore, that in order to understand a character in past centuries one must project himself into his time; remembering again the circumstances of his time and its practice, we shall, without forgetting any of the acts on which he has been judged, find him on indisputable testimony superior to most of the other emperors in character, and as much above the circumstances of his times as would characterize a man of to-day as of peculiarly high moral character. In view of this, it is uncritical, and a violence to historical evidence, to approach one whom, at death, the heathen thought worthy to be enrolled among the gods, and the Christians canonized as saint (in the Greek calendar), as other than one who, taken all in all, was of unusual excellence of character. As in any synthesis, any organization, subordinate facts must be viewed in their relation to their center and whole, as by any law of criminal procedure acts must be judged in the light of general character, so any rational, legal, scientific, historical estimate of Constantine must be in view of this fact.



Constantine, being a man of great energy, bent upon effecting whatever he had settled in his mind.…But the pride of prosperity caused Constantine greatly to depart from his former agreeable mildness of temper. Falling first upon his own relatives, he put to death his son, an excellent man; his sister’s son, a youth of amiable disposition; soon afterwards his wife; and subsequently many of his friends.”

“He was a man who, in the beginning of his reign, might have been compared to the best princes; in the latter part of it, only to those of middling character. Innumerable good qualities of mind and body were apparent in him; he was exceedingly ambitious of military glory, and had great success in his wars; a success, however, not more than proportioned to his exertions. After he had terminated the Civil War, he also overthrew the Goths on various occasions, granting them at last peace, and leaving on the minds of the barbarians a strong remembrance of his kindness. He was attached to the arts of peace and to liberal studies, and was ambitious of honorable popularity, which he, indeed, sought by every kind of liberality and obligingness. Though he was slow, from suspicion, to serve some of his friends, yet he was exceedingly generous towards others, neglecting no opportunity to add to their riches and honors. He enacted many laws, some good and equitable, but most of them superfluous, and some severe.”

Next: Section 8

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