CJ Online Review ~

posted with permission:

Raymond Van Dam, Remembering Constantine at the Milvian Bridge. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xiii + 296. $90.00/£55.00. ISBN 978-1-107-09643-1.

Reviewed by Brian Croke, Macquarie University/University of Sydney

At the Milvian bridge outside the walls of Rome on 28 October 312 Constantine and Maxentius, brothers-in-law and both sons of former emperors, fought to the death with the victorious Constantine becoming master of Rome and sole emperor in the west. Few battles have been so profound in their impact. Few battles have also been so contested in their interpretation. Controversy has always turned on Constantine’s claim, recorded by bishop Eusebius of Caesarea in his Life of Constantine (dated to 337), to have been inspired by the vision of a cross in the sunny sky before the battle and a dream in which he was instructed to place a Christian emblem on his military standards. What might he have seen and dreamed in October 312, if anything? How did it come to be so charged with exclusively Christian meaning? How do we know? Varying answers to these simple questions remain at the heart of most modern understandings of Constantine’s purpose as well as the character of the man and his reign, epitomized in the battle’s association with the “conversion of Constantine.” Van Dam was obliged to confront all this in a previous study of Constantine (The Roman Revolution of Constantine, 2007) but now he has produced a concentrated treatment of the potential meaning of that single decisive battle. What he provides is a systematic historiographical critique of one particular episode recounted both by and for Constantine at different points over his lifetime (at least from 313 to 336) and occasionally memorialized in stone and marble. The author’s technique necessarily requires philological and iconographical analysis to which he self-consciously adds more modern interpretative approaches involving “community memories,” oral traditions and narratology (p. 11). What results is a complex and subtle argument which at different points is both modern and postmodern, disciplined and undisciplined, decisive and speculative, compelling and tenuous. This is no book for Constantinian tyros.

The first three chapters introduce the story and its methodology (Chapter 1), trace the portrayal of the battle in medieval and Byzantine texts and visual arts (Chapter 2) and show how the fifth and sixth century church historians and their counterpoints, Eunapius and Zosimus, evaluated Constantine and the battle (Chapter 3). Chapter 7, the longest, highlights Constantine’s preoccupations in the years after the battle (not religious affairs and inclinations but classical culture, the traditions of Rome and the role of his army), followed by chapters on how to retell the story of the battle detached from its later religious significance (Chapter 8), especially by focusing on the contrasting imperial approach of Maxentius (Chapter 9) and concluding with the significance of bridges in Roman tradition (Chapter 10). The core of this book, however, is Chapters 4 to 6 (pp. 56–154) in which Van Dam outlines what Constantine says he saw and dreamed, how the battle subsequently impacted on him, then how it has been misrepresented ever since. Van Dam’s conclusion is that what Eusebius wrote in his “late, faraway, sectarian [and] partisan” (p. 56) Life was what he heard from Constantine in 325 when they first met at Nicaea and again at Constantinople in 336. By 325 the “raconteur” (p. 62) Constantine had slowly shaped his memory of events before and after the battle but was more influenced by the derivative accounts of others such as Lactantius than his own first-hand recollections. While Eusebius had noted the battle in his Church History well before meeting Constantine, he too kept refashioning it to suit his own theological purposes so that the version in Eusebius’ Life of Constantine is merely a theological confection of both participant and author. According to Van Dam, Constantine’s “conversion” needs to be divorced completely from his victory at the Milvian bridge.

Van Dam’s thesis is a novel approach to an old question and deserves serious consideration, but too many doubts remain to proclaim it convincing, especially his quest to defer and downplay the Christianity of Constantine immediately after 312. The extant records are far more ambiguous and open to interpretation than Van Dam allows: within weeks of the battle (313) Constantine was having the church of St John Lateran built at Rome on imperial real estate; within a year or so (313/4) at the imperial court at Trier, where so many of the battle’s participants and observers resided, Constantine’s success was being attributed explicitly to the Christian deity by Lactantius (an intimate of the emperor’s household) and at Caesarea by Eusebius (Church History 9.9, probably relying on the circulation of an official victory bulletin from Rome); at Arles shortly after, and for the first time ever, an emperor convoked a council of bishops (August 314) to resolve a theological dispute which had been referred to him from Africa, not merely to secure Rome’s African food supply as Van Dam asserts (pp.180-81); while at Rome around the same time a colossal statue relocated to the apse of the newly completed Basilica of Maxentius was modified to represent Constantine holding a long shafted object with its “saving sign.”

Van Dam has produced an interesting and provocative book but it is not helped by its cluttered and confusing timeline (pp. xii–xiii), by its total lack of illustrations and by the fact that the quality of the maps does not match the quality of the text. For Constantine the battle of the Milvian bridge clearly provoked a sense of divinely sanctioned destiny which eventually resolved itself in a self-conscious commitment to the Christian deity. More attention should be paid to this transitional conversion process which is now so well argued and illustrated, especially through the numismatic record, in Jonathan Bardill, Constantine: Divine Emperor of the Christian Golden Age (Cambridge, 2011).

Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews

  • 2012.05.42:  P. L. Chambers, The Natural Histories of Pliny the Elder: an Advanced Reader and Grammar Review.
  • 2012.05.41:  Björn C. Ewald, Carlos F. Noreňa, The Emperor and Rome: Space, Representation, and Ritual. Yale Classical Studies 35.
  • 2012.05.40:  Kenneth G. Holum, Hayim Lapin, Shaping the Middle East: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in an Age of Transition, 400-800 C.E. Studies and texts in Jewish history and culture, 20.
  • 2012.05.39:  Geert Roskam, Luc Van der Stockt, Virtues for the People: Aspects of Plutarchan Ethics. Plutarchea hypomnemata.
  • 2012.05.38:  Trevor Bryce, The Routledge Handbook of the Peoples and Places of Ancient Western Asia: the Near East from the Early Bronze Age to the Fall of the Persian Empire (paperback reprint; first published 2009).
  • 2012.05.37:  Niels Gaul, Thomas Magistros und die spätbyzantische Sophistik: Studien zum Humanismus urbaner Eliten der frühen Palaiologenzeit. Mainzer Veröffentlichungen zur Byzantinistik, 10.
  • 2012.05.36:  Josef Lössl, John W. Watt, Interpreting the Bible and Aristotle in Late Antiquity: the Alexandrian Commentary Tradition between Rome and Baghdad.
  • 2012.05.35:  Kyle Erickson, Gillian Ramsey, Seleucid Dissolution: the Sinking of the Anchor. Philippika, 50.
  • 2012.05.34:  Joachim Szidat, Usurpator tanti nominis: Kaiser und Usurpator in der Spätantike (337-476 n. Chr.). Historia Einzelschriften 210.

Harvard Latin Commencement Oration 2012

Been looking for this one and it suddenly turned up … Michael Velchik delivers (with Classical pronunciation) this year’s Harvard Latin thingie:

(keep your eye out for the guy in the background who doesn’t seem to get/like the humour; keep your ear open for “Linsanitatem” too!). Those of you with senior Latin classes might like to show this one (it has subtitles) as it’s rather really easy to understand.

Some background on the speaker from Harvard News (inter alia):

Latin has long been a part of Michael Velchik’s life. A native of Oakton, Va., he studied the ancient tongue at St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., competing in Junior Classical League competitions throughout his teenage years.

“One thing led to another, and now I’m addressing 6,000 soon-to-be alumni,” Velchik said. “It’s quite a curious quirk, this tradition that Harvard’s preserved, and one I’ve certainly embraced.”

That’s something of an understatement: Velchik’s submission to the orations committee contained footnotes (“entirely excessive and gratuitous, perhaps pompous”) that ran longer than the speech itself. His address is bookended by the inscription on Dexter Gate — “Enter to grow in wisdom/Depart to serve better thy country and thy kind” — and modeled on the rhetoric and style of his favorite authors and orators, including Caesar, Isocrates, and Cicero.

“The speech certainly repays a learned listener,” the Dunster House senior said.

At Harvard, Velchik, 22, has embraced the polymathic scholar-athlete label with tongue firmly in cheek. Though he concentrated in the classics and served as editor of Persephone, the undergraduate-produced classics journal, math and science came more naturally to him than the humanities. “I always hated papers,” he said. He picked up a secondary field in astrophysics, which he chose for its mix of the theoretical and the hands-on.

“As long as you have a telescope and some gung-ho spirit, you can get something accomplished,” he said.

As a freshman, Velchik tried crew on a lark and ended up rowing with the varsity lightweights all four years. “It’s a fun way to incorporate the ‘mens sana in corpore sano’ maxim: ‘a sound mind in a sound body,’” he said.

This summer, he’ll travel to Greece and Italy on an Alex G. Booth ’30 Fund Fellowship, an award for graduating seniors, to further his studies in Greek. For now, he’s not too worried about the long-term future — or the immediate one.

“I’m giving a speech in Latin!” he said, incredulous at the suggestion that he might be nervous. “If I mess up, who would know?” […]

See also:

A Pandect of Gripes: Crucifixions, Earthquakes, Open Access, and Outreach

Okay … this one hit the internets yesterday and I’ve been nursing vipers in my breast ever since. It begins with an item at Discovery Newswhich begins thusly:

The front side (recto) of Papyrus 1, a New Tes...
The front side (recto) of Papyrus 1, a New Testament manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew. Most likely originated in Egypt. Also part of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri (P. oxy. 2) Currently housed in: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jesus, as described in the New Testament, was most likely crucified on Friday April 3, 33 A.D.

The latest investigation, reported in the journal International Geology Review, focused on earthquake activity at the Dead Sea, located 13 miles from Jerusalem. The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 27, mentions that an earthquake coincided with the crucifixion:

“And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open.”

To analyze earthquake activity in the region, geologist Jefferson Williams of Supersonic Geophysical and colleagues Markus Schwab and Achim Brauer of the German Research Center for Geosciences studied three cores from the beach of the Ein Gedi Spa adjacent to the Dead Sea.

Varves, which are annual layers of deposition in the sediments, reveal that at least two major earthquakes affected the core: a widespread earthquake in 31 B.C. and an early first century seismic event that happened sometime between 26 A.D. and 36 A.D. […]

… I won’t bother getting into my abject disappointment that Discovery News could not even think of the obvious major difficulties of assigning an exact date to an otherwise unspecifically-dated ancient earthquake (although we will note that April 3 is one of the calculated dates for the crucifixion which we annually mention in our This Day in Ancient History feature; it is mentioned in Wikipedia as well). I also won’t bother commenting on all the various text-critical difficulties with the claim, which seems more the realm of our Biblioblogger colleagues and has been more-than-adequately dealt with by Mark Goodacre and Tom Verenna.

What actually bothered me the most about this was that it was yet another article with an ancient history sort of bent published in a high end journal outside of our field. They way I figure it, the publisher (Taylor and Francis) must have sent the article out as a way to promote the current issue of the journal — I really have a hard time believing that journalists sit around and suddenly think, “Hmmm … seems to be a slow day … think I’ll wander to the library and see what’s happening in the latest International Geology Review … I can’t wait to see the followup to that middle Cenozoic ignimbrite flareup thing I was reading about a while ago.” So it seems obvious that the publisher sent it out.

As such,  if some roguescholar wants to see if the journalist is passing on sufficient information for the author of the article not to be ridiculed and happens to check it out, he/she will come across a nice abstract:

This article examines a report in the 27th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament that an earthquake was felt in Jerusalem on the day of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. We have tabulated a varved chronology from a core from Ein Gedi on the western shore of the Dead Sea between deformed sediments due to a widespread earthquake in 31 BC and deformed sediments due to an early first-century earthquake. The early first-century seismic event has been tentatively assigned a date of 31 AD with an accuracy of ±5 years. Plausible candidates include the earthquake reported in the Gospel of Matthew, an earthquake that occurred sometime before or after the crucifixion and was in effect ‘borrowed’ by the author of the Gospel of Matthew, and a local earthquake between 26 and 36 AD that was sufficiently energetic to deform the sediments at Ein Gedi but not energetic enough to produce a still extant and extra-biblical historical record. If the last possibility is true, this would mean that the report of an earthquake in the Gospel of Matthew is a type of allegory.

… which seems to suggest that there might indeed be some disconnect between the Discovery News article and the original journal article. Of course, if further perusal is wanted by the likes of myself), he/she will have to shell out $43.00!!!! (I really need to figure out how to put interrobangs in my posts). If not, one would have to hope to have access to an institution which was willing to fork out over two grand for an annual subscription (I don’t think regular folks can even subscribe)! Personally, if I were a scholar and some journal was promoting my article to get attention for their journal, I’d be doing all I could to ensure that the people to whom the article was being promoted — i.e. the general public — could access the article so I didn’t come across looking silly, unless I don’t know any better.

What’s even more annoying is the viral nature of the internet news cycle. The Discovery News coverage has already been picked up/is being rewritten by a number of other outlets (e.g. the Daily Mail and Huffington Post) Whatever the case, all this silliness merely emphasizes/underscores/insert-the-synonym-of-your-choice what I was suggesting earlier this week about the need for organizations like the APA and CAC to  forge direct ties with journalists to promote conferences (Something That’s Been Bugging Me: Outreach II ~ The Conference).  Give the journalist something to write about and they’ll run with it.

Woohoo! More Roman Numerals in the NFL!

This is great! After years and years of listening to NFL commentators whine every year about the difficulties of having to deal with Roman numerals every time some major NFC AFC final comes around, we read today that one of our Latin-loving-recent-draft-picks will be the first to sport Roman numerals on the back of his jersey:

… a bit more detail on why this is a big thing (on the NFL side of things):

Of course, it’s a pretty simple set (Griffin III, just like he had at Baylor). The real triumph, of course, would be if he could have a big X on his jersey, rather than the fabrically-inefficient 10.

On RGIII’s Latin skillset:

Whatever the case, I’ll now happily refer to him as RGIII rather than RG3 and for those sports commentators (and others) who struggle with Roman numerals, there is a Dictionary of Roman Numerals available. Now if I can only figure out what the significance of MCLXIX might be (some English/Irish thing?)