Eusebius: Circumspect Historian of Constantine?

Explanations of Byzantine political theory usually take Eusebius of Caesarea as one of the key starting points. After all, Eusebius did indeed praise Constantine in both his works of history and especially in his actual panegyrics to the emperor. Read in this fashion, Eusebius looks like the archetypal Caeseropapist. I’ve already sketched these ideas and my general doubts about them here. In this entry, I want to highlight a few spots that have caught my attention as I returned to Eusebius’ relevant writings in the last several months.

A technical point: scholars generally think—in my view correctly—that Eusebius was re-editing and recycling older material over the course of his career. Thus, we suspect that there was something like four different “editions” of his famed Ecclesiastical History put out in the first few decades of the 300s. In theory, then, this would help see Eusebius’ thinking develop in real time (e.g., what did he think of Constantine). The catch is that the manuscript evidence isn’t so compete that we can lay out side-by-side to say definitively, “Ah, here’s where he was in 312, and we can see he moved over this way by 324.” This is an important issue worth researching more closely for this subject, and it’s absolutely necessary to make any thorough revisionist account of Eusebius in any case. For now, I’m leaving it to the side because 1) it’s time-consuming, 2) I suspect closer research will not reveal clear, forthcoming proof anyway, and 3) my larger point makes the editing question more of a sidebar. That is, even if he did edit his political writing over time in a more “Eusebian” direction, I’m not totally persuaded those changes were candid. And if a historian wanted to write about a reigning emperor critically in this era without jeopardizing their careers, they did so carefully and “between the lines”: enough that the careful reader will discern, but not so plain as to rile the court.

So with that out of the way, are there any passages like this?

In Ecclesiastical History 8.13.11, in the middle of narrating the Great Persecution, Eusebius mentions Diocletian’s surprise retirement, which realized the succession plan of the Tetrarchy and now truly divided up the empire. Eusebius is blunt. To him, such a move was unprecedented in political history, and it only happened because Diocletian was sick in the head: it was literally insane. In a longer version of the same episode, told in his Martyrs of Palestine 3.5–6, Eusebius (himself no fan of the persecutory Diocletian) comments that Diocletian’s decision threw all political affairs into chaos and sowed the seeds of more civil war. Matters, he claims, did not settle down again until the Romans stopped the persecution.

A few books later in the larger history (Eccl. Hist. 10.9.6), Eusebius expresses delight that Constantine and his eldest son Crispus successfully re-united the entire Roman empire in 324. Here, reunification is framed as providence but also sound politics for the empire’s welfare, finally cleaning up the mess Diocletian had caused years prior. So far, so good.

Fast forward decades later in Eusebius’ writing career. Constantine has just died in 337, and Eusebius is now composing his panegyrical biography of the deceased basileus. In Life of Constantine 1.21, Eusebius approvingly records how Constantine had once received his status as emperor from his dying father Constantius I. Eusebius goes out of his way to mention that while Constantius did have other children, but that Constantine’s succession was meet and proper since he was the eldest: “an inheritance according to the law of nature to the foremost [in age] of his children.”[1] Again, this basically jives with the underlying commentary Eusebius had given in his earlier works about dividing up succession and the empire: don’t mess with multiple successors who will go on to fight each other and ruin the empire. Just keep it simple and pick one future monarch, preferably an eldest son.

But later in the Life of Constantine 4.51, Eusebius has to corral the elephant—or the rather the three elephants—in the room. For Constantine himself had divided the empire between his three sons: Constans, Constantine II, and Constantius II (with the last of these specifically inheriting the East, where Eusebius himself lived).

Eusebius’ description here is interesting:

As he was then ruling both ends of the whole oikoumene, he was dividing up the entire empire of his reign to his three children, like some sort of paternal property for the most beloved of his inheritors: the grandfather’s (Constantius I’s) selection then to the oldest, the empire of the East to the second, and what was left over in between these to the third.

The little reminder about Constantius I is intriguing, because it potentially reminds the reader what he had done in bequeathing his own rule to one single son according to natural law: Constantine himself. And the language of “some sort of paternal property” is oblique, but based on what Eusebius had said earlier in this same work about Constantius I and in his former histories about Diocletian’s fever-brained succession plan, I’m suspicious this was a way of saying to the reader, “And this was all a terrible idea, as the empire obviously isn’t just some plot of land to be divvied up in a will.”

Considering what he had formerly written about dividing up the empire, Eusebius was only barely concealing what he actually thought of Constantine’s succession plan. Is it also possible that Eusebius was indeed just a shill, such that he changed his opinion to suit whatever made Constantine look good. Personally, I think a shill would have written the Life differently than he did, particularly the passages considered above (though some could stress the question of whether it was incomplete at Eusebius’ death). And there’s no question that Eusebius had a healthy dose of circumspection and skepticism on other important questions.

Why he would have praised a succession plan he didn’t really trust will have to await another time, but I do think it’s quite possible Eusebius saw the writing on the wall with these “pious” sons. According to his continuator, Socrates Scholasticus, right after Eusebius’ death, the sons of Constantine began warring with each other, repeating the pattern of the Tetrarchy from decades earlier.

  1. 1.21.2: τὸν κλῆρον τῆς βασιλείας νόμῳ φύσεως τῷ ⸢τῇ ἡλικίᾳ⸣ προάγοντι τῶν παίδων . . .


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