In the last seven or eight years, as American Christianity has seemed to implode over its proper relation to the political realm, the notion of “Eusebian” politics or political theology has served as an ideal type in the ongoing debates. This shorthand draws on a particular historical interpretation of Eusebius of Caesarea and his depiction of Constantine. Supposedly, Eusebius saw Constantine as God’s righteous agent, whom Christians ought to support and adore. Depending on whom you ask, you may even hear it suggested that Constantine occupied a very special place in Eusebius’ theology, such that God the Father, Christ (the Logos), and Constantine exist along a spectrum of authority and delegation—a view which seems more plausible if you think Eusebius was in the bag for a crass version of Arianism favoring this kind of subordination in the cosmological hierarchy.
Understandably, some will posit “Eusebian” politics as something like the ideological opposite of liberalism: the latter putatively attempts to separate religion and politics while the former welds them as close together as possible. And so on and so forth. For a long time, this picture of Eusebius and his political theology has exerted a powerful pull on Byzantine Studies, which has tended to see Eusebius as the progenitor of Byzantine sacral kingship and Caesaropapism. (Never mind that, on average, sitting emperors had to deal with a usurper once every decade in Byzantium, which doesn’t exactly scream “sacral kingship.”)
It’s no surprise that we’re talking about Eusebius, Constantine, and the Middle Ages in general again. As an ideal type, the “Eusebian” pole is a useful construct. The trouble is, I’ve increasingly come to suspect that it’s just that: a later construct which is fairly divorced from what Eusebius was actually on about in the early fourth century.
In the first place, I’m skeptical that we adequately appreciate the extent to which Constantine’s apparent conversion would have been worldview-shaking for someone like a Eusebius. Just before Constantine really came on the scene, Eusebius and many other Christian leaders had lived through the worst era of Roman persecution Christianity ever experienced, which lasted (depending on how one counts the fitful starts and stops from Diocletian down to Licinius) about twenty years in the Greek part of the empire. Eusebius himself had been imprisoned at one point; he had also watched not a few Christians die torturous and shameful deaths, including his adopted father and teacher, Pamphilus. These experiences would leave a strong impression on anyone, so it should be no surprise to find Eusebius trying to work through the utterly dramatic about-face in the empire, as inaugurated by Constantine. In the moment, it would have been incredibly difficult for Christians like Eusebius not to applaud the reversal and sense something providential at work. Anything we take from him ought always to be read against that background, in my view.
The main positive evidence cited to attribute “Eusebian” politics to Eusebius is all of the panegyrical material he wrote (or in some cases, delivered orally) in praise of Constantine. Surely, this shows Eusebius to be an ardent supporter of the new Christian regime, yes? Well, no, actually. As a sub-genre of historiography and epideictic oratory, panegyric definitionally could not do anything but deliver effusive encomia. Anything less would have been bizarre and potentially dangerous.
Today, we don’t quite have a comparable genre; you might try to imagine a commencement speaker who went about insulting the hosting institution and its graduating seniors for most of the address. Or suppose you were to read a letter of recommendation that began, “Other than all the day drinking, I fully recommend this person.” The whole exercise would suddenly seem outlandish and (frankly) insulting to everyone. It turns out that these rules applied very much to ancient historiography. Those who wished to criticize a sitting emperor typically either said little or else deliberately warned their readership, “I’m about to launch into panegyric,” which was an obvious way of warning that what followed had to be read accordingly. So even in writing history, one usually did not say anything bad or bland about a sitting emperor, unless one was prepared for one’s career to end, or worse. In other words, I think Eusebius would be surprised to learn that generations of readers took panegyrical material as his full, literal assessment of the current affairs.
Of course, one might suppose that Eusebius could have simply refused to say anything and avoided the political games altogether; that he did offer commentary strongly indicates he was sincere about his support for the regime. This is a good counterargument, one which I suspect does have some underlying historical reality to it. On the other hand, Eusebius occupied one of the most prominent bishoprics in the empire at the time, and he had also become one of Christianity’s most prominent intellectuals. Once Constantine inserted himself into ecclesiastical affairs (e.g., Nicaea in 325), it would not have been easy for someone like Eusebius to simply opt out—particularly once the emperor began banishing those who didn’t sign onto his project of ecclesiastical unity.
Thus, the overall portrait leaves serious doubts in my mind about how much Eusebius himself ascribed to “Eusebian” political theology as we normally think of it. Too many supposedly secure points about the man, his beliefs, and his legacy have already been persuasively challenged or substantially modified: his Christology, his biblical canon, his view of eschatology, and his influence on later Roman ideology. More work needs to be done specifically on the matter of his panegyric. It may turn out that this particular facet also deserves some revision.
- Anthony Kaldellis, “How Perilous Was It to Write Political History in Late Antiquity?,” Studies in Late Antiquity 1, no. 1 (February 1, 2017): 38–64. ↑
- Devin Singh, “Eusebius as Political Theologian: The Legend Continues,” The Harvard Theological Review 108, no. 1 (2015): 129–54. See also the work of Christopher Beeley in The Unity of Christ: Continuity and Conflict in Patristic Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012). ↑
- Andrew R. Koperski, “Eusebius, Revelation, and Its Place in the New Testament Canon,” Journal of Early Christian History 11, no. 3 (December 2021): 79–94. ↑
- Frank S. Thielman, “Another Look at the Eschatology of Eusebius of Caesarea,” Vigiliae Christianae 41, no. 3 (1987): 226–37. ↑
- Anthony Kaldellis, The Byzantine Republic: People and Power in New Rome (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 1, 55, 167–8, 171–2, 176–7, 190. ↑