Hans A. Pohlsander’s The Emperor Constantine is a miracle of concision. In under 100 pages he summarizes the life of his subject, assesses his reign, and provides some pithy summaries of his legacy, real and in legends.

He also withholds the title “the Great.” Pohlsander doesn’t deny “his excellent as a general and his historical importance” (84). He views him as a committed, if rather shallow, Christian. But he was too hasty, fickle, and tempestuous to be considered a “great” ruler. (By this standard, I wonder how many “the Greats” deserve the title.)

His most damning charge is that Constantine was responsible for the debacle that followed his reign: “He had spent the most productive years of his life striving for sole power and ultimately achieving it. Augustus, Vespasian, Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus Pius could have taught him how to pass it on to a successor. Diocletian’s noble, if less successful, efforts in this area should have taught him additional lessons. And it cannot be said that fate granted him insufficient time. Ultimately the blame for the bloody coup of 337 falls squarely on the shoulders of the man who was in the best position to forestall it, Constantine himself” (85).

Pohlsander is right on the succession, and this is a blow to the rosy view of Eusebius, who celebrates Constantine not only for the success God granted him in life but for the peaceful death and succession with which it ended.

More on: History

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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