7. The Life of Constantine: The Image of an Image

Peter Van Nuffelen
In her 1991 classic, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire, Averil Cameron commented that Eusebius’ Life of Constantine (also referred to as the VC) is “a work over-criticized on historical grounds and understudied as a literary text.” [1] This statement still holds true. To cite but one example, Cameron’s own brief but stimulating discussion of the importance of signs and images in the Life has not been followed up, not even by herself in the 1999 translation and commentary that she co-authored with S.G. Hall. [2] The complaint has been echoed since, [3] but apart from persistent attempts to pin down the genre of what is usually called a “hybrid” text [4] and to define the role played by Moses as a point of comparison for Constantine, [5] little work has been done to remedy this deficiency. The purpose of this chapter is to take a first step into that direction by returning to the issue of the omnipresence of images in the Life. As noticed by Cameron, images are ubiquitous in the Life of Constantine and take many forms, ranging from divine visions shown to Constantine, over ecphraseis of statues, paintings, and coins, to earthly signs of the divine. Many of them can be seen as drawn from the stock imagery of late antique panegyric, or can be related to Christian, indeed ancient, beliefs about the role played by divine signs in human action. Tracing the use of images back to specific sources and traditions does not, however, suffice as an explanation for their striking presence in the Life of Constantine, nor may such an approach do justice to the implicit, yet complex and dense, reflection on the nature of images that is developed by Eusebius.
My aim is in the first place to show how Eusebius uses a variety of images to generate meaning in his text and authority for himself as an author. This literary analysis cannot but lead to questions of a more metaphysical nature, namely to what extent Eusebius was willing to allow that images could provide access to the truth. I hope, thus, to illuminate his general attitude towards images, whilst at the same time contributing to a better understanding of the literary choices made by Eusebius in composing the Life of Constantine. To state it with the title of another of Averil Cameron’s contributions, I hope to show how form and meaning hang together. [6] My main focus will be on the preface to the Life (1.1–11), where Eusebius’ diverse attitude towards images is elaborated, and where the themes are adumbrated that are then pursued in the remainder of the biography.
Before I turn to the preface, I need to address briefly one last issue. One could argue that I lump together many different items and issues under the general denominator of “images.” Whereas ecphraseis clearly belong to literary theory, they are not obviously related to visions of the divine, which are rather the subject of the history of religion. My response to this argument is double. First, all these different items share that they stand in a relationship of similitude to an object: this is evident for ecphraseis, but visions of the divine are only truthful visions on the condition that they bear some resemblance with the powers or representatives of God. Such a relational definition of an image is not a modern one; it was, for example, put forward by Augustine. [7] I therefore use “image” in such a relational sense: X is an image of Y if X imitates, reflects, depicts, etc., Y. Second, as we shall see, for Eusebius all the various forms of images are part of one reflection on their nature and usefulness. Focusing on just one of them would thus not allow us to grasp the full breadth of his thought.

“Logos stands agape”

The Life of Constantine opens with a strong antithesis between speech and sight. The first sentence describes how until recently Constantine was celebrated by panegyrics, including by Eusebius himself. “But now our speech (logos) stands paralyzed.” Then, wishing to say something: “it is at a loss where to turn, stunned by the sheer amazement at a wondrous sight (tōi thaumati tēs xenizousēs opseōs katapeplēgmenos)” (VC 1.1.2). [8] That wonder is the ubiquity of Constantine: he himself is now in heaven, but through his sons he still rules the earth here below. The act of viewing is emphasized throughout the rest of the first chapter and the second one, [9] which declares that: “our speech is completely disconcerted (ho logos hyperekplēttetai)” by seeing Constantine still present after his death. Eusebius then depicts human speech and thought (the Greek term logos covers both meanings) as ascending to heaven and seeing Constantine in all his heavenly glory, united with God. The sight again transcends the capacity of human speech: “thought in its mortality (hoia thnētos logos) stands agape, uttering not a word, but convicted by itself of its impotence” (VC 1.2.3). [10] Human logos can thus perceive the wondrous sight of Constantine in heaven, but not express it: indeed, only the divine logos is explicitly said to be capable of that (VC 1.2.3).
That the Life of Constantine, a written text, not to say a verbose one, opens on a confession of the impotence of speech in the face of a wondrous sight is a carefully constructed paradox. Eusebius’ confessed inability to express the greatness of Constantine in his heavenly glory is obviously also a theologically underpinned illustration of the panegyrical topos of modesty, [11] but, in the light of the recurring presence of the visual in the Life of Constantine, it points to more than that. The first two chapters of the preface throw up a major issue, namely the incapacity of mankind to translate sights, especially of the divine, appropriately into words. This seems, at first consideration, to stand in contrast with the apparent omnipresence of visual images in the Life of Constantine, thus again underlining the paradoxical nature of the preface.
A paradox is only an apparent contradiction. In order to show that the preface does not profess a total rejection of the power of visual images, we must take a closer look at the various roles images play in the preface and confront these with those used later in the Life. In fact, three different but interrelated kinds of images can be detected in the work, and to a greater or lesser degree, also in the preface. As any good preface, that of the Life can thus be said to introduce the themes of the work.

A Cascade of Images

The first use of an image is covert but no less important. As we have seen, the Life opens with an evocation of Constantine’s “absent presence” after his death. The rhetoric of the opening paragraphs, with their emphasis on the wondrous sight of Constantine’s continued heavenly and earthly existence, obscures the fact that the sons of Constantine are, at best, images of their father: Constantine is “paradoxically present with us, even after the end of his life” (paradoxotata, VC 1.2.1). As Constantine’s absent presences, his sons are his image. [12] As has been underlined by B. Bleckmann, Eusebius’ political goal in keeping Constantine alive—albeit it merely rhetorically—may have been to remind the new emperors to pursue the path of their father. [13] Changes of imperial rule could, indeed, lead to a change of policy and so soon after Constantine’s conversion there was no guarantee that the reversal of fortunes that Christianity had experienced could not be turned back. Yet the conceptualization of the relationship between the father and his sons as that of an archetype and its images also has a purpose within the makeup of the Life. Indeed, if one looks closely, image relationships are ubiquitous in the preface.
The opposition between human speech and sight of the divine in VC 1.2 is further developed in 1.3 into a contrast between the eternal rewards of God and the frail and limited images mankind creates in painting or sculpture to commemorate individuals. This contrast, to which we shall return, justifies the superiority of Constantine as an image for all of us: because of his piety, he has become a model for all of us. As Eusebius states it, Constantine gave “a clear example to all mankind of the pious life (enarges . . . paradeigma)” (VC 1.3.4). If the first paragraph suggests a factual relationship of archetype and image between Constantine and his sons, now a normative relationship is suggested between the emperor and us: we should imitate Constantine so as to become his images. An additional justification is given further on in the preface: Constantine was made by God into “the image of his own monarchical rule (tēn eikona dous)” (VC 1.5.1). [14]
The density of such image-relationships in the first five chapters suggests that it is legitimate to connect them all, thus generating a series of images that cascades down from God: Constantine is an image of divine rule, his sons are images of Constantine, and we should try to become images of Constantine. Through Constantine, we are thus connected to God. Unavoidably, in such a presentation, the question arises as to the status of the text that presents us with this series of images. Unsurprisingly in the light of the preceding analysis, Eusebius presents the Life of Constantine also as an image at the very end of the preface: “Even if saying something appropriate about the blessedness of this man is virtually impossible and staying silent safe and without danger, I must set up an image in words (tēn dia logōn eikona) in commemoration of the Godbeloved man, in imitation of human painting, so as to acquit myself of the charge of sluggishness and laziness” (VC 1.10.1). The Life is thus an image in words of Constantine, and the last chain in a series of images that connects God, through Constantine and his biography by Eusebius, to us.
In this cascade, Eusebius has deftly combined two strands of earlier thought. First, it was common, at least since Post-Hellenistic political philosophy, to depict rulers as part of a cascade of images from the highest God down. The idea recurs, to cite but a few examples, in Dio and Plutarch, [15] and hence passed on into Neoplatonic thought. [16] The imitation of the divine as a characteristic of the ruler is a recurring element in other ‘political’ works of Eusebius, in particular the oration in praise of Constantine. [17] In the Life of Constantine, this is combined with a traditional idea from the biographical tradition, namely that the text sets up an image of virtue that the reader should imitate and even interiorize. [18] By combining both elements, Eusebius succeeds in raising the status of the Life of Constantine. The work is not just a biography of any virtuous individual, but it partakes in this cascade that comes down from heaven. As much as Constantine is helping to spread God’s work on earth, the Life of Constantine helps in making it known and, by setting Constantine up as an example to imitate, it furthers God’s rule on earth. A discussion of the second type of reflection on images that the preface introduces will help us to understand further implications of this combination of political and literary strands in the Life.

The Power of Images

The presence of a cascade of images and the suggestion that we should imitate the image that is presented to us may seem to conflict with the confession of speech’s inability to create true images in the first chapters of the preface and thus to exacerbate the paradox with which we started this essay. It may, however, repay to take a closer look at what Eusebius is saying there. As we have seen, human logos can see Constantine in heaven, but not translate that vision into words: only the divine logos can do so (VC 1.2.3). This statement rests on two assumptions that are rendered explicit elsewhere in the preface.
First, images created by humans are always imperfect and cannot be substitutes for reality. If this is true as a general proposition, this deficiency becomes most evident in the case discussed in the preface, namely the sight of the divine, which is perfect and transcends human logos—that is, speech and understanding. By stating that only the divine logos is capable of grasping and expressing divine sights, Eusebius points to a fundamental dividing line. The images humans can make (be they in words or in visual arts) are properly human: they are imperfect and perishable, and thus at best approximations. The point is driven home in chapter 3, where Eusebius contrasts human memorials to the everlasting memorial that is the soul: “For the nature of the mortals, finding a consolation for a mortal and perishable end, supposed to glorify the memories of the ancestors with immortal honors through the dedication of images (eikonōn anathēmasi),” such as encaustic painting, statues, and inscriptions. “But all of this was mortal and destroyed by the passage of time, inasmuch that they were appearances of perishable bodies and not from an impression of the eternal soul” (VC 1.3.2). The Platonic tone of that last expression (athanatou psychēs apotypounta ideas) cannot be ignored, [19] enhancing the emphasis on the true reality that constitutes the divine level of being. Eusebius echoes here a common concern that indeed can be traced back to Plato, namely that an image always represents a loss in reality: it never can be identical to what it depicts. As the preface suggests, this problem is most acutely felt in cases where one tries to translate the divine into an image, be it in art or in words. More radically, the ephemeral quality of every human image must also include the Life of Constantine itself: conceived “in imitation of mortal painting” (VC 1.10.1), it logically will undergo the same fate as painting and perish with the course of time. What reads at first sight as the habitual topos of modesty, namely that Eusebius is unable to say anything worthy of his subject (VC 1.10.1), [20] is thus philosophically underpinned by the fundamental distance that separates image and archetype.
Yet the awareness of the deficiency of images in relation to their archetype does not lead to a wholesale rejection of images, as the omnipresence of images in the preface and the rest of the Life shows. Indeed, the depiction of the ascent of human logos to heaven also illustrates the power of sight in contrast with that of speech. Human logos can perceive Constantine in heaven, but cannot express that vision. Sight therefore is more potent than speech. The power of the visual was recognized in rhetorical theory and most explicitly conceptualized in the mode of enargeia. For its most explicit theorist, Quintilian, enargeia is an enhancement of an essential feature of narrative, perspicuity (perspicuitas): “Instead of being merely transparent [as the latter], [the former] somehow shows itself off.” [21] As such, it increases the quality of the narrative, for “it is a great virtue to express our subject clearly and in such a way that it seems to be actually seen.” [22] The task of the orator is therefore to conjure up in the minds of his audience a truthful image of what has happened. “The result will be enargeia, what Cicero calls inlustratio and evidentia, a quality which makes us seem not so much to be talking about something as exhibiting it.” [23] True enargeia is speech that transcends the limitations of speech and creates the illusion that one is an eyewitness. In making absent things present, it thus creates truthful images. As it was expressed elegantly by Ruth Webb: “L’enargeia verbale est, bien sûr, une forme de mimêsis, mais qui—à la différence des arts du théâtre et de la peinture, auxquels elle est souvent comparée—fonctionne en imitant la perception même. Plutôt que faire voir une illusion, elle crée l’illusion de voir.” [24] Rhetorically trained, Eusebius was obviously aware of the qualities of enargeia. It can even be argued that he explicitly alludes to it in the preface. In 1.3.4, Constantine is said to have given “a clear example to all mankind of the pious life (enarges . . . paradeigma)” (VC 1.3.4). The term enarges is immediately echoed in the next sentence when Eusebius states that God himself has guaranteed that Constantine is a paradigm for all “with clear support (enargesi psēphois)” (VC 1.4.1). [25] The term enarges (visible) refers in the first instance to the visibility and clarity of Constantine as an example, but it is hard not to attribute a wider meaning to it and see it as an allusion to the rhetorical mode that creates almost real images in the minds of the readers: Constantine is as good an image as one can get of the pious life. Indeed, it is striking that Eusebius repeatedly takes as a model for his own writing the art forms that chapter 1.3 seems to depreciate. [26] This again shows the recognition of the power of the visual and underscores that their depreciation in the first chapter of the preface was based on the contrast with divine images. Human images cannot render the divine perfectly, but that does not mean that images cannot be extremely powerful in the human realm.
Quintilian sees enargeia as a powerful tool in persuading audience and judge during a legal speech, as it puts the situation before their eyes and thus provides proof for the guilt or innocence of the orator’s client. The highly visual descriptions of paintings, coins, and churches that we encounter in the Life [27] can hence be read as more than literary embellishments. In fact, they aim at displaying to the reader the proofs of Constantine’s Christian convictions and his actions in support of the Church. Although these images are only traces of Constantine’s Christianity, their detailed description suggests that they are true signs of the emperor’s beliefs. Again, this is implicitly self-referential: by stating that the Life of Constantine provides an image of the emperor as a painting would do, the work is set up as something to look at, an imitation of reality, and, one could say, a collection of all the proofs of Constantine’s Christianity one needs to see.


The paradox with which this chapter has opened can now be explained. The concomitant awareness of both the deficiency and the power of images can be understood as different perspectives on the cascade of images. When looking downwards, the greater the distance is from the original, the less accurate the image must become. In particular, there is a qualitative threshold when images of the divine are concerned: as images are by their very nature the work of humans, they remain imperfect and may thus not do justice to the divine. At the bottom of the cascade, in our human world, images are, however, extremely powerful: making things visible is the highest achievement of an orator because sight is more powerful than just hearing. The power of the visual becomes evident in the famous vision before the battle of the Milvian Bridge: Constantine is shown a sign, and said to copy it, but the exegesis of it follows much later, and is, in essence, a secondary act to the belief in the vision. [28] Constantine even declares that he would not “worship any other God than the one he had seen” (VC 1.32.1).
The recurring references to images of Constantine, as well as the repeated ecphraseis of some of them in the Life [29] therefore point in a double direction. On the one hand, they are part of the cascade of images that makes Constantine omnipresent: just as his sons are absent presences of Constantine, so are his statues, coins and paintings. They remind us of Constantine. At the same time, such images confirm the omnipotence of God: Constantine being an image of God, they show the power of God, be it at a distance, in shaping the world according to his plans. On the other hand, these images do not simply display but also provide proof: proof that Constantine indeed converted to Christianity and that this has had a fundamental influence on the empire. They may be mere human fabrications, but that does not disqualify their power within a human discourse and for human perception.
The end of the Life therefore consciously concludes on a reminder of the numerous portraits of Constantine and his sons that were set up all over the empire, and in particular the consecration coins, depicting Constantine’s ascent to heaven (4.72–73). It recapitulates the major themes of the preface: the continued presence in absence of Constantine and the fact that the omnipresence of such signs indicates Constantine’s unique and enduring—and God-willed—success. So much is spelled out explicitly by Eusebius: God has “shown these things (tauth’) to us and our very eyes in the case of Constantine, who, alone among all his predecessors, clearly exhibited himself as a Christian” (4.74). Indeed, says Eusebius, the catastrophic death of persecuting emperors is sufficient and clear proof (enargē elenchon) of this. As we have seen, the term enargēs was also used in the preface to qualify Constantine as an example for all of us and its use here may be meant to recall in the reader’s mind the suggestion there that the Life is a clear proof of Constantine’s Christianity and his divinely supported success. Indeed, the initial tauta (“these things”) refer primarily to the preceding section that refers to the portraits and the coins. But, capable of extension to everything said in the Life, it is also an apt conclusion to the work, which is as much an inventory of the signs that demonstrate Constantine’s Christian success as a sign of this itself.
The contrast between Constantine and his idol-worshipping predecessors points to a third, and final, aspect of Eusebius’ attitude towards images. Any Judeo-Christian discussion of images is valued, in that only images that entertain a relationship with a true object are acceptable. If ordinary human images are deficient because an image is never identical to its archetype, idols are simply false as they depict non-existent beings. Throughout the Life, Eusebius defines paganism as idol worship and underlines, as he does in the final chapters we have just discussed, their ineffectiveness. [30] Christian signs, such as the labarum, are powerful because they are true: they point to the real God who supports those who march behind it. [31] Eusebius can be taken to suggest that the church provides the criteria for determining which images are true and which are not. As we have seen, Constantine’s vision of the cross leads to his conversion and the acceptance of the God who has disclosed himself to the emperor, but the vision is also crucially confirmed and explained by priests, who set out the true teachings of the Church to the emperor. [32] In Eusebius’ presentation, Constantine understands the crucial distinction between true and false images and Eusebius has him forbid the display of his portraits in pagan temples, “so that he would not be polluted, even in an image, by the error of what is forbidden” (VC 4.16). Constantine’s picture of himself trampling a dragon, explained by Eusebius as an allegory based on Isaiah 27.1, is, in turn, a “true representation in painting” (alēthōs entitheis mimēmata tēi skiagraphia, VC 3.3.3).
The opposition between idols and true images coincides in the Life of Constantine with that between light and dark. The importance of the latter contrast has been noted before and needs no detailed elaboration here. [33] It suffices to note that from the preface onwards, where the sons of Constantine are described as “new lamps” (VC 1.1.3), the rule of Constantine is associated with bright light that illuminates an earth that for a long time had been in the clutches of darkness, namely idolatrous tyrannical rule. [34] In the light of this symbolism, it was a convenient coincidence—if not rhetorical invention—that Constantine died at noon. [35]

The Holy Sepulchre

For Eusebius, the world is full of images that have a powerful impact on mankind. Some of these are connected to the truth, that is, via a cascade of images to God. As images are man-made, they always represent that truth imperfectly, but at least they have a connection with the truth, in contrast with idols that are false and dangerous: representing nonexistent beings, they exploit the power of an image to delude its viewers. As I have shown, the various strands of Eusebius’ understanding of images recur repeatedly in the Life. In this final section, I wish to focus on one crucial passage in which they appear all interwoven: the discovery of the Holy Sepulchre.
Eusebius’ account of how the grave of Christ was found is based on the opposition between true and false images. In graphic language, he describes how the impious had sought to give over the sign of Christ’s immortality “to darkness and forgetfulness” (VC 3.26.1). Just as light shone over the grave when the angel turned the stone aside to liberate Jesus, so Constantine’s cleansing of the place does away with the darkness that had reigned over it. The pagans consciously erected a sanctuary of Aphrodite on the spot, but their dark designs were overcome by the divine light of Christ: Constantine ordered his people to do away with the idols, as well as all the earth that had been soiled by pagan sacrifice. The disposal of the idol led to the discovery of the grave, “the sign of the resurrection of the Savior.” In that way, “the most holy cave became a resembling image of the return to life of the Savior (homoian . . . eikona)” (VC 3.28). The substitution of idols by a true sign of Christ is highly significative, symbolizing the transition of the empire as a whole to Christianity. It is also the substitution of a false by a true image: the pleonastic expression “resembling image” emphasizes that in the holy Sepulchre we are faced with an image that connects us with the truth of God. That image now presents itself as a “clear” proof (enargē, VC 3.28) to those that visit the place, “testifying by facts louder than any voice to the resurrection of the Savior.” [36] The cave, as an image, is thus a strong proof for the truth of what is written in the Bible. The role of the cave as a true sign of Christ and of the truth of Christianity is enhanced by the fact that the discovery is presented, one can argue, as an epiphany. Eusebius twice emphasizes that Constantine’s desire to make the site of Christ’s burial known to all (prophanē, VC 3.25) happened under divine inspiration. [37] Indeed, it was not even Constantine’s intention to find the cave. The finding of the Holy Sepulchre is thus at once a highly symbolic and an eminently tangible fact: in its materiality and because it is the image of the resurrection, the cave is proof of the truth of Christianity. [38] This interweaving of the material and the spiritual is predicated on the importance Eusebius ascribed to true images, that is, those that entertain a relationship with the truth.


Averil Cameron has remarked that the use of images and signs in the Life of Constantine demands further study, as their omnipresence seemed paradoxical. [39] Indeed, Eusebius rejected the production of images of Christ in his letter to Constantia, a document that unsurprisingly resurfaced during the iconoclast controversy. Given its late first attestation and the apparent contrast in attitude with Eusebius’ extensive use of images elsewhere in his writings, its authenticity has been questioned. [40] Nevertheless, it is now generally accepted that the letter is a genuine piece by Eusebius. [41] Extensive discussion of this issue cannot be attempted here. Rather, I wish to argue that, even if the letter were authentic, the position it takes on images is not very different from the one I have detected in the Life of Constantine. In fact, the circumspect reflection on images we have recovered from the Life of Constantine squares rather well with the position found in the letter to Constantia. Indeed, it would be misleading to state that the letter rejects all kinds of images and that the Life embraces all of them. Even in the Life of Constantine, the use of images is limited on theological grounds in two ways. On the one hand, images are assigned to the human realm. As a consequence, they are imperfect and incapable of fully and truly reflecting the divine. [42] At best, they are imperfect approximations of higher truths. [43] This position is well illustrated by the idea we encountered in the preface that the human logos can ascend to heaven and view divine splendor but not express it. On the other hand, images are for Eusebius not fictions and only admissible on condition that they stand in a relation of truth to their model: if that condition is not fulfilled, as is the case with idols, false images are generated. This position is paralleled in Eusebius’ Praeparatio Evangelica where he attacks Porphyry’s On images, for stating that Zeus stands for the mind of the world. [44] The critique picks up the same two elements. It is impossible to depict accurately the divine mind of the world in a statue of Zeus, as it transcends our human capacity of understanding: “what likeness can a human body have to the mind of God?” Pagan statues hence have to be fictions and thus idols. [45] The letter to Constantia makes a similar point, but now in relation to images of Christ. Eusebius asks Constantia what kind of image she had in mind: “the true and unchangeable image which bears by nature the likeness of Christ, or rather the one which he took on for us when he clothed himself with the form of a servant?” [46] Eusebius rejects both: the first one is impossible since one cannot depict the divine with human craft; the second one is undesirable because of the elevated nature of the incarnated Christ: “that what is mortal has been swallowed by life.” Hence, it is impossible to produce an accurate image even of the human form of Christ. Moreover, even the incarnated Christ is God, and thus falls under the prohibition of images of God expressed in the Ten Commandments (Deut 5.8). [47] Christ’s incarnation is obviously a crux in Eusebius’ thought about images, as it is the point where the human and the divine meet. Ultimately, however, it is Eusebius’ emphasis on the divinity of Christ that rules out the possibility of representing him in a true fashion. Indeed, making a painting of Christ would reduce him to his human form and is hence highly undesirable.
If, then, human images are problematic when relating to the divine, they are very powerful within the human realm. This potential is fully and consciously exploited by Eusebius. The Life of Constantine does not aim at merely describing the actions of Constantine in relation to the church, [48] but at displaying them. The repeated ecphraseis of images in paintings, statues, and coins, themselves images of Constantine, bear testimony to this fact. Eusebius’ own vivid style, as well as the numerous documents quoted, allow the reader to form a vision of the emperor’s support for Christianity. The embrace of the visual and tangible is more than a choice for a literary style and a rhetorical mode. By inserting the Life of Constantine in the cascade of images that comes down from God, Eusebius can, at least implicitly, claim great authority for his own work. It is not just a biography of an emperor; it is the privileged access the reader has to the actions of an emperor who modeled his rule on that of God. Moreover, if Constantine is a model for all Christians, the Life is their access to that model. It is, Eusebius suggests, a good access: his detailed descriptions of the proofs of Constantine’s support for Christianity put these before the eyes of the reader. The recurrence of images of Constantine within the Life can thus be interpreted as showing that the Life itself is, so to speak, a super-image of Constantine and really stands in a relation of truth to the emperor.
It has recently been argued that later antiquity is marked by a fundamental shift in the act of viewing: images came to be seen as a gateway to a superior reality and their contemplation could hence transform the viewer. [49] James Francis has suggested that it is typical for Late Antiquity that individuals could become “living icons” and thus function as images of a higher reality. [50] Eusebius can indeed be seen as part of that trend, in particular in the way in which he sets Constantine up as a living image of God’s rule. Nevertheless, this emphasis on Constantine as a “living icon” is complicated in the Life of Constantine in two respects. First, there is the pervading consciousness that human images always fall short of the divine. It is indeed significant that, for Eusebius, Constantine is not a direct image of God, but of “his own monarchical rule” (VC 1.5.1). Secondly, the Life of Constantine is written after the death of the emperor. The image that is Constantine is hence only accessible through the traces that he has left: the Life collects images of an image. The omnipresence of images in the Life of Constantine can thus be understood as Eusebius’ attempt to gather these traces and make them visible again for his readers, whilst at the same time making the point that only true images can convey some truths about their object. It is that true likeness of Constantine that the reader finds in the Vita Constantini.

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[ back ] 1. Cameron 1991:53.
[ back ] 2. Cameron 1991:61–64. A few more comments can be found in Cameron 1997:162.
[ back ] 3. Dräger 2007:380 (“der üblichen, Einzelstellen auf ‘historische Steinbrüche’ reduzierenden partikularistischen Betrachtungsweise eines letzlich ‘poetischen’ Textes.”).
[ back ] 4. This debate, which picks up the older one about the authenticity of the Life of Constantine (Winkelmann 1962), was spurred anew by Barnes 1989 and 1994. See Cameron and Hall 1999:27–34; Cameron 2000; Tartaglia 2003; Bleckmann and Schneider 2007:27–38; Dräger 2007:384–385.
[ back ] 5. Hollerich 1989; Wilson 1998; Rapp 1998; Cameron and Hall 1999:35–39; Williams 2008:25–57.
[ back ] 6. Cameron 2000.
[ back ] 7. Augustine, De diversis quaestionibus LXXXIII 74.
[ back ] 8. Translations are my own except when indicated as drawn from Cameron and Hall 1999. For some corrections to that translation, see Dräger 2007 and Van Nuffelen 2008.
[ back ] 9. VC 1.1.2: opse ō s, emblepseien, the ō rei; 1.1.3: sunorai; 1.2.1: hor ō menon, the ō menos.
[ back ] 10. Trans. Cameron and Hall 2008:68.
[ back ] 11. Cameron and Hall 1999.
[ back ] 12. For the Platonic idea of an image as an absent presence, see Ricoeur 2000.
[ back ] 13. Bleckmann and Schneider 2007:36.
[ back ] 14. For eik ō n I prefer “image” to “model,” as Cameron and Hall 1999:69 have it. See also VC 3.5.2, 4.74.
[ back ] 15. Dio Chrysostom, Oration 1.44–46 and 3.50; Plutarch, To an uneducated ruler 3–5. These and other texts are discussed in Van Nuffelen 2011 with further references.
[ back ] 16. O’Meara 2003:40–49.
[ back ] 17. See Maraval 2001.
[ back ] 18. Plutarch, Life of Alexander 1.2–3, Life of Pericles 1. Johnson 2004:255 plausibly suggests Plutarch as the direct model for Eusebius. Morlet 2006 points to parallels with Philo of Alexandria.
[ back ] 19. Plato, Theaetetus 191D, Timaeus 39E.
[ back ] 20. This topos is repeated often in the VC: 3.10.4, 3.15.2, 3.20.3, 3.30.1–2, 3.40, 3.64.3, 4.35.1–3.
[ back ] 21. Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory 8.3.61: illud patet, hoc se quodam modo ostendit. Trans. Bailey.
[ back ] 22. Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory 8.3.62: magna virtus res de quibus loquimur clare atque ut cerni videantur enuntiare.
[ back ] 23. Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory 6.2.32: insequetur enargeia, quae a Cicerone inlustratio et evidentia nominatur, quae tam non dicere videtur quam ostendere. Webb 2009 shows that ecphraseis are just one form of enargeia.
[ back ] 24. Webb 1997:248. See also Webb 2009:105. “Enargeia is therefore more than a figure of speech, or a purely linguistic phenomenon. It is a quality of language that derives from something beyond words: the capacity to visualize a scene. And its effect also goes beyond words in that it sparks a corresponding image, with corresponding emotional associations, in the mind of the listener.”
[ back ] 25. See also VC 3.5.2, 3.15, where Constantine appears as an image of God.
[ back ] 26. See VC 1.10, 3.16, 4.7.2.
[ back ] 27. Life of Constantine 1.30–1, 3.2–3, 3.35–40, 4.7.2, 4.15, 4.69, 4.72–73. [ back ] See also 3.7.2 on the council of Nicea as “a replica of the apostolic assembly” (Trans. Cameron and Hall 1999:124).
[ back ] 28. VC 1.28–32. See also a later vision in 2.12.
[ back ] 29. See the references in note 26.
[ back ] 30. VC 2.16, 3.26, 3.48, 54, 58, 4.15, 4.72. Similarly, pagan predictions of the future are dismissed as false in 2.4.3.
[ back ] 31. VC 1.29, cf. 2.6–9, 2.16.
[ back ] 32. VC 1.32.
[ back ] 33. Tantillo 2003a: 48–54 and 2003b. A similar idea can be found in the Praise of Constantine 3.4.
[ back ] 34. VC 1.5, 2.16, 2.19, 1.8.4, 1.41.1, 3.10.3, 3.26.4, 4.22.2, 4.41.1, 4.58.
[ back ] 35. VC 4.64.
[ back ] 36. Cameron and Hall 1999:133.
[ back ] 37. VC 3.25, 3.26.6.
[ back ] 38. It used to be believed that Eusebius distanced himself from the material world and only attributed importance to the spiritual. Such positions are reviewed by Cameron and Hall 1999:275 and conclusively refuted by them.
[ back ] 39. Cameron 1991:64. The paradox is also noted by Johnson 2004:260–261.
[ back ] 40. Murray 1977; Schäferdiek 1980; Sode and Speck 2004.
[ back ] 41. Gero 1981; Thümmel 1984; Stockhausen 2000; Gwynn 2007:227n5 and 6. Barnes 2010 argues that the letter is genuine but retouched after Eusebius’ death.
[ back ] 42. VC 1.43, 47, 49, 58.4.
[ back ] 43. In a letter, Constantine states that one cannot speak worthily about divine mysteries (Life of Constantine 4.35.1).
[ back ] 44. PE 3.10.14–19
[ back ] 45. See Stockhausen 2000: 94–96; Williams 2007.
[ back ] 46. Eusebius, Letter to Constantia Frg. 7 (Stockhausen 2000:100). Trans. Schönborn 1994:59, slightly modified.
[ back ] 47. Eusebius, Letter to Constantia Frg. 8–12 (Stockhausen 2000:108–109)
[ back ] 48. In contrast with the classical biographical tradition, Eusebius states that his subject are Constantine’s actions (praxeis), and not his character (VC 1.11.1).
[ back ] 49. Elsner 1998 and 2007.
[ back ] 50. Francis 2003.