Top positive review
20 people found this helpful
Interesting and well written, but patchy
on 25 January 2010
I gather that the previous reviewer is a bit of an expert - my review comes from a more "general reader" perspective! The book is certainly well worth a read - and not the less so because despite Paul Stephenson's best efforts (and as he freely acknowledges in his conclusion) no really clear picture of Constatine emerges. So it answers clearly the question: can we hope to know or understand this exceptional emperor? The answer - by reason of the levels of spin used by Constantine himself via the imperial system, and the sources who have come down to us (notably Eusebius, who writes from a Christian centred perspective) is a big no.
That does not mean that Stepehenson doesn't clarify the picture considerably. Extrapolating from representations on coins and other artefacts he argues a number of points powerfully - not least the case for doubting that the chi-ro was part of a Milvian Bridge vision, or that Constantine's journey to conversion occurred suddenly at about this time. Also fascinating in this context is the extent to which the old visual forms continued to be used because they had establshed meanings, in a way that Christianity could not yet challenge.
So why only four stars? It is really two things: (i) that the book has lots of good things, but it is patchy and does not really come together as a coherent whole and (ii) Stephenson sometimes hesitates to make his own points, or treats them as "given" without sufficient basis. In relation to the first point, there is a noticeable stylistic disjunction between the introductory chapters, setting the scene, which are written with admirable fluidity, and in very user friendly mode (almost like an "introduction to the world of Constantine" lecture?) and the meat of the book which is more thematic, and whose jumps through the period are sometimes confusing. Also slightly annoying in this section is the tendency to have references in the text which could perfectly well be contained in footnotes or end notes. Also there are numerous references in earlier chapters to such and such being an important point "as will become apparent later" but without reference forward or back to link up the background point to the point of substance.
As to the second point, Stephenson tends to have the true historian's shyness about asserting as a fact a point based solely on inference. However in this sort of book (as opposed to in a journal article) if you actually have a view, it really is preferable to state it loud and clear, and explain why and on what basis it is the author's view. The central question of Constantine's spiritual journey suffers a little from this - it is plain what he thinks it was not - but exactly what he thinks it was is a struggle to pin down. More vexing however are the leaps. I was a little startled to read the assertion at the start of the main section that "as the child of two monotheists" Constantine was (in essence) prone to be converted. There is an assertion in the introduction that Helena was probably a Christan, but the basis for this is not explored, nor are the sources given. Nor did I read the early chapters and receive any conviction that Contantinius Chlorus was monotheist in conviction as opposed to sympathetic. Another example is the inference in the Conclusion that Constantine was the sort of chap who gave his associates nicknames. In fact the book gives one example of a nickname, and then states that it is impossible to know if more such existed. A more consistent approach explaining which points are his views and the bases for those views would be preferable.
So overall, a lot of very interesting material and most definitely worth a read, but slightly flawed in places....