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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....
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Paul Stephenson is a Reader in the Department of History at the University of Durham. His book begins with a preface and an introduction. The main text is divided into three parts. Here is a brief overview:

* PART I - The general background - chapters 1-4

* PART II - Constantine's road to power - chapters 5-8

* PART III - Constantine as emperor - chapters 9-12

The book ends with a conclusion, a glossary, a brief note on primary sources, a long bibliographical essay and an index.

What about illustrations? In the beginning of the book there are eight maps and two family trees (stemmata). In addition, there are 60 photos, most of them in colour. The photos are printed on special paper in three separate blocks. Most of the photos come from an agency, but 24 are taken by the author himself. The size is rather small, with two or three photos per page.

In his preface Stephenson says he hopes information given in the book "will prove useful to those who wish to follow in the emperor's footsteps, from York to Trier, from Arles to Rome, from Thessaloniki to Istanbul, and beyond."

When we look at the illustrations, we can see he has followed his own advice. There are photos taken by the author from Trier, Arles, Rome and Thessaloniki.

Stephenson's account is supported by a wide range of sources, not only ancient texts but also archaeological objects, sometimes coins with pictures and inscriptions, sometimes monuments with pictures and inscriptions.

Each illustration is mentioned in the text, giving extra weight to his argument, and in several cases the object in the photo is analysed in great detail:

* Figure 15, the very charming porphyry statue of the tetrarchs, now in Venice, is discussed on page 92 (and briefly on page 199).

* Figures 18-22, the arch of Galerius in Thessaloniki, are discussed on pages 95-97.

* Figures 32-36, the arch of Constantine in Rome, are discussed on pages 151-158.

* Figure 53, the great cameo, is discussed on pages 217-219.

* Figure 54, the Belgrade rider, is discussed on pages 227-228.

When it comes to sources, the author is very methodical. He evaluates them in order to determine if we can believe them. He explains what we can believe and why. In short: he does exactly what a historian is supposed to do, and he does it very well.

This book is written by an expert, but even an expert can make mistakes. Let me explain:

* On page 16 he mentions the technical term "honourable discharge." The Latin term is given as HONESTA MISSO. But the correct form is HONESTA MISSIO.

* On page 75 he says the Ludovisi Sarcophagus is "on view in the Museo Nazionale delle Terme in Rome." But this item is on view in Palazzo Altemps, near Piazza Navona. He refers to figure 11, a picture of the sarcophagus taken by the author himself. The caption makes the same mistake about the location.

* On page 124 he places the Flavian period "shortly after AD 100." It should be shortly before AD 100.

* On page 204 he mentions "a ruling of the senate ... in 39 BC." The next sentence begins with these words: "Eighty years later, the emperor Hadrian confirmed ..." Hadrian's confirmation was given in AD 119/120. From 39 BC to AD 119 there are 158 years.

I have a few additional remarks about the book:

(1) Where was Constantine born? The answer - in Naissus - is given on page 1. This is the ancient name of the place. The modern name - Nis, in present-day Serbia - is not given. Moreover, Naissus is not listed in the index, although it appears several times (on pages 225, 227, 246, 291 and 295).

(2) When was Constantine born? Several sources seem to agree on the date: 27 February. But when it comes to the year, there is no agreement at all. We have 271, 272, 273 and 274. We even have 280 and 285. What does Stephenson have to say about this? Not much. He says Constantine's mother Helena was born around 250. He also says the emperor Claudius II Gothicus died around the time when Constantine was born. We know Claudius died in 270. Stephenson seems to favour an early date, maybe 271, which is very plausible, but he never says so. Why avoid this issue?

(3) On page 260 he mentions Autun. The name appears again on page 294. This is the modern name of the place. The ancient name - Augustodunum - is not given. Moreover, Autun is not listed in the index.

Before writing this review, I contacted the author. I told him about the mistakes mentioned here. He wrote back to me. He told me he was preparing an American edition for Overlook Press. He assured me that he would try to have these mistakes corrected. If so, the American reader will get a new and improved version of the book.

There are several biographies in English on Constantine the Great, some of them older, from the 19th or the 20th century, some of them more recent, from this century. I have not read all of them, but I am sure this book must one of the best.

Stephenson covers the major problems connected with the emperor and his reign and he does it very well.

We meet Constantine both as a general (chapter 5) and as a builder, at first in Rome (chapter 6) and later in Constantinople (chapter 8). The role of Christianity is also covered, not only Constantine's conversion (chapter 7), but also Constantine and his relations with the Bishops (chapter 11).

Stephenson's conclusions are not based on speculation, but rest on ancient sources. In addition, the text is well written and supported by some useful illustrations. In spite of the mistakes and the minor flaws mentioned above, this book is highly recommended.
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Paul Stephenson's account of Constantine is a highly accessible and readable account of the life and acts of Constantine, and the author beings into consideration aspects which are often not covered in more academic and specialised texts. On strength is the author's discussion of existing religions, particularly with respect to the army, and how the Christianisation of the empire fitted in with this.

Because it is a work aimed at the more general reader, this does mean that there is no real reference to sources made, and so, as some other reviewers have pointed out, as a result it's difficult to check some of the claims made. Secondly by trying to cover such an immense subject in a paperback, coverage of some aspects are not as detailed as perhaps would be desirable, but it's a difficult balancing act, and Stephenson provides us with a good overview.

Although ostensibly focusing on the theology of imperial power, I thought that as a whole the book lacked a clearly stated or proven thesis or theses, but it may be that the author did not really set out with such an aim. A qualified recommendation - this should be a book to whet the reader's appetite to delve more deeply into the life and historical significance of Constantine rather than a standalone complete work.
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on 2 November 2013
As a Religious Studies teacher I'm always on the lookout for fresh Constantine material that adds further learning to the Early Christian Church and the influence of the Roman Empire. Paul Stephenson's book is historically accurate and covers the reign of Constantine in user friendly manner. One thing I really liked about this book was the documented archaeological evidence displayed in the photographs. Stephenson's chapters based on the Battle of the Milvian Bridge and the Arch of Constantine are very informative and raise further room for scholarly discussion. The controversial nature of Constantine is still preserved throughout the book and this makes for great wider reading in this important time period for the early church. All work is well resourced and documented.
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on 13 February 2016
Professor Stephenson’s life of Constantine contains what I believe to be a fundamental flaw. I was astonished to find myself reading a version of history that clashed with everything I had ever read about this period. It was always my understanding that 4th Century Christianity was a minor sect that had made little progress in 300 years and without Constantine’s dramatic intervention might well have died out.

Now I learn (and the book places great emphasis on this) that 4th Century Romans had suddenly woken up to the inherent superiority of Christianity over all other religions and that the Roman Empire was inevitably destined to go Christian in the near future. Constantine just helped things along a bit and decided basically to ‘go with the flow’.

Well that is certainly not what I learn from other historians. For instance:
• Gibbon’s 18th Cent classic ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’
• Professor A H M Jones : ‘Constantine and the Conversion of Europe’
• Professor Michael Hart : ‘A Ranking of the 100 Most Influential Persons in History’
• Peter Heather : ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’
• Britannica.com on the Internet
• Even on TV, Alistair Sooke in ‘Treasures of Ancient Rome’ describes Christianity before Constantine as ‘an obscure sect’ and ‘a fringe religion’.

What really annoys me is that Professor Stephenson presents his own preferred vision of history as undisputed historic fact, apparently condemning all other historians as incorrect and misguided. He appears to be either one of the ‘revisionist’ historians who invent versions of history unsupported by anyone else in order to attract a wider audience or a person who lets his religious convictions warp his judgement. Either way, such a lack of objectivity in a supposedly ‘eminent historian’ is, in my opinion, a disgrace.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 12 March 2012
When I bought this book, I was expecting to read a military biography of Constantine the First, given its subtitle (Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor). This is not at all the case, neither is this book exactly a "biography" of Contantine, although the book is nevertheless excellent. Instead, this book is about imperial power, faith, ideology and theology. It is through Constantine's life and achievements that we see how he changed imperial theology to legitimize his rule and ensure that all the Empire's population would acknowledge his supremacy.

Paul Stephenson is a talented historian who writes well, can tell a good story and make it very accessible to non-specialist readers such as us. The book is well structured. The large first part of over 100 pages (faith and power in the Third Century) provides the context and starting point, before we get to Part 2 - Contantine Invictus, where Constantine becomes the sole ruler of the Empire, promotes religious toleration and promotes himself as the paramount figure for all, whether Christians or not, and thn Part 3, the last part of his life, where his christian credentials - and his influence on the Church - become affirmed. In each part, Stephenson skilfully uses a combination of primary and secondary sources (the works of other historians) and of archeological and numismatic finds.

There are, however, two elements which I found a bit questionable.

The author's deliberate choice to write a book which is as much on imperial power and its ideology as it is on Constantine implies that some aspects get a bit "short-changed". I expected more on the military, for instance, if only because Constantine was, as Paul Stephenson clearly states, first and foremost a general, and a rather successful one. However, because the focus is mostly on imperial ideology, the causes explaining his hard fought victories and his various campaigns are not layed out. By the end of the book, I couldn't help thinking that, by privileging ideology over the telling of the historical events, the author may somewhat have preferred the ways in which Constantine explained and used his victories in political terms rather than the reasons for which he was victorious.

Another contentious point, which the author partly ackowledges, is his chapter 2 - The Rise of Christianity. He chooses to consider that women were one of the main causes in the spread of (the early versions of) christianity, which offered them better treatment and staus than the traditional religions in the Graeco-Roman world. He also insists about infanticides (of baby girls) and forced abortions to state that by Constantine's birth (for which he never provides a date...), if the total population of the Roman Empire was around 60 million, only around 24 million of these were women. It should be said quite clearly that these are no more than one set of educated guesses and estimates of the population of the Roman Empire tend to vary widely from one historian to another, to say nothing about the proportion men-women.

This is not to say that women had a "rosy" life, quite the contrary in fact, and the vivid and horrid description of life in big roman cities, compared to slums in what used to be called "third-world" countries, might have been true. It is a pity, however, that this is not discussed in more length although, to be fair, this is not the core issue of this book. Having said that, the honest answer here is that we do not know how big of an impact certain cultural (and, to use, repulsive) behaviors such as infanticide etc... could have had on the overall demography, how widespread these behaviors were and what exactly triggered them. More generally, there is likely to be multiple factors explaining the rise of christianity (many of which are layed out in some of the book mentioned in Stephenson's bibliographical essay), and reducing this rise to a single cause without discussing all of them in depth does not seem to be a very convincing way to make a point.

There were some other points that I found absolutely outstanding. One was to show Constantine the man, very self-conscious, rather vindicative and ruthleness (in a very unchristian way!) with regards his rivals. Another was to show that, contrary to the picture of himself that he and some of his christian advisors chose to come up with, his conversion was a gradual process and his paramount concern was his power and how it could be accepted by all and legitimized. This picture is much more likely to be closer to the truth than the usual "legends" about Constantine.

The other point is the brilliant way in which Stephenson's describes Constantine's "experiment with imperial Christianity" with the existing imperial ideology and the trappings of imperial power. A few adaptations - no more sacrifices and no gladiatorial games, arenas replaced by hippodromes (as in Constantinople) - and the cult of the emperor could probably go on as before. One cannot help wonder how "christian" he was and what - exactly - being Christian really meant for him. Anyway, it certainly did not mean in any way that the emperor would be subordinated to the church, quite the opposite in fact...

A great read, very highly recommended
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on 17 August 2012
I, like some others, thought that this would be a more straightforward biog but the basic theme was no less interesting. The other reviews can give you chapter and verse on perceived strengths and weaknesses, as a general layman my take on it was that this book took some time/effort to read carefully but was rewarding all the same. The plethora of names esp towards the end required some back-tracking and some of the reasons/premises put forward can be questioned but the book is at the very least thought-provoking about the essential relationship between Christianity and the Roman Empire at this pivotal time; indeed, it to my mind provides some salient thoughts about the atmosphere surrounding the Christianity of today.
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on 20 February 2015
Excellent item. I would recommend this seller for their accurate description, fair price and prompt delivery
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on 1 June 2014
Stephenson's book is a competent account of the rise and reign of Constantine. We learn to appreciate Constantine's qualities as a military leader, in particular his grasp of the fact that the shock tactics of a relatively small elite force could shatter much larger formations of mediocre troops. Constantine's legacy as a ruler is less impressive. Although he became sole ruler of the empire, he failed to prevent a return to the debilitating pattern of civil wars after his death. He also initiated the unfortunate tradition of European states persecuting dissident segments within Christianity.

What is missing here is a proper discussion of the reason for which Constantine is of outstanding historical significance rather than just another despot; that is that it was under his rule that Christianity made the decisive move towards becoming the religion of the empire and subsequently the religion of Europe and of areas settled by Europeans.

There is a lack of discussion relative to this. Stephenson tries to give the impression that this was the inevitable wave of the future by the time that Constantine arrived at the Milvian Bridge, but it is hard to be certain of this. In the early part of the book, the author draws on Rodney Stark's not very convincing arguments for the triumph of Christianity. This skates over the fact that the religion was not strong in the politically important army or upper income groups, and was more popular with women in a society where women had limited influence; further it was mainly confined to towns (a minority of the population) in the Levant and African provinces.

Towards the end of the book there is a more interesting description of the various incentives for soldiers to convert to Christianity during the fourth century, but there is little discussion of what the pressures on the rest of the population might have been, and this really leaves the key question of Constantine's role in the triumph of Christianity not dealt with.
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on 31 May 2012
Judging by the title of the book you might think that this was a military or secular history of Constantine's career. It isn't. The title refers to the name that Constantine adopted when he became Christian: Victor. It's also connected to the famous vision he had before the battle of the Milvian Bridge. I learned it as "in hoc signo vincis" (in this sign, conquer), but Stephenson assures us that that was based on a translation of Eusebius. Eusebius translated Constantine's Latin vision into Greek which a later writer translated back into Latin. The actual saying, as recorded by Latin sources, was "hoc signo victor eris" (by this sign you shall be victor). Constantine seems to have taken this literally and became Victor. Kinda odd but ok. That was by far the most interesting thing I learned from this book.

This book was written by a Byzantinist and it shows. Not because he gets facts wrong or predates major Byzantine developments (he doesn't), but because of his focus. The summary of Constantine's life and career is just that: a summary. He never really goes in depth or gets involved enough to interest the reader. What he does spend a lot of time on is an interpretation of the archaeological evidence and some of the written sources. The information in the previous paragraph is a perfect example of the kinds of topic he dwells on. Now this isn't really a bad thing. He focuses on things a lot of other writers leave alone. But it hardly makes for compelling reading and in the end it feels like it's a series of discussions thinly connected into an overarching narrative. This book isn't footnoted either so it is of little value as a scholarly work.

I'm also not sure I buy his explanation of the expansion of Christianity. There are a great many divergent theories on the cause of this, but his account attributes it primarily to the tendency of Christian communities to nurse their sick even during the great plagues of the second and third centuries. The reasoning goes that Christians would do this but pagans wouldn't. There really isn't any evidence for this, though I wouldn't be surprised if insular communities like the Christians took better care of those within their community than society at large. I do find it hard to believe that this form of concern for others (especially family) was a uniquely Christian trait. Certainly there were healing cults in pagan religion as well as examples of men helping others at extreme cost to themselves, not to mention the fact that the Black Death in Christian Europe caused a great many (including priests) to abandon their loved ones and flee. Here I do think that the Byzantinist is peeking through again. Another detail which sped up the rise of Christianity is the high levels of female infanticide. He states that only 24 out of the 60 million people living in the Roman empire were female. This is where the absence of footnotes really hurts him. I would love to know where he got that number from given that any such numbers are entirely guesswork and vary wildly from scholar to scholar. He also repeats the tired old statement that the willingness (even eagerness) of Christian martyrs to die for their God greatly impressed pagan witnesses and helped create converts, a statement claimed only in Christian sources and contradicted by every pagan writer whose work survives. Strangely, despite the lengthiness of his section on Christianity in the beginning his focus is generally on more secular affairs.

If you've read books on Constantine before and want one that offers a new perspective then you could do much worse than this book. The discussion on the various topics was interesting, even if it wasn't what I got the book for. But I wouldn't really recommend starting here. It doesn't really provide the broad narrative that it suggests or give a particularly clear image of the times. For those interested in a good story The Life and Times of Constantine the Great is probably the easiest read. It takes Constantine's side way too much, but it provides a decent overview and reads like a novel. There really isn't one penultimate book on Constantine as there is for some other emperors. Ramsay MacMullen's Constantine is a nice older book, as is John Holland Smith's Constantine the Great. Michael Grant wrote a decent work entitled Constantine the Great: The Man and His Times, and there are many more of greater or lesser accuracy. Reading one of them is a good start, or you could just go right to Eusebius' Life of Constantine, the main source for the period.
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