Skip to main content

Constantius in Context: Reshaping the Roman Empire

Final Report Summary - CONSTANTIUS2 (Constantius in Context: Reshaping the Roman Empire)

The main purpose of this project was to study literary representations of Constantius II, emperor of Rome 337-361 CE, whose reign was a critical moment in European history, in order to understand better his highly negative source tradition and set the ground work for more nuanced historical studies of his reign and its legacy.

An initial survey of the current state of research achieved two major conclusions: firstly that the intertextual nature of the source tradition had not been studied systematically (i.e. to establish the degree to which the authors whose texts comprise the corpus referred and alluded to one another and thus created a ‘discourse’ on Constantius), but a great deal of foundational work had been done by early editors of texts in the corpus, who regularly noted ‘reminiscences’ of earlier authors in the apparatuses of their critical editions. These editors, however, offered no comment or synthesis of such allusions. Their work significantly predated the advent of modern intertextual theory, and thus their ‘catalogues’ became an important resource for the intertextual study of these texts. Secondly, this survey revealed that the seven panegyrics (speeches of praise) to Constantius written by Themistius (a philosopher-senator), Libanius (a provincial rhetor), and Julian (Constantius’ junior emperor and later rival) were particularly important for shaping the later representations of Constantius. These seven texts all present contemporary, positive views of Constantius, and all offer narrative accounts of significant events in Constantius’ reign which influence later writers. These three authors were also heavily responsible for the later creation of the negative portrayal of Constantius, and thus, ironically, their earlier positive depictions of Constantius in the panegyrics conditioned their later negative portrayals of him: in those the later negative depictions sought to overturn their earlier, positive counterparts.

The study began with the single speech by Libanius, addressed to both Constantius and his brother Constans in 348 CE (Oration 59). Using both literary and historical approaches, this speech was re-assessed within the Libanian corpus, and within the tradition of late-antique panegyric. It was argued that the speech was less hostile towards Constantius than other scholars have previously suggested, and indeed, that it played down the role of Constans in favour of his brother. It also suggested that it created an image of Constantius who was firmly rooted in the East (whereas Constans was associated with the West); an association that the later panegyrist Julian subsequently had to strive to reverse. A paper in Greek Roman and Byzantine Studies additionally argued for Libanius’ redeployment of various generic tropes commonly associated with historiography: thus, this paper set Libanius’ text in a wider literary milieu.

Julian’s first speech of eight years later was studied next (Oration 1, c.356). Composed shortly after Constantius took control of the West in a war against a usurper, the speech, it was argued, not only sought to justify Constantius’ hereditary legitimacy in regaining the West, but also was aimed at re-shaping the eastern image of Constantius put forward by Libanius. This was discerned through an intertextual and literary study of both texts, and will appear as a chapter within an edited book (also co-edited by the Fellow) on literary representations of fourth-century emperors, provisionally entitled ‘Emperors and their Images in the fourth century’.

The next stage in the project compared Julian’s panegyric discourse on Constantius to that of the Constantinopolitan rhetor and senator Themistius, who composed two speeches to Constantius in 357 (i.e. shortly after Julian’s first). A book chapter (forthcoming) evaluates the degree to which the speeches of these two authors worked at cross-purposes, through an analysis of their representations of Constantius’ dynastic legitimacy via his father: Julian emphasising Constantius’ legitimacy in the West due to Constantine’s military success there; Themistius doing likewise for the East, via Constantine’s foundation of Constantinople. These findings will be written up for the edited volume provisionally entitled ‘Praising Constantine’.

The project ended after 12 months, rather than the intended 24 months. The studies thus far have set the groundwork for evaluating these speeches as a corpus, particularly in terms of the political circumstances of their delivery and some intertextual relationships between them. A contract for a monograph has been signed which will broaden the study to consider how these speeches develop philosophical ideals on kingship as related to Constantius, as well as the generic form of literary panegyric. The fellow will continue this work in his new position.