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Thursday, October 24, 2013

“Constantine the Great: The Man and His Times”, by Michael Grant


267 pages, History Book Club, ISBN-13: 978-0965014212

This is a concise yet thoughtful work on the pivotal character in the late classical world, Flavius Valerius Constantinus – Constantine the Great. Grant’s book records the turbulent life of the first Christian Roman emperor, a charismatic man who was directly responsible for the founding of Constantinople as the Roman capital and the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity. By the time Constantine died in 337, he had reigned over changes of significance, notably the establishment of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine’s character is analyzed briefly and about as well as possible; there is also an excellent chapter on his building programs throughout the Roman Empire. The Civil Wars between Constantine and Maxentius, then Constantine and Licinius, are covered in good detail. This being a typical Michael Grant book, all is done expeditiously and without a great deal of fluff.

This is for good and bad: more information on the Tetrarchy would have been useful to help give the reader a clearer picture of the times Constantine lived in (Constantine lived at the court of Galerius, who was a “Caesar”, or junior emperor, under Diocletian, and an “Augustus”, or senior emperor, after Diocletian and Maximian retired). The conclusion was a bit disappointing: Grant spent too little time discussing the affect Constantine’s policies had upon the civil wars fought by his three sons and two nephews, of which Constantius II was ultimately victorious. Also, he spends little time in his conclusion talking about how Constantine’s policies affected Constantius II’s rule.

Under all of these successes, Constantine was really a rather private man. He was full of superstitious beliefs and had many visions and dreams that announced his conversation to Christianity. He went to great lengths to reach his goals, such as killing his wife and his oldest son, and many of his friends. After reading this book, I realized just how many of his major accomplishments were wrought through doing dreadful things to the people he loved.

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