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How Constantine Became Emperor

As background to the conversion of the emperor Constantine I have been explaining how Diocletian had set up the Tetrarchy with a sensible order of succession, so that the Roman emperors would be chosen on a rational basis rather than simply because of accidents of birth or the whims of the army.   His plan ended up not working.

Because of health issues, after a long and successful reign of over two decades, Diocletian decided to retire from office on May 1, 305.   For the sake of a smooth succession, he compelled his rather unwilling co-Augustus, Maximian, to do so as well, to make way for the two Caesars, Galerius and Constantius, to rise to the senior offices.  For their replacements, according to the principles that Diocletian had devised, two Caesars were chosen as junior emperors:   Maximin Daia (not to be confused with the out-going Augustus Maximian) to serve with Galerius in the East, and Severus to serve with Constantius in the West.   There was now a “Second Tetrarchy.”

At the time it may have seemed like a smooth and unproblematic transition, and in a sense it was — until one of the new Augusti died.  Then the plan of succession based on qualifications ran afoul of both the dynastic principle and the army.

The background to the story involves the new Augustus of the West, Constantius, and his son Constantine.  Constantine had …

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Knowing the “Original” Text — of the NT or of Isaiah. Weekly Readers’ Mailbag July 17, 2016
Preface to Constantine: The Rule of the Four



  1. talmoore
    talmoore  July 15, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I know the following question relates to the previous topic of the Pentateuch, but it just came to me last night. Jerome supposedly used the Hebrew text for his vulgate translation of the OT (That’s what he claims, at least). When scholars compare Jerome’s latin translation of the OT, does it appear to be a direct translation of the MT, or does it deviate in ways that make it apparent that Jerome was not using the MT version of the Hebrew in his translation?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 17, 2016

      I think it is normally taken to be a direct translation of the MT. Jerome was scornful of those (i.e., everyone else!) who couldn’t read Hebrew.

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    Wilusa  July 15, 2016

    How were Roman armies formed in those days…and how did generals win their loyalty, in the short-term military sense *or* the political sense? (I’m imagining their being allowed free rein to pillage conquered regions – and rape the women, too. Am I right?)

    • Bart
      Bart  July 17, 2016

      Among other things, leaders usually won their soldiers’ loyalty by giving them sizeable “donatives” (monetary rewards periodically paid out). and of course any general who led a victorious army was praised — think of modern times! Everyone likes a winner.

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        marcrm68  July 17, 2016

        Constantine was at the end of a long line on emperors who were murdered by their legions… except for Diocletian. I was struck by how soldiers were forced to worship their emperor in periodic ceremonies… Stephenson supposes that Constantine bought into the whole divine emperor thing, and maybe thought of himself as a second Christ toward the end of his life…definitely above all bishops, even though he probably had no grasp of theological issues… He wanted unity in the Christian church, and persecuted those who refused, but let pagans go on as usual! … He didn’t want to anger the god who brought him victory in battle, or any other god… Would you agree with that Dr. Ehrman?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 18, 2016

          No, I don’t think that Constantine sought the worship of others. But yes, he was harder on heretics than on pagans.

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    RonaldTaska  July 15, 2016

    The history of the third and fourth centuries seems much more detailed than the history of the first century. If this is an accurate observation on my part, are there reasons for this increased, and I assume improved, history? Were, for example, there better ways of saving writing in the fourth century?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 17, 2016

      Actually we have highly detailed evidence for the first century as well (e.g., the reigns of the early emperors). But unless you’re an ancient historian or classicist, you just don’t see the full descriptions very often.

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      marcrm68  July 17, 2016

      I’ve heard this before… It’s just that the historical evidence for Christ is nearly nil in the first century… which is truly amazing, considering the vast amount of information that we do have!

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    Jason  July 16, 2016

    Wow-you are so amazingly good at making historical episodes of this nature acessible and engaging. Thank you for the blog, Doc.

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    RonaldTaska  July 16, 2016

    Follow-up: I guess I am wondering if the transition from papyrus to parchment documents improved history between the first and fourth centuries.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 17, 2016

      No I don’t think so. Papyrus documents could easily be preserved simply by copying them, later, onto parchment (it happened a good bit)

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    godspell  July 16, 2016

    Some parallels with Napoleon’s path to power. As Mssr. Bonaparte himself would have recognized. He also had a complicated relationship with Christianity. Constantine was more fortunate in that he could play pagans and Christians against each other, biding his time with regards to fully committing to either side. Napoleon had to remain at least nominally Catholic (his true beliefs were never easy to ascertain), while trying to negate the secular power of the Church (in which to some extent he succeeded, in the long run, but it didn’t do him any good).

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    Adam0685  July 16, 2016

    I saw that Oxford is publishing a new book by Licona called “Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography.” https://www.amazon.com/Why-Are-There-Differences-Gospels/dp/0190264268

    It looks like he will argue that there are differences in the gospels because they belong to the genre of ancient biography.

    In an interview he said “I began to realize that the differences across the Gospels are not so much contradictions but the result of compositional devices that were the standard practice in historical writing of that day.”

    Is this a generally new approach he is taking?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 17, 2016

      Not really. But saying that “Bob is just as trustworthy as everyone else in his neighborhood” obviously, in itself, does not make Bob trustworthy!

      • Avatar
        godspell  July 17, 2016

        Not a useful syllogism, since no one–and I mean NO ONE–is 100% trustworthy.

        We all shape our own realities to some extent, we all fail to see what’s obvious, we all have prejudices and shortcomings that inhibit our ability to know or speak the truth.

        Bob may sometimes be a liar, and he will frequently be wrong, but he may still have useful information–and insights–for us.

        You knot this already, but it bears repeating. If we discount all historical sources that are imperfectly trustworthy, the very discipline of history ceases to exist. And not just ancient history.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 18, 2016

          I completely agree that no one is completely trustworthy. The point is that Mike Licona thinks the Bible is completely trustworthy, and I don’t think so. It sounds like you agree with me.

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    Jana  July 18, 2016

    I’ve been waiting a long time for your current series … hopefully will be able to stay on line and read though soon. Thank you!!

  9. Avatar
    Jana  August 4, 2016

    And now will try to catch up on a lot of truly thrilling reading … As I wrote before, I’ve long awaited for this series from a Maestro.

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