Book Review by Ursus
D.G. Kousoulas inveigles the line between history and historical fiction in his The Life and Times of Constantine The Great. Kousoulas declares in his introduction that he shall take a different approach to history: “the traditional approach to writing history and biography is to tell about what happened, rather than to describe what actually did happen, as a novelist might-in effect to tell a story. Moving away from the traditionalist approach in order ‘to tell a story’ has been my guiding principle.” The author presents a very readable, if sometimes shallow, portrait of the events and personalities surrounding the rise of the first Christian Emperor.
How much of it is history per se may be some debate, however. It is not that Kousoulas undermines the basic outline of events as agreed upon by historians. Rather, to tell his story he must think like an author, which means delving into the personal thoughts and feelings of the characters involved, fleshing out their actions and motives with vigorous empathy. We are treated throughout the work to what the personalities must have thought and felt in their most private moments, gaining a glimpse as it were into their soul. Discerning Constantine and his peers in such a manner, even when something may be based on the primary literature at hand, is pure speculation. Critics may contend this approach to history is a poor substitute to facts documented with citations and footnotes.
Nonetheless, if the author’s purpose has been to sketch a story, he succeeds in this vein. The prose is simple but gripping. The author does manage to imbue the dry bones of historical persona with human flesh, speculation notwithstanding. Pages turn by in rapid succession, unencumbered by the usual dry academic discourse. What emerges is a memorable vortex of dramatic personas and events. One is tempted to liken it to a Hollywood blockbuster, only with a better plot and more solid acting.
Constantine is called “The Great.” Despite the self-serving praise bestowed on their benevolent benefactor by a sycophantic Church, Constantine’s achievements entitle him to the sobriquet. A shrewd strategist and brave tactician, Constantine was able to routinely trounce numerically superior opponents. The founding of a brilliant new city in a strategically vital location, coupled with extensive political and military reforms of Diocletian’s Dominate, assured this emperor’s hallowed place in the pantheon of history.
Of course, Constantine’s actions did not stop there. The book is subtitled “The First Christian Emperor.” Constantine’s links to the rising world of Christianity since childhood are explored, and the controversies of the Church during his reign are given several chapters. Regardless of what one personally feels about the Emperor’s conversion, Kousoulas makes it clear the decision was a rational one based on political and military need, not the sentimental and stunning vision of Christian lore invented later.
Constantine did not, contrary to popular belief, outlaw paganism. The Edict of Milan merely proclaimed the neutrality of the state to religion, what Kousoulas claims as the West’s first doctrine of Freedom of Worship. Yet underneath the veneer of official policy, it was clear Constantine did everything in private to personally favor the ascendancy of the Nazarine cult. Christianity was to be eventually the new universal religion, the spiritual glue of a reborn empire. Ironically, this meant those with competing strands of Christianity, now deemed heretics, had to be silenced. In so doing, Constantine violated the spirit of toleration promised by his own Edict.
The treatment of religious controversies and political reforms, the real hallmark of Constantine’s reign, is rather shallow. Those wanting a more detailed and scholarly treatment of the controversial emperor will have to look elsewhere. Thoughtfully there is a bibliography included which offers condign suggestions to do just that.
In the course of reading I noticed several egregious typographical errors in the second edition. This detracts somewhat from the author’s stated purpose of expressing a clearly readable story. Despite this, Kousoulas’ treatment is good for what it was meant to be. I would venture to say an adult who has no prior exposure to Rome, or perhaps even an enthusiastic high school student, would do well to read this book as their first experience to Roman history.
Not much more can really be said, expect the book could perhaps be best enjoyed in front of a roaring fire, with soft music playing and a nice glass of wine standing handily nearby. The personal, the political, the martial and the religious are woven into an entertaining tale. History is often more interesting than fiction, but Kousoulas tries to offer us the best of both worlds.
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