Constantine the Great: Warlord of Rome by Elizabeth James

Book Review by caldrail

Finally, in the early hours of the morning, I reached the end of the book. Aside from the swish of a few passing cars everything was quiet. I sat back in the armchair finding myself deep in thought. The truth is I found this book a little unsettling. Why? Surely it's just another history lesson, another biography, another story of times gone by?

And what a story it is. Constantine the Great - Warlord of Rome by Elizabeth James describes sweeping political changes, fierce battles for control of the empire, deep religious schisms. There's no doubting his place in history. Of the countless millions of human beings that have lived since our species wondered if there was a better place to live than Africa, maybe only a handful have ever been called 'The Great'. It's possible today to see his colossus, a broken statue of immense proportion casting him in the guise of the great god Jupiter, something I find an amusing anomaly considering his association with the rise of Christianity. There really ought to be a Hollywood epic about this man, but of course such a motion picture would tell its own story and not do him justice.

That brings us to the most important question of all. Does this book do him justice? It was exactly that question that left me thinking. In politics and religion he spent his life dealing with issues of dominance and unity. Constantine was a man whose life was about deep divisions and noticeably he often inspires another one today, between the two extremes of eulogy as a great Christian and dismissal as a blatant fraud. I must admit I've always tended toward the latter.

Elizabeth James does not share my bias. Her book is not concerned with those same old arguments anyway. Instead she writes about Constantine's military career, the campaigns he fought, and the legions that fought for him. Even so, these factors must be put into context, so despite her able writing the author cannot avoid discussing them.

The freshness of the book almost backfires as a part of me can't help thinking I'm being pulled off at a tangent, or worse, down a blind alley. As is always the case when dealing with Constantine, remaining neutral and objective isn't so easy. However, despite my own personal misgivings, I cannot fault the authors research, and indeed, her interpretation has much to commend it.

There's clarity to her vision of Constantine and the Roman world around him. Her confident text does away with the modern need for copious illustrations, and in fact she has composed a very readable book. The Constantine she describes is self assured, courageous, and dynamic. Before my eyes he changes from influential con-artist to perhaps the greatest Caesar of them all. This is a Constantine that I've never met before. She goes a long way to persuading me that my personal bias is misplaced, but in the final analysis, I cannot ignore the aspects of his life that led me to those conclusions.

I was right of course. This is a history lesson. A biography. A story of times gone by. If it tends toward eulogy, from a military perspective rather than political or religious, then I suppose we have to accept that a man is not called 'Great' for nothing. It's also well written and a valuable addition to anyone’s understanding of Constantine the Great.

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