From Usurper to Emperor: The Politics of Legitimation in the Age of Constantine

From Usurper to Emperor: The Politics of Legitimation in the Age of Constantine

By Mark Humphries

Journal of Late Antiquity, Vol1:1 (2008)

Abstract: Modern scholarship, following the template laid down by Lactantius and Eusebius, has viewed the achievements of Constantine chiefly through the prism of his Christianity, with the result that his secular achievements have been comparatively neglected. This article addresses those secular policies, focusing on how Constantine sought to assert his legitimacy during the various stages of his rise to power. It takes as its starting point the modern debate on the legitimacy of Constantine’s elevation to the purple and whether or not he can be justifiably described as a usurper. Through close scrutiny of a variety of documentary sources—particularly inscriptions, but also coins—it establishes how Constantine sought to affirm the legitimacy of his position as emperor at a number of critical moments, and to have that legitimacy accepted both by other members of the imperial college and by the empire’s populace at large. It emerges that Constantine appealed to a variety of means to assert his legitimacy, for example, as a member of a college of emperors, as the preferred candidate of the army or Senate, as victor in civil war, or as a member of a dynasty. Furthermore, he invested considerable effort in buttressing his claims by actively deconstructing the legitimacy of his rivals, notably Maxentius and Licinius, whom he designated instead as tyranni. Thus Constantine made a notable contribution to the articulation of ideas of imperial legitimacy in the fourth century, and his strategies were adopted, most immediately, by his sons.

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