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Constantine the Great

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Member Reviews

First published in 1904 it is immediately clear that this work shares the academic biases of its times. This is both good and bad. Good is the fact that it has very readable narrative which traces Constantine's life and achievements with clarity and considerable accuracy. Good also is the attempt to answer the question, 'Was Constantine worthy of the title 'the Great'? 

The author considers how the emperor's neglect of the finances of the empire and his failure to provide an obvious succession plan weigh against him. However, most Roman emperors tended to be prodigal with money. Few prepared properly for their succession. Alexander the Great, while not a Roman, would have failed on both these counts. Constantine is (or has been) considered a 'great emperor' for another more obvious reason: his espousal of Christianity and how this decision transformed the Roman world. Nowadays we may possibly consider this decision to be as much disastrous as positive, but nonetheless that is what Constantine is best remembered for. His attempt to use Christianity as a unifying link in empire did not work all that well in his own day, but was nevertheless momentous.

I enjoyed reading this book with its rather old-fashioned prose and approach to topic. In many ways what Firth wrote is entirely relevant to today's reader. I do think the publisher could have made clearer how old the book actually is.
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This is not your standard biography of Constantine the Great. It is in fact the story of the reigns of four men of different characters and religious persuasions at the height of the religious persecutions and manias in the Roman world in the 4th Century. 

For those with an interest into how why the world was stale and how Christianity was adopted by Constantine and became the "state" religion, then this is for you. It is an academic religious history that is wholly readable for both amateur and scholar alike. The reigns of the Roman Emperors at the height of the drama are put into context with the subject matter at hand - which those looking for a straight up biography of Constantine may fine a little dry.

What I found fascinating was that Firth also debunks some of the mythology surrounding Constantine, including the famous "donation", and we discover " ... a man easily swayed by a strong-minded woman ...." - his wife Fausta, his mother Helena, and half-sister Constantia. And here I was hooked! My fascination with historical women kicked into overdrive - I especially love this description of the women: ".... these great ladies move in shadowy outline across the stage; we can scarcely distinguish their features or form, but we think we can see their handiwork, most unmistakably in the appalling tragedies which we now have to narrate ..." (referring to the death of Crispus and Fausta c326AD). One wonders how Constantine ever managed to be called "the Great".

Christianity began its life as an heretical school of thought and belief. So just how, out of all this schism and strife, did Christianity manage to triumph. Firth gives us a hint with his statement that Christianity triumphed because " ... the world had grown stale ..."
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An interesting and fascinating book about one of the most important emperor of the Roman empire, the one who changed the empire structure. The book was very good to describe the changes and the complexities of the Roman politics.
Many thanks to Netgalley and Endeavour Press
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