Watch out! This July, I’m coming back to Vienna.
The international meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature is taking place on the banks of the Danube, and I’ll be there. The theme of our panel is the “Apocalypse.” Think: fanatical Nero, numerological beasts, the whore of Babylon, and frightening visions of end-time doom. Should be fun, right?
I’ll be presenting some of my latest research on a real figure many people don’t automatically think of when they think about the “End of the World.” The subject of my talk is the Roman Emperor Constantine. I’ll be talking about a vision that he had in the early fourth century (abstract: here).
No, it’s the not famous sign in the sky prior to the battle at the Milvian Bridge. It comes from just after 324, when the emperor was basking in his defeat of Licinius and boasting of having seen the fall of Rome. Well, sort of. “‘Memphis’ and ‘Babylon’ have received a just reward for their wayward worship, left desolated and uninhabited, together with their gods,” the emperor said in 325.
Scholars who diverge in pretty significant ways about the effect that Rome’s first Christian ruler had on the empire are surprisingly unanimous in their interpretation of this one passage. Constantine, they say, is stating that he saw military action in Egypt and Mesopotamia. I have another idea.
To fourth-century Christians, the emperor’s reference to “Memphis” and “Babylon” were not places on a map. They were code words, drawn from a forged “prophecy” which had been circulating two centuries earlier among Jewish dissidents who were seeking the overthrow of Rome and a return to the Jewish homeland. This text, known today as the Fifth Sibylline Oracle, has never been recognized as a source for Constantine’s speech.
That’s hardly surprising. It’s a wildly apocalyptic piece of writing, a view of the future seen through a fun-house mirror of jumbled visions and numerological clues. Stocked with such fantastic themes as the return of Nero, the second coming of the Messiah, and the prospect of cataclysmic doom, it’s obvious why texts like this one have rarely found their way into narratives of the later Roman Empire. The genre to which it belongs, apocalyptic literature, has long been held to be, in the judgment of many, an embarrassment to rational thought.
I think this kind of rhetoric has an overlooked role to play in our understanding of later Roman history (others have begun to think so, too). For behind the emperor’s speech might just be lurking important clues about the world of early Christians. Even for fourth-century Christians, it seems, there was a usefulness for the apocalyptic imagery of an earlier day and age. In the centuries before Constantine, for example, a whole thought world of angels and demons–waging cosmic war!–had provided visions of comfort for those who had none, reassuring people with the idea that things would get better. Guess what? In 313 A.D., it did.
So why was Constantine drawing upon some of these same kinds of polarizing images a decade later (from a second-century A.D. Jewish text, no less)? Did every Christian really still feel so disaffected by the world they lived in? And what did non-Christians think when they heard the emperor speak about the idea of “Rome” as if the whole enterprise were, well, over and done?
It’s a curious thing, as the leader of 60 million Romans, to say that you’ve seen the downfall of your own empire. It’s also a great way to start an academic conversation.