David Potter’s book on Constantine is at first a little hard to pin down. It’s not really a biography, and despite the title, only about half the book is about the reign of Emperor Constantine, with the first half being a grounding in the crisis of the third century, and Diocletian’s reign (and depicts the Tetrarchy as being far less far-sighted as I’ve seen elsewhere), and then shows what Constantine’s place in the Imperial court was before his self-appointment to the rank of Augustus.

Through it all, the book is a slightly dry recounting of Roman government from Diocletian through Constantine’s death. There is a lot of attention paid to, and things read into, surviving official correspondence. Knowing what the person Constantine was like is probably impossible with the surviving sources, and Potter doesn’t try. He sketches in the outlines, but doesn’t go for a lot of color. The thrust of the narrative presents the early fourth century Empire as the world in which Constantine existed, and what his conversion to Christianity really meant.

And the answer is ‘not a lot’. Potter’s interpretation of Constantine’s faith is (understandably) as something that evolved over time, and doesn’t necessarily bear a strong resemblance to faith as it is understood today. His reign was not the dramatic conversion of the purpose of the Empire that it is generally presented as (especially in Christan sources). Instead, Potter shows that Constantine’s legislation shows a very evenhanded approach, retaining traditional practice (as he saw it) where possible, while integrating Christian belief into it.

He also admits that Constantine leaned towards promoting Christian administrators, which one would figure would promote the process of the Roman Empire becoming a ‘Christian’ Empire, but such long-term results are not looked into. Given Potter’s emphasis on the somewhat heterogeneous composition of the the empire and its government, I’d like to see what he has to say about the reign of Julian, and if it comes off as controversial at the time as it gets presented in hindsight or from hostile Christian sources.