This article analyses the reception of the story of Constantine in Iraqi Christian circles in the ninth and tenth centuries. It situates the use of the story against the broader historiographic context in which the history of the Roman church was imported wholesale into Iraq in the sixth century to buttress its identity as an orthodox church. It argues that the legacy of Eusebius was respected but not followed in its details. Instead, the memory of Constantine and his family was dominated by the Doctrina Addai and the Julian Romance, pseudo-histories composed in Syriac in Edessa in the fifth and sixth centuries. Within an Islamicate environment, Constantine was remembered chiefly for his role in establishing a Nicene orthodoxy, which was shared by all major Christian confessions in the caliphate, and for his role in the cult of the True Cross, a strong symbol that continued to divide Christians and Muslims.
Constantine has been a dominating presence in the Christian imagination. In the medieval West and Byzantium he was seen as a divinely-chosen monarch, legislator, church-builder, and protector of the orthodox.1 For many, his reign was a turning point in history, which set a pattern for how states should relate to the Christian church. Likewise, Constantine, buried at the heart of his new capital among the apostles, inspired an important strand of eschatological thought.2 Constantine also enjoyed a significant reputation among Christians living east of the Euphrates, who shared many of the late Roman narratives that circulated in the Mediterranean world. Here I turn to these under-studied narratives of Constantine in Iraq to consider how the late Roman past was re-imagined in the very different world of Abbasid Baghdad.
The late Tom Sizgorich wrote of the centrality of the fourth century for the later monotheist imagination.3 It was, he reminds us, an era when the narratives and methods of historical writing took forms that would endure well into the Christian and Muslim Middle Ages.4 The fourth century was particularly important for Christians outside the Roman world because Christianisation gave the Roman Empire a new importance for Christians outside it. That is, the fourth century could be understood as part of a universal Christian history, rather than as part of the history of the Roman Empire.5 While the sixth-century Antiochene chronicler John Malalas invested considerable effort in collecting the stories of the pagan kings of Greece and Rome and understanding them in Christian terms, little similar incentive existed outside Roman borders.6 For many medieval historians outside the empire, the gulf between Constantine and the New Testament was only filled by the deeds of the martyrs and apostles or the battle against heresy.7
Constantine himself provided a model for Christian kings with military ambitions, especially those who had recently converted. From Francia to Nubia, Constantine was a paradigm that was attractive both to kings and to the bishops whom they raised up.8 His example was seized upon by hagiographers in Iraq to describe the Persian shah Yazdegard I (possibly anticipating his conversion),9 or Christian communal leaders who were servants of the shah, such as the official Yazdin bar Shamta, or the doctor Gabriel of Sinjar.10
The emperors Constantine and Theodosius were also famous for their role in convening the church councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381). In Iraq, Roman ecclesiastical history was imported wholesale in the late sixth century to buttress the claims of the Church of the East to be orthodox in terms acknowledged in the Mediterranean and shared by other Dyophysite churches (i.e. churches that believed in the two natures, human and divine, that exist in the person of Jesus).11 In subsequent generations, especially during the reign of the patriarch Timothy I (780–832), East Syrian writers elaborated these accounts to invent links between this Roman ecclesiastical past and the barely-known history of Iraqi Christianity.12
A striking example of the treatment of “Mediterranean” history in eastern Syriac is the work John of Phenek, whose “history,” the Book of the Main Points, was composed in the 690s. It is essentially a history of orthodox thought and its key protagonists, culminating in the apocalyptic events of the author's own day. The author identifies persecution as an important process in maintaining the purity of the church, and sees present misfortunes as the result of moral laxity or heresy.13 Much of John's work deals with events in the Bible before turning to the deeds of the apostles, the persecutions and the coming of Constantine, and finally the victories of orthodox churchmen over their heretical opponents (running from Arius to Eutychius).14 It then skips straight to the Arab conquests, before concluding with the signs of the apocalypse and the great suffering wrought during the second Arab civil war.15 It is significant that this is a work by an Iraqi author in the Umayyad period: much of his vision of the significant past is located outside Iraq, in the councils of the eastern Roman world in the fourth and fifth centuries.16
Not many histories of John of Phenek's vintage have survived. There are, however, a number of Arabic medieval compilations—dating from the tenth to the twelfth centuries—that use a wide variety of earlier sources, most of which have been translated from Syriac.17 Foremost among these are the histories of Mari ibn Sulayman and the anonymous works referred to as the Haddad Chronicle (Mukhtaṣar al-akhbār al-bīʿiyya) and the Chronicle of Seert. The latter provides the richest testimony for the earlier Syriac tradition of the Church of the East, the vast majority of which has been lost. For the material on Constantine, the two other compilers tend to duplicate narratives found in the Chronicle of Seert.
The numerous different tales of Constantine embedded in the Chronicle allow us to observe the continued importance of the Christian Roman past, especially the fourth and fifth centuries, beyond the Tigris frontier. Though these tales are often transmitted anonymously, the compiler tends to include all material that he has available, however contradictory. There is not space to investigate the compiler's editorial approach here, but one can get a good impression of his reluctance to intervene from comparing the very different accounts given of the emperor Julian (XXXIII and XXXIV) or the theologian Ephrem (XXVI and LIV).18
The Chronicle is a compilation of compilations. The bulk of the material for the early fourth century does not represent an Arabic précis of Greek narratives composed in the fourth or fifth centuries.19 Rather, narratives have passed through a number of different hands (mostly writing in Syriac), each of which has summarised or expanded the story according to the compiler's agenda. These different agendas constitute the main focus of this article. As far as possible, in each case I ask how this information has been transmitted and altered and what this tells us about the context of this transmission. We should note at this point that very little can be said about the compiler of the Chronicle himself, aside from the fact that the sources he used suggest that he worked in circles connected to the patriarch and that he had a relatively inclusive attitude to his material, which included Melkite and Jacobite texts.20
THE VICTORY OF CONSTANTINE
Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History provided the chief source for the circumstances of Constantine's rise to power, his defeat of the other Tetrarchs, and the peace of the church. Books VIII and IX cover the civil war between the Tetrarchs in the aftermath of Diocletian's abdication,21 the death of Galerius, Constantine's defeat of Maxentius in Rome,22 and Licinius' defeat of Maximian in the East.23 Book X reflects on the era of peace established by Constantine and his rupture with Licinius,24 which is presented as a result of the latter's ambition.25
The Ecclesiastical History celebrated Constantine's reign as a return to civilisation, where the self-controlled monarch restores political unity and true religion in the face of the machinations of pagan tyrants.26 The work was translated into Syriac in the fifth century, and the Chronicle of Seert emphasises Eusebius' importance as the father of church history.27 But the accounts of Constantine in the Chronicle of Seert rarely seem to draw directly on Eusebius.28 Instead, Eusebius' fifth-century successors seem to have had a greater impact on the medieval narratives. Socrates offers a straightforward epitome of the political events of the dissolution of the Tetrarchy.29 Sozomen focuses more closely on Constantine's vision of the Cross at the Milvian bridge during his invasion of Rome, on the controversy surrounding the death of Constantine's son Crispus, and on the war against Licinius.30
The narratives embedded in the Chronicle of Seert give varying levels of detail on these events. One (XV) simply observes that the persecutions of Diocletian were halted by the succession of Constantine, whereupon the Christians were able to live in peace.31 The complexities of the Tetrarchic system and its collapse have been reduced simply to a note that Diocletian partitioned the empire. Constantine's role within the Tetrarchy has simply been eliminated.32 This narrative describes Maxentius as a rebel against Constantine.33 The author seems ignorant of the realities of Tetrarchic politics, since Maxentius' rebellion was against Diocletian's successor Galerius (who is unmentioned). The ambiguity of one pagan tyrant rebelling against another has been jettisoned, along with the other complexities of the Tetrarchy, to make Constantine the legitimate emperor and Maxentius the rebel. Here the rebellion has been reduced to a vehicle for the story of Constantine's vision and his subsequent conversion and the creation of Constantinople.
A second account (XVII) presents Constantine as the great-grandson of the emperor Decius and the great-great grandson of Claudius.34 This may reflect Constantine's own claims that he was a descendant of Claudius II Gothicus,35 whom the author seems to have confused with the first-century emperor Claudius I. This confusion has prompted the invention of a chain of ancestors to take this lineage back to the first century.36 The association between Constantine and Claudius may have seemed a way of legitimizing Constantine's accession by blood, while denying any complicity of the line of Constantine in the persecutions. To this author, the Roman empire of the second and third centuries was a shadowy and undifferentiated period of persecution: the nuance of Eusebius' coverage of this period has been ignored. The principal image of Constantine in this account is the vision of the Cross.
These two different résumés of the events of Constantine's reign point to a significant gulf of interests between Eusebius' original account and the ninth century. Eusebius' narrative of a short-lived political system and his interweaving of politics and theology have both been abandoned. Instead, the Arabic accounts represent the fulfilment of trends already seen in Eusebius' fifth-century successors: the Milvian Bridge is important as the context for the miraculous appearance of the Cross, and as the immediate background for Nicaea.
CONSTANTINE AND THE BISHOPS
A principle area of controversy in the Constantine legends preserved by Eusebius and his successors had been his deathbed baptism by an “Arian,” Eusebius of Nicomedia. This delay had been seized on by pagan writers in late antiquity to argue that Constantine's conversion had only been pursued as a way of expunging his guilt for his murder of his son Crispus. Garth Fowden has illustrated how these accusations stimulated the creation of an alternative set of stories about Constantine. One of these, the Visio Constantini, resolved the problem by having Constantine baptised immediately after his vision at the Milvian bridge by a different Eusebius, a (fictional) Roman Pope rather than the famous “heretic.” The second, the Acts of Silvester, imagines Constantine as a persecutor of Christians who is cursed with leprosy and intends to bathe in the blood of children, but then witnesses a vision from SS. Peter and Paul and converts at the hands of a Roman Pope named Silvester. This other Pope was a real contemporary of Constantine (reigned 313–325), and this second story is likely to have been composed in Rome itself. Both stories probably originated in Latin, but rapidly circulated and gained acceptance in Greek, Armenian, and Syriac.37
The Silvester legend is quite prominent in the Chronicle.38 Though the story was composed in early medieval Rome, it may have proved attractive in Abbasid Baghdad because its focus was on bishops rather than emperors. The legend makes Silvester Constantine's equal: he is the hero of the story who receives penance from the emperor. Such a focus would have been especially relevant in an environment where priests, rather than lay rulers, led the Christian communities of Baghdad.
One version of the Silvester legend in the Chronicle is particularly unusual (XV). Here the author has displaced the narrative of the child-killing emperor onto Maxentius, and it has been used as part of Constantine's casus belli against the pagan emperor.39 Nadia el-Cheikh has observed that a number of Muslim polemicists had taken up the issue of child murder in the Acts of Silvester. Though they are unlikely to have done so consciously, these polemicists repeat the accusations of Constantine's pagan critics. A good example is the Muslim historian ‘Abd al-Jabbar (935–1025), the qadi of Rayy, who represented Constantine as an innovator who had perverted the true prophecies of Jesus. Here the story of his leprosy was used to explain a desperate false conversion and the use of the state to propagate a hollow Christianity.40 It may be in reaction to such criticism that our author transferred one of the central themes of this famous legend to distance Constantine from blame.
Both Eusebius of Rome and Silvester appear as Constantine's baptisers in the stories in the Chronicle. The presence of both names is a good indication of the compiler's reluctance to engage in heavy editing of the texts he had before him. The two names seem to have circulated fairly freely among different stories associated with Constantine, and one version of the Acts of Silvester in the Chronicle has given the bishop's name as Eusebius, rather than Silvester.41 An East Syrian author was likely to be ignorant of the reasons for nominating Silvester (chronology and a pious reputation in the city of Rome),42 but to be aware of a Eusebius as the hero of the famous Julian Romance (discussed further below).43 This may explain the occasional removal of Silvester from the narrative that bore his name.44
HELENA, CONSTANTINE AND JULIAN
Helena: the blessed and faithful queen came from Edessa in Mesopotamia [the Jazira], from a village called Kafr Fahār. She became Christian at the hands of Barsamya, whose name means “son of the blind man,” the bishop of Edessa. It was there in Edessa that she read the holy books. (XVII, 264)
In addition to the bishop who baptised him, Constantine was tightly associated in Syriac narratives with two other members of the imperial family: Helena and Julian. Constantine's mother, the empress Helena, had been celebrated in the fourth century as a benefactor of the “holy places” in Palestine. By the fifth century, her reputation had been further enlarged by her alleged discovery of the True Cross in Jerusalem (the Judas Kyriakos Legend).
Helena had come from humble origins when she married Constantine's father Constantius I, and was believed to have been a Christian before her marriage.45 Her ambiguous origins meant that different hagiographers could claim her for various different provinces of the Roman world, from Bithynia to Gaul to Britain.46 The historian quoted in the Chronicle of Seert locates her birthplace as Kfar Fahār, a village near Edessa.47 But unlike most versions of the Helena story, this history also explores her life-story before her marriage: she had converted as a girl at the hands of Barsamya of Edessa, and persuaded Constantius to protect the Christians after a period of persecution that had lasted since the days of Tiberius I.48
The reference to Barsamya is striking. The name was not used for any historical bishop of Edessa, and it is absent from the bishop lists reported in the sixth century Syriac Chronicle of Edessa.49 It does appear in the Doctrina Addai, however, a fifth-century pseudo-history of the conversion of Edessa to Christianity in the first century, as one of the nobles of Edessa who received the apostle Addai. The name also appears in a fifth-century martyr's account, set in the reign of Trajan.50 H. J.-W. Drijvers persuasively argued that Barsamya was one of a number of fifth-century Edessene aristocrats who inserted their eponymous ancestors into Edessa's early Christian history, and gave them a role in Edessa's Christianisation and resistance to the persecutions.51
In this Arabic narrative, it appears that an interest in this alleged ancient history of Edessa has stimulated the invention of a fourth-century bishop Barsamya, who may be anachronistically identified with the martyr of the era of Trajan. In other words, Helena, the heroine of Roman imperial Christianity, has been linked to a local Edessene figure to give greater prominence to the city.52
It is worth underscoring here that Edessa had only been a second-tier city in political terms in the fourth century. However, Edessene scribes were remarkably successful in their self-promotion. The story that king Abgar of Edessa had been a correspondent of Jesus was repeated by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History.53 This story formed the core of the Doctrina Addai, which adds the detail that Jesus promised in a letter to render Abgar's city invulnerable to all enemies.54 The coverage of the first century in the Chronicle (when the events of the Doctrina Addai are set) is not extant. But it is reasonable to expect that the Doctrina was part of the full Chronicle. For instance, the seventh-century historian Daniel bar Maryam, whom the Chronicle cites, and the tenth-century Haddad Chronicle, which uses many of the same sources as the Seert Chronicle, both included versions of the Doctrina Addai.55
The Helena narrative in the Chronicle of Seert is probably derived from a Syriac letter on Helena ascribed to Marutha of Maypherkat, which developed the earlier Syriac legends of the Inventio Crucis. The letter shares the prominent role ascribed to Barsamya and the ascription of an Edessene birthplace to Helena. It described Helena's role in encouraging Constantine to suppress heresies that threatened the church. As in the Doctrina Addai, Edessa is presented as the orthodox city par excellence, and here Helena anachronistically anticipates the orthodox creed that would be established at Nicaea. J.-W. Drijvers dates the letter to the 430s–440s, on grounds of its heresiological interests.56 These interests, however, have been entirely abandoned in the recension in the Chronicle; what remains is the shell of details that link Helena to Edessa. One can speculate that it is the ascription of this text to Marutha, who was the chief representative from the Roman world at the council of Ctesiphon in 410, which led to the preservation of this story.
CONSTANTINE AND JULIAN
A second narrative in the Chronicle of Seert that shows the influence of the pseudo-historical tradition of Edessa is section XXIV on the death of Constantine. It describes how Eusebius of Rome summoned 40 bishops to hear Constantine's testament, before the coming of “the impious Julian.” The bishops lament: “Woe to us: after you, O family of Constantine, we will all be dispersed.” Constantine prophesies the coming of the pagan emperor Julian the Apostate after his death, and warns the bishops not to bend to the royal diadem or to the king's anger, or to his sword and his punishments. Eusebius, bishop of Rome, then reassures Constantine that he will be received into heaven after being baptised.57 At the emperor's deathbed, the bishop of Edessa asks Constantine to bless his city, to which Constantine replies, “How can I bless what God has already blessed?” This is a clear reference to Jesus' promise to Abgar.58 The bishop replies, “God's blessing is on the walls, but your blessing is on what is inside the walls.” Constantine gives his blessing to the people of Edessa and then dies, but we are told that he will soon be succeeded by Julian, “the raging lion,” before being succeeded in turn by his general Jovian, who will be crowned by a diadem that descends from the heavens.59
I suggest that this short text is an introduction to the Julian Romance, a sixth-century Edessene hagiography that describes the resistance of Rome and Edessa to the persecutions of Julian and his failed invasion of the Persian empire. The apocalyptic language of both texts, the amnesia over the sons of Constantine, the crowning of Jovian from heaven, the focus on Rome and Edessa, and the figure of Eusebius of Rome all support the association of this Arabic text with the Syriac Romance.
This material, however, is not extant in the lengthy Syriac version of the Julian Romance edited by Hoffmann in 1888 and recently translated by Michael Sokoloff.60 Hoffmann's narrative began with Eusebius' preparations in Rome immediately after Julian's succession, and the Chronicle of Seert has drawn on it to provide a substantial (and innaccurate) account of the reign of Julian.61 I suggest that this introduction has been derived from a slightly longer Syriac version than the one available to Hoffmann, and which anticipates a number of the themes visible in the extant text.
The Edessene flavour of these narratives about Helena, Constantine, and Julian testify to the route of transmission of historical material from the Roman world into Iraq (via Nisibis).62 The fourth century had been an important site for Edessene authors in later periods who were keen to prove their importance and their orthodoxy, and the treatment of these psudo-histories in the Chronicle of Seert indicates that, by the medieval period, they were given equal weight to the Greek ecclesiastical histories.63 Indeed, by the time Roman history was received, several times removed, by the Muslim historian al-Tabari (838–923), a version of the Julian Romance has entirely displaced Greek accounts of the period. This is a good indication of the text's popularity and the long-term success of Edessa's late Roman self-promotion.64
CONSTANTINE AND THE ARIANS
Another major strand of the depiction of Constantine in the Chronicle presents him as the convener of Nicaea (XVIII). This is an image of Constantine drawn primarily from the Greek ecclesiastical historians that presents Nicaea as the defeat of the heresiarch Arius. The complete defeat of the “Arians” by the sixth century, and the dissemination of the works of Socrates, Sozomen and Theodoret as canonical continuators of Eusebius, gave Nicaea a foundational role for most later Christian groups.65 Even outside the empire, the Church of the East issued a condemnation of Arius as part of its statement of shared orthodoxy with the West, even though there had never been Arianism there.66
This definition of orthodoxy as anti-Arianism is inherited in the ecclesiastical history transferred from the West to the Church of the East. For instance, the defeat of the Arians comes across strongly in the biographies of Theodore of Mopsuestia that are extant in the Chronicle of Seert, or in the twelfth-century history of Mari ibn Sulayman. The opposition of men like Theodore, Nestorius, and Diodore of Tarsus to the Arians is seen as a precursor to their opposition to Apollinarians and Miaphysites.67 I have argued elsewhere that such Dyophysite histories were developed in Constantinople, and their reception in the Church of the East reflects a growing internationalism in Ctesiphon and the wish to affirm a Dyophysite theology on historical and theological foundations that were respected in the West.68
Though the use of Western (i.e. Mediterranean) ecclesiastical history could be adversarial (where the West was represented as the place that had rejected the Dyophysite theologians),69 there are important strands of the historical tradition preserved in the Chronicle of Seert that are more “oecumenical.” At certain points, Dyophysites in Iraq, Constantinople, and Rome are all ranged against the Miaphysites,70 and (Chalcedonian) Roman emperors such as Marcian and Maurice are venerated in the histories of the Church of the East.71 The opposition to Arianism, which had always been a straw man in Iraq, can be read as an even broader oecumenical statement, one that acknowledges common ground with the Miaphysites. David Lane read these attacks on Arianism in the Shubhalmaran's Book of Gifts (c. 610) in this way—that is, as an oecumenical gesture.72
The Abbasid period, beginning with the long reign of patriarch Timothy I (780–823), was the context for the composition of many of the narratives embedded in the Chronicle.73 It witnessed a re-emergence of oecumenical initiatives in the circle of the patriarch. Timothy's Letter 26 underscores the common baptism of “Severans, Nestorians, and Chalcedonians” and a string of shared beliefs from the Incarnation and baptism to the eucharist and the last judgement. The implication is that the churches are only divided by adiaphora.74 Though the letter does not address Arius explicitly, similar oecumenical sentiments might underlie the eastern historians' emphasis on Nicaea: it was a foundational moment shared by all the recognised Christian confessions of the caliphate.75
The Church of the East enjoyed a predominant position among the Christian confessions of the caliphate: this was an era of substantial expansion both into Central Asia and the Mediterranean.76 In this situation, it may have suited the hierarchy of the Church of the East to emphasise the common ground between Christians, if only to legitimise their ability to speak on behalf of other Christian confessions.77 Apocryphal Arabic canons of Nicaea circulated from the ninth century, with some 78 canons (compared to the 20 that are extant in the Greek originals).78 The account of the Council in the Chronicle of Seert is aware of this discrepancy, and reports that the “Melkites, Nestorians and Jacobites” held 20 canons in common, but that the longer list (here 73 canons) comes from the list taken to the east by Marutha of Maypherkat.79 Emphasis of a shared past, and forgery of that same past, were both a means to adapt to a changing society and a mechanism for the leadership of the Church of the East to justify its innovations in terms of Christian tradition.80 The great jurists of the Church of the East, among them the patriarch Isho‘barnun, could be represented as part of a chain of Christian legislators that stretched back to Constantine, and we can read the interest in Nicaea displayed in the Chronicle of Seert in this light.81
Having said this, we should also point out a potential weakness of the use of Nicaea within the Church of the East, namely that there was likely only one representative from the Sasanian world at the fourth-century council (“John the Persian”), and he is otherwise unknown. Various medieval historians have attempted to address this problem, either through the forgery of letters between established figures of Roman Christianity and the semi-legendary catholicos Papas (probably in the mid-sixth century),82 or by asserting the presence of eastern catholicoi or bishops at Nicaea.83 This body of interventions in the narratives about Nicaea in the Chronicle attempts to stretch Eusebian notions of the Christian world to include (mostly fictional) members of the Church of the East.84 We saw above how Edessan historians attempted to retroject their city's importance into the past. Here, in the narratives of the council of Nicaea, the Christian past was adapted to accommodate the growing importance of a church centred on Baghdad.
CONSTANTINE AND THE CROSS
Thus far we have examined the Chronicle's Constantine narratives as the products of historians or hagiographers. But the Chronicle also seems to have drawn heavily on synaxaria and chronographies to produce its coverage of the early fourth century. We are often told the exact date on which events occurred, and years are often tracked in multiple dating systems, something that has no parallel in the rest of the extant text. This precision implies the use of narratives of the past to justify dates in the liturgical calendar.
The liturgical significance of Constantine (which persisted into the nineteenth century in the Church of the East)85 was a phenomenon of all three major Christian confessions in the caliphate. Furthermore, shared interest in Constantine was a stimulus to the flow of information across confessional boundaries and the basis for the imagination of shared membership of a universal Christendom. The Chronicle invokes the Melkite historian Qusta ibn Luqa86 and the “Nestorian” exegete and patriarch Isho‘barnun to provide material on Constantine and Helena (XVII), particularly the discovery of the Cross. The use of Qusta may imply that the Melkites were seen as particularly reliable sources for information on the emperor, perhaps because of their access to sources in Greek. The presence of Qusta may also suggest an openness to the traditions of a different Christian community on the part of the compiler, a member of the Church of the East.87 The Chronicle reports differences in Melkite and Nestorian liturgical practice (the celebration of the discovery of the Cross on the 13th/14th of September)88 without any trace of polemic: we are simply told the origins of the festival at the battle of the Milvian bridge.
The use of information that is acknowledged to derive from Qusta matches this more open attitude, in which information passed across confessional boundaries. Timothy's correspondence shows him writing to informants asking to borrow books from Melkite and Jacobite libraries (though he keep the latter a secret).89 The geography of Christian confessional groups that had once lived apart had become increasingly intermingled by the ninth century, when the Church of the East held bishoprics in Damascus and Jerusalem and Melkites in Baghdad and Merv.90 The compiler's use of Qusta testifies both to this intermingling and to the relative intellectual openness of Christian intellectuals such as Timothy and Isho‘barnun (and the compiler of the Chronicle himself).
The wish to highlight the connection between the Constantine legend and a number of festivals associated with the Cross also alerts us to the significance of the fourth century for the emotional appeal of Christianity in a Muslim environment. Writers often complain of the concessions Christians were willing to make in a Muslim environment. For instance, Thomas of Marga tells of the Christian aristocrats near Mosul in the late seventh century who declared that “Christ was an ordinary man” and “like one of the Prophets.”91 Some Christians then, including members of the elite on whom other Christians depended to fund religious activities, were tempted to make substantial concessions to their Muslim neighbours. This may have been easy on matters of complex theology, such as the status of members of the Trinity. Jack Tannous reminds us that “heresy,” even if it was unwitting, was probably the norm in any religious community, and that religious specialists could not disseminate an orthodox answer to every theological question. For most Christians in late antiquity, shared symbols such as the sacraments, belief in the figure of Jesus, and the Cross could be of more central importance than points of theology, and could bear a wide variety of meanings, some orthodox and some popular. Allegiance to such symbols was a “bright boundary” that lay at the core of Christian culture and distinguished them from their neighbours.92
The Cross appears in the Arabic Constantine narratives as a multivalent symbol: a war banner of the Byzantine empire,93 a symbol of suffering and sacrifice, and a sign of the future resurrection.94 As such it linked the events of the Gospels, and the victory of Christ over death, to the political events of the fourth century: the victories of Constantine and the Christian religion, and the final triumph of those who had suffered under the persecutors. We can speculate that the narratives which told of the final victory of the persecuted might have offered succour to Christians in the caliphate, if only because the miracles of Constantine's victory offered an assurance of their own faith. This was especially important in an environment where Muslim military victory seemed to some to be a sign of God's hand in history.95 The emphasis on the Cross, spanning these different narratives, appeals to a powerful symbol that was shared by different Christian confessions, and the emotional appeal of the Cross was something that set Christians apart from their Muslim neighbours.96
The narratives of Constantine that were used to explain liturgical practice also point to the way that liturgy could affirm membership in a wider Christendom even amongst those who lived in far-away Iraq. The narratives evoke Jerusalem (XVI), Constantinople (XIX), and Rome (XX) as, respectively, the sites of the discovery of the Cross, the establishment of Nicene orthodoxy, and the victory over the pagan tyrants. Each of these cities retained a powerful prestige as exotic sites in the far West. Jerusalem's significance as a pilgrimage centre had probably been increased by the abolition of political boundaries between Iraq and the West. Rome and Constantinople were now unknown but unconquered reminders that Christians in the caliphate were part of a wider Christendom that had an ancient history. In the imagination of the chronicler, at least, they still held a prosperity that could rival Baghdad.
The Constantine narratives that were repeated and evoked in the liturgy reminded those who read of these events, heard about them in prayers, or saw them symbolised in processions that they were part of a wider Christendom that stretched into the West. But one passage of the Helena story (XVII) also shows that one historian sought to insert the East into these narratives by tracking the movements of the True Cross in the sixth and seventh centuries. It is the only example of the “anachronistic” placement of material in the Chronicle, where a section devoted to the fourth century includes histories of a later period. To some extent, the author of this section has conducted a piece of antiquarian research to determine the claims of different places to hold the relics of the crucifixion.97 But he also gives a long account of how the Cross was taken to Khurasan during the reign of Khusrau II (d. 628), after his conquest of Roman Palestine, in response to the devotion of his wife Shirin. He tells how the Cross was returned to Jerusalem after Khusrau's defeat, and describes how it was brought into Baghdad: across the bridge over the Diyala river to meet the emperor Heraclius, who was camped at another bridge over the Nahrawan canal.98
I speculate that the author has identified these bridges because of contemporary liturgical practice. Here we have an “historical” narrative which has been generated out of a contemporary processional route and which explained this route by recounting the transfer of the Cross after Khusrau's death.99 Though the Constantine narrative could not easily accommodate sites in the East, here an innovative author has found a way of linking a number of places in East and West by tracking the movements of the Cross. I suggest that the narrative could be used to explain contemporary liturgical practice in the city of Baghdad and link Iraq and Khurasan to the holy city of Jerusalem. These references to the passage of the Cross from the east connect the memory of Constantine to the wars of Heraclius, a moment when leadership of the Christians of the East was an object of the propaganda wars between Rome and Persia. Indeed, the highpoint of Heraclian propaganda at the conclusion of the war was his restoration of the Cross to Jerusalem, an act that underscored the “pagan” nature of his Persian opponents and the solidarity of Christians on both sides of the Euphrates.100
Eusebius of Caesarea was widely acknowledged as the father of church history. His importance is upheld in the material collected in the Chronicle of Seert, where he is named as the composer of Easter tables,101 (falsely) identified as a figure of major political importance,102 and (again falsely) described as having recanted his “Arianism.”103 But the ecclesiastical history that plays such an important role in modern reconstruction of the early fourth century (and which survived in Syriac translation) has been abandoned in these Arabic accounts. Far more important than the details of Constantine's wars with Maxentius and Licinius are his roles as convener of Nicaea and his association with the True Cross through Helena.
The narratives that we find in the Chronicle bear traces of the transmission of the Constantine narrative into the East. In Helena's presumed birthplace at Edessa we see the importance of the “holy city” as a gateway for information between the Roman and Sasanian worlds. In the focus on the True Cross we see the imprint of Heraclian propaganda that sought to unite Christians of all persuasions in celebrating the emperor's defeat of a “pagan” enemy in Khusrau II. In the presentation of Constantine as one of a chain of lawgivers, and in the focus on the fictional bishops of Rome, Silvester and Eusebius, we see the new priorities of a Christian community that was represented by its bishops at Baghdad, and who took on a new role as lawgivers for a dhimmi community within the caliphate.
Finally, it is worth stressing what we do not see in these narratives. For all that Constantine is an orthodox lawgiver, and his story a tale of God's protection of the Christians, there is no real discussion of what kingship might mean in practice in a Christian polity. Constantine in the Byzantine tradition was an ideal that was used to assess the policies of medieval emperors and judge their virtue or orthodoxy, and this was obviously not necessary in the caliphate.104 There may have been hopes for the Constantinian conversion of a Sasanian shah, but it is striking that these seem to have dried up in the Islamic period where the Church of the East was concerned.105 While Melkites in Palestine occasionally hoped for a conversion by a Muslim caliph, or imagined the apostasy of Qurayshi tribesmen, no such literature existed for the Church of the East.106 Perhaps the latter were simply less wedded to the idea of a state-endowed Christian monopoly, which the Melkites had once enjoyed.
HEADINGS USED IN THE
CHRONICLE OF SEERT (PO 4)
XIII Silvester of Rome
XIV Silvester and the dragon
XVI The Discovery of the Cross
XVII Helena and Constantine
XVIII Council of Nicaea
XIX Description of Constantinople
XX Description of Rome
XXI Eusebius' Chronicon
XXII Easter and the Resurrection
XXIII Shapur (II) Dhu al-Aktaf
XXIV Death of Constantine