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Catholic Church Constantine Karlheinz Deschner Kriminalgeschichte des Christentums (books)

Christianity’s Criminal History, 172

Constantine I (also Saint Constantine or Constantine the Great)
was a Roman emperor from 306 to 337 c.e.


Karlheinz Deschner responds to Prof. Maria R.-Alföldi’s review

Mrs Alföldi reviews and censures in just twelve pages (148-159), and under the title ,,Kaiser Konstantin: ein Grosser der Geschichte?”, the seventy-two pages of my chapter ‘Saint Constantine, the first Christian Emperor: Symbol of Seventeen Centuries of Ecclesiastical History’, which appears in the first volume of my Kriminalgeschichte des Christentums [pages 157-176 of our abridged translation — Ed.]

Almost at the outset, she finds it ‘difficult to give even a rough account of the content of Deschner’s explanations’ (page 149). Why’s that? No doubt because she dislikes the content itself, which is divided into ten subheadings and thus perfectly outlined, just as she dislikes the non-academic orientation, which she describes as ‘popular’ and even ‘populist’ (page 159), ‘marked by a strong tendentiousness’ (page 149), which I had already explicitly acknowledged in my General Introduction. And at the end of her report, she urges a cautious handling of historiography, which I can only agree with all my energy!

Maria R.-Alföldi’s essay appears in the book’s third part, which the editor entitles ‘Model of Concrete Criticism’. Model, pars pro toto. I now submit this rebuttal, closely following the text, to a detailed critique.

‘It is read’, writes the professor ‘that Constantine falsified his genealogy.’ And also: ‘The first years of the young emperor’s rule in the West are nothing but dreadful wars against the poor Germans, who were later taken prisoner and mercilessly slaughtered’.

It all appears as terribly exaggerated by me, as untrue, although again this isn’t said explicitly. Both ancient sources and modern research confirm that Constantine’s barbarism was already in his time something infrequent and appalling. However, the lady critic prefers discreet insinuations, and hurtful ironies, which present me as an obscurantist historian, without her openly expressing it with decent malice aforethought.

But while Mrs Alföldi reproaches me, as she often does, of misleading the reader, it’s she who does it. And while she states that I suggest that Constantine carried out the war, she suggests already with the following sentence, and again against truthfulness, ‘once again one reads extremely emotional descriptions of atrocities of all kinds’ (page 150). Such descriptions, as I wrote, come to me in their entirety from the Church Fathers Eusebius and Lactantius.

With ‘underhanded acrimony’ (page 150), that is what I am reproached for, I then comment on the universal sovereignty of him whom she labels ‘Byzantine’ rhetoric. Constantine ‘forces the Church to come under his sway; and the Church in turn, according to Deschner, willingly and opportunistically bends over backwards to get at money and power’. But that would only be ‘a certain, perfectly recognizable palace group.’

No, because the Church as a whole achieved through Constantine, and his immediate successors, eminent influence and prestige. This is indisputable. Throughout the empire, the bishops exalted the dictator. Their tokens of favour were showered even on the hierarchies of distant countries, and reached the Catholic clergy as a whole—who was now a recognised and privileged caste—in the form of money, honours, titles, basilicas and other buildings; in the form of exemption from burdens and taxes, release from oath-taking and the obligation to testify, permission to use the state post, the right to admit last dispositions and bequests; moreover, the sovereign—as many others would do in the future!—delegated part of the state power to the prelates, although he also decided on matters of faith.

Quite a few prelates already imitated the style and ceremony of the imperial residence in their episcopal sees. Again and again, it is said in the sources: ‘He made them respectable and enviable in the eyes of all’, ‘with his orders and laws he brought them even greater prestige,’ and ‘with imperial munificence, he opened up all the treasures…’ Soon, precisely the greatest fathers of the Church, such as Ambrose, Chrysostom, Jerome and Cyril of Alexandria, will praise Constantine, who not only called himself co-bishop, ‘bishop for external interests’ (epískopos tôn ektós) but who modestly didn’t hesitate to call himself ‘our divinity’ (nostrum numen)…

The always obscene association of the throne and altar, especially in countless massacres from the 4th century to the present day, is not a product of my ‘tendentiousness’ (page 149), but something quite appalling. But as with so many conformists by profession, in her prose there is hardly any blood flowing, not a single drop; whereas it reminds me, as it seems to me, with all horror: ‘the battles are awash with blood’ (page 149) as if I had spilt it!

On the contrary, she ignores, no doubt with the bulk of the historians’ guild, the lamentable practice of hanging the little rascals and extolling the great ones. Nothing specifically Christian, no doubt. Already the African bishop Cyprian, martyr and saint, decried this practice in paganism and lamented that when blood is shed in private, the act is called a heinous crime, but if it is shed publicly it is bravery. ‘The extent of the havoc is that which leaves the crime unpunished.’

She speaks only in an aside, summarily and with the coldness of the investigator, of the ‘tragic end’ of Constantine’s relatives. Conversely, my prose narrates that the great saint had his father-in-law Maximian hanged in Marseilles, then had his brothers-in-law Licinius and Basianbus strangled; had Licinius’ son murdered at Carthage, ordered his own son Crispus poisoned (while murdering many of his friends) and had his wife Fausta, mother of five children, drowned in the bath… In addition, Constantine sent other parricides to hell using the terrible and long-gone insaculation (poena cullei, the particularly slow drowning in a leather sack).

This in no way fits in with his apologetic concept of the despot who is still highly celebrated by theologians and historians; who, ‘under the influence of Christian conceptions’, as the Handbuch der Kirchengeschichte exalts him, shows ‘a growing respect for the dignity of the human person’, the ‘Christian respect for human life’ (Baus, Catholic). That saintly usurer would, for example, have the tongues of informers cut out before their execution, would have the domestic servants who had taken part in the abduction of a bride killed, would have the slaves burnt and the wet nurses killed by pouring molten lead into their mouths, would have every slave and domestic who had accused his master executed immediately, without investigation or the production of witnesses.

On all these things and many more, the expert on Constantine doesn’t say a word. Quite the contrary: she goes on to say that I always treat the Constantinian penal legislation negatively, that I even ‘brand the emperor as anti-Semitic’, and this ‘despite the known fact that at that time the Jews were still free to practise their faith’ (page 151).

As if the Jews’ free practice of their faith were in contradiction with the anti-Semitism of the emperor, a sovereign who mocks the Jews as spiritually blind, a ‘hateful nation’ to whom he attributes an ‘innate insanity’; to whom he allows the visit to Jerusalem only one day a year. He bluntly forbids them to have Christian slaves, thus beginning their alienation from agriculture, with such grave consequences. Moreover, this is the first anti-Jewish law on conversion to Judaism (autumn 315), threatening both the Jew who converts and the Christian convert with the stake.

The specialist on the emperor silences the fact that her hero, with increasing power and freedom of movement, also attacked the pagans with increasing rigour.

This is particularly evident in the last years of Constantine’s rule, although he had no interest in opposing the vast majority of the empire. Nevertheless, Constantine forbade the rebuilding of ruined temples and even ordered their closure. In all the provinces, moreover, the temples were stolen and ‘plundered without regard’ (Tinnefeld) for him, his favourites and the churches; in fact, it came to ‘the theft of works of art such as had never occurred before’ (Kornemann). And then Constantine also arranged for their destruction. ‘He destroyed to the ground those temples which the idolaters held in the greatest veneration’ (Kornemann). ‘At a sign whole temples were lying on the ground’, Bishop Eusebius recounts in triumphant tones.

Nor did the potentate delay in ordering the burning of Porphyry’s fifteen books Against the Christians, in which he ‘advanced the entire biblical criticism of the Modern Age’ (Poulsen), which, according to the theologian Harnack, ‘has not yet been refuted’.

On all this Maria R.-Alföldi is once again completely silent…

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Editor’s note: I won’t abbreviate the following 4,700 words of Deschner’s retort; the above translation is enough to provide an idea. My post tomorrow Sunday will be devoted to my aspirations on how to pass on Deschner’s legacy in the English-speaking community, especially among those non-Christians who still believe in the fourteen words.