Thursday, February 27, 2014

CONSTANTINE the GREAT ~ February 27, 272 CE ~ May 22, 337 CE

Caesar Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus (27 February c. 272– 22 May 337), commonly known in English as Constantine I, Constantine the Great, or (among Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic Christians) Saint Constantine, was Roman emperor from 306, and the sole holder of that office from 324 until his death in 337. Best known for being the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine reversed the persecutions of his predecessor, Diocletian, and issued (with his co-emperor Licinius) the Edict of Milan in 313, which proclaimed religious toleration throughout the empire.

The Byzantine liturgical calendar, observed by the Eastern Orthodox Church and Eastern Catholic Churches of Byzantine rite, lists both Constantine and his mother Helena as saints. Although he is not included in the Latin Church's list of saints, which does recognize several other Constantines as saints, he is revered under the title "The Great" for his contributions to Christianity.

Constantine also transformed the ancient Greek colony of Byzantium into a new imperial residence, Constantinople, which would remain the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire for over one thousand years.

Etching by Piranesi

Ten and a half years ago on October 28th I stood in the middle of the Milvian Bridge in Rome and listened to a tape of my song of the same name, from a music drama about Constantine, I had written originally for the Bohemian Club as a submission for a Grove Play. The lyrics had been written a few years before, but I didn’t write the music or record it until after the play had been rejected by the Jinks Committee, following previous acceptance by the Reading Committee. When I retire in a few years, I intend to complete this and another play now on the back burner. But these won’t be resubmitted to the club. Instead, I’ll see where else there might be a place for them. More importantly, I plan to complete multi-media presentations on DVD.

By the Cross of Christ I conquer.
~~ I am Caesar ~~ Imperator ~~
No longer ~~ merely One of Four,
But Ruler of the Western World.
With flags unfurled & standards raised,
My legions march to victory:
~~ (O’er the grave?
~~ Who knows?)
With power supreme~~
which grows far greater
than any peasant
e’re foretold~~
The world is weary,
and bodies ... cold;
But Roman might
By the Cross of Christ I conquer.
~~I am Caesar ~~ Imperator ~~
No longer merely One of Four ~~
Soon ruler ~~ Augustus of the World.

Dennis and I had been in Venice and were in Rome before starting a ten day Mediterranean cruise ending up in Istanbul on Election Day 2000. (That was the only time I have voted by absentee ballot. I’ve never missed an election; but I like to vote in person.)
This was my second time on the Ponte Milvio. The first was in 1997 after dinner on a Sunday night with the choir from St. Dominic’s in San Francisco on a concert tour in Italy. We had just spent a frustrating day in Rome with little opportunity to go sight seeing on our own; so after dinner near the Vatican, I walked to the Victor Emmanuel monument at the Piazza Venezia and from there strode a power-walk about five kilometers up the Via del Corso in a straight line through Via le Tiziano, Via Flaminia to the Milvian Bridge and arrived just before midnight. (I returned to our hotel in the outer hills by taxi.)
One-thousand-six-hundred-ninety-eight years ago on October 28th in the year 312 C.E., Constantine defeated the Emperor Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (then at the northern most boundary of the city) and became sole ruler in the western half of the Roman Empire.
What initially interested me in the story of Constantine was the sheer scope of the geography. Even today it would be staggering for a single individual to affect events in places diverse as York, Rome, and Istanbul, let alone found one of them (now the largest city in Europe). Constantine —the Great— born in Dalmatia, accomplished all that. CONSTANTINE, the play, is based on actual history, legend, and a good bit of fiction. The major character is the hero Constantine. He is the real figure who changed the course of history. In the beginning we hear about his exploits second hand from other people when he became one of four tetrarchs after his father’s death in York, England. But at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, he demonstrates his valor, his stubbornness, his ingenuity, and his ability to exploit the situation.
After seeing angled rays of the sun through clouds the day before the battle, followed by a vision of the cross in a dream later that night, and then adopting the symbol of the Chi-Rho (the first two Greek letters of the word for Christ) to be painted on his soldiers’ shields, Constantine was able to win a victory against great odds. This victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge was the significant event in his life. It led to Constantine’s later conversion and the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire – an event which has had continuous impact on Western culture ever since.
Constantine becomes a Christian, yes, but primarily as the means to win the battle in order to gain absolute power. Later he insists on unity at the Council of Nicaea, again not so much from a religious standpoint as from a concern for conformity. His principal goal is to maintain order and hierarchy with himself at the top. He also wants family unity. This is the major source of conflict in the play. The single idea unifying the plot is the oftentimes difficult relationship between fathers and sons. The central irony is that Ossius saves Constantine’s life only – mistakenly – to recommend the execution of Crispus, Constantine’s son.
So the secondary major character is Lucius Marcellus Ossius, essentially my invention. He evolves from being a naive idealist to become a politically astute prelate. Ossius uses Constantine to gain acceptance of the Christian faith. He succeeds, but at the very moment of victory, he compromises the essence of that faith. Ossius becomes my metaphor of the Church as an institution and how it was changed by official recognition after the conversion of Constantine. This was a crucial intersection in history. Before that time it took great courage to declare oneself a Christian. Ever since, it has often been the reverse. In becoming an established institution, the Church lost sight of its original mission. This is not to imply that there is no truth in the Church, only to suggest that the great truths are hidden beneath the fabric of ritual and organization, and need to be rediscovered by seekers in each generation.
Ossius is basically a composite. There was a Bishop Ossius from Spain who advised Constantine on Church matters, may have interpreted the dream at the Milvian Bridge, probably presided at the Council of Nicaea and presumably counseled Constantine about the fate of Crispus. One fact I changed is having Ossius baptize Constantine. This act rounds out their relationship. (It’s unclear who really did baptize Constantine. Rome insists that it was Pope Sylvester, but he had already been in his tomb for at least two years.) It is fully documented, however, that Constantine was baptized just before his death.
Color photo of Rob Bell in front of colossal head of Constantine 1997

The Emperor Constantine seeks absolute power…with Unity of Empire, Faith and Family. Ossius wants Christianity to breathe the fresh air outside the catacombs – to be established and accepted in the open. Each uses the other as a means to his own goal. Each achieves that goal – but as is often the case in real life – gets more than he bargained for as a result of a relatively new cliché: the “law of unintended consequences.” The scene between Ossius and Constantine just before the Council of Nicaea is the heart of the play.

It is essential that we deal with this Arian heresy.
Yes, his ideas are dangerous. Arius preaches that Jesus is our brother— that we are all brothers.
Exactly! If Jesus is not Divine, on what basis do we owe him allegiance? If all men are brothers, on what basis do they owe ME allegiance? Anarchy- that’s the result of his ideas. The very integrity of the Empire is at stake.
I agree. We need hierarchy to maintain order. An ox will submit to his yoke, if he knows who's in command-- and if there’s a dog beneath him can kick.

Things are not always
as they seem.
The DREAM was
full fraternity;
But the folly
of that ideal
has only now
become too clear.
too disorganized.
It would be
The need...
is for
With recognition--
The Church has responsibilities
for Stewardship of resources.
We cannot afford
to squander Authority.
Hierarchy enhances Power--
Power for the
Greater Good.
Would that it were different.
The Situation’s changed.
Constantine: TRUTH is an ABSOLUTE
Ossius: (Though in practice it is not.)
Constantine: Truths, perhaps, are relative.
Ossius: (Indeed, some can be bought.)
Constantine: POWER is a process.
Ossius: (A means for good or ill.)
Constantine: UNITY is our purpose
Ossius: (Meaning submission to HIS will.)
Constantine: UNITY of EMPIRE
already is achieved.
Ossius: UNITY of FAMILY --
substantially, believed.
is the matter here at hand.
Without IT, all may crumble...
to blow away like sand.
(C): One EMPIRE, (O): One EMPEROR!
(C): One FAMILY, (O ): One FAITH!
Duet: Our DREAM is Salvation (Subjugation)
for the whole Human Race.
Good friend, I would like you to chair this Council on my behalf.
It is of utmost importance that we reach consenus. Above all--Unity.
Constantine puts on his crown and an elaborate robe and leads Ossius to the main stage set up for the Council.
Soldiers with swords drawn flank the entrance for the procession of Bishops.

At the beginning of that scene, each of the two main characters has already accomplished most of his principal goals. Constantine has absolute power in a unified empire (after his son, Crispus, had won a great naval victory in the Hellespont, where he defeated the superior fleet of Licinius, Augustus in the East). Ossius is a bishop in a recognized and powerfully established Christian Church. But here is the fatal flaw— hubris. Constantine’s quest for Unity had three elements: Empire, Family and Faith. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” The operative word is foolish. Consistency in itself may be a noble goal; but the word ‘foolish’ implies an unreasonable consistency. By imposing conformity at the Council of Nicaea and excommunicating those with whom they disagreed – by being exclusionary with people and texts – Constantine and the Church cut themselves off from collective wisdom. Selecting four Gospels may appear to be balanced; but prohibiting other writings is a foolish consistency. Arius may indeed have been a heretic and worthy of excommunication. It is clear to me, however, that the Church has not had a monopoly of those seeking truth. Further, it appears that some of the most profound thinkers have been rejected and persecuted by institutions. The classic example is Jesus.
In the play, the character Arius is one of my heroes. His view is that Jesus is a great man, and not a deity. His song is one of the few that I chose to write in a regular –almost sing-song – rhyme scheme… largely because the historical Arius was known to preach in such a style. I called Arius’ piece “Heretic’s Song.”
(Dennis didn’t like that title and preferred the first line “Jesus is our Brother” and thought the theology expressed in the lyrics was actually fairly mainstream. I’m not so sure. In any case, as he lay dying, Dennis asked me to play Robby’s song— and along with The Bach unaccompanied 'cello suites— was one of the last things he heard. Dennis also requested that my recording be played during communion at his funeral at Grace Cathedral. The sound person at the Cathedral, however, got a mixed signal and didn’t play the CD at the right time. I had to get up and go back to the sound booth more than halfway down the nave to ask her to begin. But it probably turned out for the best, since then there wasn’t the clicking sound of high heels and shuffling of feet during communion).

Jesus is our Brother
He teaches us the way
To reach our heavenly Father
By learning how to pray.
Note well, he says OUR Father
Not merely his own.
To be a model for us mortals
What good is a God alone.
Oh yes, Jesus is our Brother,
Jesus is our Brother,
Jesus is our Brother
But more than this
Jesus is our Friend!

Jesus is our pastor
A shepherd to his flock.
Not only is he master
But paschal lamb; take stock
Of what he offers
A means so we’ll atone—
Be one with God creator
Round an inward heavenly throne
For the kingdom is within you
The kingdom is within you
The kingdom is WITHIN YOU
And through the end
Jesus is our Friend.
Our Brother Jesus
Is our Friend!

The tragedy for Constantine in terms of the play is that by insisting on complete unity in matters of faith, he depends more completely on Ossius’ corrupted, incomplete wisdom. Arius is truer to the ideals expressed by the younger Ossius in his song “Blessed are the Poor” but Arius is excommunicated and his writings banned. So complete unity of faith leads eventually to disunity of family and the tragic execution of Crispus. Therefore, the Fausta/Crispus story in part four is a necessary dramatic consequence to the scene at the Council of Nicaea.
The main external villains are the anti-Christian Emperor Maxentius, defeated by Constantine at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, and his sister Fausta – Constantine’s second wife – who plots the downfall of Crispus, Constantine’s heroic, virtuous son. The Crispus/Fausta story is based on legend. What is clear is that Constantine ordered the execution of both. For my play, I chose to adapt a variation of the Greek myth about Hippolytus & Phaedra, that is: the virtuous son, who rebuffs the sexual advances of his step-mother, and is then jealously accused of having raped her. Constantine learns the truth too late, after his son is already executed on his command. Fausta is then crushed beneath shields as in Richard Strauss’ opera based on Oscar Wilde’s Salome.
No doubt one of the most controversial elements of this play is my choice of Sophia as the name of the third part of the Trinity. It may sound like New Age or feminist jargon. I believe, however, it is correct historically that it was not until the latter part of the Fourth Century (two generations later than the events of the play) with the translation of the Bible and liturgy from Greek to Latin by St. Jerome that spiritus sanctus acquired its masculine character. In Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and other Middle Eastern languages, the equivalent word is feminine. Hagia Sophia, Justinian’s great church is Constantinople, does not mean Saint Sophia, but Holy Wisdom. And so I have used the names Holy Wisdom and Sophia interchangeably as the third part of the Trinity, which gives a rather Zen-like balance to the concept.
The play ends as it began— with Constantine’s baptism on his deathbed. In death Constantine is finally reconciled to his executed first son, Crispus. The anachronistic, bejeweled Byzantine angel from the vision the night before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge returns and stands in benediction above a kneeling Constantine and Crispus to form a visual tableau of reconciled Unity—a Father, Son and Holy Wisdom.
Chi-Rho image:

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Titian in the Frari (Venezia)