Taking start from the recent controversy of naming Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the paper focuses on the employment of New Jerusalem in the rhetoric of Constantine the Great, under whose leadership the Roman Empire experienced its first Christian Golden Era.
Many apocalyptic texts were written or gained renewed popularity in the period 400BCE-400CE, a time that witnessed the decline of the Hellenistic kingdoms (punctuated by the destruction of the second Temple under Antiochus IV Epiphanes) followed by the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Texts such as 1 Enoch (the older part of which dates in 400 BCE), the Book of Daniel (200-180 BCE), the Sibylline Oracles (150 BCE-180CE) and the Revelation of John (1st century CE) were written or revised in those times to reflect a certain reading of contemporary historical events, understood to point to the first and importantly, the second coming of Christ. Apocalyptic authors did not refrain from using pagan literary motifs, ranging from the Platonic corpus (Macurdy 1910; cf. Adler 1983), to Egyptian folklore traditions (Collins 2014), to Vergil’s Eclogues (cf. Usher 1995).
Constantine, a charismatic leader with thorough Greco-Roman education and a zeal for learning, offers us the earliest known Messianic reading of Eclogue 4 in his speech Ad sanctorum coetum (pars. 18-21), delivered at Antioch in 325, where he explicitly cites the authority of ancient prophetic Sibyls (Lane Fox 1986: 647-52). One of these Sibyls, of course, also appears in Vergil’s Aeneid (6.9-158) where she predicts Aeneas’ settlement in Italy and the rise of Augustus, his glorious descendant. At the same time, the books attributed to Enoch remained important (though excluded from the Canon at the Council of Nicaea) since Eusebius of Caesarea, Constantine’s biographer, refers to them (PE 9.17; Comm. In Is. 95.21-5; cf. Ecc. Hist. 1.2.19; with Johanessen 2016: 67).
Here I argue two things: first, that Constantine, fully aware of the political dimensions of investing his ascent to power in apocalyptic terms, decidedly contributed to the tradition of “Christianizing” Vergil and writing him into the Christian apocalyptic tradition. In this way, Constantine boldly posed as the Christian Augustus who would restore the empire to its foretold glory. Second, that Constantine explicitly toyed with the idea of casting Rome (and then Constantinople, of course) as the New Jerusalem – a notion originating in the Old Testament but systematically reworked in apocalyptic literature (Lee 2001). Constantine’s intentions are best exemplified in Eusebius’ blatantly propagandistic works, but, also, the little appreciated anonymous panegyric XII(9) which celebrates Constantine’s decisive and final victory over his opponent Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge. The paper offers an analysis of the panegyric in light of its apocalyptic background.
Eva Anagnostou-Laoutides is Associate Professor in Ancient History at Macquarie University.