Christ the Emperor: Roman Emperor and Christian Theology in the 4th Century AD Public Deposited

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  • Smolin, Nathan Israel
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Classics
  • This project focuses on the intersection of Roman Imperial politics and Christian theology in the 4th century AD. I argue that during the transition to Christianity under Constantine and his successors, Christian theology became the principal realm in which political structure and theory were debated. Through close readings of political and theological sources, I contend that emperors such as Constantine and his son Constantius should be seen as active, engaged theological protagonists, while bishops should be given their due as creative and consequential political thinkers and actors. In Chapter One, I argue that the Emperor Constantine possessed a consistent theological viewpoint centered on the justification of his legitimacy in religious terms, as a charismatic “Man of God” appointed by a monarchical deity to supreme rule of the Empire and the world. This theology in later stages was developed in dialogue with that of Eusebius of Caesarea, profiled in Chapter Two, which posited a chain of monarchical powers extending from heaven to earth. Chapter Three provides a narrative of the reign of Constantine’s son and successor Constantius II, whose theological and political interventions focused on the urgent need to repair the failing Constantinian settlement and justify his rule against dynastic and episcopal rivals. The final four chapters focus on the development, by an alliance of bishops including Athanasius of Alexandria, Lucifer of Cagliari, and Hilary of Poitiers, of a consensus “Nicene” theology centered on the assertion of equality among divine and human persons and a theory of legitimacy whereby bishops, not Emperors, represented the divine in human society. The victory of this system was aided by Constantius’ forcible efforts at religious unification, which enabled his opponents to employ him as an unifying antagonist for the episcopate as a whole. As described in the Epilogue, this conflict ultimately gave way to a new, more collaborative settlement under Theodosius I, while altering the conceptualization of political power by requiring the Emperor to construct his legitimacy not as a privileged agent within a fixed cosmic order, but as a holder of essentially temporary, “secular” power within the structures and rituals of the Christian Church.
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  • In Copyright - Educational Use Permitted
  • Rives, James
  • Pleše, Zlatko
  • Downie, Janet
  • Lenski, Noel
  • Smith, Warren
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2021

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