George W Bush is not the first major politician to suffer from having a famous father. In the Roman Empire “Good”emperors were often followed by their ëvil “sons e.g. Marcus Aurelius and Commodus.
Like the sons of many famous fathers, the Roman Emperor Constantius II (ruled 337-361) lived in the shadow of his famous father, the Emperor Constantine I (ruled 306-337). Undeniably, being the son of the first Christian emperor was both a blessing and a curse. Both ancient and modern historians have tended to dismiss the accomplishments of this long-serving emperor. Constantius’ “inability” to match the exploits and virtues of his famous pater, indeed, represents a favourite theme in the works of Late Roman writers.
Moreover, depictions of Constantius II in the fifth and sixth-century ecclesiastical historians depended primarily on where one stood on the Christological debates that beleaguered the Church in this era. For example, the first continuer of Eusebius, Philostorigus, supported the emperor in his struggles against the bishop Athanasius. Naturally, seeing Constantius as “orthodox,” Philistorgius highlighted the emperor’s victory over Magentius, which he claims a glowing cross that appeared over Jerusalem preordained.
According to the fifth-century ecclesiastical historians Sozomen and Socrates, the revival of “Arianism” under Constantius led to military set-backs during his reign. A few examples should suffice. A pro-Arian council in 341 was followed by a Frankish invasion of Gaul in that same year. Socrates too blamed the emperor’s defeat to the Persians on his religious stance. Though, somewhat surprisingly, Socrates supported Constantius’ victory over Magentius.
According to both Socrates and Sozomen, Constantius was a dupe to his powerful “Arian” advisers (Hunt 143). Sozomen (3.18.4), in fact, insisted that the emperor’s “core” doctrinal views differed little from that of his father Constantine and brother the Emperor Constans (ruled 337-50). As Hunt explains, since Constantius served as a foil to the pagan Julian, it proved difficult for later Church historians to be too critical of a Christian emperor who tried to thwart Julian’s claim to the purple.
So too did secular sources composed shortly after his reign like Ammianus and Eunapius use Constantius II primarily as a foil to their hero the apostate emperor, Julian (ruled 36-63). Constantius’ military record represented an area of focus for his supporters and detractors. In a back-handed compliment, Julian in a panegyric dedicated to Constantius, seemingly lauded the emperor’s martial prowess. It is important to note, however, he made it clear that Constantius’ achievements were against western usurpers not foreign enemies. Sources from the Later Empire criticize those emperors who celebrated their triumphs over usurpers. Certainly, victory in civil wars should not be equated to those over Rome’s foreign enemies. Ammianus (21.16.15) contrasted the emperor’s successes in civil wars with his ‘failures” against foreign enemies .Ammianus too famously mocked the emperor for celebrating a “triumph” in Rome in 357 for his victory over Magentius in 353. So too did later propagandists for Julian make it clear that the Apostate’s military victories were over foreign enemies. One finds further proof that this was an area of concern for Constantius and his backers in his attempt in his propaganda campaign against the usurper to paint Magentius as a barbarian who had the backing of Germanic hordes.
Partially as a result of taking these ancient criticisms of Constantius at face value, nineteenth and twentieth-century historians largely held a negative view of the emperor (E.g. Bury 579), (Stein 205), (Piganiol 205), (Demandt 101-102). Recently, however, the tide has begun to shift (PhD students, in particular, have found fertile ground in Constantius II’s reign: e.g. Bowder, Hunt). Constantius’ ability to deftly combine his role as a political and military leader with Christian engagement has been recognised. So too have these works recognised that
much of our vision of the emperor comes from secular and theological sources with an agenda. As mentioned above, historians are at the mercy of surviving sources that focus heavily on Constantius II’s religious and political disputes. Panegyrics praising the emperor also present a familiar problem. Just how much of this often empty praise is mere rhetoric? I would agree, with Michael Whitby ( “Images of Constantius,”), however, that a close reading of these pro and anti-sources can help one uncover areas that Constantius II and his backers sought to promote and areas that they needed to address.