A good portrait of Constantius II?

I’ve been googling online, and I have been unable to locate a good likeness of Constantius II, who succeeded his father Constantine, murdered all his cousins, then his brothers and left only a nephew, Julian the Apostate, to succeed him.  His reign is described vividly by Ammianus Marcellinus, and the church remembered him as an Arian.

Long ago I placed online the Chronography of 354, a magnificent collection of documents illustrated by a famous artist and presented to a nobleman in that year.  The original is lost, but copies have reached us.  One of the illustrations is of “our emperors”, Constantius and his nephew, the luckless Gallus.

Since then the Barberini manuscript (Vatican barberini latini 2154B) of the Chronography has come online.  Here’s the portrait of Constantius from it, online here:

Constantius II in 354 AD. From Ms. Vatican Barb. lat. 2154 B, folio 13.

It is a splendid portrait, isn’t it?  What a face!

But I was surprised to discover that the illustrations were monochrome.  The printed version was monochrome but I had always assumed that was just to make it possible to print.

Another manuscript of the Chronography is also online,  in Vienna, here.  But this does not include the portraits of the emperors, although it does include other illustrations.

I wanted to see if other representations matched the one above.  The first item that I found was a bust of a young prince, almost 3 feet tall, and identified as either Constantius II or possibly his brother Constans.  It’s at the Capitoline Museum in Rome, inv. MC2882:

Colossal head of Constantius II or possibly Constans. Musei Capitolini, Roma, inv. MC2882.

The Last Statues database catalogues this as LSA-561, and gives a reference to a catalogue, sadly offline.[1]  I must say the portrait is not obviously similar to that of the Chronography.

Another portrait at Wikipedia is this:

Presumed bust of emperor Constantius II (317 – 361), son and successor of Constantine the Great. Temporary exhibition in Colosseum (aug.2013), Rome, Italy.

I don’t know anything else about this, but I can see that the nose seems to be restored, and much else; so I fear this is not a likeness.  There is also a widely miscaptioned picture of Theodosius II under the name of Constantius.

The next item I found on Tumblr:

Emperor Constantius II (?). Second third of IV century AD. Bust is modern. Marble. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Inv. Cp 6399 / Ma 1021

The head is ancient but the darker bust material is modern.  But again is this Constantius?

Also on Tumblr, was this silver bowl from the Bosporan kingdom, i.e. the Crimea.  I think that it is from Kerch, and is probably held in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia.[2]

Bowl: the triumph of Constantius II. Place of origin: Eastern Mediterranean. Date: A.D. 4th century. Archaeological site: Bosporan Necropolis, vault on the Gordikov estate.

The long face is very like that of the Chronography.

Here’s another item, the Missorium of Kerch, preserved in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg in Russia.  Wikipedia has a monochrome image here.

The Missorium of Kerch is a ceremonial dish depicting the Emp. Constantius II on horseback, leading a soldier and being crowned by Victory.

This also depicts a long-faced Constantius.  So I think we may treat the depiction in the Chronography as fairly accurate.  Not bad for a renaissance copy of a Carolingian copy of an ancient book!

  1. [1]Fittschen, K. and P. Zanker, Katalog der Porträts in den Capitolischen Museen und den anderen kommunalen Sammlungen der Stadt Rom, Band I, Mainz 1985, 156-7, no. 125, pl. 156
  2. [2]This I infer from a snippet view of a book on Google Books: Bernard Samuel Myers, Encyclopedia of world art, – Volume 9 – Page xcvi: “Two dishes found at Kerch (Leningrad, The Hermitage) refer to an anniversary of Constantius in 343. The style of these dishes … The third, and most splendid, piece of this type is the Missorium of Theodosius I (II, PL. 487), which celebrates …”

A portrait of Constantius II from 354, via two intermediaries

As manuscripts of the Vatican come online, it becomes possible to look at items previously known to us only from poor-quality photographs.  This is a good thing.

Years ago I made an online edition of the Chronography of 354, an illustrated luxury manuscript made for a Roman aristocrat in 354 AD, and transmitted to us by copies.  The pictures exist in various versions, mostly derived from a Carolingian copy now lost.  The best set, in monochrome, are preserved in Vatican Ms. Barberini lat.2154 B.  Sadly the full colours of the ancient original are not preserved; but the renaissance artist did his best to copy the Carolingian original.

Here’s one of the illustrations, on folio 13, depicting Constantius II, in the uncharacteristic pose of money falling from his hand.  Somehow one suspects that this charmless man did look rather like this.  (It is a pity that, as with other Italian stuff put online, the image is defaced with a watermark screaming “mine! mine! mine!!”)

The anti-pagan legislation of Constantius II

In 356, Constantius issued the following edict from Milan, one of a series issued in the west and prohibiting pagan sacrifices:

Idem a. et Iulianus caes. Poena capitis subiugari praecipimus eos, quos operam sacrificiis dare vel colere simulacra constiterit. Dat. XI kal. mart. Mediolano Constantio a. VIII et Iuliano caes. conss. (356 febr. 19).

“If any persons should be proved to devote their attention to sacrifices or to worship images, We command that they shall be subjected to capital punishment.  Milan, in the 8th consulate of Constantius with Julian Caesar” 1

From two mentions in Libanius we learn that people at Antioch could not pray or offer sacrifice in public for the success of Julian the Apostate’s campaign against Constantius 2, although the accounts leave unclear whether this was because the object of the prayers was attempting to seize the throne, or just because pagan prayers were illegal.  Soon after 341, well before this:

[Aristophanes] came to what was left of our temples bringing no incense or victim, no burnt-offering or drink-offering — for that was not allowed.  But he brought a sorrowing heart and a voice of grief as he had just been crying or was about to cry.  He gazed on the ground, for it was a dangerous business to gaze up to heaven, and asked the gods to call a halt to the ruination of the world.3

The atmosphere of the reign of Constantius was clearly unfavourable to paganism. The general climate of fear that is so ably recorded in Ammianus Marcellinus will have discouraged anyone from doing anything that anyone else might denounce. It will also have encouraged officials to “show their loyalty” by taking informers seriously and harshly punishing those seen to violate the will of the emperor.

Yet in 357 the emperor made a visit to Rome, and the pagan Symmachus records the attitude of the emperor:

“He made no diminution in the privileges of the vestal virgins; he filled up the priesthoods with aristocrats; he did not refuse financial support for the Roman ceremonies; and following the delighted Senate through all the streets of the Eternal City, he gazed calmly at the temples, read the names of the gods inscribed on their facades, inquired about the dates of the buildings, and expressed admiration for their builders.” 4

The contradiction in the portrait of Constantius given in these two accounts is striking.  How is it to be explained?

One anachronism must be avoided.  The Roman empire was not a state like the modern USA, or UK, where the rule of law prevailed, and a government must pass a law to make its will effective.  It was a despotism, where the will of the emperor was the real law, and paper laws held a lesser status, if any.  Much the same position applies in black Africa today, where the “law” can be merely a piece of paper.  Real authority is the wishes of the “Big Man” who does as he pleases and may, if he chooses, enact a “law” to justify it.

Nor is this situation unknown in the west.  The ancient English law of blasphemy remained unused for 50 years, and was then invoked in 1977  after Gay News published a crudely blasphemous article about Christ.  At that time there was no support for the offender, and no demand for the law to be repealed.  But I remember how, after the trial, the establishment made it known that if the law was invoked again, it would be repealed.5   But in general laws in the west are either enforced or abolished.

The fact that Constantius issued an edict, therefore, need not have the significance that we would attribute to it today.  Unless the emperor chose to enforce it, it remained merely paper.  The imperial civil servants would know whether to take action or not.  In fact paganism remained legal, and even the religion of the state, throughout this period.  But what the edicts did do was to set a tone, to “chill” the expression and practise of paganism, to open the door to the extremist and the informer.  We are familiar today with the way in which “anti-hate” legislation has been deployed, not for use but for threat. Doubtless these edicts made clear in a similar way the general preferences of the government, and, in cases of doubt, which way the verdicts would go.  They made clear who was up, and who was down; who would be heard, and who would not.

1. Codex Theodosianus 16.10.6, trans. by Clyde Pharr, extra bit by me.   The Latin of book 16 is here.
2. Libanius, Oratio 18:114. Tr. W.V.Harris, The spread of Christianity in the first four centuries, p.102 f.
3. Libanius, Oratio
14:41, ibid.
4. Symmachus, Relationes 3.7, MGH 6, ed. Seeck, tr. C. Forbes, Firmicus Maternus, ACW 37, p.133.
5. It was finally abolished in 2008 as part of a raft of laws to promote sodomy and Islam and silence criticism of either.