“In this sign shall you conquer… No, not in that sign. In *this* sign!”

Among the remains of Latin antiquity to reach us is a volume known today as the Panegyrici Latini, or Latin Panegyrics.  These are twelve orations delivered to emperors, nearly all from the late empire, but also including the (unreadable) panegyric for Trajan by Pliny the Younger.  They are, in short, examples of flowery, professional-grade bum-sucking and arse-licking from the late empire.  But of course they inevitably have historical value, as the flatterer recounts the deeds of the emperor in question.

Then again, the account is inevitably sanitised.  Uncomfortable facts are glossed over.

The Latin text of the 1874 Teubner edition may be found at Archive.org here.  An English translation does exist, by C. E. V. Nixon &c, under the title of In Praise of Roman Emperors: The Panegyrici Latini (1994), preview here.

Panegyric 6 was delivered before the emperor Constantine in 310 AD, or so it is believed, and consists of the usual flattery, ending in a plea for a building programme in the speaker’s home town of Autun, to construct a circus, basilica, and so on.

It is best known, however, for some remarks which the orator makes about a visit by Constantine to the temple of Apollo, somewhere in Gaul.  Let’s hear them:

For on the day after that news had been received and you had undertaken the labor of double stages on your journey, you learnt that all the waves had subsided, and that the all-pervading calm which you had left behind had been restored. Fortune herself so ordered this matter that the happy outcome of your affairs prompted you to convey to the immortal gods what you had vowed at the very spot where you had turned aside toward the most beautiful temple in the whole world, or rather, to the deity made manifest, as you saw. For you saw, I believe, O Constantine, your Apollo, accompanied by Victory, offering you laurel wreaths, each one of which carries a portent of thirty years. For this is the number of human ages which are owed to you without fail—beyond the old age of a Nestor. And—now why do I say “I believe”?—you saw, and recognized yourself in the likeness of him to whom the divine songs of the bards had prophesied that rule over the whole world was due. And this I think has now happened, since you are, O Emperor, like he, youthful, joyful, a bringer of health and very handsome. Rightly, therefore, have you honored those most venerable shrines with such great treasures that they do not miss their old ones, any longer. Now may all the temples be seen to beckon you to them, and particularly our Apollo, whose boiling waters punish perjuries—which ought to be especially hateful to you.

Immortal gods, when will you grant that day on which this most manifestly present god, with peace reigning everywhere, may visit those groves of Apollo as well, both sacred shrines and steaming mouths of springs? Their bubbling waters cloudy with gentle warmth seem to wish to smile, Constantine, at your gaze, and to insert themselves within your lips.

You will certainly marvel at that seat of your divinity too, and its waters warmed without any trace of soil on fire, which has no bitterness of taste or exhalation, but a purity of draught and smell such as you find in icy springs. And there you will grant favors, and establish privileges, and at last restore my native place because of your veneration of that very spot.[1]

Some suppose that this statement about seeing laurel wreaths at the temple of Apollo was a vision by Constantine, along the lines of the more famous In hoc signo vinces.  Recorded by Lactantius in De mortibus and Eusebius in the Vita Constantini, the latter records how Constantine saw a vision in the sky, of a Chi-Rho, the monogram of Christ, and marked the shields of his soldiers with that emblem before his battle with Maxentius.  The thinking is, therefore, that Constantine was a bit prone to visions!

But … I didn’t see any mention of a vision in the account, until it was drawn to my attention.  At first reading, I visualised the emperor seeing the statues of Apollo and Victory, each bearing laurels, put their by the priests, who acted out a little play, that the god was offering laurels to the victorious emperor.  Their  motive is obvious; to curry favour, as a certain sort of priest does.  The emperor is to be flattered that he looks like a god – easily understandable if a cult statue is involved.

I believe that there is an enormous literature on this “pagan vision”.  But … I am uncomfortably reminded that attacks on the Christianity of Constantine were made in profusion in the 1840’s, for political reasons.

Cameron and Hall, in their magnificent translation of Eusebius’ Vita Constantini, recount how those who sought to overthrow the Austrian and Russian emperors, made attacks on Constantine.  For these polities drew their ideological legitimacy from the concept of Christian empire, reaching back to Constantine.  If Constantine could be shown to be a pagan, that would help to overthrow the self-belief of the hated Hapsburg despotism.  Casting doubt on the accounts of Eusebius was part of this politics.

Knowing this, I feel wary.  I really don’t think that Constantine’s dedication to promoting Christianity is doubtful.  In the early years of his rule, and especially in the west, he had to humour the pagan establishment.  Surely this will be another example?  It is not, after all, Constantine or one of his circle who is making these claims.

But I have some doubts that anyone would describe this as a vision, were it not for the fame of In hoc signo vinces.

It is one of the curses of ancient history, that people project Christianised ideas onto ancient paganism.  Ancient paganism was not a form of Christianity-lite.  It was its own thing, and had its own nature, and approach.

I have yet to see any example where analogies with Christian history or practice illuminate any element of pagan history.  But I have seen many where it darkened, obscured, or confused the narrative.

The account of the panegyrist is certainly interesting.  But let’s be wary here.

  1. [1]Pan.Lat. VI, c.21, v.4, , Nixon, p.248-251.