The Usurpation Of Magnentius

constans was not a popular and widely respected ruler. writ-ing in 361, Aurelius Victor charged him with rabid pederasty, headlong avarice, and the employment of corrupt ministers.1 More serious, he alienated both high civilian officials and his military high command, and on 18 January 350 his most successful general was proclaimed Augustus at Autun.2 The new emperor who replaced Constans was a surprising choice. Magnentius, born at Amiens of a British father and Frankish mother; had begun his carccr as a common soldier: on normal criteria, therefore, he was doubly disqualified from the imperial purple.3 Constans fled and tried to reach the Mediterranean to take ship to Italy, but he was caught at Helena, south of Narbo, and killed.4 Magnentius soon controlled Rome and Italy, where Fabius Titianus, who had served Constans faithfully for nearly ten years as praetorian prefect of Gaul, became praefectus ttrbi on 27 February.5 Magnentius crossed from Gaul to north Italy and seized Emona and the passes through the Julian Alps leading to the Balkans.6 He failed, however, to gain control of the Illyrian portion of Constans' domains. Constantina, a daughter of Constantine probably resident in Rome, helped to put up the magister peditum in Illyricum as emperor on 1 March: despite later innuendo, Vetranio was proclaimed emperor; not to challenge Consrantius, but to forestall a second real rebellion.7 Moreover, the usurper's hold on Rome was fragile. Julius Nepotianus, the son of Constantius' sister Eutropia, was proclaimed emperor on 3 June, though suppressed by Magnentius' forces before the month was out.8

Initially at least, Magnentius hoped to gain recognition from Constantius as ruler of the West, and he attempted negotiations with Vetranio and Constantius to that effect.9 It was perhaps the rebellion and suppression of Nepotianus which convinced him that war was unavoidable. In July or August 350 (so it seems) Magnentius ceased issuing coinage in the name of Constantius as his senior colleague and proclaimed his brother Decentius Caesar in Milan.10 The usurper no longer aspired to join the Constantinian dynasty, but to supplant it. Nevertheless, he sought political legitimacy by marrying Justina, a girl who appears to have been a great-granddaughter of Constantine.11

Magnentius' policies and propaganda reflected both the weakness of his position as a usurper and his claim to replace an incompetent and corrupt régime. He dcpicted himself from the outset as the 'liberator of the Roman world/ the 'restorer of liberty and the state/ the 'preserver of the soldiers and the provincials.'12 A little later, after the rebellion of Nepotianus and its suppression, coins of the Roman mint proclaimed 'liberty restored for the second time' (bis restituta libertas) and 'the renewal of the city of Rome' (renobatio urbis Rome)—phrases with a long history and traditional appeal.13 The coinage of Trier promised 'recovery of successful times' (fel(icium) temp(orttm) reparatio), and one issue associated this traditional theme with a reverse depicting Magnentius in military dress standing on a galley holding Victory on a globe and the labarum with its Christogram.14 The usurper compared himself to Constantine, who, unlike his unfortunate sons, had enjoyed great political and military success, which he attributed to his conversion to Christianity.15 Despite the chorus of vituperation after his death, which depicted him as a pagan as well as a tyrant, Magnentius was a Christian.16 Nevertheless, as one who challenged an established rulei; he needed to seek political support wherever he could find it.

Constantine had declined to extend to the West the prohibition of sacrifice and the spoliation of pagan temples which he ordained in the East after his defeat of Licinius.17 Constans extended the prohibition to Italy in 341,18 and Firmicus Maternus urged him to seize temple treasures—a process which may have begun in the West by 350.19 Foç in the suburbs of Rome itself, the ancient confraternity of the Arval brethren ceased to use the baths attached to the sanctuary of the dea Dia—which implies that they also ceased to perform their annual rites of worship of the goddess.20 Magnentius appears to have rescinded his predecessor's prohibition of pagan sacrifice, since Constantius in 353 ordered that 'nocturnal sacrifices allowed on the authority of Magnentius be abolished and the wicked license be rejected in the future.'21 Such official toleration of sacrifice looks like a clumsy attempt to curry favor with pagan aristocrats.

Magnentius secured Africa very quickly22 and made overtures to known dissidents in the East. Magnentius' approach to Paul proved fatal to the imprisoned bishop. Paul was starved for six days in a small, dark cell, then strangled, allegedly on the orders of the praetorian prefect Philippus. Philagrius, who was then vicarius of Pontica, wrote to friends of Athanasius to tell them what had happened (His*. Ak 7.3-6). Athanasius attributes his motive to chagrin at not being permitted to supervise the murder himself, but it seems more likely that he wrote to Egypt by way of warning.23

For his approach to Athanasius, Magnentius chose his envoys carefully—

two bishops, probably both Gallic, and two men who are otherwise totally unknown. The bishops were Servatius of Tongres and Maximus, whose see is uncertain: both had attended a Gallic council in the 340s which probably reaffirmed the decisions of the Council of Serdica.24 They were accompanied by Valens, the leader of the embassy, and Clementius: it can safely be assumed that both were military men and, since they came to Egypt by way of Libya, that they had helped to secure Africa for Magnentius. The four were, at least ostensibly, traveling as ambassadors to Constantius. For their reception in Alexandria, as for the whole episode, Athanasius provides the only evidence—clearly disingenuous, but nonetheless revealing (Apol. ad Const 9/10). Athanasius was accused in 351 of treason not only for turning Constans against his brother before 350, but also for writing to iMagnentius. The Defense before Constantius addresses this charge and attempts to rebut it (6-11). In the course of some tortuous pleading, Athanasius gives what appears to be a straightforward account of his reception of Magnentius' envoys.

The envoys, according to Athanasius, brought no letter addressed to him by the usurper—so how could he have written to a man whom he did not know? The bishop of Alexandria was afraid that he was marked out for death as a friend and admirer of the murdered Constans. He had recently received a letter from Constantius promising no less benevolence with his brother dead than before his murder (10.1), and he repulsed the envoys' advances, taking care to advertise his loyalty in public. He appeared before the populace of Alexandria in the presence of the dux Felicissimus, the catholicus Rufinus, the magister privatae Stephanus, the comes Asterius, Palladius, who later became tnagister officiorum, and the agentes in rebus Antiochus and Evagrius. He announced: 'Let us pray for the safety of the most pious Augustus Constantius.' All the people with one voice shouted in reply: 'Christ, come to the aid of Constantius,' and continued to pray for some time.

The public display of loyalty can hardly be gainsaid. But what happened in private? Athanasius' enemies later produced a letter which they alleged he wrote in 350 to Magnentius. Athanasius claimed that it was a clever forgery:

Even if [my accuser] displays letters similar to my own, he does not have certain proof. For there are forgers who have often imitated even the hands of you emperors. The imitation does not establish the genuineness of the document, unless my normal scribes also authenticate the letters. I wish again to ask those who have slandered me the following questions: Who provided these letters? When and where were they discovered?25 For I had men who wrote [my letters], while [Magnentius] had men to receive them from those who carried them and to hand them to him. Our [scribes] are present: order [those who received letters for Magnentius] to be summoned (for it is quite possible that they are alive) and learn about these letters. (11.2/3)

It is extremely difficult to divine where the truth lies. The hysterical tone of much of Athanasius* argument on this issue inevitably raises suspicions. But would so canny a politician have taken the risk of entrusting a secret letter to envoys who might be arrested and searched? On the other hand, Athanasius may have written a letter which Magnentius answered. It would have been entirely in character for him to repeat in 349 the strategy which had defeated at least some of the earlier attempts to unseat him—the strategy of appealing to allies in the West. If Athanasius was condemned and deposed by a council of eastern bishops who met in Antioch in 349,26 then it can be inferred with a high degree of probability that he wrote to Constans imploring his protection. The Defe?tse before Constantius could not admit this damaging fact without thereby acknowledging that Athanasius had engaged in treasonable correspondence—with Constans, if not with Magnentius. If Constans had not answered the letter before 18 January 350, Magnentius may be supposed to have written to Athanasius in the early months of 350 assuring him of his support in the hope that the bishop of Alexandria would respond by detaching Egypt from its allegiance to Constantius.

Magnentius had some reason to expect Athanasius to welcome, or at least not to repulse, his overtures. For the praetorian prefect Philippus was already on his way to install George as bishop in Alexandria in his place when news reached the East that Constans was dead. But Constantius too was a canny politician. He sensed the danger and acted as soon as he heard of the death of his brother. He immediately sent the comes Asterius and the notarius Palladius to the dux and prefect of Egypt with orders overruling or countermanding Philippus" instructions {Hist. Ar. 51.4). And he wrote personally to Athanasius. Constantius was alert and skilful enough to know when weakness dictated a strategic withdrawal. He simply denied any desire to remove Athanasius from the see of Alexandria:

It will not have escaped your prudence that I always prayed that every success attend my late brother Constans. Your wisdom will easily be able to judge with how great a sorrow I was afflicted, when I learned that he had been murdered by the vilest treachery. Since there are some who at the present time are trying to alarm you by so lamentable a tragedy, I have accordingly decided to send the present letter to your reverence, urging you to teach the people, as befits a bishop, to conform to the established religion and according to custom to spend your time in prayers with them, and not to believe any rumors which may reach you. For it is our resolve that, in accordance with our wishes, you be bishop in your own place for all time. (Apol. ad Const. 23)27

The emperor added in his own hand the salutation 'the godhead preserve you for many years, beloved father,' and his letter was in Athanasius' hands before the envoys from Magnentius arrived in Alexandria (10.1). Constantius was us ing diplomatic guile, not expressing his real wishes. Athanasius can hardly have been deceived, but he decided, doubtless out of calculation rather than loyalty or trust in the emperor's assurances, to spurn the overtures from Magnentius— however much he might inwardly hope for the defeat of Constantius. For his part, the emperor was determined to turn his attention back to ecclesiastical politics as soon as the impending civil war permitted.

Constantius was in Edessa when news came of the death of Constans, and Shapur's third siege of Nisibis compelled him to spend the summer and autumn of 350 defending Roman Mesopotamia." It was late in the year before he crossed Asia Minor and advanced into Europe. At Serdica his forces mingled with those of Vetranio, who resigned the imperial purple at Naissus in a carefully staged ceremony on 25 December.29 Constantius then probably began to reside in Sirmium, and gave serious thought to the future of the Constantinian dynasty.

Since Constantius had no issue, his heir presumptive was his closest male relative. Gallus was the second son of Julius Constantius, a much younger half-brother of Constantine, who emerged as a power at court late in his reign, was given the title of patricius, and held the ordinary consulate in 335.30 After the death of Constantine, Julius Constantius and his eldest son were killed in the dynastic bloodbath which removed actual and potential rivals of the sons of the late emperor. The eleven- or twelve-year-old Gallus was spared, on grounds of age and because his sister was married to the emperor Constantius (Hist. Ar. 69.1), and with him his still younger half-brother Julian.31 While Eusebius, the bishop of Constantinople, lived, Gallus and Julian stayed in Nicomedia under his supervision. Subsequently, Constantius sent them to a remote imperial estate at Macellum in Cappadocia, where for six years they were isolated, closely confined, and entrusted (it appears) to the spiritual care of the George who was to replace Athanasius as bishop of Alexandria.32 Since Constantius' marriage was still childless, he realised that he needed to employ his cousins to stabilise his own throne. Gallus was summoned to court, invested with the purple on 1 March 351, and sent to Antioch to administer the East with the rank of Caesar.33

The course of the campaign between Constantius and Magnentius in Pannonia can be reconstructed in outline, although many details remain unclear.34 The opposing armies wintered far apart: Magnentius close to the passes through the Julian Alps into Italy, Constantius in Sirmium preparing to march westward. It appears that in the spring of 351 Constantius' generals attempted to break through into Italy but were repulsed. When Magnentius sought to pursue his advantage and occupied Siscia,35 they were able to regroup and force a decisive battle at Mursa while Constantius awaited the outcome in safety at Sirmium. On 28 September 351, the forces of Constantius won a clear but costly victory after enormous losses on both sides.36 Magnentius fled to Aquileia and blocked the crossing of the Julian Alps. Constantius consolidated his control of the Balkans, winter came on, and it seems that in the following campaigning season the emperor needed to do battle with the Sarmatians before he could enter Italy.37 Aquileia was still under Magnentius' control on 28 July 352,38 but the forces of Constantius broke through into the north Italian plain in August, the whole of Italy rapidly came over,39 and on 26 September 352 Constantius* nominee became praefectus urbi at Rome: he was Naeratius Cerealis, the maternal uncle of the Caesar Gallus.40

Magnentius retreated to Gaul in the hope of maintaining his regime there. But it was vain for Magnentius and his Caesar Decentius to hope for the safety which their coinage proclaimed.41 In the summer of 353 the forces of Constantius crossed the Alps, and in Trier a certain Poemenius raised the standard of rebellion in the name of Constantius.42 A battle at Mons Seleucus doomed the usurper, Magnentius committed suicide at Lyon on 10 August 353, Decentius at Sens eight days later.43 Constantius proceeded to Lyon and repealed Magnentius* unpopular enactments.44 He then traveled south to Aries for the winter, where he celebrated his tricennalia (presumably on 8 November 353).45 In the East, Gallus was not a success. Although he suppressed a Jewish rebellion (apparently in 352),46 he soon embroiled himself in bitter conflicts both with the people of Antioch and with the officials whom Constantius had sent to the East.47 The Caesar forgot that Constantius intended him to be a mere figurehead, necessary for political and dynastic reasons, but with the real power vested in experienced administrators whom he himself had appointed.48 By 354 the situation had become intolerable and embarrassing. While Constantius busied himself on the upper Rhine, Gallus was persuaded to come to court. When the Caesar reached Poetovio, he was arrested, stripped of the imperial purple, tried secretly for high treason, and executed at Pola.49

The problem of how to rule so vast an empire still remained. And there were serious problems in Gaul as well as the permanent danger of Persian attack in Mesopotamia. In August 355 the Frank Silvanus was proclaimed emperor. Although officers of Constantius assassinated him a month later, the Rhine frontier was breached in the autumn and Cologne sacked.50 Constantius, residing in Milan after a spring campaign against the Alamanni, proclaimed Gallus* younger brother Julian Caesar on 6 November 355 and sent him to Gaul with a carefully selected staff of high officials.51

The posthumous reputation of Constantius was fixed for later generations of Christians by Athanasius, especially in his History of the Arians, by Hilary of Poitiers in his Against Constantius, and by Lucifer of Caralis: all three damned him as an 'Arian,' a persecutor, a devil incarnate, or even an Antichrist.52 This hostile picture does not correspond either to the complicated realities of ecclesiastical politics or to the sentiments of the majority of eastern Christians during Constantius' lifetime. A letter from an important bishop illustrates how he was widely respected as a worthy successor of his father.

Cyril of Jerusalem probably composed his Catechetical Lectures in 348 while he was still a priest:53 these lectures, delivered to prepare catechumens for baptism, provide a systematic exposition of Christian doctrine, marshaled around the local baptismal creed of Jerusalem. Cyril's theology is couched in somewhat old-fashioned language, and it has been claimed that 'he began as an anti-Nicene conservative, strongly opposed to Marcellus of Ancyra.'54 But Cyril was aware enough of controversial issues to repudiate firmly (if anonymously) tenets associated with the name of Arius,55 and his theological views were close enough to the intent of the Nicene creed, first to cause him political difficulties with his eastern colleagues between 357 and 361, then to win him a lasting reputation for orthodoxy. After a career of vicissitudes,56 Cyril was accepted at the Council of Constantinople in 381: he died in secure possession of the see of Jerusalem in 387, and his writings were thereafter regarded as a repository of sound theology.57 Yet the earliest stages of his career reveal a bishop allied to the enemies of Athanasius.

Cyril was elected bishop of Jerusalem in succession to Maximus, the ally of Athanasius (Apol. c. Ar. 57), who either died or was deposed—or possibly, given the divergent reports, died when about to be deposed by the Council of Antioch which condemned Athanasius in 349. Cyril was the nominee, or at least enjoyed the support, of Acacius of Caesarea, and Jerome later alleged that he became bishop by expelling Heraclius, whom the dying Maximus had designated as his successor.58 Within a very few years Cyril wrote to Constantius to describe a miraculous happening in Jerusalem on 7 May 351.59 On that day an enormous cross of light appeared in the sky, stretching from Golgotha to the Mount of Olives: it was brighter than the sun, remained for several hours, and was seen by everyone in the city. Cyril felt impelled to announce to the emperor this sign of divine approval of his rule, a heavenly sign more powerful (he proclaimed) than the discovery of the true cross in Jerusalem in the reign of Constantine.

Cyril's motives were no doubt in part at least self-serving, for such a manifestation of divine approval in Jerusalem might favorably dispose the emperor toward the city and its bishop. It is more significant that Cyril flatters Constantius in the fashion of any Christian panegyrist as a true believer from birth, as a theological expert, as a divinely appointed and inspired guardian of the church. And he closes with the following salutation:

May the God of the universe preserve you with your whole house for us for many peaceful yearly cycles in health, adorned with every virtue, displaying your customary loving concern (philanthrope) for the holy churches and the Roman Empire, glorious with greater rewards of piety, Augustus, most God-loving emperor.

Cyril's letter will have reached Constantius some time before the decisive battle against Magnentius. The emperor's coinage was invoking the aid of God by proclaiming, in the familiar phrase which evoked his father's battle against

Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge, 4in this sign you will conquer' (hocsigno victor eris).60 Whatever else was in his mind, Cyril clearly intended to win imperial favor by predicting a victory which he implicitly presented as inevitable. Valens of Mursa is reported to have achieved the same result by the more mundane method of employing swift messengers so that he could be the first to inform Constantius when the victory was won—with the result that Constantius frequently declared that he owed his victory more to the intercession of Valens than to the valor of his army.61

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