The Emperor as Christ or Christ as Emperor?
Response to Karl Galinsky
Robin M. Jensen
Nov. 23, 2008
I will join my colleagues in thanking Prof. Galinsky for a wonderfully clear and
provocative paper – and to the organizers of this session for inviting me to give a
response. Taking advantage of my having a printed manuscript in advance, I would like
to quote a couple of his sentences and use them to jump start my comments.
“Today, “empire” has the predominant connotations of oppression, injustice, and
colonialism. Empire, ipso facto, is evil empire. ... Add to this that for centuries the
church, in various denominations, was a collaborator, whether active or tacit, with
empires and you can see the desire to break free of all that and situation the Jesus
Movement firmly in an agenda of social justice and more.”
Prof. Galinsky’s paper largely focuses on the complex social, ethnic, and geographic
diversity of the “emperor cult” in the first century (especially the Augustan era of “peace”
and religio-cultural revival), and argues very persuasively that it was not the most
dominant “religious phenomenon in town whose presence Christianity had to negotiate.”
I particularly want to highlight three ideas that he puts forth. First, I was taken by his
explanation of this phenomenon in terms of “resonance” - not “hard power” but “soft
power” that was anything but overtly aggressive, even while it might be subtly or
covertly oppressive. Second, along those lines, Karl points out that the cult was never
centrally steered, but rather arose out of diverse impulses, including a wish to extend
civic participation more widely (including freedmen and even slaves) – thus also
extending the ideal of “romanitas.” Third, I jumped at his contention that Augustus’
appropriation of certain phrases or epithets of his predecessors and competitors (e.g.,
deliverer of the res publica, princeps) was less oppositional than competitive – that he
intended to reframe himself on their terms, but do them one better. That this also may
have worked in the other direction – say in the language of the gospels, suggests that it
could also be turned to other purposes or even subverted. I was reminded, as I read, of
how the claim of “change-bringer” or “maverick” got bandied about in this last
These three ideas will structure this short response and show how they may be operable
in regard to the “emperor cult” of the fourth century.
First: the emperor cult was a type of meta-phenomenon that allowed autonomous groups
to maintain or adapt their own identities in tandem.
Second: the emperor cult was more bound up with broadening the sense of Roman
identity and thus loyalty, than with enhancing the power of a single individual.
Third: that adaption of the motifs or themes of this cult might not be capitulation, but
rather a means of transforming or even undermining it.
Let me turn now to a different time, although not quite a different place. I want to use
Prof. Galinsky’s arguments to challenge what I see as a much-too-simplistic reading of
the Constantinian transformation of Christianity into another kind of “imperial cult.” And
I will refer in particular to the interpretation of fourth-century Christian art as being
propaganda for a elevation of the emperor to divine status, albeit it within a now-
I recently was involved in vetting a script for a BBC television special on the emergence
and style of Christian art in late antiquity. Unfortunately, over my objections, the host,
Andrew Graham-Dixon is filmed touring the Christian sites of Rome. He visits the
Christian catacombs, observes their paintings of Jesus as the Good Shepherd (SLIDE 1 –
catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus), makes a stop at the Arch of Constantine (SLIDE 2)
where he gazes up at an image of the first Christian emperor distributing largesse to his
people, then finally arrives at the fourth century mausoleum of the Constantine’s
daughter, the princess Constantia which contains an image of Christ enthroned (SLIDE
3). He says: “it’s as if we are a world away from that image of Christ in the catacombs –
where he is depicted as a common shepherd. Now he is shown as a king – robed in divine
and regal vestments.” This, he declares, reflects the impact of the emperor’s conversion
on Christianity – to divide it into two distinct camps. On one side are those who still
followed a faith of humility and poverty. On the other were those who sought a savior
who exuded power and majesty.
Current art historical scholarship tends to stress the continuity of early Christian art with
contemporary Roman forms – and to challenge the notion of a completely separate class
of third- or fourth- century objects and images that could be called “early Christian.”
Those objects whose motifs display evident Christian content are nevertheless thoroughly
rooted in both the secular and the religious imagery of traditional Greco-Roman culture.
To the extent that they present something “new” or distinctive, it is only the novelty of
adaptation and not of de novo invention. Thus, like Augustus’ self-presentation in the Res
Gestae or on the Ara Pacis, Christian art is best understood as a way of saying “we
belong too – no less Roman than any of the rest of you. The figure of Jonah recalls that of
Endymion the Greek hero who marries Selene, the goddess of the moon (SLIDE 4). The
Good Shepherd shares the characteristics of Hermes – the heroic nude Daniel is the new
Hercules (SLIDE 5). Christians worked within the standard Roman repertoire. The
message that the viewer receives is a new an old one, but its packaging is familiar – and
so much easier to sell.
Arguably, this cultural embeddedness only got more so, once Christianity moved from
the margins to the centers of power – that is, once the emperor himself converted to the
faith and extended his patronage to the church. Christian art continued to reflect on the
Roman past, even while it redefined it in Christian terms. Christians were the “new
Romans.” While pre-existing Roman artistic motifs and styles had heretofore been
adapted from traditional religion, now, instead, they were borrowed from the iconography
of political and military power. Just as in the Augustan “golden age,” such borrowing
suited the purposes of a ruler who wished to establish his legitimacy and authority
through the visual symbolization of divine endorsement (or even mutual admiration).
However, here the adaption was transferred to Christianity, the new dominant cult. The
temples and civic buildings that previous Roman emperors had erected to display their
power and glory were supplanted by the churches and shrines constructed by the new
guard. Their most fundamental purpose was to establish and reinforce the ruler’s
supremacy over both state and church.
Thus Christian art became thoroughly “imperial” in both style and repertoire, and
(apparently) lost its moorings, becoming the tool of fourth-century spin doctors.
This interpretation of fourth-century Christian art has all the marks of that negative
judgment that Karl refers to early in his paper. Empire, ipso facto is evil, and this
transformation of Christian iconography is evidence of its perversion of what was once a
peace- and justice- loving religion, in which leaders eschewed principalities and powers
and cared for the poor and oppressed. Original (and authentic) Christian ideals were
subsumed or subverted by imperial ones – and the Christian story was reframed in order
to support imperial power and earthly dominion.
For example, arguing that the visual image of an enthroned heavenly Christ was based on
the prototype of an earthly emperor, art historian Johannes Deckers recently wrote:
“In the third century, Christ was perceived exclusively as the Son of God in human form,
as teacher, physician, and fount of life for the faithful (SLIDE 6). In his outward
appearance, he resembles an unassuming philosopher. With his miracles, he puts into
practice and demonstrates the truth and power of his doctrine of brotherly love and
nonviolence. . .his divinity is apparent from his deeds and does not have to be indicated
by a nimbus. He does not carry a scepterlike staff. . . he is not seated on a gold, gem-
encrusted throne (SLIDE 7).
“During the first three centuries of Christianity . . . .it presumably would have struck the
faithful as blasphemous for the emperor to base his authority on Christ. Why did the
unprecedented imperialization of the images of Christ and of Christian churches – so
contrary to the faith’s doctrines of peace and modesty – continue after the reign of
The answer has to do with the special relationship between Roman emperors and their
gods. Their gods gave them victories, and it was on the basis of their victories that they
could claim absolute power. . . .Rome’s emperors acted by mandate of the most powerful
of the deities.
Deckers continues: “. . .The typical third-century image of Christ, in which he appeared
as an unassuming teacher of brotherly love and nonviolence, was hardly appropriate as a
representation of the omnipotent deity to whom a Roman emperor owed his triumphs.
Constantine therefore completely suppressed that image.” (Picturing the Bible, 107)”
Like Prof. Galinsky, however, I am not sure that the actual evidence is not more
complicated and that we should not re-think this widely-held perception of fourth-century
art and political theology. Thus, I want to ask us to take a close look at single
sarcophagus that is often presented as a prime example of this purported imperialism,
militarism, or glorification of the human ruler in Constantinian Christian iconography.
This belongs to a series of fourth-century marble sarcophagi, usually grouped under the
descriptive category “Passion Sarcophagi,” because their iconography bears images that
refer to the story of Christ’s passion.
The single unifying motif of these sarcophagi is the central image – a cross whose
horizontal bar supports a christogram within a wreath. Beneath this cross sit two soldiers
resting on their shields. Doves perch on the cross bar. Other images on this monument
include Simon carrying Christ’s cross (SLIDE 13), Jesus being crowned by a Roman
soldier (SLIDE 14) and Jesus standing before Pilate who washes his hands (SLIDE 15).
The figure here most often identified with imperial art is the central cristogram, which is
usually compared to the Constantinian labarum or military standard (SLIDE 16). The
symbol corresponds in some respects to Constantine’s “conversion” vision as recounted
by Eusebius and Lactantius. With my remaining minutes I would like us to look at this –
and one other image on this monument - more closely.
Although clear parallels are obvious between these two images (SLIDE 17), unlike
Constantine’s labarum, this large central christogram is mounted on a cross (and not at
the top of a staff). The wreath is held in an eagle’s beak – his wings spread to create the
arch of the heavens, indicated by the busts of Sol and Luna above. Most significantly,
two doves perch on the crossbar. Beneath the cross are two soldiers rather than two
captives. These figures have been transformed into the Roman guards to keep watch over
the crucified Jesus – the ones who came to believe that he truly was God’s son.
The christogram also appeared on the coins of various Roman emperors – thus conveying
an imperial but not necessarily Christian message. The usurpers Magnentius (350-53) and
Decentius (his brother – proclaimed Caesar in late 351), for example, both produced
coins with chi rho symbols in the 350s (SLIDE 18). The usual interpretation is that these
rulers wished to associate themselves with the Constantinian charisma, even though they
were in revolt against his two sons. Others have argued that Magnentius’ purpose was to
garner support from the Nicene Christians against the Arian Constantius II (even though
he probably was neither – having restored the nocturnal sacrifices).
The chi rho or cristogram, furthermore, appears in a variety of other contexts in the early
to mid fourth century, sometimes having no associations with Constantine – either as
emperor or military victor. In fact, the use of the chi rho is frequent in funeral inscriptions
(SLIDE 19) and even on wall paintings of early Christian churches, such as this one in
Lullingstone, Kent (SLIDE 20).
In this last instance, the christogram, unlike any of those we see on the coins or in
military contexts appears with two doves, which remind us of the two doves perched on
the crossbars of the trophy on our sarcophagi. Among other things, the dove was a
symbol of the soul – and we often see the term “in pace” associated with it as well as
with the christogram or “staurogram” (SLIDE 21). Could it even be that the non-Greek
speaking western viewer read “PAX” in that monogram?
Although I could go on to say much about the rest of the iconography here, let me finish
by having us look at the portrayal of Christ being crowned (SLIDE 22).
Perhaps surprising to us, the crown being held above Christ’s head is not of thorns but of
laurel. This has been interpreted as a signal example of Jesus’ assimilation to the Roman
emperor. Once again Johannes Deckers: “The scene thus recalls the central rite in the
elevation of a Roman Emperor, in which an officer crowns the successor with a victory
wreath in view of his army” (Picturing the Bible, 106).
Assuredly, the image of holding a wreath over an individual’s head recalls the spectacle
of honoring the conquering general in Roman iconography. Such a scene is very well
documented in Roman art (SLIDE 23). But wreaths were not given only to victorious
generals and emperors. Others earned them as well – and not necessarily for military
conquests. For example athletes and poets (SLIDE 24), married couples (SLIDE 25) and,
perhaps most importantly, martyrs and saints (SLIDE 26)
In sum, I think we can say that these two symbols alone certainly imply victory and rule,
but not exact parallels to that of an earthly emperor. The adaptation of the iconography
here could even be seen as subverting that message. This is the triumph of a martyr, and
the crowning of a heavenly emperor. The defeat here is not of political enemies but of
death, and the benefit to the deceased who lies inside this tomb is the gift of eternal
This analysis, I think, gets at the point that Prof. Galinsky wants to make. We should not
too simply apply the term “imperial” or identify an instance of “emperor cult” without
nuance, attention to context, and without consciousness that images or ideas are multi-
layered and may relay more than one message, intended or otherwise. Change the
circumstances just slightly and one may discover entirely new possibilities of meaning.