Oration of Constantine XIX

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That Christ was predicted by the Sibyl and Virgil

4th CE to 5th CE
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
Oration of Constantine

Also known more fully as the Oration of Constantine to the Assembly of the Saints, the speech from which this extract is taken is contained within the manuscripts along with Eusebius’s famous panegyric, the Life of Constantine. However, as we will see below, the author of the Oration is debated. The author records what he claims to be the emperor’s words, delivered in Latin and transcribed by an interpreter into Greek, in order that he might provide support for the testimony which he gives as to the emperor’s greatness (Life of Constantine IV.32). The speech consists of twenty-six chapters of what H. Drake terms “pop philosophy” in which the author defends Christianity and commends piety (“Suggestions of Date,” p. 335). Its authenticity has naturally been questioned, but many scholars have been willing to accept it as genuinely the work of Constantine, including more recently Averil Cameron and Stuart Hall (Life of Constantine, p. 45). R. Hanson believes it almost certainly not to be the work of Constantine, but argues that some features do not appear to be Eusebian either, such as the often vague biblical referencing. He suggests a date during or immediately after Julian the Apostate’s reign, when Christians felt the need to attack paganism, and notes the similarity in style between the author of the Oration and the anti-pagan writings of Arnobius and Eusebius (“ORATIO AD SANCTOS,” p. 505-506, 511; alternatively, see A. H. M. Jones and T. C. Skeat, “Notes on the Genuineness,” and H. Dörries, Das Selbstzeugnis, p. 147-161).

In order to contextualise the present passage, we must first briefly explain what immediately precedes it. In chapter XVIII the author has cited a poem attributed to the Erythraean Sibyl which he claims features an acrostic referring to the nature and passion of Christ, reading “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour, Cross” (for a brief introduction to the Sibylline tradition, which was the product of constant redaction, reinvention and appropriation by different groups, see the commentary on Sibylline Oracles I.387-400). The Sibyl, our author states, was filled with divine inspiration from God, and as such must be venerated as a blessed and chosen vessel that has transmitted Christ’s purpose. This acrostic is somewhat problematic in that Lactantius, who often quotes the Sibylline Oracles, does not make reference to it. Interestingly, Augustine does make mention of it in Latin translation in his City of God XVIII.23. This latter author does not seem to be aware of the word stauros (cross) at the end, however. This fact has led some scholars to argue that the Oration therefore must have been composed later than Augustine’s time. For Hanson, this is an unnecessary conclusion, proving only that Augustine’s copy did not have this section. Indeed, our copies of Sibylline Oracle VIII, where the poem appears, and which is notoriously difficult to date, does in fact include the word stauros (“ORATIO AD SANCTOS,” p. 507).

In the present chapter, the author begins by refuting the claim apparently made by some that a Christian familiar with Latin poetry composed the verses quoted in chapter XVIII. These such critics believe the verses to be a fabrication which purport to be the words of the Sibyl. However, the author argues, Christian historians have established that the poem does pre-date Christ, and moreover, that the words are genuinely those of the Sibyl. In order to back up these chronological claims, the author refers to the writings of Cicero, which he claims show knowledge of the Sibyl’s predictions about Christ. He seems to refer to Divination II.110, but this does not refer to the acrostic quoted in our text, and even blatantly denies the truth of the Sibyl’s prophetic powers. Regardless, our author states that Cicero lived and was executed “during the ascendancy of Antony, who in his turn was conquered by Augustus, whose reign lasted fifty-six years.” It was during the reign of Tiberius, who succeeded Augustus, in which Christ was born and the Christian religion emerged. The author then draws upon the words of Virgil, the celebrated Latin poet of Augustus’s day. The Virgilian text the author cites is the fourth Eclogue (Bucolic), which describes the arrival of a baby boy who will usher in a new golden age. The author of the Oration is not alone in claiming both Virgil’s words, and the prophecy of the Sibyl for Christian purposes. Augustine mentions both on various occasions, and his endorsement ensured that the Sibyl enjoyed Christian popularity into the Middle Ages (see Stephen Benko, “Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue” for a detailed discussion of the Christian use of Virgil’s text). As Philip Hardie points out, the fact that Virgil’s words were so easily applied to the Christian Messiah is testimony to his probably intentional ambiguity as to the identity of the ‘saviour’ child (Virgil, p. 21). Our author claims that Virgil was forced to write allegorically out of fear of repercussions from Roman authorities. The poet could not write openly about the predicted birth of the Messiah figure, it is argued, because this might be seen as subverting the religious environment of the time. For this reason, Virgil veiled the mystery of the Saviour in language familiar to his pagan audience, and suggested that there ought to be sacrifices, altars, and temples dedicated to the promised child. Our author claims that Virgil wrote of Christ’s advent and the birth of Christianity, termed as “a new δῆμος, dēmos (people).” The translation given above seems to refer to the Latin original of Virgil. The first line cited of Virgil’s text refers to a πληθύς (plēthus), a “multitude” (rather than a “heaven-born race”: Eclogue IV.7: iam nova progenies caelo demittitur alto; Virgil was in fact referring to the Roman people. Greek authors could use the term πληθύς for the Latin plebs).

The conception of the Christians as a new race/people is highly significant for understanding the relationship between Christianity, the Roman empire, and Judaism, which represented the original “people of God.” The Christians differed from the Jews in that they advertised non-exclusive membership which was open to all peoples. In the third-century Commentary on Daniel, for instance, it is stated that Christ called all nations and languages to make a new nation “ἔθνος, ethnos” of Christians. By the time our author was writing in the fourth century (or even early-fifth if the arguments of Hanson are to be believed), the relationship between the empire and Christianity had undergone lengthy periods of hostility before Constantine’s conversion changed things dramatically. In the aforementioned Commentary on Daniel, the author makes clear that the Christian name and the Roman name are both distinct and incompatible. For the author of the present text, however, this could not be farther from the truth. Indeed, by claiming the words of the Sibyl and Virgil as Christian prophecy, he goes to great lengths to show that Christianity had always been intertwined with Roman history, even if this was not always made explicit. Moreover, the Christians take the role of the Romans as the “new race” foretold by the poet, a people who in the Aeneid are presented as destined to rule the world.

Bibliographical references: 
Hardie, Philip, Virgil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998)
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Oration of Constantine XIX
Author(s) of this publication: Kimberley Fowler
Publishing date: Mon, 04/15/2019 - 12:51
URL: http://judaism-and-rome.cnrs.fr/oration-constantine-xix
Visited: Sun, 05/26/2019 - 13:12

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