Constantius II ruled for a quarter of a century, a reign in which he overcame challenges from his own brothers, his selected co-rulers, the Persians and a series of tribes on the Danube and Rhine, while also facing seemingly endless theological arguments. One of the sons of Constantine the Great, his reign is often overlooked, as historians skip from his father and his dramatic conversion to Christianity to his successor Julian, who briefly attempted to restore Paganism before going down to a disastrous defeat in Persia.
Constantius’s reputation suffered because he picked the wrong side in one of the interminable religious controversies that split the early church. Most of the sources for this period were written by later Churchmen from the victorious sect, or by Ammianus, a supporter of his Pagan successor Julian. Constantius thus lacks a serious historian writing from his point of view, and his many achievements were ridiculed or ignored. This was even the case for his military achievements, where he was able to maintain the Danube frontier against constant pressure and generally prevented Shapur II, one of the greatest Sassanid Persian emperors, from achieving any significant conquests in the East.
One interesting element of this story is that the reader knows that time was running out for the western half of the Empire. At the time that would have seemed like a ridiculous statement to make - although parts of the Rhine border had been overrun, the Romans were able to restore the situation, and the period was dominated by a series of strong and capable rulers. Fifteen years after Constantius’s death, the Romans suffered a crushing defeat at Adrianople, and despite a temporary revival of Imperial authority under Theodosius the western part of the Empire slowly slipped out of Roman control, and into the hands of a series of Barbarian generals. The first years of the 5th century saw the Rhine frontier permanently lost, and even worse the first conquest of Rome herself by a foreign enemy for 800 years (the Romans themselves had taken the city repeatedly during civil wars). The general attitude of the various competitors for the Imperial crown during Constantius’s life rather suggests that they believed that the Empire itself was perfectly safe, and they could afford to use the Empire’s resources in civil wars.
Constantius is an interesting figure, a successful but underrated ruler who suffered from a tendency towards paranoia, creating enemies where there were none, along with a poor choice of courtiers. Even so he managed to hold the Roman Empire together at a time when it was faced by a series of dangerous opponents, and this full scale biography of him is thus very welcome.
1 - Crisis and Renewal: The Third Century and the Tetrarchy
2 - Preparation for the Purple: Constantius's Upbringing and Accession
3 - The Sins of the Father: Constantius's War with Shapur II
4 - Fraternal Civil War and the Usurpation of Magnentius
5 - Drunk with Power: The Rise and Fall of Constantius Gallus
6 - 'This Turbulent Priest': Constantius, Athanasius and Religious Politics
7 - From Student to Soldier: The Rise of Julian
8 - Adversus Barbaros: Constantius and Julian Across the Rivers
9 - The Return of the King of Kings
10 - The Usurpation of Julian: Ungrateful Brat or Left No Choice?
11 - War Within and Without: Constantius's Final Year
Epilogue: Constantius II, A Good Emperor Lacking a Publicist?
Author: Peter Crawford
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military