In the Greek classical literature this was the allusive function played by the purple carpet on which the king of Argos treads when he comes into his palace in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon.
In the Roman Empire purple was a distinctive symbol of imperial dignity, long before and after Constantine (272-337), the emperor on whom this presentation will be focused.It analyses the role played by the purple in relation to Constantine’s image in Eusebius’s Life of Constantine, a panegyric completed after the death of the emperor in 337. In order to discuss the question within a broad literary context, the Eusebian text will be read in relation to other encomiastic works which also speak about Constantine and purple.
As they are previous in time, two Panegyrici Latini, 6 (7) and 12 (9), are examined in first place. Both were addressed to the son of Constantius Chlorus and delivered in 310 and 313 respectively by anonymous pagan orators.In the first discourse (6,8,3), the Latin panegyrist narrates how Constantine assumed the imperial purple in 306 as a sign of being the successor of the defunct emperor, his father Constantius Chlorus. The Constantian soldiers are said to have bestowed on Constantine the imperial symbol in spite of his sadness after the death of his father. By accepting the garment, Constantine recognized that he was the new Augustus in accordance with the Roman habit:
Purpuram statim tibi (…) milites utilitati publicae magis quam tuis adfectibus seruientes iniecere lacrimanti; neque enim fas erat diutius fleri principem consecratum.
“Straightaway the soldiers threw the purple over you despite your tears, taking more account of the public advantage than your feelings, for it was not right to mourn any longer a ruler who had been consecrated as a god”.Purple appears later in this Panegyric (6,16,1), also as a symbol of the imperial condition, but now in a new context and in relation to its irregular use. According to the anonymous and pro-Constantinean panegyrist, it would have been an abuse if the old tetrarch Maximianus (ca. 250-310) had usurped the imperial dignity and the purple as he pretended:
Repente intra parietes consideret purpuratus et bis depositum tertio usurparet imperium...
“Suddenly to take up a position within the walls, clad in purple, and usurp imperial power, twice laid down, for the third time...”.The deviated use of purple is actually the point shared by the two references to this symbol which appear in the twelfth Panegyric. In both cases Maxentius (ca. 278-312), the son of Maximianus, is presented as a usurper. In the first passage (12,3,4) Maximianus attempts to tear the purple from the shoulders of his own son, whom he considers an ‘abomination’, dedecus:
Ipse denique qui pater illius credebatur discissam ab umeris purpuram detrahere conatus senserat in illud dedecus sua fata transisse.
“Finally, he who was believed to be his father, after attempting to tear the purple from his shoulders, perceived that his own destiny had passed over to that abomination”.Maxentius is mentioned afterwards (16,3) as a tot annorum uernula purpuratus, “a little slave who dressed himself in purple for so many years”.
At the same time, the restrictive mention of purple establishes an important fact before the audience: only Constantine wears purple in a legitimate way and in the proper occasions, without any kind of eccentricity or deviation as usurpers like Maximianus and Maxentius or the legendary Agamemnon in the Aeschylean tragedy did.
As a king, Agamemnon may have had a right to use purple. But it was an abuse, and therefore hubris, to tread on it, as the relevant passage in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (910-965) makes clear.Two other works are to be regarded as a part of the literary context of Eusebius’s Life of Constantine.
- The first one is another panegyric, De laudibus Constantini, composed by the bishop of Caesarea himself, and pronounced in 336 during the celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the reign of Constantine.
- The second text is the Oratio ad sanctorum coetum. This speech is supposed to have been addressed by Constantine to an assembly of bishops in Greek. It was delivered on an uncertain date, between 312/313 and 325. As Constantine used to write in Latin, it is usually supposed that Eusebius took part in the composition of the Oratio, at least as its editor.
The first reference to the purple in De laudibus (5,4) is very explicit in relation to the meaning of the imperial vestment and to the fact that only Constantine can wear the ἁλουργίς, as Eusebius calls the purple robe in this passage and usually in his panegyrics. This substantive properly designates what is wrought in or by the sea, and specifically a purple robe:
τὸ σεβάσμιον πρόσρημα τῷ τῆς ἀμπεχόνης ἐξαιρέτῳ περιβλήματι διαφαίνων καὶ τὴν ἐμπρέπουσαν αὐτῷ βασιλικὴν ἁλουργίδα μόνος ἐπαξίως ἐμπεριειλημμένος.
Declaring the august title of supreme authority by the splendor of his vesture, he alone worthily wears that imperial purple which so well becomes him (Schaff).
ἐσθῆτά γε μὴν χρυσοϋφῆ ποικίλοις ἄνθεσιν ἐξυφασμένην ἁλουργίδα τε βασιλικὴν σὺν αὐτῷ διαδήματι γελᾷ τοὺς πολλοὺς θεώμενος ἐκπεπληγμένους καὶ τὸ φάντασμα κομιδῇ νηπίων δίκην οἷόν τι μορμολύκειον θειάζοντας.
He [Constantine] smiles at his vesture, embroidered with gold and flowers, and at the imperial purple and diadem itself, when he sees the multitude gaze in wonder, like children at a bugbear, on the splendid spectacle.Moral considerations are added afterwards, when Eusebius speaks about another garment, another περίβλημα that coats the emperor’s soul: it is the knowledge of ‘the Divine’, ἐπιστήμην τοῦ θείου.
This metaphorical vestment is also “temperance, righteousness, piety, and all other virtues” (δικαιοσύνῃ εὐσεβείᾳ τε καὶ ταῖς λοιπαῖς ἀρεταῖς), what is said to fit specially well to the emperor, as it is “a vesture such as truly becomes a sovereign”, τὸν ἐπ’ ἀληθείας πρέποντα βασιλεῖ κόσμον.It is true that such moral considerations do not appear in combination with the purple in the Panegyrici Latini. Notwithstanding this, these ethical commentaries are coherent with the kind of eulogies employed in the encomiastic secular literature.
For example, Constantine’s appearance attests his moral conditions when he enters the palace of his dead father according to the sixth PanLat (6,4,4). Namely, calmness, modesty, and sense of justice are mentioned in this text:
Idem enim est quem rursus in te colimus aspectus, eadem in fronte grauitas, eadem in oculis et in ore tranquillitas. Sic est index modestiae rubor, sic testis sermo iustitiae.
“For it is the same countenance that we revere once more in you, the same serious brow, the same calmness of eye and voice. In the same way your blush is an indication of your modesty, and your conversation a witness to your sense of justice”.It is to be taken into account that the previous two passages from De laudibus speak about Constantine and his purple in terms which would have suited probably any pagan panegyric.
In De laudibus there are no references to those who have worn purple improperly, as happened three times in the Panegyrici Latini. Such a counterexample can only be found in Eusebius (if Eusebius played actually a role in the composition of the speech) in the Oratio ad sanctorum coetum (24,2), a speech addressed, as previous told, to an assembly of bishops.
ἀλλὰ σύγε, Οὐαλεριανέ, τὴν αὐτὴν μιαιφονίαν ἐνδειξάμενος τοῖς ὑπηκόοις τοῦ θεοῦ, τὴν ὁσίαν κρίσιν ἐξέφηνας ἁλοὺς αἰχμάλωτός τε καὶ δέσμιος ἀχθεὶς σὺν αὐτῇ πορφυρίδι καὶ τῷ λοιπῷ βασιλικῷ κόσμῳ, τέλος δὲ ὑπὸ Σαπώρου τοῦ Περσῶν βασιλέως ἐκδαρῆναι κελευσθεὶς καὶ ταριχευθεὶς τρόπαιον τῆς σαυτοῦ δυστυχίας ἔστησας αἰώνιον.
You, too, Valerian, who manifested the same spirit of cruelty towards the servants of God, have afforded an example of righteous judgment. A captive in the enemies’ hands, led in chains while yet arrayed in the purple and imperial attire, and at last your skin stripped from you, and preserved by command of Sapor the Persian king, you have left a perpetual trophy of your calamity.This text establishes a direct link between Valerian’s cruelty against the Christians and his awful fate. His presentation as a prisoner coated with the imperial purple becomes even more paradoxical when not only this garment is said to have eventually been stripped from the body but even his own skin: mors persecutorum pessima.
In the Vita Constantini Eusebius makes also a restrictive use of purple, as attested in all the other panegyrists. Nevertheless, the references to this precious substance in the work are as scanty as significant. Unlike the other analysed texts, the references to purple in the Vita can be even read as a kind of milestones which indicate the different and evolving attitudes of Constantine towards the imperial power and the relation of purple to religion, both in an official and a personal sense.
ἁλουργίς, which appears four times in Eusebius’s Vita Constantini, is employed for the first time after Constantius Chlorus’s death, in a situation parallel, and at the same time different, to the one known through the sixth Latin Panegyric.
[ὁ Κωνστάντιος] ἐν αὐτοῖς βασιλείοις ἐπὶ βασιλικῇ στρωμνῇ, τὸν κλῆρον τῆς βασιλείας νόμῳ φύσεως τῷ τῇ ἡλικίᾳ προάγοντι τῶν παίδων παραδούς, διανεπαύσατο. Οὐ μὴν ἀβασίλευτος ἔμενεν ἡ ἀρχή, αὐτῇ δ’ ἁλουργίδι πατρικῇ Κωνσταντῖνος κοσμησάμενος τῶν πατρικῶν οἴκων προῄει, ὥσπερ ἐξ ἀναβιώσεως τὸν πατέρα βασιλεύοντα δι’ ἑαυτοῦ δεικνὺς τοῖς πᾶσιν.
In the palace itself, on the imperial couch, he handed over his part of the Empire by natural succession to the senior in age among his sons, and expired. The Empire however was not left ungoverned. Arrayed in his father’s own purple robe Constantine emerged from his father's halls, showing to one and all that, as though revived, his father reigned through him (tr. Cameron-Hall).By publicly assuming this garment, he was obviously proclaiming to the whole Empire and to the other Tetrarchs that he intended to be the new Augustus. And he did it in accordance with the Roman use, as already seen in the Panegyrici Latini and De laudibus Constantini.
No further mention is made to the purple or the clothes tinted with it in Eusebius’s eulogy until the Council of Nicaea (325) opens the third book. On this solemn occasion Constantine made his entrance before the magnificent assembly, constituted by about three hundred bishops, in a splendorous way; cf. Eus., VC 3,10,3-4):
πάντων δ’ ἐξαναστάντων ἐπὶ συνθήματι, ὃ τὴν βασιλέως εἴσοδον ἐδήλου, αὐτὸς δὴ λοιπὸν διέβαινε μέσος οἷα θεοῦ τις οὐράνιος ἄγγελος, λαμπρὰν μὲν ὥσπερ φωτὸς μαρμαρυγαῖς ἐξαστράπτων περιβολήν, ἁλουργίδος δὲ πυρωποῖς καταλαμπόμενος ἀκτῖσι, χρυσοῦ τε καὶ λίθων πολυτελῶν διαυγέσι φέγγεσι κοσμούμενος.
All rose at a signal, which announced the Emperor’s entrance; and he finally walked along between them, like some heavenly angel of God, his bright mantle shedding lustre like beams of light, shining with the fiery radiance of a purple robe, and decorated with the dazzling brilliance of gold and precious stones (tr. Cameron-Hall).This passage makes a conscious use of enargeia and focuses on the physical appearance of the emperor as different textual markers show. As in the case of De laudibus (5,6), it is followed by comments on his internal disposition.
Thus a coherent image of Constantine is presented, both external and internal, whose general tone is advanced by the initial and encomiastic comparison: οἷα θεοῦ τις οὐράνιος ἄγγελος.According to Eusebius, the almighty Augustus appears before the clergy as a heavenly angel of God whose most distinctive visible features are brightness and luminosity because of the combined effect of gold and precious stones which adorn his garments. As a part of this brightness he is said to wear also a purple robe which makes him shine as it emits hyperbolically a fiery radiance.
The comparison of a man with an angel of God could be problematic, because it could be regarded as an exaggeration and the first step towards hubris. Purple can actually mean hubris, as the example of Agamemnon in his tragedy shows. But the Aeschylean Agamemnon is a figure different from the Eusebian hero.
Eusebius takes care of showing that Constantine, this ‘angel of God’, is not guilty of hubris. He does it, as already advanced, through textual comments on Constantine’s external appearance which shows his internal excellence: the emperor is humble because his eyes are cast down, his face blushes, his gait is harmonious, and the rest of his appearance reflects, according to Eusebius, his moral disposition.
In the first passage from the Life of Constantine (1,22,1) purple or purple garments signified as much as imperial dignity and emperorship in accordance with the Roman tradition. Eusebius has gone now a step beyond, as purple is dyed with new and supernatural shades in this second text.
Constantine, as he opens the Council of Nicaea, is not only the emperor of Rome. Although not yet baptized, he had become a kind of episcopus maximus among Christian bishops. Significantly he wears shining purple when he assumes his new role.It must be reminded that purple had not only significance in social and political contexts in Antiquity: it played a role also in ancient religions such as Judaism.
This is well attested in the Old Testament, in which it is prescribed that the tent of the Tabernacle and different religious objects must be made of purple, at least partially. More importantly, purple was also a part of the vestments which the High Priest should wear, as Exodus states.When Constantine walks between the assembled bishops wearing his purple robe, if Eusebius’s text is read having in mind what Exodus says, it is better understood that the son of Constantius Chlorus acts not only as the emperor of Rome. Eusebius presents him actually as a kind of High Priest, as if Constantine’s imperial purple were embedded in the ritual purple which characterizes the High Priest in the Exodus.
The references to the purple in the first and third books of the Vita Constantini must be also read in connexion with what is said about this material in the fourth book. Purple appears once again there, and it does it in a very different situation and playing a distinct role too.
Κωνσταντῖνος (…) θείας τε σφραγῖδος ἀξιούμενος ἠγάλλετο τῷ πνεύματι ἀνεκαινοῦτό τε καὶ φωτὸς ἐνεπίμπλατο θείου (…) τὸ δ’ ἐναργὲς καταπεπληγὼς τῆς ἐνθέου δυνάμεως. Ὡς δ’ ἐπληροῦτο τὰ δέοντα, λαμπροῖς καὶ βασιλικοῖς ἀμφιάσμασι φωτὸς ἐκλάμπουσι τρόπον περιεβάλλετο ἐπὶ λευκοτάτῃ τε στρωμνῇ διανεπαύετο, οὐκέθ’ ἁλουργίδος ἐπιψαῦσαι θελήσας.
Constantine was initiated by rebirth in the mysteries of Christ, and exulted in the Spirit on being vouchsafed the divine seal, and was renewed and filled with divine light (…), awestruck at the manifestation of the divinely inspired power. When the due ceremonies were complete, he put on bright imperial clothes which shone like light, and rested on a pure white couch, being unwilling to touch a purple robe again (tr. Cameron-Hall).In this text Ὡς δ’ ἐπληροῦτο τὰ δέοντα refers to the rite of baptism which Constantine received only when he felt the proximity of impending death. Light, brightness, luminosity, clearness, are concepts which also recur in this passage, as they did by the inauguration of the Council in Nicaea. Now Constantine is said to have been filled with a light which is divine, and this will be repeated by the emperor himself when Eusebius cites his own words in the next chapter (4,63,1).
Then divine power which astonishes Constantine is said to be visible, and Eusebius expresses this idea by a significant adjective, now substantivated, τὸ ἐναργὲς, which relates to ἐνάργεια, a central concept in the presentation of the imperial image in the Vita Constantini.
As already advanced, the emperor dresses afterwards new cloths, characterised by their brightness: they are said to be λαμπροῖς and redundantly φωτὸς ἐκλάμπουσι τρόπον, “brilliant as the light”. These imperial garments are not positively said to be white, as usual in the case of the new baptized since Antiquity. But whiteness may be suggested by λαμπροῖς, which can mean as much as candidus in Latin, “shining white”, as when Polybius (10,5,1) translates the Roman expression toga candida as λαμπρὰν ἐσθῆτα.
The fundamental point to be retained is that the emperor does not want to dress any more the purple cloth, not even touch it. The renounce to the metaphoric brightness of purple which played a central role in 3,10,4 has as its counterpart the reception of the true light, the ‘divine light’ which Constantine receives by the occasion of his baptism as related by Eusebius in the fourth book.
When analysing a previous text (VC 3,10,3-4), the testimony of the Old Testament has been brought into discussion, and it has been proposed that the scene depicting the entrance of Constantine into the Nicaea Council should be read in the light of the Exodus’s passages which speak about the vestments which the High Priest wears when he fulfils his ritual debts.
In relation to the text now exposed it is advisable to take into account what the New Testament says about purple, because in this part of the Bible, as in the now analysed passage from the fourth book of the Life of Constantine, purple acquires negative nuances as a symbol of vanity, deception, and even evil.
There are different references to purple (always πορφύρα) within the New Testament, and at least one of them is purely factual.
In other cases purple is always mentioned in the New Testament with a negative nuance. Purple means for example a wealth insensible towards the needs of power Lazarus according to the parable included in the Gospel of Luke (16,19).
Purple also appears as a characteristic of evil in Apocalypse, as a part of the ornaments which embellish the woman who is the Great Prostitute and Babylon at the same time (17,4-5), the damned city whose destiny deplore the sellers whom she used to buy purple and other luxurious goods (18,11-12,16).
They refer to the Roman soldiers mocking Jesus by imposing him royal attributes which are out of place in the case of a prisoner who is going to be soon executed and die, as Constantine in this moment of his Life. The aforementioned attributes are a sceptre (only in Matthew), a crown of thorns (in the three evangelists), and a vestment which is “purple” in Marc (15,17: πορφύραν) or a “purple cloak” in John (19,2: ἱμάτιον πορφυροῦν). Cf. Marc 15,17-19:
17 καὶ ἐνδιδύσκουσιν αὐτὸν πορφύραν καὶ περιτιθέασιν αὐτῷ πλέξαντες ἀκάνθινον στέφανον· 18 καὶ ἤρξαντο ἀσπάζεσθαι αὐτόν, Χαῖρε, βασιλεῦ τῶν Ἰουδαίων· 19 καὶ ἔτυπτον αὐτοῦ τὴν κεφαλὴν καλάμῳ καὶ ἐνέπτυον αὐτῷ, καὶ τιθέντες τὰ γόνατα προσεκύνουν αὐτῷ. 20 καὶ ὅτε ἐνέπαιξαν αὐτῷ, ἐξέδυσαν αὐτὸν τὴν πορφύραν καὶ ἐνέδυσαν αὐτὸν τὰ ἱμάτια τὰ ἴδια.Obviously it is unthinkable that the soldiers of the garrison would have had purple garments at their disposal, and moreover that they would have employed them to dress a bloody Jesus who had been already flagellated. Matthew (27,28) says actually that the soldiers changed his vestments by a scarlet cloak, probably a military one. But that may have been enough for the farce which the soldiers were representing. Cf. Matthew 27,28-31:
28 καὶ ἐκδύσαντες αὐτὸν χλαμύδα κοκκίνην περιέθηκαν αὐτῷ, 29 καὶ πλέξαντες στέφανον ἐξ ἀκανθῶν ἐπέθηκαν ἐπὶ τῆς κεφαλῆς αὐτοῦ καὶ κάλαμον ἐν τῇ δεξιᾷ αὐτοῦ, καὶ γονυπετήσαντες ἔμπροσθεν αὐτοῦ ἐνέπαιξαν αὐτῷ λέγοντες, Χαῖρε, βασιλεῦ τῶν Ἰουδαίων, 30 καὶ ἐμπτύσαντες εἰς αὐτὸν ἔλαβον τὸν κάλαμον καὶ ἔτυπτον εἰς τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτοῦ. 31 καὶ ὅτε ἐνέπαιξαν αὐτῷ, ἐξέδυσαν αὐτὸν τὴν χλαμύδα καὶ ἐνέδυσαν αὐτὸν τὰ ἱμάτια αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἀπήγαγον αὐτὸν εἰς τὸ σταυρῶσαι.They saluted Jesus as the King of the Jews, and even prostrated before him as before an emperor according to Matthew and Marc. As everything was a farce, they did not refrain from spitting and hitting him at the head. Once the play was finished, Jesus returned to be a prisoner condemned to death and therefore the soldiers took away from him the spurious royal purple robe.
Purple is also mentioned for the last time in the fourth book of the Life of Constantine (VC 4,62,4), and then with significant variations in comparison with its appearance in the scene of Constantine’s baptism.
After the baptism had taken place and the emperor had died, the bishop of Caesarea tells that the soldiers lifted the body of Constantine, brought it to Constantinople, and exposed it on an elevated place in the imperial palace (VC 4,66). It is said that the coffin in which the corpse was laid had been enveloped in purple, which is now for the first time in the Life of Constantine ‘imperial purple’, ἁλουργίδι βασιλικῇ.
Moreover, a new reference of purple, now πορφύρα for the first time, comes next, when it is said that the emperor was “arrayed in the symbols of sovereignty, the purple and the diadem”:
Ἄραντες δ’ οἱ στρατιωτικοὶ τὸ σκῆνος χρυσῇ κατετίθεντο λάρνακι, ταύτην θ’ ἁλουργίδι βασιλικῇ περιέβαλλον ἐκόμιζόν τ’ εἰς τὴν βασιλέως ἐπώνυμον πόλιν, κἄπειτα ἐν αὐτῷ τοῦ παντὸς προφέροντι τῶν βασιλείων οἴκων βάθρον ἐφ’ ὑψηλὸν κατετίθεντο, φῶτά τ’ ἐξάψαντες κύκλῳ ἐπὶ σκευῶν χρυσῶν θαυμαστὸν θέαμα τοῖς ὁρῶσι παρεῖχον, οἷον ἐπ’ οὐδενὸς πώποτ’ ὑφ’ ἡλίου αὐγαῖς ἐκ πρώτης αἰῶνος συστάσεως ἐπὶ γῆς ὤφθη. ἔνδον γάρ τοι ἐν αὐτῷ παλατίῳ κατὰ τὸ μεσαίτατον τῶν βασιλείων ἐφ’ ὑψηλῆς κείμενον χρυσῆς λάρνακος τὸ βασιλέως σκῆνος, βασιλικοῖς τε κόσμοις πορφύρᾳ τε καὶ διαδήματι τετιμημένον, πλεῖστοι περιστοιχισάμενοι ἐπαγρύπνως δι’ ἡμέρας καὶ νυκτὸς ἐφρούρουν.
The military took up the remains and laid them in a golden coffin. They wrapped this in imperial purple, and bore it into the city named after the Emperor; then in the most superb of all the imperial halls they laid it on a high pedestal, and by kindling lights all round on golden stands they provided a wonderful spectacle for the onlookers of a kind never seen on earth by anyone under the light of the sun from the first creation of the world. Within the palace itself, in the central imperial quarters, the Emperor’s remains, adorned with imperial ornaments, with purple and crown, was guarded day and night by a huge circle of people keeping vigil (tr. Cameron-Hall).The pregnant institutional occasion of the funus imperatoris explains why the purple is now ‘imperial’, why it is mentioned together with the diadem – and why Constantine comes again in contact with purple, the symbol he had rejected shortly before.
At the end of this analysis it may be said that purple is actually a recurring visual element which contributes to define the image of the emperor in the Eusebian Vita Constantini; it is one of those important iconological elements of the Vita for which we do not have yet a complete study as indicated by Van Nuffelen in 2013 (cf. P. Van Nuffelen, "The Life of Constantine: The Image of an Image", in A. Johnson and J. Schott (eds.), Eusebius of Caesarea: Tradition and Innovations, Cambridge MA, 2013, 133-149.).
And, as previously proposed, purple appears repeatedly in the Life of Constantine as a kind of milestone. It may be added that this milestone has a kaleidoscopic character.
- In an official, secular sense purple means in Eusebius Roman imperial power, as seen in the first and last mention of the Life, in De laudibus Constantini, and in the contemporaneous Panegyrici Latini.
- Purple also means imperial dignity in the narration of the Council of Nicaea. However, in this climactic moment of the Vita Constantini, it expresses new, religious and ritual notions, as best appreciated when the passage is read in the light of the Old Testament.
- In a more intimate sense purple may express the most personal convictions of Constantine, and it does this paradoxically when the emperor rejects it at the moment of his death. In this case Eusebius has embedded in the substance and its colour the nuances which it acquires in the New Testament, in which Jesus, as Constantine, dies without purple garments after having had them on his shoulders.
- What is not found in a basilikos logos like the Vita Constantini is the sense which the deviated use of purple acquires three times in the Panegyrici Latini and once in the Oratio ad sanctorum coetum.