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Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor

Paul Stephenson, Quercus 2009. Paperback August 2011. ISBN: 978-1-84916-002-5

In Istanbul, on the north side of Divan Yolu, the street that follows the course of the Mese or ‘Central Way’ of old Constantinople, stands a decayed porphyry stump known as Çemberlitaş, the ‘Hooped Column’. In its heyday it would have been much more splendid, for it was, according to Blue Guide Istanbul (6th ed. 2011), ‘erected by Constantine to commemorate the dedication of the city as capital of the Roman Empire on 11th May 330. It stood at the centre of the Forum of Constantine, a colonnaded oval portico adorned with statues of pagan deities, Roman emperors and Christian saints, and thought to have been the inspiration for what Bernini later built in front of St Peter’s in Rome.’ What is also interesting about the column is the statue that would have crowned it, a colossal likeness of Constantine as Sol Invictus, the Unconquered and Unconquerable Sun, with the orb of the world in his hand and a crown of brazen sunrays glittering on his head.

In his Hymn to God the Father, John Donne makes use of a popular metaphysical pun:

…swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now…

The transference of pagan sun of the heavens to Christian son of God, victorious over death, is something that happened long before Donne’s time. And Constantine’s adoption of the sun/son cult and his public portrayal of himself as brazen victor were significant and deliberate—at least Paul Stephenson thinks so. But why? Was it because he was sincere in his Christian faith? Or was it simple political expediency? Biographies have been written that seek to prove both these theses. Stephenson’s argument is slightly different. Constantine’s devotion to Christ is not what turned Christianity into the majority faith of the Eastern Empire. He is neither the hero that the partisan Christian historian Eusebius sought to portray (4th century) nor the villain that the apostased Catholic convert Edward Gibbon depicts (18th century), with sour scorn, as using ‘the altars of the church as a convenient footstool to the throne of the empire’.

Instead, Stephenson focuses on something else: the army. Constantine grew up in an age when emperors were raised high and then capriciously felled by their barracksmen. The military had enormous power, which, in the right hands, could be cleverly channelled. For Stephenson, Constantine used the army as the driving force and ‘chief instrument of his political will’, aggressively adopting the Victor persona, something which the army accepted wholeheartedly because of what Stephenson calls the ‘established Roman theology of victory’. After the decisive Battle of the Milvian Bridge, when Constantine defeated his rival Maxentius and sent him to his death in the Tiber waters, floundering helplessly in his heavy armour, the bringer of that victory was Christ. We need not trouble ourselves with how, with whether Constantine really did have a vision of a Cross. The fact is that from then on it was Christ and not Zeus or Sol who became the emperor’s patron deity and it was under Christ’s banner that the imperial legions fought.

Constantine’s mother had been a Christian but the world into which her son was born was a pagan one. Christ, like any other god, was a divine being to be flattered and appeased. Constantine’s devotion to his god was not that of a pious Christian as we would understand the term today. Nor was it simply a cyncial political stunt. The truth falls somewhere in between, and Constantine’s reign is, Stephenson thinks, ‘a case study in the interaction of faith and power.’

Readable and convincing, the book presents a portrait of a great soldier and propagandist, a man who believed his earthly power and success were due to the intervention of the god of the Christians. Thus it was that he adopted that cult as his personal totem. He certainly never heard or believed that the meek were blessed and would inherit the earth.

Reviewed by Annabel Barber

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

Comments on The Venice Lido: a Blue Guide Travel Monograph

Short and literary guide to Venice’s Lido, in the Blue Guides’ new Travel Monographs series.

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Entertaining anthologies of writing–extracts from novels, letter, diaries, poems, histories, guide books–about or set in the destination.  Lively introductions to each excerpt make them a pleasure to browse, a mine of fascinating insights to enjoy at home or to supplement a guide book on site.


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How to enjoy the best of Italian food: understand the menu and know how to order in a restaurant or street market.

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The 54th Venice Biennale stars Tintoretto

4th June–27th November 2011

The Biennale, the world’s leading modern art exhibition, is upon us once again. ‘An exuberant invitation to take part in growth and change’ (Rev John-Henry Bowden, former Chaplain of St George’s, Venice)? Or the emperor’s new clothes?

Well, Jackie Wullschlager , the Financial Times’ influential art critic and no enemy of the new, really doesn’t like British artist Mike Nelson’s installation: it is ‘fatuous, self-regarding art’ and ‘the most vapid show the British pavilion has ever sponsored’.  But among the things she does like are the three Tintorettos. Sorry, Tintorettos? Not by any chance by Jacopo Robusti, known as Tintoretto because of his father’s trade of cloth dyeing, with the not very modern dates of 1519–94?

Indeed, the very same. Two of the three paintings are from the Accademia (the Creation of the Animals and the Transport of the Body of St Mark), the third is a Last Supper from the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore ‘painted in the last year of his [Tintoretto’s] life … the last of numerous paintings he produced on this subject, one which had fascinated him all his life … what is memorable above all is the disquieting presence of ethereal spirits and angels which emerge from the dark background, perhaps harbingers of the death of this deeply religious painter’ (quoted from Alta Macadam’s Blue Guide Venice).

But the Biennale’s Chairman, Paolo Baratta, has a simple explanation: the show hasn’t lost faith in the new, Tintoretto’s works are exhibited in the Central Pavilion in the Giardini ‘as a warning to living artists to not indulge in conventions!’ (the exclamation mark is from his press release). And while Curator Bice Curiger maybe protests a little much she is surely right when she says, ‘These paintings by Tintoretto, one of the most experimental artists in the history of Italian art, exert a special appeal today with their almost febrile, ecstatic lighting and a near reckless approach to composition that overturns the well-defined, classical order of the Renaissance. The works will play a prominent role in establishing an artistic, historical and emotional relationship to the local context.’

All excellent, and we at the Blue Guides look forward with enthusiasm to a creeping juxtaposition of great, historical Venetian art alongside the thoroughly modern in the pavilions of the Giardini and halls of the Arsenale at future Biennales.

Reviewed by Thomas Howells

Venice is covered in a number of Blue Guides: there is the main Blue Guide Venice 8th edition, by Alta Macadam, as well as a Blue Guide Literary Companion Venice.  And just out, The Venice Lido by Robin Saikia, in the new Blue Guides Travel Monograph series.


Holy Bones, Holy Dust

The latest book by Charles Freeman, freelance academic historian and historical consultant to the Blue Guides (published by Yale University Press, 2011; ISBN 978-0-300-12571-9).

The subtitle, ‘How Relics shaped the History of Medieval Europe’, sounds more universal than it actually is: the relics in question are exclusively Christian; the book makes no mention of the hair from the Prophet’s beard in Istanbul, for example, nor of any shrines there may have been in Muslim Spain. This is not a criticism; it is simply a fact that helps one to know what one is getting. We are talking about early Christianity, a subject on which Mr Freeman is extremely knowledgeable (and no less opinionated).

The book is a splendid read. It begins with a stirring account of the murder of Thomas Becket and goes on to examine the multifarious and mysterious ways in which early Church Fathers got distracted from the task of helping their flock to follow Christ’s model and fretted instead about whether the Holy Foreskin needed to have been rejoined to Jesus’ body after the Resurrection, or whether women entered Heaven in male form, as being representative of a higher state of being.

Freeman is particularly good on the vulnerability of relic cults to the onslaughts of science. ‘When an earthquake hit Venice in 1511,’ he tells us, ‘the Patriarch interpreted it as a sign from God in response to the increase of sodomy in the city. After all, the city’s prostitutes had been complaining that their own business was suffering as a consequence of this diversion in sexual behaviour. The diarist Marino Sanudo, who recorded the earthquake with his customary detachment, noted that the ensuing days of fasting, procession and preaching might have helped improve piety, “but as a remedy for earthquakes, which are a natural phenomenon, this was no good at all”….Sanudo is reflecting a growing understanding of the natural world.’

And yet, and yet… We may enjoy a little giggle at the idea that St Helena of Athyra possessed a ring that could quench sexual passion and owned a handkerchief that cured toothache, but how many of us have fondled crystals, tied copper bangles to our wrists, kept a scarab beetle in our pockets? The human need for tangible totems or amulets is as strong today as it ever was. A large part of the immense appeal of Freeman’s book is that it reminds us all of this foible. Which, on the scale of foibles, is a relatively harmless one. To the medieval mind, ‘Relics are the portents of heaven shining in their glory among the dross of sinful humanity.’ Nowadays we grope after transcendence in a variety of other ways. But the hope of shining glory is undimmed.

Reviewed by Tonsor

Charles Freeman is the author of Sites of Antiquity: from Ancient Egypt to the Fall of Rome, 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World, published by Blue Guides.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.


As a brief introduction here are six hotels and one restaurant that are recommended in the new Blue Guide Crete. Note that, as with all Blue Guides Recommended establishments, all have been visited by the author or our editors and contributors (see the criteria for recommendation here), indeed in the case of the below we have stayed at all of them.  Considerably longer listings appear in the book itself.

Most of the below are available through who we found excellent. As well as handling the reservations (at no cost to the visitor, they receive a fee from the hotel), they will also give helpful email or telephone advice:

1. Tamam Restaurant, Chania (details»)

2. Casa Delfino, Chania (details»)

3. Villa Kynthia, Panormos (details»)

4. Villa Kerasia, Venerato (details»)

5. Kalimera Archanes, Archanes (details»)

6. Palazzo Apartments, Agios Nikolaos (details»)

7. Aspros Potamos, near Makrigialos (details»)


Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity

Sam Miller, Vintage 2010

Sam Miller is quick to tell us that he loves walking in strange cities. So do I. And it is this that has always bothered me about Delhi, a city I have never visited but have often longed to see: how will I get around it? I don’t want to hire a car or an autorickshaw. And apparently women shouldn’t travel alone by bus. So can one walk? I know no better means of locomotion, especially if you really want to see and understand things. For all these reasons I was heartened when I picked up Sam Miller’s Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity. And when I saw the following line, which the author delivers to an auto-addict who is offering him a lift: ‘I don’t drive. And, well, I really want to walk,’ I knew I was in the company of a kindred spirit. When he says this kind of thing, Miller tells us, people look at him with pity and disbelief, or with embarrassment, as if he were a bit touched. I’m used to this reaction too. When I go to pick up my son from school, in foul-weather gear and yomping boots, mothers in spiky heels emerging from SUVs look at me with pity and disbelief. My son isn’t yet of an age to be embarrassed. So, safe in the knowledge that Miller and I were on the same wavelength, I set off with him, in search of a vast and unknown city. Everything in the book happens at street level. We don’t (or extremely rarely) go inside people’s apartments or office buildings. We don’t join them at social functions or in restaurants. We never really ‘meet’ anyone, we have brief encounters, the stuff of a vagrant’s life, with prison warders, rag-pickers, funeral directors, pirated computer software vendors, stall-holders, janitors. The encounters may be brief but they are not superficial. They are illuminating, sometimes amusing, often moving. And I learned a lot. Not just about Delhi’s geography, monuments, traffic problems, urban planning, religious groups and politics. But about geocaching and SimCity, about the Brahma Kumaris and what ‘sealing’ a business means. I even have a new verb to add to my vocabulary: to prepone, meaning to do something earlier than you planned. I loved the story of the bulldozed mosque and the incident of the ‘fresh fruit salad’, not to mention the Hotel Alka, which advertises itself as ‘the best alternative to luxury’. The New Statesman reviewer who said that ‘For all its entertaining eccentricities Delhi is careful to maintain a strong sense of the city’s sad heritage of religious factionalism, pollution, rioting, poverty and crime’ completely fails to catch the spirit of this book, making it sound like a worthy, brown-rice sort of endeavour leavened by a few off-the-wall jokes. It is nothing like that. It is true that Miller tells it like it is, but he doesn’t preach, he doesn’t campaign, he doesn’t soap-box. That is not to suggest that we don’t learn about pollution, rioting, poverty and crime. We do. But the overall tenor of the book is one of optimism. And enjoyment at the sheer infiniteness of Delhi. Sam Miller sets out to walk the city not because he is a charmingly batty Englishman, but because there are certain things that he would never see if he didn’t. And those things deserve to be documented. In documenting them,  Miller is even-handed and compassionate. This is a book about a megacity, but what that means is that it is a book about human beings, in all their nutty multifariousness. Sam doesn’t judge, he observes. Above all, he writes with extreme tenderness towards his fellow man (and woman). What adds an extra piquancy is the fact that he has trouble with one of his knees. A fanatical walker with a gammy leg almost seems to stand as a microcosm of Delhi itself: something indomitable, irrepressible, insistent with life, and destined to succeed despite all difficulties. For the last few nights this book was my bedside reading. I enjoyed it hugely.

Reviewed by Annabel Barber.

Sam Miller is the author of Blue Guide India.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.


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