Eusebius of Caesarea is widely recognized as the most important chronicler of the early Christian church. His History of the Church is unparalleled as a comprehensive account of the formative events and individuals of the early Christian epoch. It is all the more remarkable in that he was evidently the first to ever embark on such an endeavor, a daunting challenge that required the location an organization of a massive amount of information about dates, events and persons covering a period of 300 years. Not one to boast, Eusebius confessed to feeling overwhelmed in the introduction to his great work. “I feel inadequate to do it justice as the first to venture on such an undertaking, a traveler on a lonely and untrodden path,” though he followed that humble thought with his belief that the Lord would see him through it (Christian History, 2008).
Relatively little is known about Eusebius’ early life and family background, though his relationship with his esteemed master, Pamphilus, a devotee of Origen, and later with the Emperor Constantine, indicate that his family may have held some measure of status and influence. He is known to have suffered under the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian, a visceral reaction to the growing impact members of the Christian faith were having on Roman
society. Pamphilus was martyred and Eusebius imprisoned for a period of time before becoming bishop of Caesarea in about 313. During the Arian crisis, Eusebius played a conciliatory role, seeking to effect a resolution between the two sides in a debate that threatened to destroy centuries of progress. He even acted as a mediator between the Arian and orthodox factions at the Council of Nicaea. In addition to his church history, Eusebius wrote a famous history of the life of Constantine, under whom he flourished. But his record of the church’s first three centuries is considered his masterwork, as much a celebration of survival and triumph as a detailed recounting of struggle and martyrdom.
As a historical document, Eusebius’ work is absolutely unique. It as an invaluable compilation of material, much of which would have been lost forever had Eusebius not undertaken the task of amassing such a collection of widespread sources. A glance at the index of the History of the Church reveals a list staggering in its length and detail. Many of these would have come from the library of Caesarea, which Eusebius came to through his apprenticeship with Pamphilus; from the personal recollections of learned individuals he knew or came into contact with; and through the ready access he had to state archival records. “He was thus peculiarly fitted, both by nature and by circumstances, for the task of acquiring material, the first task of the genuine historian” (Eusebius and McGiffert, 56). But Eusebius had to do more than simply gather an exhaustive supply of sources: he also had to make wise and selective use of them, just as the skilled researcher extrapolates the most cogent information in developing an intelligent and insightful treatise.
Critics have pointed to a tendency in the book toward repetition. Given its sheer length,
a somewhat rambling tone may be unavoidable. Other criticisms touch on his consideration of the New Testament. It may indeed be one of the History’s least inspired sections, but Eusebius successfully places his discussion in proper context. “Even in his treatment of the New Testament canon, which is especially desultory, (Eusebius) says most of what he has to say about it in connection with the Apostles themselves…before passing on to the second century” (Eusebius and McGiffert, 60). It may well be that Eusebius’ most impressive accomplishment in History of the Church is the extent to which it follows an outline at all given the weight and magnitude of the material. Eusebius set out to write a historically accurate saga that captured the full drama of what the church endured during its initial phases.
That drama culminates in the victory of the Emperor Constantine (and his son Crispus) over the tyrant Licinius who, having failed to “renounce his wickedness” and having oppressed the people like “a savage beast,” falls to the righteous might of his rival (Eusebius and Maier, 619). This chapter is Eusebius’ crowning touch, the final and lasting triumph of the Christian church, which miraculously survived countless persecutions. Constantine, Eusebius’ great patron, is portrayed as the avenging arm of God himself, by whose hand the Roman empire was reunited as a Christian realm. Under Eusebius’ pen, Constantine becomes the virtuous and pious deliverer, the figurehead of early Christian propaganda, rather than an ambitious combatant jockeying for control of the empire with his political rivals. Eusebius’ prose imbues Constantine with near-divine qualities, the prototypical Christian warrior, who “formed one united Roman empire as of old, bringing under (his) peaceful sway the whole world from the rising of the sun
This is Eusebius’ panegyric for his great hero of the early church. Constantine is the original crusader riding to the rescue of Christ’s church and the endangered empire. He is the obliterator of his godless predecessors, the instrument of God’s will. The logical extension of Eusebius’ idealized characterization is that Constantine stands in Christ’s place, the successor to his grace and status. After his death, Constantine was celebrated as a virtual apostle who had willingly taken up the burden of the cross, conquering, according to legend, under the symbol of the alpha and the omega. Eusebius’ writings assured that Constantine’s place in the history of Christendom would be assured forever.
Of course, the glory of Constantine’s triumph was magnified by the great persecutions of the earlier Roman emperors. The first of these, issued in the 19th year of Diocletian’s reign, resulted in the destruction of Christian churches and the burning of the Christian scriptures. By Diocletian’s time, the Roman empire was largely administered by officials who had accepted the Christian faith. The backlash would take the form of repeated purges. In this section of the History Eusebius interjects one of many obscure yet revealing accounts of that time to paint a picture of horrendous violence against Christians. The “Writings of Phileas to the Thmuites” includes a disturbingly detailed account of the tortures and executions that took place throughout the empire during the persecutions. Many were lashed to pillars, facing them, with their feet off the ground and their body weight pulling the ropes tighter and tighter. This they endured…for most of the day” (Eusebius and Maier, 299).
There is little reason to doubt the veracity of such stories from a time when Diocletian,
Maximian and Galerius appeared determined to rid the empire of the troublesome Christian sect once and for all. Eusebius used such horrendous examples of oppressive behavior as exemplars of wickedness, the purveyors of which were invariably punished in some form by God’s wrath. After 10 years the persecutions finally came to an end. Eusebius tells us that God’s retribution was visited upon Galerius, who perpetrated many offenses against the faithful. “Divine punishment overtook (Galerius), which started with his flesh and went on to his soul. An abscess suddenly appeared in the middle of his genitals, then a deep ulcerous fistula that that ate into his inner intestines incurably. From them came a great mass of worms and a deadly stench…” (Eusebius and Maier, 312).
This kind of ignominious demise was often ascribed to ancient accounts of evil imperial rulers and Eusebius uses it here as an example of what lay in store for those who indulged in persecution of the Christian church. The other side of this Old Testament-like judgment was his recantation, produced by the terrible guilt Galerius experienced on his deathbed. A confession to God was followed by an order to cease all persecutions immediately. Galerius’ recantation included an edict reinstituting the right of Christians to “build their churches and perform their customary rites” (Ibid). Once the Christians were re-enfranchised, the stage was set for the great power struggle among the tetrarchy that would end in Constantine the Great’s accession to power and the final victory of the Christian faith.
Eusebius. The Church History of Eusebius. Translated by Rev. Arthur Cushman McGiffert,
Ph.D. Cincinnati, OH: Lane Theological Seminary. 1890.
“Eusebius of Caesarea: Father and Maker of Church History.” Christian History. 8 August
2008. Web. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/131christians/scholarsandscientists/eusebius.html?start=2.
Eusebius. Eusebius – The Church History: A New Translation. Translated by Paul L. Maier.
Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications. 1999.