Possibly the greatest difficulty with ancient history, and especially in those epochs where sources are thin on the ground, is the fact that historians rely on each other for discovering facts and for proposing theories where facts are practically non-existent.  Normally, this isn’t a problem:  it’s just a fact of life, and if necessary the theories can be checked against other events and either retained or discarded.

But every so often things snowball:  a specific theory propounds another theory, which then gives rise to another theory ….  And so on.  As time elapses, these ‘theories’ become based more upon previous theories than upon the original sources upon which these theories are based (eh?).  And then they become accepted ‘fact’.

In one of my previous books I found just such a theory.  When researching the story of Stilicho, I discovered that in 406 the invading Vandals, Alans and Sueves crossed the frozen River Rhine.  Except that I couldn’t find any reference to it in the original sources.  The earliest reference I could find was in Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall …’. A theory now accepted as fact?

Still, this isn’t really a problem.  As long as all sources are checked these things can be discovered.  In addition, when researching the ‘Late Roman Empire’ historians know that they cannot be certain of things, so the acceptance of alternative concepts is a matter of course and not necessarily the cause of friction.

However I have now changed historical periods, albeit only slightly.  The controversial character of Constantine the Great (reigned 306-337) obviously causes some debate, especially the discussion around his ‘Christianity’:  was he the first Christian Roman Emperor or merely jumping on a bandwagon for political gain?

As is usual, as part of the research I am currently analysing a new slew of theories built one upon another has appeared.  As I said, this isn’t a problem: it’s just par for the course.

On the other hand, the change in tone of some of both ancient and modern historians is surprising.  Some of the vitriol towards each other, which is barely disguised within the books and articles, is – frankly – hilarious.  In some places it appears almost as if the sources/historians have been watching episodes of a 1990s comedy called ‘The Mary Whitehouse Experience’ for ideas.  In this, there were sketches titled ‘History Today’, featuring two old professors played by Robert Newman and David Baddiel attacking each other in an extremely childish manner (try Googling ‘History Today’ for examples).

The entertainment value of such comments hasn’t detracted from the fact that the life of Constantine is one of the most covered, but least agreed-upon, lives of ancient history.  Having read through many of the text books and sources for Constantine’s life I can see why:  the question of his alleged Christianity and the date of his ‘conversion’ are hotly debated and the cause of much of the animosity, usually between Christian- and non-Christian writers, both ancient and modern. The confusion inherent in all of the works on Constantine explain (at least to some degree) the lack of posts here in recent months: after a day grappling with confused and confusing sources, the last thing on my mind is to then type a post about my frustration.

Although I am attempting to write Constantine’s story from a military viewpoint, the ‘Christian’ debate does creep in from time to time, especially when it comes to his military victories.  It s interesting that many writers have looked at, for example, the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, but have accepted what is stated by the sources at face value and have made no attempt to analyse the Battle from a military perspective.  As they are mainly concentrating on whether he was a Christian at this point, it is almost understandable.  Despite that statement, I still find it odd.

Realistically, however, I shouldn’t moan:  if previous historians had switched attention away from the ‘Christianity Debate’, what would I write about?