Along the Mosel in Trier, the throne room of Emperor Constantine the Great and his successors still stands proud. It’s an imposing work of architecture, the largest surviving pillarless room from antiquity, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, like several other monumental Roman buildings in the city.
Imagine a high-ranking envoy, with the privilege of appearing before Emperor Constantine. He travels to Augusta Treverorum, a vibrant metropolis set in a beautiful, almost Mediterranean-like river landscape.
The power of the emperors who reside here extends from Scotland to Morocco. As well as being the residence of the imperial family and their court, the city is also home to high-ranking officials, famous scholars and philosophers, bishops and church elders. Inhabitants are a colourful mix of locals and Romans, and people of Germanic and Eastern origin. As a result, an inspiring and richly intellectual multicultural environment prevails.
An entire district has been specially constructed for the Emperor and stretches from the Imperial Baths to the Basilica, which serves as both reception hall and court. This is where our envoy needs to go. He enters the enormous hall where the ceiling hovers 33 metres above him. Some 60 metres in front of him, the emperor sits on his throne, elevated within a semi-circular apse. In front of him, an incense burner diffuses fragrant scents. The chamber is furnished with precious marble, ornate mosaics and statues. It is, of course, comfortably heated and the windows are glazed. It’s as if our envoy is stepping inside a vast temple. And Emperor Constantine does indeed see himself as the embodiment of Apollo Helios, the sun god on earth, and presents himself as such. He’s dressed in purple silks, embroidered with gold. Precious stones sparkle everywhere, even on his fine shoes. These give him a special, almost divine glow. He wears a diademof great value on his head and holds a sceptre in his hand.
How small our envoy must feel! He strides the length of the room until he reaches the emperor. Once there, he kneels down at his feet and kisses his purple robes. The emperor benevolently extends his right hand to him and helps him to his feet, before giving him permission to speak.
What kind of person must he be to think of himself as so godlike? Back then, this behaviour seems to have been considered perfectly normal. Even the Christian bishop Eusebius found nothing at all wrong with it, but saw it as a rite justified by tradition and an expression of sacred imperial majesty. Even Constantine's statue found reverence among Christians and non-Christians alike. They believed he was present in his image as they honoured him with offerings and incense.