Constantine the Great

On Wednesday, 6th of June we met at Moca. Since it was a pleasant evening we sat outside to look at the life of Constantine and how his conversion to Christianity changed both the history of the world and the history of the church.

The World of Constantine – power and empire.

Constantine was born in 272 in Naissus, modern day Nis in Serbia. His father was Constantius, an ambitious army officer, his mother was Helena, a woman of lowly birth. After about 20 years together Constantius divorced Helena in about 290 in order to marry a woman from the Roman elite, he did this in order to further his political ambitions. In 293 Constantius was appointed Caesar (junior emperor) of the west with responsibility for Britain and France. Helena became a Christian – we do not know when, but she seems to have been a very keen and pious Christian, and no doubt had some influence with Constantine, particularly after he became emperor, in matters of Christianity.

Even the tetrarchy was unable to do away with hereditary privilege and so Constantine went to Diocletian’s court at Nicomedia to be educated as a candidate for future appointment as Caesar. During this time Constantine also campaigned with the army on the eastern front of the empire. He returned to Nicomedia from the eastern front in the spring of 303, just in time to witness the start of Diocletian’s Great Persecution (303 – 305), regarded by many historians as the most severe persecution of Christians in Roman history. (It is important to note that emperors varied greatly in their reaction to Christianity, from outright hostility to total indifference. Another factor was how zealously local governors implemented imperial decrees.)  The persecution seems to have been worse in the eastern part of the empire, Constantius enforced without much enthusiasm only the initial anti-Christian decrees in Britain and France.

Due to severe illness Diocletian abdicated in May 305, in a parallel ceremony in Milan, Maximian also resigned as Augustus. Galerius who was Caesar in the east persuaded Diocletian to appoint him to Augustus. Constantine expected to become Caesar, but was overlooked because he wasn’t an ally of Galerius. Thereafter Constantine was kept at court in Nicomedia so Galerius could keep an eye on him – he was in effect under house arrest

His future depended on being rescued by his father and escaping to the west. In the summer of 305, Constantius visited Galerius and requested that Constantine be allowed to join him to help his campaign in Britain. Galerius initially refused, but after a long night of heavy drinking agreed to let Constantine leave. Constantine claims that he was ready to leave as soon as his father obtained permission, he immediately fled from the court at night with his guard (probably a group of his father’s cavalry troops), before Galerius could change his mind. They rode away at high speed so that when Galerius awoke the next day Constantine would be too far away to be caught and brought back. Constantine joined his father in northern France before crossing the channel to Britain and on to York (Eboracum), home to the largest military garrison in Britain. Constantine spent the next year in northern Britain (the future Scotland) campaigning against the Picts. It is thought that the campaign penetrated as far north as Inverness. Constantine had been a popular officer with the eastern army, in Britain he was equally popular with the western army. They returned to York in the summer of 306, where Constantius died in July. Before his death he declared that Constantine should become Augustus of the west. Upon Constantius’s  death the York garrison proclaimed Constantine emperor. this was followed by troops throughout both Britain and France proclaiming him emperor. Constantine, was very astute, he did not travel to Rome but instead sent a portrait of himself dressed as an Augustus and wreathed in bay. He requested recognition as heir of his father and blames the army for his claim to the throne, saying that it had been forced upon him. Galerius apparently went into a rage and wanted to set the portrait on fire, while Maxentius, a claimant to power who feels he has been overlooked, mocks the portrait’s subject as the son of a whore!

Galerius’s advisers calm him down and persuade him to offer Constantine the position of Caesar in the west in order to avert civil war. He makes clear that he alone grants Constantine this position and sends him the emperor’s purple robes. Constantine accepted the decision knowing that it removed all doubts as to his legitimacy.

For the next six years Constantine remains in Britain and France campaigning against Rome’s enemies, and keeping well out of the way of political machinations in Rome, Milan and Nicomedia.

In the autumn of 306 Maxentius seized power in Rome by deposing Galerius’s appointee as Augustus, Severus. In the east Galerius became very ill in 311, his final act before his death was to send out letters to governors proclaiming an end to the persecution of Christians. He died soon afterwards, and Licinius became Augustus of the east.

Maxentius and Constantine both try to form alliances with Licinius. Constantine managed to forge an alliance by offering his sister, Constantia, in marriage to Licinius.

Maxentius’s rule was never popular outside Italy and by 312, Constantine, Licinius and Maxentius were all preparing for war. It was a time of which Bishop and historian Eusebius, claimed that “not a day went by when people did not expect the onset of hostilities”.

In the autumn of 312 Constantine invaded Italy, won battles at Turin and Verona and marched on Rome. The day before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (a bridge over the Tiber into Rome) Constantine claimed he saw a cross in the sky above the sun with the words in Greek that are usually translated: “in this sign conquer”. The special significance of the vision was that Constantine, a pagan, was a worshipper of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun.

Constantine had his troops mark their shields with the sign of the cross before the battle.

Maxentius made several blunders before and during the battle. He did not need to leave the city to engage Constantine, having very large reserves of food and water, and monumental defences. He had also partially demolished the Milvian Bridge to block Constantine’s entry into Rome and built a temporary pontoon bridge over the Tiber for his troops to leave the city in order to engage Constantine’s army.  There is no doubt that Constantine was a very accomplished and skilful general, but Maxentius lined his troops up too close to the Tiber. Constantine reacted by ordering his cavalry to charge into the opposing cavalry. He then ordered his infantry to charge. Because Maxentius had set his troops too close to the Tiber, when they were driven back by the initial onslaught they had no room in which to regroup and so panic ensued.  Maxentius’s decision to order his troops to retreat was catastrophic.

His intention was to make a strategic withdrawal, protecting his army so that he would be able to mount a successful defence of Rome from the city walls. But with only a narrow strip of stone bridge and a rocking, heaving wooden pontoon as a crossing, the retreat across the Tiber became a rout as Constantine’s men continued to surge forward. A large number of troops drowned and others were slaughtered trying to climb out of the river. Maxentius himself drowned. Constantine had his body recovered from the Tiber, ordered that his head be cut off and then rode into Rome holding Maxentius’s head impaled on a spear. The other decisive factor in the battle was that Maxentius’s troops were used to a relatively easy life in Italy, while Constantine’s troops were battle hardened from campaigning  in Britain, France and holding back the Germanic tribes along the empire’s northern border.

In 315 the Senate dedicated a triumphal arch in Rome to honour Constantine, with an inscription praising him because “with divine instigation” he and his army had won the victory. Interestingly it did not say which god had provided the “instigation” for victory and so people could credit it to Sol Invictus, the Christian God, Jupiter, Mars, Apollo, Mithras, Hercules  or whichever god they chose!

In early 313 Constantine and Licinius met in Milan. They produced the Edict of Milan, a very important decree which provided freedom of religion to Christians, but also to Jews and Pagans – “to Christians and to all others full authority to follow whatever worship each person has desired”.  It required that the wrongs done to Christians in the recent persecutions be righted, including the restoration of confiscated items. It also stopped Jews from being able to stone to death Christian converts from Judaism. This Edict is not about human rights – ideas totally alien to Roman Emperors. It is about stability, stability within the empire, “to secure public order” and avoid social unrest. Constantine was very superstitious and so it’s also about placating the Christian God – who after Constantine’s victory is regarded as being very powerful, while at the same time trying to keep the many pagan gods happy.

The Edict did not make Christianity the official religion of the empire. This was done by Emperor Theodosius I in 380.

Constantine and Licinius ruled the west and east of the empire until 324. Licinius was accused of reneging on the Edict of Milan by sacking Christians from important positions and by confiscations. This is regarded by many historians as exaggerated in order to justify war and allow Constantine to take control of the whole empire. Licinius was a lot less supportive of Christianity and he probably saw the Church as being far more loyal to Constantine.

After a series of battles Constantine eventually prevailed at the Battle of Chrysopolis in September 324. Licinius surrendered at Nicomedia on condition that he would be spared. He was sent to live as a private citizen in Thessalonica, but in 325 Constantine accused Licinius of plotting against him and had him hanged. Constantine was now sole emperor of the Roman Empire.

In the summer of 326 Constantine had his eldest son put to death, and later that summer he had the Empress Fausta, killed in “an over-heated bath”. Their names were wiped from inscriptions, references to their lives in the literary record were eradicated, and the memory of both was condemned.

After 324 Constantine decided to move his capital to the Greek city of Byzantium, he carried out extensive rebuilding, which included the Church of the Holy Apostles. The city was dedicated in May 330, and renamed  Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). The western part of the empire was more difficult to control than the east, with serious threats of invasion from barbarian tribes to the north, Constantine therefore saw it as prudent to move his capitol to the eastern part of his empire. He was proved correct as the Byzantine Empire continued in the east for over a thousand years.

Constantine died in Constantinople in 337 having changed history, and the history of the church.


Constantine and Christianity – the church after 312.

 Constantine’s “conversion” to Christianity in 312 changed both the history of the world and the history of the church.

Recovering from a time of persecution it’s perfectly understandable that  church leaders welcomed Constantine’s reign with his adoption of the Christian cult alongside paganism. But unfortunately they were willing to make compromises, particularly about Jesus of Nazareth, so as not to offend the Emperor,  which proved detrimental to Christianity.

Constantine like every other King from every ancient civilisation from China to Peru would have regarded himself as divine. The bishops had to be careful how they portrayed Jesus – he could not be more divine than the emperor, so the answer was to play down Jesus and emphasis the cosmic Christ. This also involved spiritualising Jesus teaching so that it offered little or no challenge to the powers that be, and emphasising the virgin birth and his death and resurrection.

As the church absorbed Roman culture this was reflected in art. The Christian God began to be depicted as Jupiter/Zeus and Christ as the emperor with all the trappings of imperial power.

Philippa Adrych writes: Zeus on his throne was replaced by the new Christian God, ruler of heaven and earth, and the emperor, long associated with a variety of divinities, now imparted his image onto the figure of Christ.

When Constantine came to power Christians were still a minority, but a large minority. The recent persecution, which had just ended, did not stop the faith growing. Up to this point Christianity had been largely popular among slaves, soldiers and the lower orders of Roman society.

After 312 Christianity gained legal toleration and imperial approval which helped the church to grow rapidly. Bishop and church historian Eusebius, wrote of “the hypocrisy of people who crept into the church” hoping for the emperor’s favour. Adopting the Christian religion suddenly became a way to enhance one’s prospects in society.

Robert Markus writes: There had been rich Christians before Constantine, but rarely can their Christianity have contributed to their standing in society, their wealth or power. But from now on, their religion could itself become a source of prestige, and did so to the dismay of bishops who, like Eusebius, were sometimes inclined to look for less worldly motives for conversion to Christianity.

Markus continues: As it rose to dominance, Christianity had seamlessly absorbed Roman culture, and the lifestyle of these urban elite Christians was almost identical to that of their pagan peers except that Christians went to church. The lack of a distinctive Christian lifestyle troubled many thoughtful believers. Many committed Christians reacted by embracing asceticism, esteeming virginity, poverty and self-denial. Thus monastic communities came into being.

In 325 Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea to iron out theological questions. Most centred around the idea of the Trinity, and the relationship between the Father and the Son in terms of equality. They formulated the Nicene Creed, affirming the concept of the Trinity, that the three persons were co-equal and co-eternal and that Jesus Christ was ‘of the same substance’ as the Father. This laid the foundations for only one kind of Christianity –

Nicene, Trinitarian, Substitutionary Atonement Christianity.  All other forms of Christianity were from now on heretical.

These changes during Constantine’s rule opened the way for the most shameful behaviour, the coming decades and centuries were marked by violent persecutions against pagans and other Christians, particularly Arians.  Emperor Theodosius I in 380 made Christianity the official religion of the empire. He was a zealous persecutor of pagans and Christians, whom he regarded as heretics. In the coming centuries Byzantine emperors passed laws which forbade any form of Christianity which was not orthodox (Nicene Trinitarian), forbade many pagan practices and harshly discriminated against Jews and Samaritans.

It is a sad fact that almost as soon as religious liberty was granted for Christians in the Roman Empire, Christian on Christian  and Christian on pagan persecution and violence began, and accelerated when Christianity became the official religion of the empire. It is greatly to the dishonour of Christians that this took place.

During the third century AD, the church changed from poor to rich, from despised to respectable, from persecuted to persecutor, from shame to honour, from the cross to the sword, from non-violence to imperial power, from the Kingdom to Christendom, from Jesus the radical, non-violent preacher to Christ triumphant – depicted as the emperor whose servants weald great power.

Thus Christendom was created, an empire where every citizen must be subservient  to a sovereign lord crowned as a Christian ruler, and where laws were created to harass, exile, torture or kill all who disagree with state orthodoxy, whether Christian heretic, pagan or Jew.

Centuries of warfare between Christians followed, initially Trinitarian against Arian.

These changes which left Christians divided and self-absorbed paved the way for the rapid advance of Islam in the Middle East and North Africa. This lead to the crusades, which of course were mostly targeted at Muslims, but Roman Catholics also took the opportunity along the way to massacre Orthodox Christians and Jews. Doctrinal differences continued to the Reformation and beyond as Protestants and Roman Catholics burned each other at the stake in sixteenth century England, and fought religious wars across northern Europe. In southern Europe and Latin America the Inquisition tortured and murdered many thousands of “heretics”. Christianity had largely parted ways with the Kingdom and became firmly embedded in nation and empire.


Constantine – a personal viewpoint.

Constantine was  very ambitious, astute and when deemed necessary ruthless.  Without these qualities he wouldn’t have become emperor nor been able to hold on to power . He was also a very skilled and formidable general who was able to inspire great loyalty from the  troops he commanded.

There are many varying opinions about his reaction to Diocletian’s persecution of Christians. I don’t believe Constantine would have been in  favour of persecution simply because it would have led to less social stability rather than more, and why unnecessarily alienate a sizable minority when you want to become emperor? On the other hand I don’t believe that he would have opposed the persecution as some contemporary Christian writers claimed. Diocletian was  second only to his father in sponsoring him to become either Caesar or Augustus in the Tetrarchy.  So there is no way that he would have risked losing Diocletian’s favour.

He was not afraid to make radical changes when circumstances dictated, on coming to power he immediately disbanded the Praetorian Guard.  Constantine believed that they were a threat to his safety as they had been loyal to Maxentius. By this time the Praetorian Guard had become a formidable force of 15,000 troops. Disbanding the Guard was presumably made easier because many had died in the battle for Rome. Constantine formed his own personal bodyguard made up of the most loyal and able troops who had accompanied him from Britain.

Constantine was very shrewd and calculating. He had a knack of not rushing into things, but seems to have been able to bide his time and strike at the right moment.  He waited six years before invading Italy and attacking Rome to become Augustus of the west. He waited another twelve years before attacking Licinius, to fulfil his ambition of becoming the empire’s sole emperor. There are a couple of old fashioned sayings that are most apt with regard to Constantine: “never bite off more than you can chew” – he never did; and “strike while the iron’s hot” – he always seems to have done so.

Constantine’s conversion to Christianity causes problems for historians and leads to almost as many opinions as there are writers.  Up until 312 emperors had always been either hostile or indifferent to Christianity. Look at it from their point of view. How could an emperor subscribe to a religion that involved the worship of a Jewish criminal that the empire’s agents had executed by crucifixion? Emperors would also have had a huge problem in accepting that this Jewish criminal was more divine than they were. That’s why I believe church leaders played down Jesus and his teaching and emphasised Christ so as not to offend the new emperor.

From the point of view of contemporary Christians his “conversion”  must have seemed miraculous.  This is unsurprising as within two years Christians went from suffering persecution to being able to worship freely.

I’m sure Constantine had some sort of spiritual experience, possibly a dream or a vision of some kind. He interpreted this as being from the Christian God and when he defeated Maxentius the next day he truly believed that this god must be very powerful, and that he needed to placate him.

His understanding of Christianity must have been very unsophisticated, and I can’t believe that he grasped the implications of what it really meant to be a Christian, for example how its converts were required to devote themselves exclusively to Christianity. His mother, Helena, a pious Christian must have had some influence over him with regard to Christianity, particularly after he became emperor.

Along with Licinius, Constantine produced the Edict of Milan, in 313, which must rank as one of his greatest achievements.  The Edict stated that Christians should be allowed to practice their faith without persecution. It cancelled penalties for professing Christianity and  decreed that confiscated property must be returned to both the Church and individual Christians.  The Edict also protected all other religions from persecution, allowing anyone to worship whichever god they chose. This was not about human rights, but about social stability and about placating the Christian God to whom he believed he owed his success.

This however did not lead to a totally “Christian” style of rule. Some of his actions were definitely still pagan. Throughout his life he held the title of Pontifex Maximus,  a position Roman Emperors held as head of the Roman State Cult. At the time of the dedication of the Arch of Constantine, in 315, sacrifices were made to Sol Invictus, Apollo, Diana, Victoria and Hercules.  When he founded his new capitol of Constantinople, as well as building churches, Constantine erected some pagan temples and statues.

Throughout his rule, Constantine supported the Church, built basilicas such as Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople. He also granted certain tax exemptions to clergy and promoted Christians to high office. Emperors had always favoured a particular cult, Constantine was different in that his favoured cult was the Christ-cult. Throughout his reign he appears to have gradually increased his favour of  the Christian cult over pagan ones.

In order to gain power and to hold on to it he had to be ruthless, this was borne out by the murder of his wife, the Empress Fausta, and the executions of his oldest son, Crispus and his defeated rival, Licinius.

He was also very ambitious and desired to be sole Emperor.  He was ambitious and ruthless enough to brand Licinius as anti-Christian in order to start a war with the aim of becoming sole emperor. Licinius seems to have been far less supportive of  Christianity than Constantine, and probably saw the church as being much more loyal to Constantine.

Constantine  was clearly very astute and foresighted. He seems to have thought that Christianity was the future for the empire, and had the foresight to move the capitol  east to Constantinople because the western part of the empire was more difficult to control, with serious threats of invasion from barbarian tribes to the north. He was proved correct as the Byzantine Empire continued in the east for more than a thousand years.

The greatest achievements of his reign must surely have been the Edict of Milan, and moving the empire’s capital east to Constantinople.