Being a Christian in the early years of the church sometimes meant facing persecution, torture, and even death at the hand of the Roman Empire. Some were stoned, while others were led into the Roman Colosseum to be fed to the wild beasts for a spectacle. The Emperor Nero even used Christians as torches to light the arena, nailing them to a cross and burning them alive.1 The Great Persecution under Emperor Diocletian also took its toll and tested the faith of many Christians. Yet for many of those who were martyred, they went to their deaths eager to have been chosen to worthy to die for the name of Christ. This was the plight of Christians for nearly 300 years. It wasn’t until the reign of Constantine that the face of the Roman Empire changed. The son of Constantius and Helena, Constantine was responsible for ushering in a new era which held relief for the weary Christians who had been persecuted for so long. Hailed as the first Christian emperor, Constantine was also a military general in the Roman army. It was through this facet that he was able to succeed to the throne and secure the title of “Pontifex Maximus,” the greatest pontiff or bishop. Christians within the Empire now had the freedom to worship their religion and with the backing of the new Emperor the church was able to grow – both in strength and in number. By examining the life of Constantine and the role he played in bringing Christianity out of the shadows of pagan Roman society, we can see the impact he had on the religion of Christianity and the resulting change that took place throughout the empire. [Image Source]
The Romans tolerated practically all forms of worship to any god, whereas Christianity as a monotheistic religion, was intolerant to the pagan worship of Roman society. This intolerance was the origin of the friction that existed between the two parties. For most of its 300 years, Christianity was able to persist within the Roman Empire. They were able to meet and worship together, minister to the populous, and baptize new believers. Despite the mirage of tolerance, the Christians were not favored in the empire and were looked down upon for their beliefs. The Romans called them “dangerous fanatics who hated all humanity and wanted to destroy the established order.”2 In addition, they were often blamed for the troubles of the Roman Empire. Historian A.H.M. Jones states:
“The Jews refused to worship any god save their own, and declared all others to be false. Jews were much disliked by their pagan neighbors, but the Roman government steadily protected their cult and their right to follow their own religious law…. The other intolerant sect, which declared that the gods [worshiped by others] were… graven images or… demons, was Christianity. Christians were even more unpopular than the Jews. It was commonly believed that they practiced ritual infanticide [baby killing]-it no doubt leaked out that at their secret meetings they are the flesh and blood of a son of man…. But the main charge against the Christians was that they were atheists, who denied and insulted all the gods. Ordinary people naturally thought that the gods were angered by such impiety and might visit their wrath on the Empire which tolerated it. Whenever there was an earthquake or a famine the people called for the Christians to be thrown to the lions to appease the angered gods.”3
Despite the seemingly peaceful times, this misunderstood view led to the persecution of many Christians. While empire-wide persecutions were rare, they were declared several times by the Emperors in the first 300 years of the establishment of the church to try to regain uniformity and obedience within the region.
Before Constantine came to power, the Emperor Diocletian ruled the empire and persecuted the Christians in what came to be known as The Great Persecution. Diocletian believed the Empire’s troubles were due to the unhappiness of their gods caused by the impiety of the Christian religion. The Great Persecution, lasting eight years, introduced many new hardships to Christians. An imperial edict was decreed ordering the burning of all scriptural texts, the dismantling of churches, banning of meeting together, loss of rank and denial of legal rights to all Christians.4 Some Christians gave in to the demands of Diocletian, while others resisted and were either imprisoned, tortured or executed. While the exact number is not certain, it is estimated that over 20,000 Christians died during the reign of Diocletian.5 To the Christians, being labeled a martyr for the faith was considered an honorary death and some even sought it out. Eusebius kept a record of the martyrdoms in his region stating that there were four executed under the imperial edicts and “eight more when six young men presented themselves shouting out that they too were Christian.”6 Although many Christians died in the revolt, it was mostly in the eastern half of the empire. In the west many governors were unenthusiastic about enforcing Diocletian’s decree and most of the Christians were fortunate enough to escape unscathed. Constantine’s own father, Flavius Constantius, who reigned as Caesar to Maximian, the co-emperor of Diocletian, was among those who were indifferent about its enforcement.7 What the persecutions ultimately proved was that the central government was weak. The church was made up of people of strong faith who were willing to die for what they believed and who stood up against the unjust decrees of the pagan rulers. It was only a matter of time before the Christians were to bring change to the dwindling pagan society.
Constantine was raised in the midst of the quarreling and would have witnessed the persecutions of the Christians and the martyrs who boldly went to their deaths. He was the eldest child, born to pagan Constantius Chlorus (later Emperor Constantius I) and Flavia Helena, believed to have been an innkeeper. Helena was reportedly a Christian who traveled abroad and helped other Christians financially and with personal services until she died at nearly eighty years old.8 Due to her own Christian beliefs, Helena may have held some influence on her son’s later conversion to Christianity. While Constantine was still young, his father, Constantius, divorced Helena and married Theodora, the stepdaughter of Maximian, the augustus of the west. This was a politically charged marriage that allowed him to gain the favor of Diocletian and move into the position of Caesar, under his father-in-law Maximian. From this marriage, Constantine’s family expanded, gaining five half-siblings. However, it was Constantine with his age and elderly status who dutifully followed behind his father.
Constantius directed Constantine to report to Diocletian’s court. There he was to stay to “ensure his father’s continued loyalty to his imperial colleagues,” and he remained there for twelve years.9 Constantine served as a soldier during this time, becoming mighty and victorious before his enemies and won the praise of the Roman army that served under him. During a return trip from Rome, Diocletian became ill and decided to retire. Power struggles ensued as the next augustuses and Caesars were chosen to fill the new positions.
Shortly thereafter, Constantius became seriously ill. He pleaded with Galerius for the release of his son from Diocletian’s order. Galerius refused to release him, but the defiant Constantine disregarded his authority and decided to escape. He fled with Galerius’ horses, getting rid of them at the station points that he passed. At the coast of the English Channel, he found his father and fought with him in the last battle Constantius would fight, defending the Roman Empire from barbarous attacks. Constantius and his son won the battle, but his father died shortly afterward, having only been the augustus for just over a year. The soldiers under him were quick to proclaim Constantine the new western augustus. A Christian named Lactantius wrote, “His distinguished and becoming presence, his military application, his upright habits, and his extraordinary affability made him the object of the soldiers’ affection and of the private citizens’ choice…”10 The army held much sway at this time, leaving Galerius little choice but to accept the soldiers’ proclamation.
It is at this time that we first see Constantine’s mixing of pagan and Christian religions to help him attain his goal as ruler of the empire. He claimed that the Roman sun god, Sol Invictus, was his protector.11 Yet, in the battle against Maxentius, he fought under the banner of Christianity. There are many variants to Constantine’s conversion story, but the premise is generally consistent. Constantine was about to enter a battle with Maximian’s son, Maxentius. Before doing so, he supposedly had a vision during the day and a dream that night telling him to paint the Christian emblem (the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ) onto the shields. The historian and theologian Eusebius wrote of the event:
“If someone else reported it, it would perhaps not be easy to accept: but since the victorious Emperor himself told the story to the present writer a long while after… and confirmed it with oaths, who could hesitate to believe the account, especially when the time that followed provided evidence for the truth of what he said? About the time of the midday sun, when day was just turning, he said he saw with his own eyes, up in the sky and resting over the sun, a cross-shaped trophy formed from light, and a text attached to it which said, ‘By this sign conquer.’ [In hoc signo vinces].
He was, he said, wondering to himself what the manifestation might mean: then, while he meditated, and though long and hard, night overtook him. Thereupon, as he slept, the Christ of God appeared to him with the sign which had appeared to him in the sky, and urged him to make himself a copy of the sign… and to use this as protection against enemy attacks.”12
Regardless of the story’s validity, Constantine had his soldiers paint the Chi-Rho sign on their shields. The next day, they decisively won the battle against Maxentius at Milvian Bridge.
Some believed that Constantine did nothing more than use the religion for his own political gain. Jacob Burckhardt labeled Constantine as “essentially unreligious,” and “driven without surcease by ambition and lust for power.”13 To support this view, even after Constantine’s supposed conversion to Christianity at Milvian Bridge in 312, Sol Invictus was still portrayed on the Arch of Constantine, dedicated in 315 for his victory against Maxentius14 and was stamped on his official coinage until the year 325/6.15 In addition, a few years after the famous battle, he declared Sunday – the day of the Sun – to be a public holiday. “All magistrates, city-dwellers and artisans are to rest on the venerable day of the sun.”16
While he may have been genuinely converted later on in his life, Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity and subsequent victory at Milvian Bridge was a pivotal turning point in history. It meant an end to the turmoil of the Christians’ oppression, allowing the religion to grow stronger without further fear of persecution. It also garnered the position of co-emperor with Licinius, only one step away from reuniting the empire under one ruler once again.
As the new western augustus, one of Constantine’s first undertakings was to put an end to the persecution of Christians within his region. He, along with Licinius, issued the Edict of Milan in 313. The edict “guaranteed absolute toleration for the Christians and provided for the restoration of all property they had lost in the persecutions.”17 With the acceptance of Christianity, the pagan world began to deteriorate across the empire.
“On the religious front Constantine’s conversion to Christianity certainly unleashed a cultural revolution. Physically, town landscapes were transformed as the practice of keeping the dead separate from the living, traditional in Graeco-Roman paganism, came to an end, and cemeteries sprang up within town walls. Churches replaced temples; as a consequence, from the 390s onwards there was so much cheap second-hand marble available that the new marble trade all but collapsed. The church, as Gibbon claimed, attracted large donations both from the state and from individuals. Constantine himself started the process, the Book of the Popes lovingly recording his gifts of land to the churches of Rome, and, over time, churches throughout the Empire acquired substantial assets.”18
The friendly ties between Constantine and Licinius did not last long, however, as Constantine still had the desire to unite Rome under one leader, himself. Not long after issuing the Edict of Milan, Constantine claimed Licinius was devising a plan to have him assassinated. The two waged war against each other in 316, with Constantine holding to the same Christian emblem he had used at Milvian Bridge and Licinius embracing the totems of the old pagan gods.19 Constantine’s victory was swift, but Licinius was able to flee from his hand. It wasn’t until 324 that another battle ensued. Licinius soon surrendered and he was executed after a plea for his life from his wife, the step-sister of Constantine, had failed.
As sole reigning Emperor, Constantine was finally able to reunify the east and west. In addition to his contribution to the Roman Empire and with the power struggles behind him, he then turned his attention back to unifying the Christian religion which was becoming splintered by several disputes amongst the bishops. At the behest of several bishops, Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea to bring back a sense of peace back to the empire.20 Nearly 300 bishops were in attendance in order to resolve the controversies between them.21 One of the issues addressed at the council was the nature of Christ and his relationship to God the father.22 Constantine took on the role of an authority figure during the deliberations. Under Christianity, it was considered blasphemy for the emperors to be deified, but their divine status was nevertheless preserved as they were chosen to serve in God’s place while on earth. Eusebius argued that “the emperor, as God’s chosen representative on earth, should wield great religious authority within Christianity.”23 Constantine presided over the Council of Nicaea in his self-appointed role of “bishop of all bishops,” which placed him in the position of being somewhere between God and man.24
More than anything, Constantine strove for unity – both in the Roman Empire and in the church. Eusebius informs us “that whenever given a choice among the various types of Christians, the emperor always sided with those who favored consensus.”25 In deciding the matter before the council on the relationship between the Son and the Father, he cites unity as the motivating factor:
“Constantine dismissed their dispute over the relationship of Father and Son as ‘intrinsically trifling and of little moment.’ His reason for finding so little value in a matter of such great theological significance was his recognition of the need to accommodate diversity. ‘For we are not all of us like-minded on every subject,’ he wrote, ‘nor is there such a thing as one disposition and judgment common to all alike.’ Accordingly, he then put forward his own criteria: ‘As far, then, as regards the Divine Providence, let there be one faith, and one understanding among you, one united judgment in reference to God. But as to your subtle disputations of questions of little or no significance, though you may be unable to harmonize in sentiment, such differences should be consigned to the secret custody of your own minds and thoughts.’”26
The importance of the council cannot be underestimated as many churches today still hold to the accepted agreement made at the council. One view, held by Arius of Alexandria, stated that although Christ was divine he was not from the beginning. He was a created being, making him less divine than God. This flew in the face of the doctrine of the Trinity which stated that God the father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit were one. The council’s conclusion denounced Arianism and wrote what is known as the Nicene Creed. The creed’s main theme recognizes the oneness between Christ and God and that he existed in the beginning with the father.
Constantine’s presence and position at the Council of Nicaea set in place a pattern that was followed for the rest of the century regarding future councils. “Emperors were now intimately involved in both the settlement of Church disputes and the much more mundane business of the new religion’s administration… Even more impressively, emperors helped set the agendas to be discussed, their officials orchestrated the proceedings, and state machinery was used to enforce the decisions reached.”27 The Roman Empire and Christianity became intertwined – church and state intermingled. In a manner of speaking, Christianity became Romanized. The Emperor began to play a more prominent role in its functions and bishops began to attain more power within the government. Constantine even had his Christian soldiers sent to church on Sundays, while all others were to recite a general monotheistic prayer acknowledging a “God of All” who was the victor and preserver of the Constantinian house.28
With the sense of peace once again prevailing, Constantine turned his attention to the making a new capitol city which was to be called Constantinople. Previously the city of Byzantium, the “new Rome” was to be the hub of Christianity. In 330, Constantinople was inaugurated, being a Christian city from its dawning and remaining “the largest and wealthiest city of Christendom for eight centuries.”29 The city of Constantinople put to shame all other cities in both greatness and majesty. It was meant to portray Constantine’s beliefs of religion and government, yet its physical structure modeled that of Rome. New buildings were built, including a senate house, forums, a capitol, circuses, porticoes, and many churches.30 The city’s pagan temples, however, were not torn down. Constantine held to the view that Christianity would supplement and enhance the regime, but the pagan beliefs could still be tolerated as Christianity had once been – the roles had been flipped. The same mindset existed in its population. “Constantine did not force people to come to the city, but instead rewarded those who chose to move.”31 The great unifier, Constantine was not without familial problems.
The eldest son of Constantine by his first wife Minervina, Crispus was to be the subject of a family scandal. Regardless of his distinguished service to his father and to the empire, he was accused of treason and executed by his father. Constantine’s then-current wife, Fausta, had brought the charges against him. While the details are lost, it is believed that Fausta was jealous of Crispus and was trying to gain a better inheritance for her own sons. Whatever the reason, Constantine discovered his son’s innocence too late. As punishment for her jealous scheme, Fausta was then sent into exile.
To keep the empire running as he had set it up, Constantine made several provisions before his death. He entrusted the empire to his remaining sons and divided it accordingly. He gave farming lands to Samaritans, who were previous enemies of the empire and who he had fought in battle and subdued in his younger years. He also went so far as to pay the enemy tribes to pacify any warring desires they may have had. Whenever his conversion to Christianity took place, it wasn’t until he was on his deathbed that he asked to be baptized. As was the custom at the time, it was believed that putting off baptism until the end of life kept him from as much sin as possible, wanting to enter heaven with a clean slate.32 He died shortly thereafter on May 22, 337 and his body was taken for burial to Constantinople.33
The legacy left by Constantine during his 31 year reign is one that afforded freedom of religion across the empire, while granting a leading role to Christianity. In addition, he united the fragmented empire under one ruler, allowing cohesion and giving strength to the floundering nation. While he ran head-strong into Christianity, he never coerced the religion on any population and even tolerated the pagan beliefs. One author spoke rightly about this period in history:
“The key to the Constantinian period is an emperor who was Christian, but who resisted pressure from any quarter to use coercion to enforce belief. His aim was to restore the coexistence that prevailed for half a century prior to the Great Persecution, and the success he enjoyed is perhaps the greatest casualty of the traditional paradigm of pagan-Christian ‘conflict,’ which has so conditioned us to hear only the voices of extremists that the endurance of this coalition for most of the fourth century goes largely unnoticed.”34
Without the reign of Constantine, Christianity may have never have seen the acceptance of a government. It may have continued suffering occasional persecutions from the hands of the pagan rulers while under the perception of tolerance, but following with its 300 year history the church would have continued to increase in faith.
With the religion being mingled together with Romanism, it allowed corruption to enter. Emperors declared themselves rulers of the church, presumptuously placing themselves between God and man. The great unifier, Constantine may have brought a better, more peaceful world for the Roman Empire and an end of suffering to thousands, but also brought distortion to the order of the church which was to last for more than 1,000 years. Still, his contributions to the early period of Christianity set a precedent for those after him to follow and greatly impacted the course of history.
1 “Colosseum and Christian Martyrs,” Roman Empire & Colosseum, accessed June 18, 2012, http://www.roman-colosseum.info/colosseum/colosseum-christian-martyrs.htm.
2 Don Nardo, Opposing Viewpoints Digests: The Fall of the Roman Empire, (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1998), 22.
3 Ibid, 55.
4 Neil Faulker, Rome: Empire of the Eagles, (Great Britain: Pearson Education Limited, 2008), 275.
5 “Persecution of Christians,” Wikipedia, accessed June 18, 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persecution_of_Christians.
6 Neil Faulker, Rome: Empire of the Eagles, (Great Britain: Pearson Education Limited, 2008), 275.
7 Phil Grabsky, I, Caesar: Ruling the Roman Empire, (London: BBC Books, 1997), 182.
8 Edward A. Johnson, “Constantine the great: imperial benefactor of the early Christian church,” Journal of The Evangelical Theological Society 22, no. 2 (June 1, 1979): 161-169, ALTA Religion Database with ALTASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed June 12, 2012), 161.
9 Phil Grabsky, I, Caesar: Ruling the Roman Empire, (London: BBC Books, 1997), 177.
10 Ibid, 184.
11 Neil Faulker, Rome: Empire of the Eagles, (Great Britain: Pearson Education Limited, 2008), 273.
12 David Potter, Emperors of Rome: The Story of Imperial Rome from Julius Caesar to the Last Emperor, (Oxford: BCS Publishing Limited, 2007), 186.
13 H.A. Drake, “Constantine and consensus,” Church History 64, no. 1 (March 1995): 1. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 12, 2012), 2.
14 “Arch of Constantine,” Wikipedia, accessed June 18, 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arch_of_Constantine.
15 “Sol Invictus,” Wikipedia, accessed June 19, 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sol_Invictus.
16 Phil Grabsky, I, Caesar: Ruling the Roman Empire, (London: BBC Books, 1997), 197.
17 Don Nardo, Opposing Viewpoints Digests: The Fall of the Roman Empire, (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1998), 23.
18 Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 121.
19 Neil Faulker, Rome: Empire of the Eagles, (Great Britain: Pearson Education Limited, 2008), 277.
20 Phil Grabsky, I, Caesar: Ruling the Roman Empire, (London: BBC Books, 1997), 199.
21 “The Council of Nicea,” Columbia University, accessed June 19, 2012, http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/sbrandt/nicea.htm.
22 “First Council of Nicaea,” Wikipedia, accessed June 19, 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Council_of_Nicaea.
23 Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 125.
24 K R Gutzman, “Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea and his “Life of Constantine” : A Heretic’s Legacy,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 42, no. 3-4 (September 1, 1997): 351-358, ALTA Religion Database with ALTASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed June 12, 2012), 356.
25 H.A. Drake, “Constantine and consensus,” Church History 64, no. 1 (March 1995): 1. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 12, 2012), 5.
26 Ibid, 4.
27 Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 125.
28 H.A. Drake, “Constantine and consensus,” Church History 64, no. 1 (March 1995): 1. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 12, 2012), 11.
29 Don Nardo, Opposing Viewpoints Digests: The Fall of the Roman Empire, (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1998), 93.
30 “Constantinople,” New Advent, accessed June 19, 2012, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04301a.htm.
31 David Potter, Emperors of Rome: The Story of Imperial Rome from Julius Caesar to the Last Emperor, (Oxford: BCS Publishing Limited, 2007), 193.
32 “Constantine the Great,” Wikipedia, accessed June 20, 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constantine_the_Great.
33 Michael DiMaio, “Zonaras, Julian, and Philostorgios on the death of the emperor Constantine I,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 26, no. 1-2 (March 1, 1981): 118-124, ALTA Religion Database with ALTASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed June 12, 2012), 118-119.
34 H.A. Drake, “Constantine and consensus,” Church History 64, no. 1 (March 1995): 1. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed June 12, 2012), 15.