Constantine the Great
Equal to the Apostles Emperor Saint Constantine the Great (February 27, 272-May 22, 337) was proclaimed Augustus by his troops on July 25, 306 and ruled an ever-growing portion of the Roman Empire to his death. Constantine is famed for his refounding of Byzantium as "New Rome," which was always called "Constantine's City"—Constantinople. With the Edict of Milan in 313, Constantine and his co-Emperor removed all onus from Christianity. By taking the personal step of convoking the Council of Nicaea (325) Constantine began the Roman Empire's unofficial sponsorship of Christianity, which was a major factor in the faith's spread. His reputation as the "first Christian Emperor" was promulgated by Lactantius and Eusebius and gained ground in the succeeding generations. The Orthodox Church keeps his feast on May 21, along with his mother, Empress Saint Helen.
He was born at Naissus, today's city of Niš in Upper Moesia (modern Serbia and Montenegro), to Constantius I Chlorus and an innkeeper's daughter, Helen. Constantine was well educated and served at the court of Diocletian in Nicomedia as a kind of hostage after the appointment of his father Constantius, a general, as one of the two Caesars (at that time a junior emperor), in the Tetrarchy in 293. In 305, the Augustus, Maximian, abdicated, and Constantius succeeded to the position. However, he died in 306. Constantine managed to be at his deathbed in Eboracum (York, England), where troops loyal to his father's memory proclaimed him Emperor. For the next 18 years, he fought a series of battles and wars that left him first as emperor of the west, and then as supreme ruler of the Roman Empire.
Constantine and Christianity
Constantine is perhaps best known for being the first Roman Emperor to endorse Christianity, traditionally presented as a result of an omen — a chi-rho in the sky, with the inscription "By this sign shalt thou conquer" — before his victory in the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312, when Constantine is said to have instituted the new standard to be carried into battle, called the labarum.
Christian historians ever since Lactantius have adhered to the view that Constantine "adopted" Christianity as a kind of replacement for the official Roman paganism. Though the document called the "Donation of Constantine" was proved a forgery (though not until the 15th century, when the stories of Constantine's conversion were long-established "facts") it was attributed as documenting the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity for centuries. Even Christian skeptics have accepted this formulation, though seeing Constantine's policy as a political rather than spiritual move.
By the end of the 3rd century, Christian communities and their bishops had become a force to contend with, in urban centers especially. Christians were preferred for high government positions; the Church was granted various special privileges; and churches like the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem were constructed. Christian bishops took aggressive public stances that were unknown among other cult leaders, even among the Jews. Proselytism had had to be publicly outlawed, simply to maintain public decorum. In the essential legions, however, Christianity was despised as womanish, and the soldiers followed pagan cults of Mithras and Isis. Since the Roman Emperors ruled by "divine right" and stayed in power through the support of the legions, it was important for them to be seen to support a strong state religion. The contumely of the Christians consisted in their public refusal to participate in official rites that no one deeply believed in, but which were an equivalent of an oath of allegiance. Refusal might easily bring upon all the Roman people the loss of the gods' support; such were the usual justifications for occasional lynchings of Christians by Roman soldiers, the fare of many martyrologies.
Constantine and Licinius' Edict of Milan (313) neither made paganism illegal nor made Christianity a state-sponsored religion. What it did was legalize Christianity, return confiscated Church property, and establish Sunday as a day of worship. Though the church prospered under Constantine's patronage, it also fell into the first of many public schisms. He called the First Ecumenical Council to settle the problem of Arianism, a dispute about the personhood and Godhood of Jesus Christ. It produced the Nicene Creed, which favoured the position of Athanasius, Arius's opponent, and became official doctrine.
When the Altar of Victory was desecrated and removed from its place of honor in the Senate, the Senate deputized Symmachus to appeal to the emperor for its return. Symmachus publicly characterized the late Emperor Constantine's policy, in a plea for freedom of religion:
- He diminished none of the privileges of the sacred virgins, he filled the priestly offices with nobles, he did not refuse the cost of the Roman ceremonies, and following the rejoicing Senate through all the streets of the eternal city, he contentedly beheld the shrines with unmoved countenance, he read the names of the gods inscribed on the pediments, he enquired about the origin of the temples, and expressed admiration for their builders. Although he himself followed another religion, he maintained its own for the empire, for everyone has his own customs, everyone his own rites. The divine mind has distributed different guardians and different cults to different cities. As souls are separately given to infants as they are born, so to peoples the genius of their destiny. (Possible Christian insertion in italics.)
- Medieval sourcebook: The Memorial of Symmachus, prefect of the City. (The Memorial has been emended to address three emperors, Valentinian II (died 392), Theodosius I, and Arcadius (began to rule 395), a historical impossibility. Thus there may be other Christian adulterations of the text. The reply of Ambrose, bishop of Milan is appended, which is highly revealing in the character of his argument in rebuttal.)
Beyond the limites, east of the Euphrates, the Sassanid rulers of the Persian empire had usually tolerated their Christians. A Letter from Constantine to Shapur II, supposed to have been written in 324 urged him to protect the Christians in his realm… With the edicts of toleration in the Roman empire, the followers of Christ would be regarded as allies of Persia's ancient enemy. The persecutions began. Shapur II (ruled 310 - 379) wrote to his generals:
- You will arrest Simon, chief of the Christians. You will keep him till he signs this document and consents to collect for us a double tax and double tribute from the Christians … for we Gods have all the trials of war and they have nothing but repose and pleasure. They inhabit our territory and agree with Caesar, our enemy. (quoted in Freya Stark, Rome on the Euphrates 1967, p. 375)
It was not an unreasonable demand in the circumstances. The Sassanids were perennially at war with Rome. Christians were now suspected for potential treachery. The "Great Persecution" of the Persian Christian churches occurred in a later period, 340-363, after the Persian Wars that reopened upon Constantine's death. In 344 came the martyrdom of Catholicos Shimun bar Sabbae, with five bishops and 100 priests.
Was Constantine a Christian?
The religion of Constantine the Great, while generally assumed to be Christian in view of his pro-Christian policies, is disputed by some secular historians.
As a Roman emperor, Constantine is not completely unassociated with paganism, and there is some controversy over the vision which historical orthodoxy accepted as his conversion, demurring that it was pagan in content, not Christian.
Another aspect of Constantine that might indicate an incomplete acceptance of Christianity (from a modern view) was his notorious cruelty: he executed his own wife and eldest son in 326 for unknown reasons. He also had Licinius, the East Roman emperor, strangled after his defeat, something he had publicly promised not to do.
Family influence is sometimes adduced to account for a personal adoption of Christianity: Helen in this agenda is said to be "probably born a Christian" though virtually nothing is known of her background, save that her mother was the daughter of an innkeeper and her father a successful soldier, a career that excluded overt Christians. Certainly Helen demonstrated extreme piety in her later life in her trip to Palestine, where she discovered the True Cross and established basilicas.
As the general custom, Constantine was not baptized until close to his death, when his choice fell upon the Arian bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia. However, the Church teaches that the efficacy of the sacrament is not dependent upon the sanctity of the celebrant.
The Church considers Constantine a saint.
His victory in 312 AD over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge resulted in his becoming Western Augustus, or ruler of the entire western half of the empire. He gradually consolidated his military superiority over his rivals in the crumbling Tetrarchy until 324, when he defeated the eastern ruler, Licinius, and became sole emperor.
Constantine rebuilt the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, naming it Nea Roma, providing it with a Senate and civic offices similar to the older Rome. After his death it was renamed Constantinople, and gradually became the capital of the empire.
He was succeeded by his three sons, Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans, who secured their hold on the empire with the murder of a number of relatives and supporters of Constantine. The last member of his dynasty was his grandson, Julian the Apostate, who attempted to restore paganism.