Saint of the Week: Constantine the Great

Constantine (272-337; r. 307-337) was the first Roman Emperor to adopt Christianity.  As an Emperor, he seems very little different from his predecessors — a violent war-monger who sought supreme power for himself, engaged in great building projects, regulated the life of the Roman Empire, executed family members, was involved in various palace and political intrigues, and so on and so forth.  Adrian Goldsworthy, in his recent book The Fall Of The West, says that Constantine ruled in a manner so similar to Diocletian (r. 284-305) that it is often difficult to determine who instituted which reforms.

Furthermore, Constantine’s tolerance for Christianity is not as outstanding as many, especially his panegyrists such as Eusebius, would like us to think.  The third century was not a time of rife persecution from all emperors, but often had many emperors who tolerated Christianity, with one even giving formal acknowledgement of the protection of Christians.

Unlike his predecessors, Constantine was actually a Christian.  Before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (312) which he fought against his rival Maxentius, he had a dream saying, “In this, conquer,” indicating to him the labarum, or chi-rho sign — or possibly that of a cross with the top curved to look like a rho (which looks like a P).  Having painted the labarum on his soldiers’ shields, he won the Milvian Bridge and credited his victory to the Christian god.  Many Roman Emperors credited their victories to specific gods, so as yet this was still not excessively remarkable.

However, Constantine’s attachment to the Christian God was to grow throughout his reign.  Christianity gained imperial favour, which resulted in new public church buildings designed in the style of the Roman basilica, the place for public meeting, law, and business.  Included amongst these were the original St. Peter’s on Vatican Hill, St. John’s Lateran, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem where his mother, St. Helena, went on pilgrimage.  The Church was also returned her property which had been confiscated during the Diocletianic Persecution.

Our English word emperor comes from the Latin imperator, which was used by Rome’s leading citizen from Augustus in 27 BC to Romulus Augustulus in AD 476.  The imperator was the supreme commander of Rome’s armies.  He organised the legions and the navy.  He planned campaigns against Rome’s enemies.  He looked after the welfare of the State in a very physical, tangible sense.  In Senatorial Rome, the military and the political and the administrative were never entirely divorced.  The imperator was a great organiser of men.

What an imperator such as Constinatine really needed was to ensure the Pax Romana — the “Roman Peace” instituted by Augustus which had suffered greatly in the previous century through a great deal of internal turmoil which beckoned a number of external threats (chiefly Germanic or Persian).  Part of this was instilling unity throughout the Empire, something attempted by Diocletian through an ill-fated price-fixing law.  Constantine did this through the army, and he sought to do it to the Church.

Thus, Constantine called the ever-famous Council of Nicaea in 324 (for more on this, read my fictionalised Nicene Sketches).  He was no theologian, and he knew it.  What he wanted was for the Church to sort herself out and become a unified force within a unified Empire.  Thus, the problems posed by Arius and his supporters needed to be dealt with.  If we look at the letters from Constantine to Arius and the involved bishops, his chief accusation against Arius was not doctrinal but that Arius was stirring things up and not submitting to his bishop.

Nicaea set the stage for the future Ecumenical Councils that helped the Church clarify her thought on certain foundational questions of theology, the person of Christ, and the Holy Trinity.  It also set a dangerous precedent for future emperors to meddle where warriors and politicians do not belong.

Constantine also established the city of Constantinople at Byzantium on the Bosporus (modern Istanbul) which later became the capital of the Eastern Empire when Rome’s power divided.  This city has largely been rumoured to have been free from pagan influences under the new Christian emperor.  Such is not the case; many pre-existing temples were retained, and Constantine even commissioned a naked statue of himself as Sol Invictus — the Unconquered Sun — atop a column.  Constantine’s conversion, even in the late 320’s and 330’s, was not sudden but gradual.  And, despite the occasional syncretistic blending of Sol Invictus and YHWH (the former also makes his way onto coinage), Constantinople was still overwhelmingly Christian, no doubt part of Constantine’s vision for himself as starting grand, new things, not because he had any antipathy towards paganism; as a ruler, he allowed pluralist paganism to continue and even received appeals from pagan cults.

Although Constantine’s conversion to Christianity was not a massive revolution in his religious life, it was real.  There was probably an element of political manoeuvring, probably also an element of superstition following the Milvian Bridge, but also undoubtedly sincere trust in the God of the Christians.  From 312 to 337, this faith was nurtured and informed by the Christians around Constantine.

He was baptised near the end of his life, the result of some concern over whether or not post-baptism sins could be forgiven — a concern that was real at this time in ancient Christianity.  He reposed on May 22, 337 and was buried in a grand mausoleum in Constantinople, surrounded by images of the Twelve Apostles.

He may not be the “Thirteenth Apostle” as some style him, but he was, in my opinion, a sincere believer who had a large impact upon the Church in his lifetime and beyond.  His impact did not affect the doctrine of the Church — Nicaea merely forced the bishops to get together in one room and come to a decision, and that decision was even questioned and overthrown after Constantine’s death.  He did not affect the organisation of the Church’s threefold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons.  He did not affect the liturgy of the Church.  His basilicas did not change too much — Christians were already gathering in large buildings by this time, although most of them were converted homes.

What Constantine did bring about was the thrusting of the Church into public life.  This had both good and bad affects.  Among the good were a greater ability to freely evangelise the 90 to 60 percent of the Empire’s population who still held to the traditional religions.  It meant greater ease of organisation, which meant a greater ability to deal with heretics, schismatics, and people who were just plain weird (ie. men who castrated themselves in the pursuit of holiness).  It meant that the Church could become a more dramatic patron of the arts and a more lavish helper of the poor.  All of these things the Church was already — now she was in a position to have even greater influence for the good of the people of the Roman Empire, thanks to Constantine and his conversion.

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3 thoughts on “Saint of the Week: Constantine the Great

  1. Great summary of Constantine’s life. He gets demonized for so much of what’s wrong with institutional Christianity today, it’s refreshing to read something balanced and objective.

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