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.

Saint of the Week: Saint George

St. George's Greek Orthodox Church, Toronto

G.K. Chesterton once submitted an entry to a discussion about how St. George would feel were he to be dropped into modern England.  Most of the other entries talked about how vastly different England would be in their day than his, and how he would be shocked and surprised and feel totally out-of-place.  In true contrarian, Chestertonian fashion, G.K. submitted an entry that went counter to all of this and said how at-home St. George would feel in modern England, being a cosmopolitan man himself from the Mediterranean world of Late Antiquity.

Chesterton has launched his readers out of the myth that surrounds St. George and realised that this is a real man who didn’t even live in England.  And whether there was a dragon or not, St. George is worth a look, worth not skipping over.

George was a soldier.  He is one of the very few ancient soldier-saints, along with St. Demetrius.  He lived from c. 275-303 under the reign of the Emperor Diocletian (r. 284/5-311).  Diocletian was the last Emperor to engage in a systematic persecution of Christians.  Bishops and presbyters (“priests”, lit. “elders”) were asked to hand over the holy books — presumably Bibles, lectionaries, and liturgical books.  Christians w

ere forced to burn incense to the Genius of the Emperor to prove that they were true Romans and hadn’t violated the Pax Deorum.  Furthermore, all soldiers had to swear oaths of loyalty to the Emperor who was the Imperator — originally “General”, but now the sole general, the supreme commander of the armed forces of the Roman Empire.

He was not born a soldier, of course, but was nevertheless born into a family that included a soldier-father and both parents Christians.  When George was only fourteen years old, his father died, followed a few years later by his mother.  Young George decided to go to Nicomedia, which was then housing the Imperial court, and seek service in the guard of Diocletian.  Diocletian accepted George, having been acquainted with his father who man of great soldiering ability.  George would then have undergone all of the training requisite and necessary for a soldier and joined the household guard of the Emperor Diocletian.

St. George rose to the rank of tribune, and all was fine and dandy with his military career until 302.  In 302, Diocletian launched his Great Persecution.  Part of this persecution was the elimination of Christians from the army.  All of the soldiers were forced to sacrifice to the gods and the Christians were arrested.  George refused to make the commanded sacrifice and was thus arrested, having made a public declaration of his refusal and his Christian beliefs.

The Emperor Diocletian made many attempts to persuade George to make the sacrifice and surrender his Christian beliefs, but George was made of sterner stuff than that.  Following what was no doubt a very painful torture, St. George was executed by the Emperor Diocletian.  His torture seems to have included the wheel, and whipping, and other unpleasantnesses.

This is what we can know for certain.  The lesson runs no different and no deeper than those of Sts. Valentine, Polycarp, and other early martyrs.

St. George also has his mythical side, of which all are aware.  This is what drew me to St. George as a child — obsessed with knights and dragons, I remember reading a children’s book all about St. George and the Dragon.  In my wallet, I have an icon of St. George given to me by Michael, a Cypriot owner of a periptero (corner store).  I also have an icon pin of St. George on my jacket, given my by a guy on the bus one day here in Toronto.  Both of these icons have St. George mounted on his valiant steed impaling a dragon through the mouth with a spear.

To borrow a phrase from Emily, that which is mythical is “bigger than true”.  The literal, historical truth we have seen.  What of the bigger story?  St. George comes to a city where the spring was guarded by a dragon.  Every day, the citizens had to provide the dragon with a sheep to be able to draw water from the spring.  If they ran out of sheep, the dragon required a maiden.  Since the maidens were drawn by lots, inevitably the ruler’s daughter is selected.  St. George comes and saves her, slaying the dragon and converting the people to Christianity.

Some say that the snakes of Ireland driven out by St. Patrick symbolise the demons and old gods or the sins of the Irish people.  Perhaps that is what the myth shows us.  George comes as the valiant soldier of Christ, and he defeats the dragon — a traditional symbol of the Devil, as seen in the book of Revelation.  As a result of the death of the Devil or the old ways, the people are drawn to Christ.

Perhaps we are that city, beset by the dragon of sin and self-indulgence, and someone will come into our life as St. George to slay that dragon and set us free to worship Christ.