Emperor Constantine and the Christianization of the Roman State

May 16, 2013 Length: 39:13

Fr. John delineates the various ways in which Constantine contributed to the Christianization of the Roman state.





It was the year 312, and the Emperor Constantine, standing on the banks of the Tiber River in Italy, had a lot to think about. He had come to this place as part of a military campaign against his main rival for rule of the Roman Empire. That rival’s name was Maxentius, and Maxentius held the all-important city of Rome. Furthermore, he had a superior fighting force behind him. Constantine’s army, arriving at the banks of the Tiber River in October, was tired, and many of its members had begun to desert. Constantine was feeling more and more uncertain.

Furthermore, Maxentius had destroyed the one main bridge leading across the river toward Rome. He had replaced this bridge with a smaller pontoon bridge, and he had decided to deploy his troops on the side of the river that Constantine was located on. This meant that Constantine and his army could not get to Rome without passing through that superior army of Maxentius’. As Constantine retired that evening to think about this dangerous situation that he now found himself in, he had a dream.

During the course of the night he dreamt that he saw a cross, and he heard the words, “By this Sign, conquer.” Awaking from the dream, he ordered his troops the next morning to inscribe on their shields images of the cross or the chi-rho—standing for Christos, the first two Greek letters of the word Christos or Christ—on their shields to prepare for battle.

Constantine, at this point—or at least until this point—had not been sure about the Christian religion. He had grown up the son of a woman who was a Christian, and had early on had encounters with Christianity in a Roman Empire by about the year 300 that had increasingly fallen under the influence of Christendom. That Roman Empire had within it about 10% of its population belonging to the Church and advocating a culture very much different from the culture of pagan Rome. This is a culture, of course, which I have described in past episodes.

Helen, a Christian herself and Constantine’s mother, had converted to this religion. Like many of the converts of that third century, that period of increasing transformation of pagan society under the influence of the Christian subculture, Helen was married to a pagan man. Constantine’s father ultimately left her and married another woman. Constantine always remembered his Christian mother, Helen.

He had had other encounters with Christianity as a young man, growing up at the height of politics of the Roman Empire. When he was young, for instance, he was kept as a hostage by the Emperor Diocletian himself in the Roman East because Constantine’s father, Constantius, was an important general and then emperor in the West, ultimately ending his days in Britain. Constantine was therefore obligated to accompany Diocletian, who kept him at court as a sort of promise that his father, Constantius in the West, would never try to usurp Diocletian’s authority. Constantine as a young man accompanied Diocletian as he went through the eastern Roman empire, doing the things that he needed to do.

But it is of course during this time that Diocletian launched the greatest persecution of Christians in the history of the Church until that date. Known as the Great Persecution, it had begun in the year 303, and it would last until the year 313. Constantine witnessed some of the early persecutions of Christians in the East, and by most accounts he did not like what he saw. When Diocletian finally was taken out of the picture through his retirement, Constantine found himself in the West, with his father, Constantius, in Britain. His father, Constantius, also, like his mother who was a Christian—Constantius wasn’t—had a proclivity to Christians; he was sympathetic to them, at least according to the accounts that survive from the fourth century.

So Constantine had had a good experience with Christianity so far, through his mother, Helen; through the aversion he felt toward the persecution of Christians in the East under Diocletian; and through the example of his father, Constantius, who was sympathetic toward Christians. But by the year 312—in fact, by the year 310, to be precise—Constantine was still not a Christian. As a matter of fact, he had come to worship a god known as Sol Invictus. Sol Invictus was the god of the sun, the equivalent in the paganism of the time of the god Apollo. Constantine, by about the year 310, had come more and more to identify with Sol Invictus, so much so that he saw him as the one true god, the ultimate god of all the pagan gods of Rome. That’s where he found himself, religiously speaking, on that eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in October 312.

The next morning, after having had this dream—and various accounts of this dream indicate that Constantine saw a vision in the sky of a cross, with the same instructions: “By this Sign, conquer”—after this dream Constantine made the decision, as I mentioned, to equip his soldiers with symbols of the cross as they went into battle that morning. They met Maxentius’ superior army, they defeated it. Maxentius’ forces were scattered by the advance and charge of Constantine’s army, and with nowhere to go, because that main bridge, that Milvian bridge, had been destroyed, only Maxentius and a few of his soldiers were able to stumble across that pontoon bridge that I mentioned. As they did so, the bridge sunk. It came apart and sunk, so Maxentius, along with his men, drowned in the Tiber River on that day. There was, as a result, no resistance to Constantine’s entry into the city of Rome the following day, which he did, and as he did so the senate of Rome issued and offered to him, as it often had with conquering generals, for a military triumph. Constantine entered the city as part of a formal procession of triumph.

What’s interesting about the triumph of Constantine of 312 and sets it apart from previous triumphs, stretching back hundreds of years, even before the time of Christ, before the time of Julius Caesar, who, as we remember from the introductory episode in 46 B.C. presented, mounted a kind of super-triumph for his entry into the city after the civil wars. What sets Constantine’s triumph apart in 312, following his conversion, was the absence of a visit to the temple in Rome, the pagan temple, either the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, which Caesar had visited at the end of his triumph, or any other temple, such as that of Victoria, which was also often used in the course of a triumph. No pagan sacrifice, no blood sacrifice was offered, at least is recorded to have been offered by Constantine on this occasion. Why? Because now the emperor of Rome was a Christian.

The Roman empire, in the year 312 going into the year 313, was an empire that was still predominantly pagan, but within that empire there had arisen, as I have tried to relate in earlier episodes, Christendom: a civilization with a supporting culture that reflected the beliefs and values of traditional Christianity. It was already in place by the time Constantine decided to become a Christian in 312. It had its origins in the cosmology of Christ’s Great Commission. It had formed into a Christian subculture in the centuries after the Great Commission. And by the third century, the 200s, it had exercised a growing impact on Roman society, reaching some of the highest-ranking people in that society, such as, for instance, Constantine’s very mother, Helen.

Many historians who have studied the story of Christendom have erroneously dated its origins with Constantine. This is something I’ve brought up in the previous episode. I want to reemphasize that in my judgment, certainly the argument I would want to make, Christendom already was in place by the year 312. The historians who favor an argument that Constantine was really the origin of Christendom often emphasize, as does the eminent Roman Catholic scholar, Warren Carroll, in his multi-volume study of the history of Christendom, the kind of externals of Christian civilization: the monuments, you might call them: the cathedrals, the laws, and so forth, the art. This approach to the history of Christendom is what can be called a monumental one insofar as it emphasizes the cultural achievements of Christendom.

But if one looks at the history of Christendom in a different way, if one looks rather at the cultural aspirations or dynamics of Christendom, one can see it in a more evangelical way. This is what I would argue is the case in the history of Christendom as I’m telling it. I would argue not for a monumental definition of Christendom, but for an evangelical one, that it was really rooted in that experience of detached engagement, of engaging the culture around it in a detached way, trying to project into that culture the image of paradise and communing with God.

So it was this Christendom that Constantine came into contact with permanently in the year 312. But as we’ll see, he did so through a very worldly experience of military victory. Once he did so, the history of Christendom took on a new light, and we will see in subsequent episodes after this one the rise of a Christian state and the development of a wide variety of elements of Christendom, of the arts, the culture, of the laws, of so many different things. These were possible primarily due to the fact that the emperor and his state were now Christian. So I want to emphasize that while Christendom preceded Constantine, Constantine opened up the door for the development of Christendom in the centuries that followed.

First of all, the Church grew to be a very, very large, in fact predominant and majority part of the empire in a very short period of time. In Constantine’s youth the Church probably represented 10% of the Roman population. By the end of the fourth century, it had passed the 50% mark by most estimates. This offered for the Church the free development of her culture, and we’ll see that development taking place in a number of episodes up ahead.

For the time being, in what ways did Constantine Christianize or contribute to the Christianization of the Roman state? Here I’ll go over a few of the main points that can be identified. The first of them is the all-important Edict of Milan, issued in the year 313, just months after his victorious Battle of [the] Milvian Bridge against Maxentius. Constantine met with another emperor—and this gets complicated. There were actually a number of emperors, sometimes working together, sometimes working as rivals at this time or period of Roman history. But this other emperor was named Licinius, and he ruled in the East, whereas Constantine ruled in the West for the time being. Later he would be defeated by Constantine, and Constantine would be left as sole ruler of the entire Roman empire, East and West.

For the time being, Licinius met with Constantine in Milan, Italy, in 313. The result of their meeting was an edict, called usually the Edict of Milan. The Edict of Milan in 313 is a fundamentally important document in the history of Christendom. How so? It granted to Christians freedom of worship. It brought to a decisive end the Great Persecution launched by Diocletian ten years earlier, and all persecutions of Christians within the Roman empire.

What’s interesting about the Edict of Milan, though, is that we have no actual document of the edict. All we have are letters written, official letters written by Constantine and Licinius to various provincial administrators, elaborating what was apparently a common document that they signed that we know as the Edict of Milan. These letters or rescripts, sent to local administrators, were quoted later on by some of the historians of the period, Lactantius is one of them, and Eusebius, more famously, another. They, both of them, quoting these letters, these rescripts, emphasized that Christians were now free, with complete toleration within the empire. Furthermore, any properties that had been seized from Christians during the Diocletian Great Persecution were to be restored to those Christians.

The content of these rescripts emphasizes, though, freedom for all religions of the Roman empire, Christian as well as pagan. There’s an apparent tension, if one reads the words of these carefully. Historians have commented on this. There’s an apparent tension between the emphasis upon the freedom of Christians, which seems to be the main point being promoted in the Edict of Milan. This was not just a general edict of religious toleration; it really emphasized the freedom of Christians now. If one sees this side-by-side with the fact that Licinius was still a pagan, we can see that, in these documents, very likely what was going on was Constantine was now gently promoting Christianity as the religion he favored alongside Licinius, who still wanted paganism to be the dominant religion of the Roman empire.

We can see this in the documents. One document, one section of these rescripts can be quoted here to give a sense of what I’m talking about. This is it, and they’re speaking to one of the provincial administrators, naming him Excellency, so that’s a reference there. Here’s one of these rescripts.

While, your Excellency, you see that we (that is to say, Constantine and Licinius) granted this right of toleration to those persons, the Christians, you shall understand that a similar right for free and unrestricted observance is granted to all others to practice their own rituals and religion as they wish, in keeping with the tranquility of our times so that each has the right to worship any divinity they would like. This we have done so that neither from any ritual or from any religion whatever may we appear that we have detracted anything at all.

So a very clear assertion that everyone is free to worship as they please in the Roman empire now. But the emphasis upon the now addition of Christians, the ability of Christians to do so—this policy would become more and more emphatic during the course of Constantine’s reign. In 313, just months after his conversion to Christianity, there is less emphasis. Later in his reign, especially after the final defeat of the pagan Licinius, it would become more apparent.

Next in the Christianization of the Roman state, going down a list of things that Constantine did to promote Christianity, would be the reduction of the pagan cult in provincial state offices. At the time Constantine came to power, throughout the Roman empire there were all sorts of local prefects and governors and so forth, and they had courts and they had administrative bureaucracies at their disposal. When they got together to perform acts of state, they almost always began with a ritual sacrifice. I’ll talk more later in a few moments about the role of sacrifice in the Roman state. What Constantine does is he reduces the pagan cult of these sacrifices in provincial state offices, in some cases banning the use of ritual sacrifices that were not Christian.

Another way he Christianized the Roman state was to issue laws applying Christian morality to public life. This was no doubt inspired by some of the goals of traditional Christianity and its counter-culture which I discussed in the previous episode concerning the third century. As one may remember, there were in a variety of ways efforts by Christians to advance charity and mercy and sexual dignity and the elevation of women in the pagan culture of the third century. Many of those exact themes show up in some of the social legislation of Constantine. For instance, he issued an edict banning the murder of slaves. He did not ban slavery, significantly, but he did issue an edict banning the murder of slaves, which might seem to be very little and perhaps it was very little in light of traditional Christianity’s standard of the equality of the slave and the master, but it was a statement on Constantine’s part in conformity with the view that slaves were to be protected and that mercy was to be extended to them.

Another ban that Constantine issued in conformity with traditional Christian morality was gladiatorial contests. This fundamentally important element of Roman popular culture, of entertainment, came to an end with Constantine. No longer would there be gladiatorial contests in which men would be compelled to fight one another and kill one another. This continued in some cases in different areas of the empire beyond Constantine’s time, but it became very, very uncommon and soon died out altogether as a result of Constantine’s legislation.

Also one will remember that concubinage for men was a common practice. Men, not many of them marrying in the Roman empire, in this very male-centered kind of virile culture of the Roman empire, keeping concubines was a common practice, at variance with traditional Christian morality and sexuality, and Constantine banned the practice of having concubines for men, which was very significant—for men.

He also upheld the social status of celibates, to honor those Christians who chose not to marry and to keep a celibate life in this period just as monasticism is rising up as an important part of Christendom. I’ll talk more about monasticism in a later episode, monasticism and marriage.

What was another way that Constantine Christianized the state? Well, in terms of its regular pattern of timekeeping and calendars, he instituted a day of rest on Sunday, the day of the sun, as it was known in the Roman empire, the first day of the week as it was known for the Jews and the Christians. This became an official holiday, and almost certainly in connection with Constantine’s respect for and desire to promote and strengthen the place of the Church in Roman society.

Another area was his support for evangelization: the spreading of the Gospel, the increase in the force of Christianity in society. In fact, Constantine would later be canonized as a saint in the East with the title “Equal of the Apostles”: one whose life was, to some degree anyway, marked by the spread of the Gospel, the spread of Christianity. He likened himself, Constantine did, to a bishop as he put it, among those outside of the Church, with a responsibility to bring people into the Church, into the life of the Church through baptism. He provided legal and financial support to bishops in their administration of the Church. He also supported various efforts at missionary activity. One striking one was the ministry of a Jewish convert named Joseph who undertook a mission to fellow Jews in Palestine, in places like Nazareth, for instance. Constantine supported Joseph and gave him financial support, encouraged him to undertake his mission, which was carried out among Jews in Palestine.

Constantine, beyond the borders of the Roman empire, even expressed a kind of evangelical vision in his correspondence with the king of Persia, who was the other great—not as great as Rome, but other great power, neighboring Rome to the East, at this time. In a letter written to the king of Persia, Constantine urged the king of Persia to consider conversion to Christianity, arguing that Christianity was the true faith.

He encouraged his own subjects to embrace Christianity in a variety of ways, repeatedly in his edicts and his letters and his public statements. He speaks about the truth of Christianity and the errors of paganism, and expresses a strong desire to see Christianity to spread and his subjects to come into the Church and leave behind paganism.

Nevertheless, until the end of his reign, as I suggested earlier, Constantine followed a policy of toleration. This was influenced by the views of a contemporary Christian writer named Lactantius, and he, Lactantius, was very committed to the idea of maintaining religious toleration for non-Christians, even though he strongly was convinced Christianity was the true faith. I can quote another edict of Constantine’s on the question of toleration from the year 324, which means about ten years after the Edict of Milan. In many ways, it re-emphasizes, reasserts the importance of toleration for those who do not hold Christianity, that force can never be used to bring people into the Church, that the faith has to be held voluntarily and with an inner conviction. At the same time, more than the Edict of Milan, with he co-authored with the pagan Licinius—Licinius is now out of the picture by 324—Constantine emphasizes his desire to see the Roman empire, its population, leave paganism behind and become Christian. So this is what he writes.

My own desire for the common good of the world, the cosmos, and the advantage of all mankind is that your people should enjoy a life of peace an undisturbed concord. Let those therefore who still delight in error be made welcome to the same degree of peace and tranquility as those who believe.

Notice “believe” here is simply meant by… “belief” is simply meant belief in Christianity.

For it may be that this restoration of equal privileges to all will prevail to lead them onto the straight path. Let no one molest another, but let everyone do as his soul desires. Only let men of sound judgment be assured of this: that those only can live a life of holiness and purity whom you call to reliance on your holy laws. With regard to those who will hold themselves aloof from us, let them have if they please their temples of lies; we have the glorious edifice of your truth, which you have given us as our native home. We pray, however, that they, too, may receive the same blessing and thus experience that heart-felt joy which unity of sentiment inspires.

Here Constantine addressing Christian leaders and making his preference for the conversion to Christianity very obvious, even despite his continued commitment to religious toleration for non-Christians.

It’s interesting just to kind of comment on this one point by way of conclusion, as has been pointed out by some scholars, that Constantine did not have, with his religious toleration commitment to it, an understanding of religious pluralism. We shouldn’t misread statements like the one I just quoted as statements about religious pluralism, a celebration of religious diversity; or some sense of the state having neutrality when it comes to religion. That decisively was not the case with Constantine. It was one thing for him to insist on toleration and the value of free will in people making decisions about the faith they held. It was quite another for him to surrender morals, surrender political ideals for the sake of a kind of neutrality and indifference toward religion, that the state somehow had no legitimate concern with. The fact was that Constantine had a very strong conviction about the Christian faith and a very strong conviction that his state, the Roman empire—really at this point we could call it the Byzantine empire—should be grounded in that religious faith of Christianity.

So there was no religious neutrality here. There was no celebration of pluralism or religious diversity in Constantine’s religious legislation. He was convinced that the state should bear witness to the truth about reality, which was found in traditional Christianity.

Another area in which Constantine Christianized the Roman state was famously his calling together of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council in 325 in the city of Nicaea. These bishops assembled at the state expense, so Constantine paid for their assembly, sent ships off to Alexandria and other ports in the Mediterranean to bring bishops to Nicaea. Many bishops arriving missing eyes, missing hands, scars on their faces, because until just very recently they had been persecuted under the Great Persecution of Diocletian. How stunning it must have been to assemble, now the emperor, as it were, humbly bringing them together, paying for their expenses and giving them honor together at this very important assembly in the history of the Church.

Constantine presided at the meetings of these bishops—there were hundreds of them—but he still allowed the bishops to determine, to decide the questions they had faced concerning the Christian faith, especially the question of the heresy of Arianism, and their formulation of the Symbol of the Faith, known as the Nicene Creed. So he showed himself a patron, then, of the Church, a defender of the Church, even one who participated in the leadership of the Church, but a leadership with limits.

Another area of Christianization was more or less dramatically rendered when Constantine began to build temples, Christian churches, cathedrals, throughout his empire. There were many of these built. He sent sums of money to different bishops around his empire, urging them—as a former mission priest, I can only imagine what this would be like—to take his money and to build themselves permanent temples in which to offer public services to the glory of the Holy Trinity. So churches went up throughout the empire.

His mother, St. Helen, is of course known well for her pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the building there of the church, what’s known as the Temple of the Resurrection in the Orthodox Church, or in the West the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, right on the site where Jesus was buried and rose from the dead in Jerusalem. That was just one church; there were others. The church known as St. Peter’s Basilica, certainly one of the most important in the history of Christendom, was built in Rome under Constantine’s patronage, as was the Church of Hagia Sophia in the newly established city of Constantinople, still small in its scale and overshadowed, really, in its importance by the Church of the Holy Apostles, also in Constantinople. It was that church where Constantine did his best to assemble all the relics of the apostles, and he himself was buried there among them.

Finally, the Christianization of the Roman state was in a certain sense symbolized, marked, by the founding of a new Christian capital for that empire, a capital known in Constantine’s time mostly, certainly in Constantine’s own speech, as New Rome, which came to be known, though, more popularly, as Constantinople, the city of Constantine. New Rome, when it was established during Constantine’s reign, was established specifically, expressly, as a city, a capital, that was Christian and that symbolized the new religion of this new state, more and more now known as the Byzantine empire.

It was established or built on the ancient Greek settlement known as Byzantium in the southeast corner of Europe. It became of course the great capital of the Byzantine empire. More about that empire in future episodes. But what’s interesting about the founding of New Rome as a Christian capital was its contrast with the old Rome as a pagan capital. The old Rome had a preponderance of pagan temples and sites of Christian martyrdom and violent public games. Everywhere you went in Rome you saw pagan temples.

You can just imagine Constantine walking down the streets of Rome after his entrance into it as a Christian now, following his triumphal entry in 312, thinking about all these monuments not only to pagan gods and goddesses in whom he no longer believed, but to preceding emperors, because the cult of the emperor was very important in pagan Rome, beginning with Julius Caesar, who was deified, declared deus or a god; Augustus, Septimius Severus, who launched the Severan persecution that resulted in the deaths of Perpetua and Felicitas; and so many other emperors, like Diocletian. So we can only imagine what it would be like for the neophyte Constantine to walk through with his new-found faith in Christianity, and we shouldn’t pretend to imagine too clearly what exactly was in his mind—the process of conversion sometimes is a long one—but nevertheless he would have almost certainly been set apart from or alienated from those pagan temples as he walked through old Rome, and the places of violence and even martyrdom, such as the Colosseum there that marked old Rome.

So New Rome, Constantinople as it came to be known, was built in the Greek East, and it was expressly a city in which only Christian temples were built. In it also no gladiatorial arenas were built. The one arena that was most famous in Constantinople, the Hippodrome, was exactly that which its name suggests in Greek; it was the place of horse racing, horse chariot racing. That now came to replace for the popular entertainment and culture of the Byzantine empire, replaced the blood-letting, the blood sports that had characterized Roman popular entertainment before Constantine’s conversion.

Those are some ways in which Constantine contributed to the Christianization of the Roman state. Join me next time when I explore how this resulted in a state that was no longer an end in itself but became a means of communion with God.