Constantine the Great


Constantine the Great

Constantine (27 February 272 - 22 May 337), known as Constantine the Great, were a Roman Emperor and agent of the Christianization of the Roman Empire:

Born at Naissus (now Niš in Serbia), the only son of Helena and Flavius Constantius,

Constantine was assured a prominent role in Roman politics when Diocletian, the senior Emperor in the Tetrarchy, appointed his father Caesar in 293.

Educated in the imperial court at Nicomedia, and permitted to accompany the eastern emperors on provincial tours and military campaigns, he doubtless expected to succeed to his father’s position when Diocletian and Maximian abdicated in 305.

But Galerius, who may have contrived the abdication and as the new eastern emperor controlled the succession, ignored Constantine - and Maxentius, the son of Maximian - and instead nominated as Caesars his own nephew and the praetorian prefect Severus.

Constantine could not challenge this decision immediately, but when his father died at York in July 306, he reasserted the claim, this time backed by the British and Gallic armies, and requested confirmation from the eastern emperor.

Galerius resisted, preferring Severus as Constantius’s successor, but to avoid a confrontation offered Constantine the lesser rank of Caesar.

When Maxentius rebelled at Rome in October 306, however, he refused to grant a similar concession, and for the next 7 years civil war disrupted the western half of the empire.

In the end it was Constantine who dislodged the resilient Maxentius from Rome, defeating his army at the Milvian Bridge (over the Tiber, north of Rome) on October 28, 312.

For Lactantius and Eusebius of Caesarea, Christian observers who produced accounts of the event a few years later, this was more than a political triumph:

On the eve of the battle, they insisted, Constantine had experienced the vision (or visions) that inspired his conversion to Christianity.

Constantine’s motives are beyond reconstruction, but it is clear that he believed the victory had been won with divine assistance.

Even the inscription on the triumphal arch in Rome erected by the Senate in 315 to mark the event attributed his success to the “prompting of a deity.”

If the language is ambiguous, perhaps in deference to the sentiments of the pagan majority, Constantine’s legislation and activities after 312 attest the evolution of his Christian sympathies.

Whether the “conversion” represented a dramatic break with the pagan past is more problematic:

Constantine had never been a persecutor;

indeed, in 306 he had ordered the restoration of property in Britain and Gaul that had been confiscated from Christians during the Great Persecution (303-305).

Unlike Galerius, who had vigorously persecuted Christians in the East, Constantine was a tolerant pagan, content with the accumulation of heavenly patrons.

In 312 he may well have considered the God of the Christians simply another heavenly patron, demonstrably more powerful than others but not necessarily incompatible.

Though he refused to participate after 312 in distinctly pagan ceremonies, Constantine retained the title Pontifex Maximus and evidently did not find the demands of government and religion irreconcilable.

Exclusive commitment and a sense of mission, however, would develop over time:

Early on he expressed his gratitude and allegiance through special exemptions and benefactions;

after 324 he did not hesitate to use his office to condemn pagan beliefs and practices and to promote the Christianisation of the empire.

Politics accounts in large measure for Constantine’s transformation from benefactor to advocate:

The conversion did not alienate pagans, for religion had not been an issue in the civil war,

and nothing indicates that Licinius, whom Galerius had chosen as co-emperor in 308, objected to Constantine’s evident Christian sympathies in 312:

At Milan the following year, in fact, the two survivors joined in the publication of the so-called Edict of Milan, Galerius’s edict of toleration, drafted just before his death in 311, and ordered the restoration of Christian property in the East.

As political rivalry developed over the next few years, however, the religious policies of the emperors diverged, especially after the inconclusive civil war of 316/7.

Politics and religion became so entangled that Constantine, using attacks on Christians in the East as pretext, could declare his campaign against Licinius in 324 a crusade against paganism:

His victory at Chrysopolis (September 18, 324) simultaneously removed the last challenge to his authority and legitimized his emerging sense of mission.

Denunciations of pagan practices followed immediately,

coupled with lavish grants for the construction of churches and preferential treatment of Christian candidates for administrative posts.

Constantine also took the lead in efforts to restore order in an increasingly divided church:

The Council of Nicaea (325), which 300 bishops attended, was not his first attempt at ecclesiastical arbitration:

A decade earlier he had summoned fractious North African bishops to a Council at Arles (314) to decide a disputed election in Carthage and to rule on the orthodoxy of the Numidian bishop Donatus:

The latter was condemned, but his partisans (Donatists) continued for the remainder of Constantine’s reign to resist the council’s decision.

The prospects for settlement in 325 were bleaker still:

The Nature of Christ, not simply a disputed election or the propriety of rebaptism, was the question at issue:

Arius, a presbyter of Alexandria in Egypt, had repeatedly argued that Christ was a created being, a view that seemed to deny his divinity.

The bishops assembled in Nicaea (Bithynia), responding to the counterarguments of Alexander (bishop of Alexandria) and others, condemned Arianism and adopted a creed (the Nicene Creed) that declared the Father and Son to be of the same essence.

This language satisfied the majority in attendance, but it did not silence Arians:

By mid-century, in fact, the Arian position, not the Nicene, had been accepted by most of the Eastern churches represented at Nicaea and by the successors of Constantine.

Pagans, of course, would not have found much to applaud in all this;

their prosperity was determined by Constantine’s handling of everyday affairs, not by his performance in church councils:

Victories over the northern barbarians, reform of the coinage, rationalization of the bureaucracy - these were the issues that shaped their sense of well-being.

That the Emperor, especially during the last decade of his reign, was attentive to these concerns is clear, so much so that he can be credited with the refinement and implementation of the reforms introduced by his pagan predecessors.

And yet, it is his Christianity that sets him apart:

His reputation rests on his skilful manipulation of Christian symbols –

1. the Milvian Bridge,
2. the Council of Nicaea,
3. the foundation of Constantinople (the “second Rome” that served as the principal capital after its dedication in 330).

He was both the new Augustus and the 13th apostle, the pagan emperor who, after his encounter with the God of the Christians, adopted as his personal mission the Christianisation of the empire.

In pursuit of this objective, he had created by his death in 337 a Christian Roman Empire that would endure for a thousand years.