Constantine I and Christianity

Constantine I, Roman Emperor adopted Christianity following his victory in the Battle of Milvian Bridge 312. Under his rule, Christianity rose to become the dominant religion in the Roman Empire, and for his example of a "Christian monarch" Constantine is revered as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Not only the details of his adoption of Christianity make the religious beliefs of Constantine I interesting; theologians and historians alike have argued about the question to which form of Christianity Constantine ultimately converted, with regard to the legitimation of religious persecution.

Though Emperor Constantine I had been exposed to Christianity by his mother, St. Helena, there is scholarly controversy as to whether he adopted his mother's Christianity in his youth, or whether he adopted it gradually over the course of his life. [ R. Gerberding and J. H. Moran Cruz, "Medieval Worlds" (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004) p. 55] Whatever the case, the accession of Constantine was a turning point for the Christian Church. In 313, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, legalizing Christian worship, and the emperor would be a great patron of the Church and set a precedent for the position of the Christian Emperor within the Church that would be followed for centuries.


The first recorded significant persecution of Christians at the hands of the authorities of the Roman Empire was that of the year 64, when, as reported by the Roman historian Tacitus, the Emperor Nero blamed them for that year's great Fire of Rome. According to Church tradition, it was under Nero's persecution that Peter and Paul were each martyred in Rome. For 250 years Christians suffered from sporadic and localized persecutions for their refusal to worship the Roman emperor, considered treasonous and punishable by execution. The most widespread of these was the Great Persecution (303-311) of Diocletian. He ordered Christian buildings (and the homes of Christians) torn down, their sacred books collected and burned, and Christians themselves were denied the protection offered other citizens by Roman law. Christians were arrested, tortured, mutilated, burned, starved, and forced to gladiatorial contests to amuse spectators. The Great Persecution officially ended in April of 311, when Galeriusthen senior emperor of the Tetrarchy, issued an edict of toleration, which granted Christians the right to practice their religion, though it did not restore any property to them. [Lactantius, [ "De Mortibus Persecutorum"] ("On the Deaths of the Persecutors") ch. 35-34]


The Emperor Constantine I was exposed to Christianity by his mother, Helena. There is scholarly controversy, however, as to whether Constantine adopted his mother's Christianity in his youth, or whether he adopted it gradually over the course of his life. [ R. Gerberding and J. H. Moran Cruz, "Medieval Worlds" (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004) p. 55] Constantine was over 40 when he finally declared himself a Christian. [Peter Brown, "The Rise of Christendom" 2nd edition (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2003) p. 61] Writing to Christians, Constantine made clear that he owed his successes to the protection of that High God alone. [Peter Brown, "The Rise of Christendom" 2nd edition (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2003) p. 60]

Battle of Milvian Bridge

Christian sources record that Constantine experienced a dramatic event in 312 at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, after which Constantine would claim the emperorship in the West. According to these sources, Constantine looked up to the sun before the battle and saw a cross of light above it, and with it the Greek words "polytonic|Εν Τουτω Νικα" ("by this, conquer!", often rendered in the Latin "in hoc signo vinces"); Constantine commanded his troops to adorn their shields with a Christian symbol (the Chi-Ro), and thereafter they were victorious. [R. Gerberding and J. H. Moran Cruz, "Medieval Worlds" (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004) p. 55; cf. Eusebius, "Life of Constantine"]

Following the battle, Constantine ignored the altars to the gods prepared on the Capitoline to receive sacrifices appropriate for the celebration of his victorious entry into Rome, and the new emperor instead went straight to the imperial palace without performing any sacrifice. [Peter Brown, "The Rise of Christendom" 2nd edition (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2003) p. 60] How much Christianity Constantine adopted at this point, however, is difficult to discern; most influential people in the empire, especially high military officials, were still pagan, and Constantine's rule exhibited at least a willingness to appease these factions. The Roman coins minted up to eight years after the battle still bore the images of Roman gods. [R. Gerberding and J. H. Moran Cruz, "Medieval Worlds" (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004) p. 55] Neither did the monuments he first commissioned, such as the Arch of Constantine, contain a reference to Christianity. [Peter Brown, "The Rise of Christendom" 2nd edition (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2003) p. 60; J.R. Curran, "Pagan City and Christian Capital. Rome in the Fourth Century" (Oxford, 2000) pp. 70-90]

Edict of Milan

In 313 Constantine I and Licinius announced toleration of Christianity in the Edict of Milan, which removed penalties for professing Christianity (under which many had been martyred in previous persecutions of Christians) and returned confiscated Church property. Since 306 there had already had been several edicts that granted Christians religious toleration in the Empire, but the Edict of Milan removed all obstacles to the Christian faith

This edict made the Empire officially neutral with regard to religious worship, it neither made paganism illegal nor made Christianity the state religion; these were later actions of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I.

Patronage of the Christian Church

The accession of Constantine was a turning point for the Christian Church, generally considered the beginning of Christendom. After his victory, Constantine I took over the role of the patron for the Christian faith. He supported the Church financially, had an extraordinary number of basilicas built, granted privileges (e.g. exemption from certain taxes) to clergy, promoted Christians to high ranking offices, and returned property confiscated during the Great Persecution of Diocletian, [R. Gerberding and J. H. Moran Cruz, "Medieval Worlds" (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004) pp. 55-56] and endowed the church with land and other wealth.MacMullan 1984:49.] Between 324 and 330, Constantine built, virtually from scratch, a new imperial capital at Byzantium on the Bosphorus (it came to be named for him: Constantinople) – the city employed overtly Christian architecture, contained churches within the city walls (unlike "old" Rome), and had no pagan temples. [ R. Gerberding and J. H. Moran Cruz, "Medieval Worlds" (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004) p. 56]

In doing this, however, Constantine I required the Pagans "to foot the bill".MacMullan 1984:49.] Christian chroniclers tell that it appeared necessary to Constantine "to teach his subjects to give up their rites (...) and to accustom them to despise their temples and the images contained therein," [quoted after MacMullan 1984:49.] This led to the closure of pagan temples due to a lack of support, their wealth flowing to the imperial treasure;MacMullan 1984:50.] Constantine I did not need to use force to implement this,MacMullan 1984:49.] although his subjects are said to simply have obeyed him out of fear. Only the chronicler Theophanes has added that temples "were annihilated", but this is considered "not true" by contemporary historians. [MacMullan 1984: 141, Note 35 to Chapter V; Theophanes, "Chron." a. 322 (PG 108.117)]

Public office

Once imperial favor was granted to Christianity by the Edict, new avenues were opened to Christians, including the right to compete with pagan Romans in the traditional "cursus honorum" for high government positions, and greater acceptance into general civil society. Constantine respected cultivation, and his court was composed of older, respected, and honored men. Leading Roman families that refused Christianity were denied positions of power, yet pagans still received appointments, even up to the end of his life, and two-thirds of his top government was non-Christian. In 313 he issued the Edict of Milan, which allowed Christians to practice their religion in the Roman Empire. [MacMullen 1969,1984; New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1908.]

Legal reforms

Constantine's laws enforced and reflected his Christian reforms. Crucifixion was abolished for reasons of Christian piety, but was replaced with hanging, to show there was Roman law and justice. On March 7, 321, Sunday was declared the official day of rest, on which markets were banned and public offices were closed (CJ 3.12.2) (except for the purpose of freeing slaves). However, there were no restrictions on farming work (which was the work of the great majority of the population). [MacMullen 1969; "New Catholic Encyclopedia", 1908; "Theodosian Code".] Some were even humane in the modern sense, possibly originating in his Christianity: [Norwich, John Julius, "A Short History of Byzantium". Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, p. 8. ISBN 0679772693.] a prisoner was no longer to be kept in total darkness, but must be given the outdoors and daylight, a condemned man was allowed to die in the arena, but he could not be branded on his "heavenly beautified" face, just on the feet (because God made man in his image), [Miles, Margaret Ruth, "The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought". Blackwell Publishing, 2004, p. 70, ISBN 1405108460.] gladiatorial games were ordered to be eliminated in 325, although this had little real effect, and a slave master's rights were limited, but a slave could still be beaten to death.

Early Christian Bibles

In 331, Constantine commissioned Eusebius to deliver fifty Bibles for the Church of Constantinople. Athanasius ("Apol. Const. 4") recorded Alexandrian scribes around 340 preparing Bibles for Constans. Little else is known, though there is plenty of speculation. For example, it is speculated that this may have provided motivation for canon lists, and that Codex Vaticanus, Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus are examples of these Bibles. Together with the Peshitta, these are the earliest extant Christian Bibles. ["The Canon Debate", McDonald & Sanders editors, 2002, pages 414-415, for the entire paragraph]

Elevation of the Holy Cross

The Elevation of the Holy Cross (also known as the Exaltation of the Holy Cross) is one of the Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church, celebrated on September 14. It is one of the two feast days which is held as a strict fast. The other is the commemoration of the Beheading of John the Forerunner on August 29.

According to Orthodox Church teachings, Saint Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, discovered the Holy Cross on 14 September 325 AD in the vicinity of Golgotha, where it lay buried in the dust of the centuries. Whenever the waves of persecutions directed against Christians died down and the Christians emerged, tormented and bloodied, from the catacombs and caves into God’s light, signing themselves with an extensive sign of the cross, then it was Constantine the Great, who more than once had felt the power of the Cross, decided to find the same Tree to which the Body of Christ had been nailed.

Christian Emperorship

Enforcement of Orthodoxy

The reign of Constantine established a precedent for the position of the Christian Emperor in the Church. Emperors considered themselves responsible to God for the spiritual health of their subjects, and thus they had a duty to maintain orthodoxy. [ Richards, Jeffrey. "The Popes and the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages 476-752" (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979) pp. 14-15] The emperor did not decide doctrine - that was the responsibility of the bishops - rather his role was to enforce doctrine, root out heresy, and uphold ecclesiastical unity. [ Richards, Jeffrey. "The Popes and the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages 476-752" (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979) p. 15] The emperor ensured that God was properly worshiped in his empire; what proper worship consisted of was for the Church to determine. [ Richards, Jeffrey. "The Popes and the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages 476-752" (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979) p. 16]

In 316, Constantine acted as a judge in a North African dispute concerning the Donatist controversy. More significantly, in 325 he summoned the First Council of Nicaea, effectively the first Ecumenical Council (unless the Council of Jerusalem is so classified), to deal mostly with the Arian controversy.


Constantine, though he made his allegiance clear, did not outlaw paganism; in the words of an early edict, he decreed that polytheists could "celebrate the rites of an outmoded illusion," so long as they did not force Christians to join them. [ Peter Brown, "Rise of Christendom" 2nd edition (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2003) p. 74; cf. " Codex Theodosianius" 9.16.2] In a letter to the King of Persia, Constantine wrote how he shunned the "abominable blood and hateful odors" of pagan sacrifices, and instead worshiped the High God "on bended knee", [ Peter Brown, "Rise of Christendom" 2nd edition (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2003) p. 60; cf. Eusebius, "Life of Constantine" 4.10] and in the new capital city he built, Constantine made sure that there were no pagan temples built. [R. Gerberding and J. H. Moran Cruz, "Medieval Worlds" (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004) p. 28] Sporadically, however, Constantine took measures to render pagan worship incapable of being performed in public and closed pagan temples; very little pressure, however, was put on individual pagans, and there were no pagan martyrs. [ Peter Brown, "Rise of Christendom" 2nd edition (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2003) p. 74]

During the course of his life he progressively became more Christian and turned away from any syncretic tendencies he appeared to favor at times and thus demonstrating, according to his biographers, that "The God of the Christians was indeed a jealous God who tolerated no other gods beside him. The Church could never acknowledge that she stood on the same plane with other religious bodies, she conquered for herself one domain after another". [C. G. Herbermann & Georg Grupp, "Constantine the Great", Catholic Encyclopedia, 1911, New Advent web site.]

According to the historian Ramsay MacMullen Constantine desired to obliterate non-Christians but lacking the means he had to be content with robbing their temples towards the end of his reign.MacMullan 1984:96.] . He resorted to derogatory and contemptuous comments relating to the old religion; writing of the "obstinacy" of the pagans, of their "misguided rites and ceremonial", and of their "temples of lying" contrasted with "the splendours of the home of truth"."A History of the Church", Philip Hughes, Sheed & Ward, rev ed 1949, vol I chapter 6. [] ]

Reactions and reflection

Persian reaction

Beyond the "limes", east of the Euphrates, the Sassanid rulers of the Persian Empire had usually tolerated their Christians ("see also Sassanid Church"). A letter supposedly from Constantine to Shapur II (who was proclaimed king in 309 before he was born, and reigned till his death in 379), written in c. 324, urged him to protect the Christians in his realm. With the edicts of toleration in the Roman Empire, Christians in Persia would now be regarded as allies of Persia's ancient enemy, and were thus persecuted. Shapur II wrote to his generals:

The Sassanids were perennially at war with Rome (which incidentally raises further doubt on the authenticity of this letter). Christians were now suspected for potential treachery. The "Great Persecution" of the Persian Christian churches occurred in a later period, 340 to 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.


Constantine, together with his mother Helena, is celebrated as a major saint of Eastern Orthodoxy; their joint feast day is both 21 May. The emperor is not only considered an example of a "Christian monarch" and bestowed with the distinction of "isapostolos" or "equal to the Apostles", he is associated, albeit in retrospect, with the idea of a "Second Rome" – the Byzantine Empire. The Roman Catholic Church in its Eastern rites also venerates Constantine, but not in the Latin rite, nor is he venerated in any Protestant rite.


*Ramsay MacMullen, "Christianizing The Roman Empire A.D. 100-400, Yale University Press, 1984, ISBN 0-300-03642-6


ee also

*Constantinian shift

External links

* [ The Full Text of the "Edict of Milan"]
* [ OrthodoxWiki:Constantine the Great]
* [ The First Missionary War] - a non-Christian perspective aftermath of Constantinian's actions

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