As York marks the proclamation of its own Roman Emperor 1700 years ago,
the historian Christopher Kelly asks whether Christians, too, can celebrate
AT THE beginning of the fourth century AD, Constantine became the first
Roman emperor to embrace Christianity. The reasons for his conversion are
disputed. Writing around the time of Constantine’s death in AD 337, the
emperor’s loyal friend and biographer, Eusebius (Bishop of Caesarea in
Palestine), fixed on a miraculous moment 25 years earlier, in late October 312.
Then Constantine was on the march towards Rome, the culmination of six years of
civil war against Maxentius, a rival claimant to the imperial throne.
Pitching camp on the outskirts of the city, Constantine prayed for divine
aid in the impending battle. At noon, the emperor and his men saw a fiery cross
of light with the sun behind it. From a shining banner attached to the cross
blazed forth the words: "By this conquer."
Eusebius continues: "Amazed by this marvellous sight, and determined to
worship no other god than the one who had appeared, he summoned those who were
expert in his words and asked who this god was." For Eusebius, Constantine’s
immediate conversion to Christianity guaranteed his victory over Maxentius. In
turn, that victory reinforced Constantine’s faith in the Christian God as his
Not everyone was convinced. Writing 150 years later in the 490s, the
fiercely anti-Christian historian Zosimus recorded what he claimed were the
real reasons for Constantine’s adherence to his new religion. The truth
apparently lay in the murky politics of the imperial household. In mid-326, the
emperor ordered the execution of Crispus, his eldest son and heir apparent.
Shortly after, Constantine also authorised the elimination of his second wife,
Fausta. Some said she had been shut up in the steam room of the palace baths in
Rome, locked in until she suffocated in the heat.
The cause of this family purge was said to be the rumour that Crispus and
his stepmother Fausta had been illicit lovers. After their deaths, Constantine,
perhaps realising that he had been deceived, was apparently overcome with
guilt. He sought out a religion that would grant him absolution.
Faced with the gravity of his sins, pagan priests refused. According to
Zosimus, a Christian bishop at court seized the opportunity to assure the
emperor "that the faith of the Christians could expunge all sin and it promised
this: that the ungodly who converted would be immediately free from all sin".
Neither Eusebius nor Zosimus convince modern historians. They are reluctant
to replace rational, historical explanation with divine intervention; they also
dislike wild and unsubstantiated stories that collect around any bloody
dynastic feud. Whatever the most plausible explanation — perhaps lying
somewhere between the dramatically miraculous and the desperately cynical —
Constantine’s open and enthusiastic support for Christianity should not, in the
end, be doubted.
For Constantine, his spiritual experience at the Battle of the Milvian
Bridge, however elaborated that story might have become, and his subsequent
success in battle were inextricably linked. The Christian God had supported the
victor. Fifteen years later (in the mid-320s), the emperor was to claim that
the final, bloody showdown against Maxentius on the outskirts of Rome was the
culmination of a much longer process of conversion.
ON THIS re-telling, it had all begun at least six years before, when
Constantine had accompanied his father Constantius on a military expedition to
northern Britain. Upon his father’s death, the army proclaimed Constantine
emperor — in York on 25 July 306.
At that moment, Constantine believed he became part of the Christian God’s
plan for the reunification of the Roman Empire. His acclamation as emperor
marked the final end of the tetrarchy (literally, in Greek, "the rule of four"
). The tetrarchy had been established by the emperor Diocletian 20 years
before, in the 280s, as a way of preventing the Roman Empire fragmenting into a
set of rival kingdoms exhausting themselves by continual civil war. The four
were the emperor of the western empire, the emperor of the eastern empire, and
their respective heirs.
This uneasy power-sharing agreement finally collapsed when Constantine was
proclaimed emperor. When, six years later, Constantine defeated Maxentius at
the Milvian Bridge, he secured complete control of the western half of the
empire. It took a further 12 years of diplomacy and then open warfare to remove
Licinius, emperor in the east. By 324, Constantine was the undisputed sole
ruler of a completely reunified Roman Empire.
This moment of triumph was celebrated by the establishment of a magnificent
new city. The old Greek town of Byzantium was demolished and replaced by a new,
model imperial capital named after its founder: Constantinople, "the city of
Constantine". (It is now modern Istanbul.) In the city’s imperial palace, the
emperor was said by Eusebius to deliver regular sermons to his courtiers on
issues including the errors of polytheism, the certainty of salvation, and the
terrors of divine judgement.
Certainly, Constantine had no doubt that God had guided him on the long
march to power from York to Constantinople. His victories were due to God’s
intervention. Flushed with success after his defeat of Licinius in 324, the
emperor wrote a public letter to the people of Palestine. Quoted by Eusebius of
Caesarea, this letter is one of the most uncompromising statements of
Constantine’s faith and belief in his divine mission.
Beginning from Britain in the far west, where it is decreed by heaven itself
that the sun should set, I have repelled and scattered those horrors which held
everything in subjection, so that the human race, taught by the example of my
service, might restore the religion of the most holy law. . . I could
never fail to acknowledge the gratitude I owe, believing this to be the best of
tasks. . . Indeed, my whole soul and every single breath I draw, and
whatever I think about in the depths of my mind, that — I am firmly convinced —
is owed by us wholly to the greatest God.
After his victory in 312, Constantine moved to outlaw the sporadic and often
vicious persecution of Christians. But it was not until victory over Licinius
that Christians’ property was returned and their safety fully ensured.
Yet, for all his obvious engagement with Christianity, Constantine was no
crudely intolerant crusader. Non-Christians were not persecuted; nor were they
forcibly converted. Rather, pagan forms of worship were discouraged, and
Constantine moved to ban blood sacrifice. He deliberately distanced himself
from the imperial cult, which, for three centuries since the emperor Augustus,
had been one of the most effective expressions of imperial power in the
provinces. Under Constantine, statues of the emperor were no longer to be
venerated or placed in temples.
Most importantly, the authority and wealth of the empire’s most important
pagan cult centres were systematically undermined. Many had their statues,
their offerings, their bronze doors, and even their gilded roof tiles removed
and shipped to Constantinople. Much that was grand in this new imperial capital
was built from the recycled riches stripped from pagan temples.
The vast reserves of gold seized from temple treasuries allowed Constantine
to restore a stable currency to the Roman Empire. Constantine’s gold coin, the
solidus (literally, "the solid one"), was the reliable basis for the monetary
system of the Mediterranean for a thousand years. Struck at 72 to the pound, it
provided the model for the French sou and the Arab dinar.
Pillaging the wealth of religious temples let Constantine finance his
religious revolution. Imperial subsidies funded the building of impressive
churches and cathedrals in the centre of most great Mediterranean cities — such
as St John in Lateran in Rome, a glittering rival to the now defunct temple of
Jupiter, "Best and Greatest", which had once dominated the imperial capital and
pagan centre; the first version of Hagia Sophia (the Church of Holy Wisdom) in
Constantinople; churches in and around Jerusalem, including the Church of the
Holy Sepulchre on the site of the crucifixion, tomb, and resurrection of
Christ; the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem, and the Church of the
Ascension on the Mount of Olives, both of which were built under the
supervision of Constantine’s mother, Helena.
Under Constantine, Christian clergy were now given legal privileges and tax
immunity, in contrast to the persecution they suffered before him. Christian
bishops became a trusted part of the imperial entourage. The emperor himself
convoked and chaired Church councils, which decided important matters of
doctrine. At the most famous, held in 325 at Nicaea (modern Iznik in
north-western Turkey), Constantine’s personal intervention was crucial in
establishing the final text of the Nicene Creed. Attempting to reconcile
disagreements between conflicting Arian and Trinitarian beliefs over the
relation of God the Father and God the Son, the emperor is credited by his
biographer Eusebius with formulating the key word in the Creed: homoousios or
"consubstantial", meaning that in their divinity the Father and the Son are of
the same substance.
Christianity now enjoyed explicit imperial support. Christian language,
symbols, and rituals were part of the vocabulary of imperial power. On 25 July
336, to celebrate the anniversary of the emperor’s accession in York 30 years
before, Eusebius delivered a series of grand orations before the assembled
court in Constantinople. His imagery was arresting. In its splendour, the
emperor’s palace might be compared to heaven. In his compassionate concern for
the welfare of the empire and its people, Constantine might be compared to
Constantine was baptised after becoming ill on Easter Day in 337, and died
on the day of Pentecost. Instead of an imperial funeral in Rome, he received a
Christian burial in a magnificent new mausoleum in Constantinople.
For Constantine’s admiring biographer, Eusebius, whatever the emperor’s
private motives, his public affirmation of Christianity was nothing short of
miraculous. He had lent full imperial support to a religion that, at the time
of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, was followed by no more than 15 per cent
of the empire.
In documenting Constantine’s legacy, Eusebius was uncompromisingly clear:
the coalition that the emperor had inspired between Church and state during
this period was a sure guarantor of the Christian faith’s continued growth.
Without Constantine’s intervention, Christianity would have remained a minority
sect on the social and political margins of the Roman Empire.
Dr Christopher Kelly is a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
His book A Very Short Introduction to the Roman Empire
will be published by Oxford University Press in August.
To celebrate the 1700th anniversary of the proclamation of Constantine
as emperor in York in 360, "Constantine the Great: York’s Roman Emperor" is at
the Yorkshire Museum, Museum Gardens, York, from 31 March until 29 October.
Phone 01904 687 687.
Man with a mission: above, a marbled head of Constantine from the
York, which is hosting a seven-month exhibition about the emporer YORKSHIRE
Christianity after Constantine
CONSTANTINE has often been misunderstood. He did not make
Christianity the state religion or the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Nor was he the cynical manipulator or the semi-pagan of many modern accounts.
He was also far from being the kind of Christian that other modern writers seem
to think he should have been.
Instead, he had the enthusiasm of a convert, and he did not deviate
from his feeling that God had given him the task of using his imperial position
to promote Christianity in the empire. This he tried to do to the best of his
He could not make the Roman Empire Christian in his own lifetime: no
Roman emperor possessed the mechanisms to bring about such a change. It was not
until the end of the fourth century, under Theodosius I, that legal penalties
were imposed on adherents of other religions, thus effectively making
Christianity the official religion of the state. Even then, the laws could be
only sporadically enforced, and Justinian was still legislating against pagans
in the sixth century.
Yet Constantine set the momentous precedent of putting the weight of
the imperial power behind Christian policies. He also set a personal example by
demonstrating and, indeed, arguing for his religious preference. Perhaps even
more importantly for the future, he changed the status of the Church from
persecuted minority to privileged institution, and gave its bishops status,
judicial privileges, and influence. His lavish gifts to secure the future of
the churches he founded and his measures to enable the Church to inherit and
receive gifts made possible the flow of wealth towards the Church, which
eventually let it become a powerful and important institution.
By the end of the fourth century, many bishops were themselves
powerful figures and controlled significant wealth. Upper-class families vied
with each other not only in their wealth, but also in their piety, and were
able to commission for their houses the silverware and mosaics with Christian
motifs which can be found in Britain and all over the empire. How sure can we
be that this would have happened, had it not been for Constantine?
Dame Averil Cameron is Professor of Late Antique and Byzantine History
at Oxford University. This extract is from Professor Cameron’s essay on
Constantine and Christianity, taken from Constantine the Great: York’s Roman
emperor (York Museums Trust and Lund Humphries, £50; 0-85331-928-6), published
Christian emperor: this image of Constantine the Great, depicted
holding the cross, introduces a copy of an abbreviated history of Constantine
by the scribe Manuel Malaxos, dated 1574. BRITISH LIBRARY