The world’s first Christian ruler

02 November 2006

As York marks the proclamation of its own Roman Emperor 1700 years ago, the historian Christopher Kelly asks whether Christians, too, can celebrate Constantine

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 personal protector.

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 Christ himself.

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 MUSEUM


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 ability.

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 this month.

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

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