Constantine the Great and Christianity

Constantine the Great and Christianity
Constantine the Great
Byzantinischer Mosaizist um 1000 002.jpg
Mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Constantinople, c. 1000
Isapostolos, 13th Apostle
Born Feb 27, 272 in Naissus, Roman Empire (now Niš, Serbia)
Died May 22, 337 in Nicomedia, Byzantine Empire (now İzmit, Turkey)
Venerated in Eastern Orthodoxy, Eastern Catholic Church
Major shrine Church of the Holy Apostles
Feast May 21
Attributes In hoc signo vinces, Labarum
Troparion From the Byzantine Menaion Your servant Constantine, O Lord and only Lover of Man, beheld the figure of the Cross in the Heavens; and like Paul (not having received his call from men, but as an Apostle among rulers set by Your hand over the royal city) he preserved lasting peace through the prayers of the Theotokos.

During the reign of the Emperor Constantine the Great, Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine, also known as Constantine I, had a significant religious experience following his victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312.[1] Historians remain uncertain about Constantine's reasons for favoring Christianity, and theologians and historians have argued about which form of Christianity he converted to, a question that bears on the legitimation of religious persecution. He is revered as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church and Oriental Orthodox Church for his example as a "Christian monarch."

Though Constantine had been exposed to Christianity by his mother, Helena, there is no consensus among scholars as to whether he adopted his mother's Christianity in his youth, or gradually over the course of his life,[2] and he did not receive baptism until shortly before his death.[3][4] Whatever the case, Constantine's endorsement of the tradition was a turning point for Early Christianity. In 313, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan legalizing Christian worship. The Emperor became a great patron of the Church, and set a precedent for the position of the Christian Emperor within the Church and the notion of orthodoxy, Christendom, and ecumenical councils that would be followed for centuries as the State church of the Roman Empire.


Christianity in the Empire before Constantine

The first recorded official persecution of Christians on behalf of the Roman Empire was that of the year 64 AD, when, as reported by the Roman historian Tacitus, the Emperor Nero blamed them for the Great Fire of Rome. According to Church tradition, it was during the reign of Nero that Peter and Paul were each martyred in Rome. However, modern historians debate whether the Roman government distinguished between Christians and Jews prior to Nerva's modification of the Fiscus Judaicus in 96, from which point practicing Jews paid the tax and Christians did not.[5]

Christians suffered from sporadic and localized persecutions over a period of two and a half centuries. Their refusal to participate in Imperial cult was considered an act of treason and was thus punishable by execution. The most widespread official persecution was carried out by Diocletian. During the Great Persecution (303–11), the Emperor ordered Christian buildings and the homes of Christians torn down, and their sacred books collected and burned. Christians were arrested, tortured, mutilated, burned, starved, and condemned to gladiatorial contests to amuse spectators.[6] The Great Persecution officially ended in April of 311, when Galerius, then 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.[7]


Constantine's conversion, by Rubens.

The Emperor Constantine I was exposed to Christianity by his mother, Helena, but he was over 42 when he finally declared himself a Christian.[8] Writing to Christians, Constantine made clear that he believed his successes were owed to the protection of that High God alone.[9]

The Battle of Milvian Bridge

Eusebius of Caesarea and other 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 "Ἐν Τούτῳ Νίκα" ("by this, win!", often rendered in the Latin "in hoc signo vinces"). Constantine commanded his troops to adorn their shields with a Christian symbol (the Chi-Rho), and thereafter they were victorious.[2][10]

Following the battle, the new emperor ignored the altars to the gods prepared on the Capitoline, and did not carry out the customary sacrifices to celebrate a general's victorious entry into Rome, instead heading directly to the imperial palace.[9] Most influential people in the Empire, however, especially high military officials, had not converted to Christianity and still participated in the traditional religions of Rome; 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.[2] The monuments he first commissioned, such as the Arch of Constantine, contained no reference to Christianity.[9][11]

Edict of Milan

In 313 Constantine and Licinius announced "that it was proper that the Christians and all others should have liberty to follow that mode of religion which to each of them appeared best",[12] thereby granting tolerance to all religions, including Christianity. The Edict of Milan went a step further than the earlier Edict of Toleration by Galerius in 311, returning confiscated Church property. This edict made the Empire officially neutral with regard to religious worship; it neither made the traditional religions illegal nor made Christianity the state religion, as occurred later with the Edict of Thessalonica.

Patronage of the Church

Hagia Eirene, the first church commissioned by Constantine in Constantinople.
Coin of Constantine I, making a benediction gesture, with his sons, enthroned.

The accession of Constantine was a turning point for Early Christianity, generally considered the beginning of Christendom. After his victory, Constantine 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, returned property confiscated during the Great Persecution of Diocletian,[13] and endowed the church with land and other wealth.[14] Between 324 and 330, Constantine built, virtually from scratch, a new imperial capital at Byzantium on the Bosphorus, which would be named Constantinople for him. Unlike "old" Rome, the city employed overtly Christian architecture and contained churches within the city walls, and had no pre-existing temples from other religions to contend with.[15]

In doing this, however, Constantine required those who had not converted to Christianity "to foot the bill".[14] 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,"[16] This led to the closure of temples due to a lack of support, their wealth flowing to the imperial treasure;[17] Constantine did not need to use force to implement this,[14] although his subjects are said to simply have obeyed him out of fear.[citation needed] Only the chronicler Theophanes has added that temples "were annihilated", but this was considered "not true" by contemporary historians.[18]

Public office

Many times imperial favor was granted to Christianity by the Edict, new avenues were opened to Christians, including the right to compete with other 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. Men from leading Roman families who declined to convert to Christianity were denied positions of power, yet 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.[19]

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. There were no restrictions on farming work, which was the work of the great majority of the population.[20] Some laws were even humane in the modern sense, possibly originating in his Christianity:[21] 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, since God was supposed to have made man in his image, but only on the feet.[22] Gladiatorial games were ordered to be eliminated in 325, although this had little real effect,[clarification needed] and a slave master's rights were limited,[citation needed] 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. It has been speculated that this may have provided motivation for canon lists, and that Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus are examples of these Bibles. Together with the Peshitta and Codex Alexandrinus, these are the earliest extant Christian Bibles.[23]

Christian Emperorship

Enforcement of Church policy

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.[24] 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.[25] The emperor ensured that God was properly worshiped in his empire; what proper worship (orthodoxy) and doctrines and dogma consisted of was for the Church to determine.[26]

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).[27] Nicaea however was to deal mostly with the Arian controversy. Constantine himself was torn between both the Arian and Trinitarian camps. After the Nicene council and against its conclusions, he eventually recalled Arius from exile and banished Athanasius of Alexandria to Trier.

Constantine himself was baptised into Christianity just before his death in May 337 by his distant relative Arianian Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia. During Eusebius of Nicomedia's time in the Imperial court, the Eastern court and the major positions in the Eastern Church were held by Arians or Arian sympathizers.[28] With the exception of a short period of eclipse, Eusebius enjoyed the complete confidence both of Constantine and Constantius II and was the tutor of the later Emperor Julian the Apostate.[29] After Constantine's death, his son and successor Constantius II was an Arian, as was the later Emperor Valens.

Suppression of other religions

Constantine's position on the religions traditionally practiced in Rome evolved during his reign. At first he prohibited the construction of new temples[30] and tolerated traditional sacrifices;[9] by the end of his reign, he had begun to order the pillaging and tearing down of Roman temples.[31][32][33]

Relationship with the bishops of Rome

Constantine's relationship with the four Bishops of Rome during his reign is an important component of the History of the Papacy, and more generally the History of the Catholic Church.

Persian relations

Beyond the limes, east of the Euphrates, the Sassanid rulers of the Persian Empire, perennially at war with Rome, had usually tolerated Christianity (see also Sassanid Church). Constantine is said to have written to Shapur II, in 324, and urged him to protect Christians under his rule.(Eusebius, vita Constantini IV, 8-13) With the establishment of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire, Christians in Persia would now be regarded as allies of Persia's ancient enemy. According to an anonymous Christian account, Shapur II wrote to his generals:

You will arrest Simon, chief of the Christians. You will keep him until he signs this document and consents to collect for us a double tax and double tribute from the Christians … for Our Godhead[34] have all the trials of war and they have nothing but repose and pleasure. They inhabit our territory and agree with Caesar, our enemy. (Quoted in Samuel H. Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia: Beginnings to 1500 1992, p. 140.)

The "Great Persecution" of the Persian Christian churches occurred between 340-363 CE, after the Persian Wars that reopened upon Constantine's death. In 344 Catholicos Shimun bar Sabbae, five bishops and 100 priests were martyred by the Sassanids.[citation needed]


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 is not venerated in the Latin Rite. He is not venerated by any Protestant community.

Constantinian shift

Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Raphael, Vatican Rooms. The artist depicted the troops of Constantine bearing the labarum.

Constantinian shift is a term used by Anabaptist and Post-Christendom theologians to describe the political and theological aspects of Constantine's legalization of Christianity in the 4th century.[35] The term was popularized by the Mennonite theologian John H. Yoder.[36]

See also

  • Constantinianism
  • Early Christianity and pacifism
  • Philip the Arab and Christianity
  • List of rulers who converted to Christianity

Selected bibliography


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ a b c R. Gerberding and J. H. Moran Cruz, Medieval Worlds (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004) p. 55.
  3. ^ retrieved 19 September 2011
  4. ^ retrieved 19 September 2011
  5. ^ Wylen, Stephen M., The Jews in the Time of Jesus: An Introduction, Paulist Press (1995), ISBN 0-8091-3610-4, Pp 190-192.; Dunn, James D.G., Jews and Christians: The Parting of the Ways, A.D. 70 to 135, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing (1999), ISBN 0-8028-4498-7, Pp 33-34.; Boatwright, Mary Taliaferro & Gargola, Daniel J & Talbert, Richard John Alexander, The Romans: From Village to Empire, Oxford University Press (2004), ISBN 0-19-511875-8, p. 426.;
  6. ^ Bomgardner, D. L. The Story of the Roman Amphitheatre. New York: Routledge, 2000. p. 142.
  7. ^ Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum ("On the Deaths of the Persecutors") ch. 35–34.
  8. ^ Peter Brown, The Rise of Christendom 2nd edition (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2003) p. 61.
  9. ^ a b c d Peter Brown, The Rise of Christendom 2nd edition (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2003) p. 60.
  10. ^ Eusebius, Life of Constantine.
  11. ^ J.R. Curran, Pagan City and Christian Capital. Rome in the Fourth Century (Oxford, 2000) pp. 70–90.
  12. ^ Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum ("On the Deaths of the Persecutors") ch. 48.
  13. ^ R. Gerberding and J. H. Moran Cruz, Medieval Worlds (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004) pp. 55-56
  14. ^ a b c MacMullan 1984:49.
  15. ^ R. Gerberding and J. H. Moran Cruz, Medieval Worlds (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004) p. 56
  16. ^ quoted after MacMullan 1984:49.
  17. ^ MacMullan 1984:50.
  18. ^ MacMullan 1984: 141, Note 35 to Chapter V; Theophanes, Chron. a. 322 (PG 108.117)
  19. ^ MacMullen 1969,1984; New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1908.
  20. ^ MacMullen 1969; New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1908; Theodosian Code.
  21. ^ Norwich, John Julius, A Short History of Byzantium. Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, p. 8. ISBN 0679772693.
  22. ^ Miles, Margaret Ruth, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought. Blackwell Publishing, 2004, p. 70, ISBN 1405108460.
  23. ^ The Canon Debate, McDonald & Sanders editors, 2002, pages 414-415, for the entire paragraph
  24. ^ Richards, Jeffrey. The Popes and the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages 476–752 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979) pp. 14–15.
  25. ^ Richards, Jeffrey. The Popes and the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages 476–752 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979) p. 15.
  26. ^ Richards, Jeffrey. The Popes and the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages 476–752 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979) p. 16.
  27. ^ Pre-Ecumenical councils include the Council of Rome 155 AD, Second Council of Rome 193 AD, Council of Ephesus 193 AD, Council of Carthage 251 AD, Council of Iconium 258 AD, Councils of Antioch, 264 AD, Council of Elvira 306 AD, Council of Carthage 311 AD, Council of Ancyra 314 AD, Council of Arles 314 AD and the Council of Neo-Caesarea 315 AD).
  28. ^ Drake, "Constantine and the Bishops", pp.395.
  29. ^  "Eusebius of Nicomedia". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  30. ^ Gerberding, R. and J. H. Moran Cruz, Medieval Worlds (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004) p. 28.
  31. ^ R. MacMullen, "Christianizing The Roman Empire A.D.100-400, Yale University Press, 1984, ISBN 0-300-03642-6
  32. ^ "A History of the Church", Philip Hughes, Sheed & Ward, rev ed 1949, vol I chapter 6.[2]
  33. ^ Eusebius Pamphilius and Schaff, Philip (Editor) and McGiffert, Rev. Arthur Cushman, Ph.D. (Translator) NPNF2-01. Eusebius Pamphilius: Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine quote: "he razed to their foundations those of them which had been the chief objects of superstitious reverence".
  34. ^ It should be noted that in general, theres is a "silence of the Perso-Arab and classical historians on any claim by Iranian kings to divinity". The Cambridge history of Iran: The Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian ...: Volume 1 - Page xxxiii.
  35. ^ Clapp, Rodney (1996). A Peculiar People. InterVarsity Press. p. 23. "What might be called the Constantinian shift began around the year 200 and took more than two hundred years to grow and unfold to full bloom." 
  36. ^ Yoder, John H. (1996). "Is There Such a Thing as Being Ready for Another Millennium?". In Miroslav Volf, Carmen Krieg, Thomas Kucharz (ed.). The Future of Theology: Essays in Honor of Jurgen Moltmann. Eerdmanns. p. 65. "The most impressive transitory change underlying our common experience, one that some thought was a permanent lunge forward in salvation history, was the so-called Constantinian shift." 

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