Constantine The Great Adopts Christianity

Ancient Period, Feature

Makes It the Dominant Religion in Europe

On 25 July, A.D. 306, the Roman Emperor Constantius Chlorus died at York, and the same day the soldiers of York garrison declared his son Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus to be his successor on the Imperial throne.

Constantine, as he was subsequently called, was still in his teens, but he was already exhibiting those qualities which have persuaded later history to add “the Great” to his name.

The Roman Empire of these times was not at all like the Empire of the Classical period. Certainly the Imperial territories covered a vast area, and included Britain, Gaul, Spain, Italy, the modern Yugoslavia, Rumania and Bulgaria, the modern Switzerland and Austria, Greece, Asia Minor and Palestine, and the whole North African margin of the Mediterranean from Egypt to the Atlantic.

It was because it was so vast that it was difficult to’ administer as one unit, and it will be noted that it fell into two natural halves which differed from one another greatly in characteristics. Before the Romans had dominated the Mediterranean, and spread their influence throughout Western Europe and to the East, the Greeks had flourished.

When their power had declined, Greece and her former possessions had been added to the Roman Empire, but the way in which Rome administered her Imperial possessions left the peoples of the subject nations with their national characteristics intact. It is true that Roman influences made a formidable impact on all the people over whom Rome held sway, but the people of the East were to remain completely different from the people of the West, as indeed they have remained to this day. It was this difference, which was to be seen most clearly in the two cultures and in the personalities of the actual people, which, as we have said, naturally created a division within the Roman Empire.

Successive Emperors had found increasingly difficult the task of keeping their vast possessions, with their many different nationalities, in check, and when the Emperor Diocletian found the barbarians on his Empire’s frontiers continuing to constitute a threat of invasion, he decided that if he was to keep them off effectively he must devote much time to this work. So much time, in fact, that he would be unable to oversee efficiently the many aspects of government.

So, in 286, he decided to appoint Maximian as a colleague, and assign to him the Western portion of the Empire. This arrangement was followed by a further division in 292, when Constantius Chlorus and Galerius were appointed Caesars, Constantius for the West and Galerius for the East.

On the death of Constantius and the appointment of his son Constantine as his successor, Galerius, who on the abdication of Diocletian in 305 had assumed the title of Emperor of the East, agreed to recognize Constantine as Emperor in the West, with sovereignty over all the countries beyond the Alps.

About this time there were no fewer than six claimants to the Imperial throne, three in the East and three in the West. Maxentius, the son of Maximian, with the support of the Praetorian Guard, the elite body of Roman troops whose role was to protect the person of the Emperor, and who, over the years, had frequently elected the Emperor, seized the power in Rome.

The Basilica of Maxentius in the Roman Forum. Completed by his enemy Constantine, it was one of the most impressive edifices of ancient times.

The Basilica of Maxentius in the Roman Forum. Completed by his enemy Constantine, it was one of the most impressive edifices of ancient times.

A contest between him and Constantine became inevitable, and the two met at the Milvian Bridge, over the Tiber, on 27 October, 312.

It is not certain whether by this time Constantine had personally accepted Christianity. His mother Helena was a Christian of long standing, and it is more than likely that she had made efforts to convert her son.

However, shortly before the battle at the Milvian Bridge, he had had a dream in which he had seen a fiery cross in the sky, and the legend hoc Vince, “by this conquer”. As a result of this dream he decided to stake all on the coming battle, and ordered his soldiers to put on their shields the Greek letters which formed the monogram of Christ.

The battle ended in the utter defeat of Maxentius’s forces and in their leader’s death, which left Constantine master of the Empire in the West. One of his first acts was to have the Christian monogram added to the Imperial standard and to decree that in all the territories over which he ruled the Christians should be granted toleration.

The spread of Christianity from the days of the Apostles had been extraordinary. Throughout all the Empire of the East there were a multitude of scattered pockets, while in the Empire of the West in those parts which bordered on the Mediterranean a similar situation existed.

Christ had Himself appointed Peter to be the head of the Church which He had charged the Apostles to establish, and it is an historical fact that Peter had decided to carry his personal mission to Rome, the capital of the Empire. Here, traditionally in A.D. 42, he was executed during one of the many persecutions of the Christians, whose growing influence the Roman Emperors greatly feared.

Before he died, Peter had become the supreme head of the Christian Church, and when Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70 the Church in Rome came to be regarded as the headquarters of the Church everywhere, and the leader of the Roman Church was regarded as the chief priest, or Pope.

Between A.D. 90 and 305 there were no fewer than ten violent persecutions of the Christians; but far from losing influence, the Church gained in power, and the number of Christians throughout the Empire increased. As the Latin writer Tertullian put it, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

With the expansion of the Church, between the death of Peter and the accession of Constantine, it had developed a kind of organization, which may be described as a loose confederation of self-governing communities (in matters relating to the Church only, of course) held together by the unity of the faith and the spirit of brotherhood which membership of that faith engendered. Its “churches” were mostly city communities, for it was in the cities that the Word had first been preached. There were, however, a number of rural communities existing on the greater estates.

At the head of each church was a Bishop, elected by the community, and each Bishop considered himself to be a successor of the Apostles. The Bishops alone in the early days possessed the power of “laying hands on the Bread and Wine” which were used in the regular celebration of the Last Supper. But as the Church grew, the Bishops increasingly found that they were unable to administer both the religious and administrative departments, and they in turn appointed Presbyters to assist them, each Presbyter being in charge of a district within the greater area served by the Church. In his administrative duties, the Bishop was assisted by Deacons. It was in this way that gradually the organization and administration of the Church came into being.

Although as yet there was no central organization of the Church, the successors of Peter as Bishops of Rome were regarded as the supreme heads of the Church on earth. This did not prevent their growing up among churchmen differences of opinion concerning many aspects of Christian doctrine. Indeed, it can be said that the fact that each church was self-governing encouraged individual thinking, from which sprang varying interpretations of the fundamentals upon which the religion was based. When such differences assumed such proportions that the spread of them could be expected to influence the overall teaching of the Church, the matter was referred to the Bishop of Rome for his decision, in the same way that very early fathers had asked the Church in Jerusalem to decide. But the Bishop of Rome had no authority to enforce his decision or interpretation on other churches, with the result that when the dissidents felt very strongly about their own interpretation, they ignored the Bishop of Rome’s decision.

By Constantine’s day, a surprising number of differences of this kind existed. These heresies, as they were called, threatened even the unity of brotherhood of the Church, and as we shall see presently, Constantine decided that they must be settled if the Church was not to become extensively weakened; and by this time he had begun to realize that Christianity could become the means of making the Empire stronger. It happened like this.

Galerius had abdicated in 307 and had been succeeded as Emperor in the East by Licinius. Licinius had a strong dislike for the Christians, and had embarked upon persecutions of them in his own domains. These persecutions naturally upset the Christians under Constantine’s rule, and since by this time he had become convinced that it would be preferable for the Christians to be his friends rather than his enemies, he invited Licinius to a conference in Milan to discuss the Christian Question. He was able to persuade Licinius to stop his persecution of them.

On Licinius’s part, however, it appears that this was merely a delaying tactic, for he was ambitious, and had set his heart upon becoming sole Emperor of the combined Empires of East and West. Immediately after the Conference of Milan he embarked upon a series of provocative acts which virtually compelled Constantine to challenge him, and war broke out between them in 314. The outcome was indecisive; though it did show Licinius that Constantine was stronger than he had estimated. There followed an uneasy peace between them, and though this lasted for nine years, during which time Licinius desisted from his persecutions, a final struggle for supremacy was inevitable.

Constantine used the period of peace to consolidate and increase his strength and position, and one of the means he employed was to do all he could to make the position of the Christians within his Empire as secure as possible. In seeking to acquire their friendship, he began to take a personal interest in their affairs, and it was on his orders that a Council of Bishops met at Aries in 314 to pass judgment upon a heresy which was splitting the Church in Africa. In 321, Licinius renewed his persecution of the Christians with increased ferocity, and as the Champion of the Christians within his own Empire; Constantine decided that he must take such steps as would at least demonstrate to his own Christians that he was prepared to aid their co-religionists wherever they might be. In fact, it would not be incorrect to suggest that Constantine’s real motive was to challenge Licinius for the supreme power.

In 323 the two Emperors met in battle, first at Adrianople. Here Licinius was defeated, but he rallied his forces and challenged Constantine once more at Chrysopolis, now called Scutari. Here he was decisively beaten, and was taken prisoner, and afterwards executed, leaving Constantine in sole command in both the Empires.

The political division between the two parts of the Empire had widened the natural differences between them, and Constantine saw that what was needed was some unifying factor that would bring the two parts more closely together. Common both to the Empire of the West and that of the East were the Christians, who by this time had greatly increased in numbers. If he made the Christians the unifying factor which he believed to be essential to form the united Empire into a cohesive whole, then steps would have to be taken to enhance their religious position.

Unfortunately for Constantine, at this very point in time, the whole of Christianity within the Empire was embroiled in a controversy which threatened to split it permanently. This was exactly opposed to what he wanted, for if the Christians were seriously split among themselves, how could they become the unifying factor for his Empire.

The controversy was known as the Arian heresy. Though some scholars contend that its origins can be traced to the teaching of Paul of Samosata, the heresy was first defined by Arius, a priest of Alexandria. Its most ardent opponent was Athanasius, also a priest of Alexandria, which had pretensions to becoming the rival of Rome as the headquarters of the Church.

Put simply, the Arian heresy denied that Christ was equal to or of the same substance with God the Father. The Eastern Christians held firmly to the separate Person of the Redeemer without defining too plainly the sense in which the Father and the Son were One God. Arius upset this widely accepted doctrine by stating categorically that the Son and the Father were quite separate. He based his thesis upon the argument that before the appearance of Christ there had been eternity, and that the Son had been begotten by a once lonely Creator, and that the human body of Christ, through the Sonship which divine parentage had bestowed on Him, that is, the Incarnation, had become the receptacle of the Word, the essence of Christian philosophy.

Under Athanasius’s prompting the Bishop of Alexandria summoned a small Council of Bishops, who decided that the teachings of Arius were false, and banished him to Palestine. The result of this was that instead of stamping out his heresy, more and more Christians in the East began to support Arius, and by 324 it was quite clear that unless an incontestable decision were taken quickly the whole Eastern Church would split into two warring camps. This would make it impossible for there to be a complete union of all Christians everywhere.

So in 325 Constantine intervened. He called all the Bishops of the East to meet him at Nicaea. Three hundred Bishops answered his summons, while the Bishop of Rome sent representatives, chief among who was the Bishop of Cordova, who was an intimate friend of the Emperor. After long debate, in which Arius took part to defend his doctrine, an overwhelming majority pronounced him to be in error. Arius was banished to Illyria and his adherents exiled.

For the time being the threat of a split disappeared. Constantine could now go forward with his plans. Though Arianism was to be troublesome to several of his successors, the Council of Nicaea firmly established the authority of the Church, so that when Constantine declared complete toleration for Christians throughout the Empire, he took the first great step in making Christianity the predominant religion in Europe. It was a step the consequences of which for the future of Europe it is impossible to evaluate.