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Emperor Constantine and Christianity

Constantine was the son of a junior co-emperor, Constantius, who died in Britannia (at York) in 306. Emperor Diocletian was retired and his son-in-law was a co-emperor in the east. In Britannia, Constantine (age 34) was declared emperor by his father's troops, and he had to make war to establish himself as co-emperor in the West, which he did by landing on the continent, marching to Rome and winning against his rival, the existing co-emperor, Maxentius, at the Battle of Milvian Bridge.

Constantine's half of the empire was from 5 to 10 percent Christian. His mother had been a stable maid and mistress or consort to the emperor. Constantine was her only son, and when she became a Christian in unknown. She has been described as a major influence on her son, and today is celebrated by Christians as Saint Helena.

As emperor, Constantine began with support for paganism, giving recognition to his father's favorite god, Sol Invictus. By the year 313 he was in agreement with a new co-emperor of the east, Licinius, that Christianity should have full equality with other religions and that property taken from Christians during prosecutions should be returned. This was the famous Edict of Milan. People were given freedom to worship whatever deity they pleased and to organize churches.

Constantine gave the Christians property in Rome where a new church, the Lateran Basilica, would be built. For Christianity, as with other religions, clergy was to be exempt from taxation, from military service or forced labor. In 321 he accommodated Christianity by making the day of Sol Invictus, Sunday, a holy day and day of rest for Christians.

In 324, Constantine's military defeated Licinius, and Constantine became emperor of the entire empire. He confiscated from pagan priests much of the wealth they had accumulated, including their sacred icons, which brought him wealth in the form of precious metals, and he gave it to the Christian Church.

Authority within the Church and the First Council of Nicaea

For more than two centuries, Christianity's bishops had been trying to assert their authority over what Christians should and should not believe. Now they sought Constantine's authority in judging their disputes. And Constantine wanted Christianity to end its bickering. Gnostic Christians held that God distributed revelations without considering rank among the Christians, and bishops were siding with rank. The first Bishop of Rome, Clement (who lived to around the year 97) had described a hierarchy of authority that began with God, then Jesus, the apostles, and finally to the bishops, and he had added that God had granted Rome "the authority of empire," glory, and honor.

In the year 325, Christianity had its first ecumenical council, at Nicaea, attended by 318 bishops. The council recognized the authority of Emperor Constantine, and Constantine ruled against the claim of Bishop Arius and bishops who supported him that God and Jesus were separate beings (Arianism). Constantine decided that Bishop Arius and his supporters would be allowed to remain within the Church and would not be forced to recant, but that those who failed to sign the settlement were to be exiled. Others who did not conform to the council's ruling were to be considered heretics and would have their meeting places confiscated.

With the power of the state behind them, bishops extended their authority within the Church. Christians were not to choose their own bishop. Local bishops were to be chosen only by other bishops.

Constantine and Virtue

The Emperor Constantine was viewed as a man of virtue, but it was a time of different values and politics from today. Domestic tensions within Constantine's family resulted in Constantine in 326 having his eldest son, Crispus, seized and put to death. And he had his wife, the Empress Fausta, executed. References to them were erased and memory of the two was condemned.

Virtues championed by Augustus Caesar were championed by Emperor Constantine. There were severe penalties for adultery, concubinage, and prostitution. For some other crimes eyes were gouged out or legs maimed. But influenced by Christianity, Constantine ended crucifixion as a form of execution. He banned the gladiator shows and ended branding criminals and slaves on their face. He forbade separating slave families, but anyone caught sheltering a runaway slave was to be fined. And, with the agreement of bishops, slaves who sought refuge in Christian churches were to be returned to their masters.

As it had been under Diocletian, under Constantine everyone was forced to follow their parent's occupation, including the sons of soldiers. The state tried to keep people working in crafts where there was a shortage of such workers. Taxes remained oppressive. Positions in local government was becoming an inherited duty, and Senate seats were passing from father to son — while the Senate remained little more than a prestigious club for conversation.

According to Bishop Eusebius

Bishop Eusebius (of Caesarea in Palestine) saw himself as a historian and scholar. He tried to prove that the Jewish people were older than other peoples. He described the Roman Empire as having allowed Christianity to take root and grow to maturity, that if Jesus Christ had been born into the world at any other time the world would not have been able to receive Him. Rome's rise as an empire, he wrote in Praeparatio Evangelica, was part of God's divine plan.

Eusebius was close to Emperor Constantine. It is written that it was just before Constantine chose to be baptized a Christian just before he died (in his early fifties in 337). Eusebius was to claim that Constantine just before his death told him that at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge he and his army had seen a flaming cross against the sun, accompanied by the words "conquer with this." Eusebius saw this as indicating that Constantine was the chosen agent of God, that Constantine had been "crowned with the virtues which are inherent in God." (The Tricennial Oration, c. 5:1.)

With Constantine, according to Eusebius, nations "found rest and respite from their ancient miseries." Eusebius wrote that government as practiced by Constantine was "a system and method of government for all states." Its rival, political equality and democracy, he described as "polyarchy" and as "anarchy and dissension rather than a form of government." Supporting a singular theocratic authority, Eusebius wrote that there is "one God – not two or three or more." (Tricennial Oration, c. I:6)

Eusebius wrote approvingly of Constantine having schooled his sons "into harmony with the reins of inspired unison and concord." Constantine had designated his three sons as his heirs, to rule simultaneously as co-emperors. But the harmony that Eusebius was referring to would be tested by events.


More on this subject: NPR's Fresh Air interviews scholar Bart Ehrman. Ehrman's book described and rated on Amazon.com.

CONTINUE READING: Christian emperors

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