Constantine the Christian

Constantine the Christian

At the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in AD 312, Constantine ordered his soldiers to paint the sign of the cross on their shields – and went on to win the battle.  He thereby he became convinced that Christianity was the right side to be on, and eventually the Roman Empire became Christian.  But what was it that made Christianity so attractive?

Gibbon in his famous chapter (chapter XV) on Christianity ascribed the rise of Christianity first to what, with tongue in cheek he called ‘the convincing evidence of the great doctrine itself’. He went on to seek what he called the ‘secondary’ causes of the rapid growth of the Christian church:  first  was “the inflexible, and if we may use the term, the intolerant zeal of the Christians”; he then went on to give credit to the ‘pure and austere morals of the Christians’ and the ‘discipline of the Christian republic, which gradually formed an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman Empire’. All three of these explanations we shall explore: but although subsequent generations have always admired this, the most famous of all his chapters, it is perhaps worthwhile adding some of the opinions of later scholars, such as Peter Brown and Robin Lane Fox. We can perhaps consider these later views under several different headings.

Peter Brown called Christianity a ‘cockney religion’ in that it appealed to the ‘lower middle classes’, or more particularly to the intellectual lower middle classes.  In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the traditional philosophies had run themselves into the ground.  They had become the sphere of the highly educated upper classes who debated Platonism and the doctrines of the Stoics and the Epicureans among themselves, but made little attempt to preach it to the rest of the world.  There was a gap that was partly filled by Mithraism and the Egyptian mystery religions.  But compared to these, Christianity with its subtle combination of Judaism and Greek philosophy was far more intellectual and was keen to spread its message to all who would listen: to the lower classes, to the slaves and even to a sprinkling of upper class virgins. Christianity introduced what Peter Heather called a cultural revolution: it was a democratising and equalising force, insisting that everybody, no matter what their economic or social status,  had a an equal stake in salvation.

Christianity also got its social structure right.  Not only did they appeal to the vital lower middle classes, but they also provided what we might call social services – support for widows and orphans, and for unmarried ladies who were always a problem in Roman society.  The Christian built up an extremely effective network of bishops: a bishop was not just a holy man, but very much a practical organiser who would organise his flock; and once Constantine had recruited them to the services of the state, they soon provided an alternative, and indeed additional support for the municipal authorities.

But one of the biggest recruiting  methods of all was, ironically, persecution and martyrdom.  The Christians were in many ways like today’s Greens who pursue often exaggerated beliefs with a grain of truth at the centre by means of dangerous and often semi-legal stunts.  The Romans were the most tolerant of all people and the Christians had to work hard to get themselves persecuted, and there is a considerable literature on the laws under which they were persecuted.  After all,  right at the very beginning Pontius Pilate famously washed his hands of any responsibility for the death of Jesus: he simply wanted to prevent a riot, and it was not until the middle of the 3rd century that some emperors actively persecuted the Christians.  Throughout there was an underlying feeling that persecuting the Christians was not quite right, and was perhaps even counter-productive.

Nevertheless martyrdom proved to be a very effective recruiting sergeant.  Robin Lane Fox says it was a technique invented by Judaism in the 2nd century BC, and then was taken up first by the Christians and then more emphatically by the Muslims.  It was largely abandoned by the Christians in the 4th century AD when St Augustine campaigned against suicide as  part of his campaign against the Donatist heresy; but it lives on among the Muslims.  But it was a most effective form of recruitment for the Christians.

The entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. St Helena, Constantine’s mother, and the patron saint of archaeologists excavated here and decided that it was the site where Christ was crucified, buried and was resurrected.

But having been converted to Christianity, there can be little doubt that Constantine became a devout believer. It is sometimes pointed out that he was not in fact baptised as a Christian until the very end of his life when he was on his deathbed, but this was in fact normal for the time. Baptism washes away all sins and it is therefore only sensible to wait until the end of one’s life so that as many sins as possible can be washed away. But after 312 he was very zealous in propagating his religion. He founded many churches, not only in Rome itself,  the most important of which was that dedicated to St Peter’s on the Vatican Hill, but also particularly in the Holy Land where he sent his mother Helena to carry out an archaeological survey, as a result of which churches were built at the site of the Nativity, the Holy Sepulchre, and on the Mount of Olives.

The Church of the Nativity in Jerusalem built over the site of the stable where Christ was born. It is one of the finest surviving 5th century Basilican Churches.

However Christianity was not  proclaimed as the official religion –  indeed Constantine remained as Pontifex Maximus that is chief priest to the end of his life – it was a sort of honorary position that emperors occupied.

The privileges given to Christianity

More importantly he gave the Christians privileges which were the root of their future success. These can be considered under three headings. Perhaps most important was that in 321, bequests to the church were specifically legalised. This proved very influential as it meant that the church soon became very rich – there were numerous widows or unmarried virgins who vied to leave their money and property to the church.  Leaving your property to the church was a one-way process. The property went in but it never came out again and so fairly rapidly, the church became very rich.

Secondly, Christians, or at least Christian priests were granted exemption from civic duties. By the fourth century, civic duties were becoming extremely onerous: magistrates were expected to keep the city tidy and  to maintain the defences,  andthis had become a heavy tax, but Constantine relieved priests from civic duties, and the accompanying taxation. Indeed, already by 320, we find Constantine legislating against rich pagans who claimed to be priests in order to escape their civic duties. Bishops even took on a judicial role when Constantine enacted that in a lawsuit either party might seek to transfer the case to the Bishop’s jurisdiction and that there would be no appeal from the bishop’s judgement.

And thirdly, the church’s role in charity was enhanced. One of the big benefits of Christianity had long been that it developed a system of looking after widows and children and had become a sort of social service, a welfare state. Constantine approved and made annual grants of corn and foodstuffs for the use of widows, the poor – and the clergy. Augustus’s marriage laws, which  penalised celibacy and encouraged people to marry and produce children were also repealed. Gladiatorial shows were apparently banished – though they evidently continued for at least another couple of hundred years. And Sunday was adopted as a day of rest: already, it appears Augustus had adopted a seven day week, but it would appear that one of Constantine’s more enduring pieces of legislation was that Sunday began generally to be accepted as the day of rest.

 Heretics and Councils

Nevertheless, much of Constantine’s time and energy as a Christian was taken up by dealing with the problems of heresy. Christianity, like all major beliefs, was soon riven by heresy: what is the correct belief? Constantine had to deal with two major heresies, one at the beginning of his reign, the other at the end. The first heresy was that of the Donatists. The Donatist heresy arose in North Africa, particularly Carthage and it rose from the previous persecution of the Christian churches.  In the campaigns against Christianity, two main demands were made, that the churches should be destroyed, and that the holy books should be handed over for destruction. The crucial test was the handing over of the Holy Scriptures, but it was easy to get round this by handing over a heretical book or indeed any sort of book. Those who did so were called a traditor or someone who ‘hands over’.

But just how grave a sin was it to be a ‘traditor’? At the beginning of the fourth century a dispute arose over the Bishop of Carthage: Caecilian was consecrated by someone who was thought to be a traditor, so the hard-liners appointed their own bishop,  who was soon succeeded by Donatus, who gave his name to the whole movement. It was a dispute between extremists and moderates, and it became very bitter. Constantine was called in to adjudicate and called a council of the bishops at Arles in 314 which settled with the moderates.

The problem persisted long after Constantine,  and Augustine in the early fifth century had to spend much time combating the Donatists. Indeed, the Donatists were all too ready to seek martyrdom and it is thought that Augustine’s campaign against suicide – and martyrdom `comes close to being suicide – was based on his campaign against the Donatists. There may have been a racial element to the dispute, for the Donatists were strongest  among the Berber tribes of the mountainous interior. Some even suggest that the split between Donatists and Catholics made the Muslim conquest of North Africa all the much easier.

The second heresy was more theological and is still lingers on in the Nicene creed we say today. It began when a priest in Alexandria called Arias began to have doubts about the relationship between God the Father and God the Son: surely God the Father came first and produced God the Son. This provoked a very lively debate:  in his home territory in Alexandria, Arius lost out to the extremist Athanasius.  But he won at Nicomedia, then the capital of the Empire and even Eusebius, the great historian of early Christianity was attracted to Arianism. Constantine was very concerned and held the biggest council of the church hitherto at Nicaea attended by over 400 bishops. Eventually a compromise was hammered out, suggested it is said by Constantine himself, the homo-ousian compromise that God the Son is of the ‘same substance’ as God the Father. It is a formula that is still repeated in the Nicene Creed. It was a triumph for Constantine, though again, the dispute simmered or for a century or more. Heresies and divisions have always been the accompaniment of Christianity.

(One might add that this is surely a mark of barbarism: in a market society, differences of opinion can be settled in the marketplace – who buys and who doesn’t. One of the benefits of the marketplace is that the answer is often split and the number two or even the number three in a marketplace can still make a good living).

Where Christianity failed – and succeeded

However the really interesting question about Constantine and Christianity is not why Rome adopted Christianity, but why Persia did not. Under the Sassanid Dynasty,  the Persian Empire had revived and was not only militarily as strong as the Roman Empire but also vied with it in the arts and philosophies. Here the dominant religion was Zoroastrianism, which was perhaps intellectually the most coherent of the rivals to Christianity.   In Persia however Christianity made little progress and remained a minority religion, sometimes succeeding in getting itself persecuted, but for the most part being tolerated and ignored.

Christianity nevertheless had successes in the fringes beyond the Persian Empire  The Armenians for instance were converted to Christianity in 302, a full ten years before Constantine, as they will tell you with great enthusiasm.  In Africa too the Ethiopians also converted to Christianity at an early stage.

The subsequent fate of Persia is interesting, for in the 7th century Persia succumbed to the Islamic invaders and the inhabitants were gradually converted and indeed greatly influenced Islam: Islamic art is Persian art. Christianity however had taken such strong roots in the West that it alone was able to provide effective resistance to the warriors of Islam even though it lost its heart lands in Palestine, Egypt and North Africa to the Islamic invaders. But Constantine’s revolution ensured that Christianity took over the heart of the Roman empire.

 On to Constantinople

25th October 2013, revised June 2021