Constantine: Good Christian or Good Politician?
During Constantine’s rule Christianity not only began to play a role in Roman governmental activities, but Christian symbols made there way onto Roman coinage as well. Constantine was responsible for the spread of
Christianity in the Roman Empire, but his motives were not religious. Constantine’s political genius gave him the insight to realize the he could either begin tolerating the Christians, or let them slowly destroy his empire. Constantine chose to tolerate the Christian, but was aware it would be a very difficult task. Diocletian, emperor of the Western Roman Empire before Maxentius did all he could to rid his empire of the Christians, but was unsuccessful in doing so. Constantine was aware that persecuting the Christians would only encourage their martyrdom and would ultimately prove be an unsuccessful effort (Chadwick 127-29). In the centuries leading up to Constantine’s reign Christians were humiliated, tortured and killed if they refused to renounce their faith. Many gave up their Christian beliefs, but those who did not became martyrs. Those people who refused to renounce their faith and were killed and as a result became great inspirations to those living Christians in the empire. “The impact of martyrdom was immense and even, according to Tertulian, acted as a seed-bed for Christianity (Elliot 351).”
On February 23, 303, Diocletian issued the first persecution edict against the Christians. Ten years later, in Milan, Constantine issued an edict that would later be known as the Edict of Milan. The Edict of Milan made certain that Christianity would no longer be the target of persecution in the Roman Empire. After the Edict of Milan, he was not finished, in the fourth century thanks to Constantine Christianity became the “official” religion of the Rome. It is estimated that during the 4th century that as few as two percent of the population to as many as ten percent were practicing Christians. Even though the Christians were small in numbers, with the help of Constantine, they had began to assimilate themselves into Roman culture (Freeman 150)
After he brought a stop to the persecution of Christians in the empire, he was instrumental in their integration into both Roman society and government (Freeman 152). The Edict of Milan was not solely a victory for the Christians, but for Constantine as well, it allowed him to realize his goal of political and religious harmony in the Rome. “Constantine came to power at a time of uncertainty and crisis in the Roman Empire. The college of four emperors, a system called the Tetrarchy and instituted by Emperor Diocletian a generation ago, was not working smoothly and imperial colleagues fought each other (Bailkey and Lim 549).” The instability of the Roman Empire was no longer something that Constantine could afford to push aside.
In 312 Constantine, with inferior forces, moved against his Co-Augustus, son of Diocletian, and emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Maxentius. Constantine and Maxentius clashed at what would be known as the battle of Milivian Bridge. Constantine defeated Maxentius with ease and secured his position as the sole emperor of Rome. After his victory Constantine declared he had received a vision from God before the battle and with the support of the “supreme deity” he was able to defeat Maxentius. Several years after the battle Constantine told his biographer, Eusebius, that he had seen a cross of light above the sun inscribed with the phrase, “By this sign, conquer.” Constantine responded by placing the “heavenly sign of God” on his soldiers’ shields before the battle. Constantine’s victory at Milivian Bridge was his first step towards the assimilation of Christianity. He had not only defeated Maxentius, the son of Diocletian, securing control of the entire Roman empire, but the victory at Milivian Bridge would make for a perfect platform to propose his new, pro-Christian policy (Freeman 155).
Constantine not only had to prove himself a more than efficient politician, but he had to sell himself to both religious groups. This would take a great deal of personal effort from Constantine. He would have to present himself as a supporter of the pagans, while supporting the Christians as well. What made this so difficult for Constantine was in Rome it wasn’t strange for an individual to observe several pagan traditions, Constantine himself followed several. This was completely unacceptable to Christians; in their eyes the worship of other gods was unacceptable. Constantine’s pro-Christian message was accepted without a great deal of public outcry because of its similarities to solar monotheism, the most popular form of paganism in the Roman Empire at this time. Like solar monotheism, the sun was a very important religious symbol to Christians. Many believed that Christians worshipped the sun, because just as solar monotheists they met on Sundays and prayed facing the East. Also in the Old Testament, Jesus was known as the “sun of righteousness.” Despite the similarities between Christianity and solar monotheism, this adoption of Christianity by Constantine still proved to be a difficult task.
First, Christ was not a god of war. The Old Testament frequently involved God in the slaughter of his enemies, but the New Testament did not. Constantine would have to create a totally new conception of Christianity if he was to sustain the link between the Christian God and victory in war. Second, it was crucial for Constantine’s political survival that he did not break with the pagan cults that still claimed the allegiance of most of his subjects, yet Christianity emphatically rejected paganism (Freeman 157).
As Dr. Charles Freeman illustrates in this quote, Constantine had to be very careful not to offend the pagans or the Christians. A falling out with either the pagans or the Christians could prove to be disastrous for Constantine. This division would only add to the long list of differences between the western and eastern empire. The eastern empire was extremely Christianized while the western was predominately pagan. Trouble between these two very different sections of Rome was a genuine threat. A quarrel over religion could tear the Roman Empire apart (Rodgers 235).
Soon Constantine would find out that the Christians were much more volatile than the pagans. In order to keep the Christians happy he began granting members of the clergy special favors, “in particular exemption from the heavy burden of holding civic office and taxation (Freeman 162).” This is an essential step in Constantine’s attempt to tie the Christians into Roman society. Not only was he attempting to buy the trust of Christians after a decade of persecution, but he had to do so without upsetting the non-Christian members of his empire. This was a very dangerous move, no pagan priests had ever been given special attention in the Roman Empire, and for Constantine to favor Christian clergy in this manner was almost unheard of. Amazingly there was almost no backlash from the non-Christian population of Rome. However, Constantine did not know what he was getting himself into. “He appears to have been genuinely surprised at the number and diversity of communities calling themselves Christian, and soon after his victory he had to face the dilemma of whether to give patronage to all of these or to privilege some communities more than others (Freeman 165)” Constantine devoted much more time to facilitating their actions within his empire. He must have been terrified when he realized that he was dealing with another group of people that were destroying themselves from the inside out. There was just as much dissension amongst the Christian ranks as there was amongst Roman Officials. Desperate to end the tension between those different Christian groups Constantine called a council of bishops. The bishops met at the imperial palace at Nicaea in Asia Minor, Constantine’s goal was to create a Christian doctrine that all Christians could agree on, and could be backed by the state (Chadwick 130).
Constantine’s conversion of Rome marks a turning-point in the history of the Christian Church and of Europe. “It meant more than the end of persecution. The sovereign autocrat was inevitably and immediately involved in the development of the church, and conversely the Church became more and more implicated in high political decisions (Chadwick 125).” Constantine’s toleration of Christianity was most definitely a political maneuver. The most impressive accomplishment of Constantine’s reign was his ability to keep the Roman Empire intact. The fact that Christianity was now integrated into the most powerful empire in the world and would soon become the most powerful religion in the world was a bi-product of Constantine’s policy to keep the Roman Empire afloat. Constantine may have been the greatest promoter of Christianity of all time, but his motives behind the Edict of Milan, the Council of Nicaea and every other policy favoring Christianity were purely political.
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