Common Questions about Constantine
I have heard that Constantine was responsible for introducing paganism to Christianity. Is this true?
No. He was certainly a corrupter of Christianity - but there can be no doubt that he was no great fan of paganism. Moreover, he did not add any uniquely "pagan" concepts to Christianity himself. The simple fact of the matter is that Constantine played both sides (pagan and Christian) for as long as it was politically expedient to do so. But later he instituted a massive list of anti-pagan reforms - and so, for the very first time, it became politically advantageous to become a Christian.
Observe the following results of Constantine's conversion, and the changes which accompanied his reign:
- Pagan religions brought into ridicule; temples and idols stripped of precious materials which were used in the construction of Christian monuments.
- Steady repression of pagan worship.
- Heretical sects banned; all Christian worship slowly brought under the umbrella of a single Church system.
- Social laws changed to reflect Christian ideals; divorces more difficult to obtain, and concubines forbidden.
- Prohibition of gladiatorial games and abolition of crucifixion.
- Notion of equality of all citizens before the law abolished.
- Restitution to Christians for past injustices; includes the return of property, goods and money.
- Appointment of bureaucracy loaded with Christians.
- Constantine creates a Christian capital; embarks on a building campaign to ensure that the Christian order is an integral part of the Empire.
- Constantine rejects the pagan sacrifice as an express act of homage towards a god – presents himself as a privileged Christian Emperor, but not a deity.
- Christianity first placed on an event footing with other religions; later it gains ascendancy, with alternative beliefs and practices either banned or repressed.
- Role of the Roman senate greatly reduced as Constantine’s new bureaucracy assumes responsibility for administration.
- Establishment of a truly Christian society, with the duality between Church and State merely nominal.
- Ecclesiastical factions or interest groups of the 4th century seek to gain the favour of the ruler of the moment; they turn spontaneously to the State for aid in order to impose their view, even in theological questions.
- Christianity becomes the enemy of paganism; post-Constantinian emperors favour first one then the other, with new legislation.
- Christianity made “acceptable” to classical scholars under Constantine. (Later, under Julian, it is seen as the religion of the uneducated.)
- Roman concept of the Emperor and his role, was Christianised; Constantine shifts the emphasis from the notion of man-made-God, to a man chosen and especially guided by God. At the same time, the identity of Jesus Christ is also changing; from a man chosen and especially guided by God, to an incarnate "God-man." (The irony of this new development is impossible to ignore...)
- Constantine’s presentation of himself is deliberately ambiguous; coinage represents him in a role that is acceptable to both pagans and Christians; replaces the halo around his head with a more neutral nimbus.
- New Imperial city (Constantinople) built with the aim of forming a new, Christian capital containing none of the pagan remnants which still exist in Rome.
- Constantinople a re-creation of Rome in many ways, containing its own Senate and administration, but founded on Christian ideology, with no concession to pagan practices.
- Construction of pagan buildings not considered in Constantinople’s building plans.
- Christianity no longer seen as a cult, but a religion in its own right, possessing its own traditions and philosophies.
- Constantine prepares the foundation for a Christian State.
- Rome becomes increasingly isolated from government.
- Christianity begins to borrow from classical art as it establishes its own iconography.
- By the 5th century AD, Roman aristocracy is drifting into Christianity, bringing a wealth of pagan interests and habits. The works of the Christian fathers are being shelved alongside those of the Latin classics. Christianity has found a niche as classical literature.
- Christianity under Constantine and later Emperors succeeds in establishing its own schools of intellectual thought.
- Augustine sketches a syllabus for Christian education; the aim is to make the student subordinate to the true wisdom of Scripture rather than secular philosophy.
- The extent to which Christianity has insinuated itself into the classical world is apparent when, after the death of Julian the Apostate, Christianity and the classics simply reunite.
- Primary confrontations between pagans and Christians during the post-Constantinian era arose over the fact that both were concerned by the religious foundations of the Roman State; paganism being the older, established religion which is already written into the constitution and legal system.
I have heard that Constantine was not a Christian. Was he?
Scholars and academics have debated this topic fiercely for centuries, but the jury is still out, and nobody expects a definitive answer anytime soon. He certainly appeared to be so, and it is difficult to understand why he would have bothered to favour and promote a tiny little religious sect which could not bring him any financial or political returns unless he was a Christian.
There was certainly no pragmatic reason for abandoning paganism in support of Christianity. Constantine definitely wasn't going to get anything out of it - especially since the Christians (still bloodied and bruised after the recent persecutions) were clearly in the minority. But to what extent he was a true, dyed-in-the-wool Christian at heart, who can know? It is very difficult to read the mind of a man who died almost 2,000 years ago.
On the circumstances surrounding Constantine's conversion, Rubenstein has this to say:
Constantine was one of those "advanced" pagans who believed in a Supreme God: Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. But he was also interested in Christianity and had acquired a Christian counselor, Bishop Hosius of Cordova, who seems also to have been a close friend. One day, it is told, while on the march to Rome, Constantine and his soldiers saw a flaming cross in the sky, accompanied by the words Touto nika: By this, conquer.
The following night, Constantine had a dream, in which Jesus Christ appeared, showed him the sign of the Cross, and told him to inscribe it on his soldiers' standards. After Hosius of Cordova had advised him that the dream was valid, Constantine commanded his soldiers to replace their old pagan standards with the labarum: the Christian sign. Then he arrived at Rome and encamped outside the city.
Constantine expected a long seige, since the bridges across the Tiber river had been cut and the walls of Rome had never before been breached. Inside the city, however, mobs rioted against the unpopular Maxentius, who had a reputation as a brute and a sexual predator. Clearly, he could not control the city during a long seige. On October 28, Maxentius consulted an oracle who declared that "the enemy of the Romans" would die this very day.
He then marched out of Rome with his forces, crossed the Tiber at the site of the Milvian Bridge over a temporary bridge built of boats, and attacked Constantine's army. The strategy proved suicidal. One counterattack scattered Maxentius's army, and the would-be emperor was last seen riding into the Tiber on horseback in a full suit of armour.
Constantine was now ruler of the West - and a convinced Christian. His principal ally in the East was Licinius, an experienced politician and general whom Constantine allowed to marry his sister, Constantia. Licinius was not a Christian, but his principal rival was a famous hater of Christians who renewed the persecution of Christians in the East, executing Bishop Peter of Alexandria and the famous scholar, Lucian of Antioch, among others. Together, Licinius and Constantine decided to play the Christian card.
In 313 the two met in Milan and issued a joint document, since known as the Edict of Milan, in which they terminated the persecution of Christians, guaranteed their subjects freedom of worship, and decreed that all properties taken from the Christians should be returned, or else that the victims of persecution should be infemnified for their losses.
In little more than a decade, Christianity had been transformed from a persecuted sect into the religion of the imperial family. Constantine was far too canny to attempt to outlaw his religious opponents [the pagans], who still constituted a majority of Roman citizens. But there was nothing to prevent him from favoring the Church as his predecessors had favored the old religion.
Among his first acts were decrees aimed at compensating Christians for the sufferings and depredations of prior years and granting Christian clergymen the special privileges formerly accorded only to pagan priests. His true goal, beyond favoring his co-religionists, was to unite the empire's diverse, quarreling peoples in one huge spiritual fellowship. Paganism was now clearly decadent, but once upon a time it had served this purpose. Why shouldn't the new religion play an equally vital and creative role?
Rubenstein, Richard (1999), When Jesus Became God.
See also the effect of Constantine's reforms (above.)
Whatever else might be said about Constantine, he was a brilliant politician.
I have heard that Constantine converted at the end of his life, but my personal opinion is that this story was probably made up by the church who depended on the authority of the Emporer to justify their power.
This is a complex issue, and historians (both secular and religious) are still undecided as to the full extent of Constantine's conversion.
It is true that he put off baptism for as long as possible, and did not submit to it until the final days of his life - but on the other hand, this was by no means unusual, for many prominent Christians of his day were in the habit of doing the same.
I like the way Rubenstein puts it:
In May, [Constantine] came back to Nicomedia, his old capital, a desperately sick man, and asked Bishop Eusebius to baptize him. Like many other powerful figures, Constantine had not wanted to become fully a Christian while faced with the necessity (as he saw it) to sin. Now, however, he knew that it was time to don the white robes of a catachumen.
Constantine lay on his deathbed. His purple robe was taken from him, signifying the end of his reign and his death to the material world. Eusebius came to him, heard his confession, and administered the last rites. His generals came to pay their last respects; when they wished him a long life, he reminded them that God's call could not be ignored.
He died on May 22, the Feast of Pentecost, after reigning for thirty-one years, the last seven as sole ruler of a united Roman Empire. A procession headed by his son, Constantius, brought the golden coffin containing his body to Constantinople, and he was entombed in a place of honour in the Church of the Holy Apostles.
Clearly a Christian death - if not a particularly consistent Christian life.