Constantine I, Christian or Politician?
Who was this emperor that Bishop Eusibius later wrote in his Ecclesiastical History of as “the most exalted person living” and “God’s dearly beloved”? The Bishop considered opposition to Constantine as opposition of God’s own (Manschreck, 31). Constantine was born and educated in the Imperial Court. His father, Constantanius I, was Caesar under the rule of Diocletian. In 305 AD he became the Senior Emperor, or Augustus, in the West. He died in 306 and Constantine was appointed Augustus in his place. The Eastern emperor, Galerius, would not recognize Constantine’s claim but offered him the rank of Caesar.
During the next five years the western half of the empire suffered civil war. Constantine managed to survive his rule and then went on to challenge Maxentius, the self-appointed Caesar who controlled Africa and Italy. He defeated Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge outside of Rome in 312 and also formed an alliance with Licinius, who had been appointed as Augustus of the West since 308 by Galerius. The death of Galerius in 311 and his successor Maximinus Daia in 313 left Constantine and Licinius in control of the Eastern and Western Empires. Constantine’s rule began in an empire that had a pagan majority.
In 313 Constantine and Licinius, a self-professed pagan, together issued the Edict of Milan that proclaimed “Christians and all others should have liberty to follow that mode of religion, which to each of them appeared best.” The church was suddenly a favored institution (Manschreck 31). In Drake’s book, Constantine and the Bishops, he discusses how Constantine utilized symbols of the pagan culture and was able to relate them to Christianity and in effect develop a shared iconography and vocabulary. Drake states, “…the choice of a symbol that was capable of bringing together a number of disparate groups to achieve the larger goal of imperial unity and stability was a shrewd and statesmanlike move. It has nothing to do with the sincerity of Constantine’s Christianity, but it is a sure sign of the accuracy of his political instincts”(205).
Constantine utilized symbols of the pagan culture and was able relate them to Christianity.
There is conflicting documentation regarding Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, which has been debated by scholars for centuries. All of the documentation that has been preserved comes from Christian sources. However, there is enough information to navigate his religious development. Before 312, he was a “…tolerant pagan, willing to accumulate heavenly patrons but not committed to any one deity” (Lexicon Encyclopedia, V5, pg 208)
Sometime between 312 and 324, he began to adapt the Christian God as his protector; however, he did not receive baptism until 337 when Eusebius baptized him on his deathbed (Manschreck 31,75). If Constantine had embraced Christ, why had he waited to receive baptism? At this time baptism was believed to be imperative for the remission of sins. Yet, Constantine did not submit to this public admission of faith until he was dying.
In the book Constantine and the Bishops, Drake examines the conversion of Constantine. As Constantine was planning the campaign against Maxentius, Constantine experienced a vision now known as the “Vision of the Cross.” Eusebuis writes that he would not have believed it himself if it had not been told to him directly by Constantine. “He said that about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw the with his own eyes the trophy of the cross of light in the heaven, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, CONQUER BY THIS.” (10).
Constantine was concerned about how he would be able to counteract his rival’s use of magical arts. He was praying to the Divine power that his father had worshipped the Invincible Sun God. The following night he relates that Christ appeared to him in a vision and instructed him to mark the heavenly sign on the shields of his soldiers and then engage in the battle (Drake, 202). Drake points out that Constantine’s decision was not necessarily one of conversion but rather “…to find a god who would not only protect him from magical arts but also give him a secure and successful reign.” (Drake 15). Constantine did not relate this experience to Eusebius until late in his life. Many scholars support the idea that by the time Constantine had related the vision to Eusebius, Constantine had pondered the vision and had time to relate it to Christian beliefs.
The Arch of Constantine was commissioned by the Senate in Rome to commemorate Constantine’s victory over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge. The inscription on the arch states instinctu divinitatis, the prompting of a deity. In spite of the conflicting historical evidence of Constantine’s Christian conversion at the time of the vision, there is significant evidence that he continued to honor the Unconquerable Sun, a pagan deity. Remember that the Romans and pagan culture were very open to accepting the deities of other lands. There were various deities representative of sun worship, including Sol, Helios, Mithras, Apollo, and Zeus.
Within months of the victory at Milvian Bridge, there was a coin circulated, which bore Constantine in a twin profile with Apollo, symbolic of Constantine’s divine companion (fig.1). The coin shows the deity with distinctive solar flares placing a crown of laurel on Constantine’s head. Apollo, the sun deity, continued to show up on other coins for at least a decade after 313. Such evidence suggests Constantine continued to follow pagan custom and cult (Drake 183).
Constantine’s political inspiration was to find a middle ground that would unite the empire. His goal was to harmonize the beliefs and practices, in much the same way the culture had, in the past, adapted to the deities of other lands. “ It was the concept that a viable coalition could be forged by emphasizing the points of agreement between monotheists of whatever persuasion…unity could be achieved by officially ignoring sectarian or theological differences…emphasizing the beneficent Providence of a single, Supreme Being, represented on earth by his chosen representative, the Roman emperor” (Drake 199). Constantine utilized syncretism by limiting “…public discourse to broad points of agreement-that there was a Supreme Being, a Creator God, a Savior who cared for the Roman Empire and who worked both to choose and to protect its emperor-while leaving more specific definitions of the deity and the means of his worship to the private sphere” (Drake 205).
He accomplished this by incorporating a number of solar symbols that were not incompatible to Christianity. For example, Mithrais, as the unconquerable sun, integrated well with the idea of Christ being the Sun or Light of the world (Hottes 15). Other examples of art that illustrate and support this concept include a picture of Christ standing at the reins of a four-horse chariot, which is the traditional image of the sun god. The image is superimposed over rays of light that form a cross. Also, the Arch of Constantine which displays the Nikes or “Winged Victories” that people today may think are only angels, is a good example of the shared iconography that Constantine sought to incorporate in order to unite the belief (Drake 206).
In 330 Constantine established Constantinople as his capital, in what was formally Byzantium, and today is Istanbul. He embellished it with statues and monuments that he stripped from other cities and pagan temples. The placement of these pagan idols reveals Constantine’s motives of syncretism. The placement of the ancient statue of Cybele was placed so she seemed to be guarding and watching over the city (Chuvin 29, Lexicon Encyclopedia). He placed an image of himself portrayed “…as the Sun God, with rayed head and thunderbolt in hand, atop a huge red stone column, there receiving sacrifices and prayers exactly as Caesar’s statue on its column in old Rome had once been the object of prayers and offerings…” (MacMullen 34). Bishop Eusebius defends Constantine’s motives and intentions regarding the relocation of the various statues by stating that Constantine wanted to discredit the old beliefs but “…the number and quality of the statues involved in the renovation of Constantinople’s City, as well as the place assigned to them, make it unlikely that this was Constantine’s motive” (Chuvin 30).
Even though Christianity was the state religion and paganism was banned the imperial cult continued worship of statues and idols of the emperors. Remember, in the imperial cult it was believed that the emperor was deified as a superhuman being, or demi-god. During their lives emperor’s expected to be worshiped and Constantine had been no different. Everyone was expected to kneel in his presence and this custom continued with other emperors well beyond the fifth century (MacMullen 35). After Constantine’s death, a statue of him was paraded about in the hippodrome, or arena. This ritual was reminiscent of worship of the sun god in previous generations with his statue placed inside “…the so-called Sun Chariot, among torches, and saluted ceremoniously from the royal box—by his successors, on their knees…” (MacMullen 34).
With its newfound freedom, the church was able to debate their own disagreements publicly and became greatly divided over doctrinal and theological issues. Constantine is well known for the assembling of the bishops in the Council of Nicaea in order to settle the most heated of these issues. However, Constantine’s agenda was clearly to preserve his kingdom and “in his own day Constantine’s reputation rested more on his handling of these issues than on his arbitration of Christian disputes” (Lexicon Encyclopedia vol. 3, pg 208).
The Edict of Milan that ended the Christian persecution had not brought about unity between the pagans and the Christians, which Constantine had hoped for. He began to use force as the means to accomplish his goals. This was the beginning of the “…church and state working together to destroy opposition that threatened to disturb either” (Manschreck 71). In protest of the church’s new partnership with the state, thousands of laymen withdrew to places of solitude in the deserts and wild, which was the beginning of the monasticism movement (Manschreck 64).
In Constantine’s famous edict of 321 he decreed under penalty of death that the people of his empire would cease work on Sunday, Sol Invictus Mithras (the Day of the Unconquerable Sun, Mithras), in order to honor the sun god. Before the time of Yeshua, Sunday was known as “the Lord’s day” (Chuvin 27). Constantine’s decree resulted in doing away with honoring the Sabbath (Saturday/ the seventh day) as the day of rest and seperated the Christians from their Jewish heritage. Christians easily accepted this decree to avoid death and because it was believed that Christ was resurrected on Sunday (Bettenson 67). There are many explainations and justifications as to why the church changed the Sabbath to Sunday and stopped honoring the commandment to honor the Sabbath. The record from the Canon and Tradition states it plainly “The authority of the Church could therfore not be bound to the authority of the Scriptures, because the Church had changed…the Sabbath into Sunday, not by the command of Christ, but by its own authority (263).”
After the period of Constantine’s rule there was a shift in which many of the pagan practices became illegal. In 341 A.D. sacrifices were banned and by 356 A.D. worship of images was a capital crime. The Roman government had a difficult time enforcing these laws and the law against the worship of images was generally ignored. MacMullen, in the book, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Century, sites an example of this in which the Rome city prefect was a pagan and he publicly dedicated the Temple to Apollo during a time when the worship of images was illegal (97). Rituals, such as sacrificing, were prohibited, but the pagan festivals, processions, entertainment, and celebrations were allowed to continue. (Chuvin 10, 71).
In 380 A.D. non-Christian cults came under attack and in 407 A.D. non-Christians were outlaws. However, “It is not the case that the Emperors decided for Christianity and the population of the whole Empire was suddenly automatically Christian” (Dowden 7). By the 4th century physical coercion was systematically used to produce conformity (MacMullen 93). The non-Christians, or pagans, were reluctant to leave behind old ways. Since the government no longer supported the pagan temples, the people “…made adaptations as were really necessary and kept what they could” (Ramsey 117). Christianity did not overcome these pagan religions through this move of coercion, the pagans simply blended in with the Christian culture and the Christians adopted many of the pagan customs by “Christianizing” them.
The pagans simply blended in with the Christian culture and the Christians adopted many of the pagan customs by “Christianizing” them.
Pagan temples, such as the Parthenon, were converted to Christian churches (Sandys 10). The statues of heathen deities were renamed and became Christian saints. A modern day example of this is the statue of Jupiter that was made by the Romans, which was relocated to the Vatican and “renamed” for Peter. The toes of the statue are worn smooth from the number of Catholics and previously Romans who have kissed the statue’s foot over the centuries.
This blending, or syncretism of beliefs is evident today in the various customs and holiday traditions that we have inherited through most of our families mainstream churches. The next chapters will examine these customs, their roots, and how they became part of our family and church traditions.