Constantine and the religion of rome

                 Emperor Constantine ruled over Rome for many years and was the single most significant emperor in spreading Christianity throughout the empire. His reign represented the beginning of Rome as a theocratic state, and thus a transition to the middle ages. Many have come to question whether Constantine was a true believer in Christianity or whether he was merely using the religion to gain worldly political power. After all, it was not Constantine who made Christianity the official religion of Rome, but Emperor Theodosius the Great, who declared it the state religion in 380 A.D. Still, it was Constantine who issued the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., which allowed all people the freedom to practice a religion of their choosing and ended the persecutions of the Christians. This action opened the doors that would allow Christianity to spread throughout the empire. His issuing of the Edict of Milan, as well as Constantine’s moving of the Roman capital to the east, and his passing of several new laws and holidays, provide evidence that Constantine was indeed a true believer in Christianity.

From very early on, Constantine showed himself to be a man who did not always follow the rules of a system, and instead often had his own ideas of what was right. Before he came to power, the empire was split into four parts under the rule of Diocletian, and an Augustus would decide upon a Caesar to rule each part. One of these Caesars was Constantine Chlorus, Constantine’s father. Each Caesar was supposed to be hand-picked, and not inherited from father to son, but Constantine did not approve of this system. He felt that he should be the one to succeed his father, and so he traveled to where his father’s army was positioned, joined them, and waited until his father met his death. The army of Constantine’s father was made mostly of Germans, who like Constantine had their own set of beliefs, and so Constantine had the army declare him an Augustus with no regard to the established system. Constantine then took the army of his father and his newly declared title and brought them up against Maxentius in a battle for control of the western part of Rome.

This Battle, in 312 A.D., was known as the Battle at Milvian Bridge, and Constantine’s army was greatly outnumbered. According to the Historica Ecclesiastica (The History of the Church), on the eve before the battle, Constantine had a dream in which Jesus Christ gave him instructions to put a symbol on the shields of his army. Eusebius, a man who was with Constantine at the time, claimed that Constantine told him in secret that he had seen a symbol imposed on the noon day sky. The meaning of the symbol was “you shall conquer.” Constantine put the symbol on the shields of his men, as instructed, and was victorious in the battle. He attributed his victory to the dream and to Christianity. Not long after this, in 313 A.D., he issued the Edict of Milan and ordered the end of Christian persecution. Despite what appeared to be a religious awakening, however, Constantine remained a Pagan himself.

Constantine was ready to start reforming the Roman empire and planned to begin spreading Christianity, but he was not ready to take the religion for himself just yet and go against the majority of Romans who were Pagan. As emperor, converting to a new religion was a tremendous action, and Constantine knew he needed to be careful and move in small steps. He took his vision and victory in battle as a sign from god, and legalizing Christianity was the first step to transforming people’s views on the religion. Christianity had been banned since 64 A.D., and like his action with the German soldiers to have them declare him a Caesar, Constantine was showing a desire to change the system and restructure it to his liking.

When Constantine came into power, Rome was in a time of economic trouble and disarray. These problems of financial instability had been plaguing the empire since 200 AD and they were the reason behind Diocletian’s division of Rome into four different areas that could more easily be managed and controlled. The plan did little to help, and by the time Constantine took over as emperor, the economic problems had not improved. “The peasants in the provinces were unable to pay their taxes and rose up against the landowners,” (Gombrich,101). Lawlessness and confusion reigned. Many people now started to become Christians, refusing to make sacrifices to the Emperor.

With the Romans starting to lose faith, Constantine gave them something new to believe in with Christianity. He made it okay to be a Christian and took an interest in the affairs of the religion himself, modeling this acceptance for his people. “Christianity’s triumph coincided with the empires disintegration as Constantine’s success proved unable to preserve its unity,” (Judge,215).

Constantine knew that spreading Christianity was an uphill battle, because many Romans considered the Christians to be disloyal. They thought the Christians to be intolerant of all gods other than their own and the Romans responded to this by making Christians pay homage to the Roman gods and then worship in whatever way they pleased. “Christians refused to participate at all in the Roman state religion, in effect defying the imperial authority,” (Judge,213). This caused the Romans to look upon the Christians as narrow-minded and intolerant. For these reasons, Constantine did not want to alienate himself by converting to Christianity, and so he waited to be baptized until he was on his deathbed in 337 A.D.

All of this anti-Christian sentiment, as well as Constantine foreseeing the potential of German tribes to start pushing into the western part of Rome, gave the emperor an idea. He knew it would take a major change to revolutionize the way people felt about Christianity, and so he moved the capital of the Roman empire from the city of Rome into an eastern city. He built up and named this eastern city after himself as Constantinople. Constantine was able to justify this move by claiming that the Persians on the east were again becoming powerful, and so he would have to keep an extra careful watch on the eastern border from a capital that was in that region of the empire.

This was all part of a very intricate plan to associate military success with Christianity and both economic and military failure with Paganism. It had begun with the result from the Battle at Milvian Bridge where Constantine attributed the military victory to Christianity. Moving the capital, which was essentially moving the focus of the empire, was the next part of his plan. Constantine enlarged his army and put more forces on the frontiers. “He was able to make both economic and military reforms to slow the decline of the empire,” (Hall,69). While Constantine built up Constantinople from 324 to 330 A.D., as a tremendously safe and fortified city, he also freed up the western part of the empire for the Germans to start invading. With the Germans coming in and conquering the land that was already in economic decline, the people now started to feel like their Pagan religion was not working. I believe this was Constantine’s intention when he moved the empire, knowing full well that it would weaken the west and cause many to doubt their religion. Christianity became associated with the military success of the new city, Constantinople, with the symbol of the religion represented on the shields of the soldiers. By disregarding the western part of the empire, Constantine was intentionally setting it up to be conquered and for the “old” religion of that area, Paganism, to be associated with military failure.

While Constantine carefully maneuvered his position on Christianity, he wanted the religion to be recognized as the reason for the rebirth of the empire in Constantinople. At the same time, he did not want to offend Pagans by declaring Christ, and so he was very diplomatic about every new ruling he instituted. When he established the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., Constantine explained to the people that he was doing this so that they “did not offend the divinity who sat on the highest celestial throne.” Constantine tip-toed around mentioning the name of who this divinity was that he spoke of, and instead he left it open to interpretation.

This ambiguity continued as Constantine proceeded to declare new holidays for the people while attempting to disguise his actions from being seen as Christian-oriented.  He proclaimed Sunday as a holy day, where schools would be closed in recognition of the day of the sun. Many thought that Constantine was really referring to Jesus Christ as “the son,” and perhaps he was, but by not being clear about this, he was providing the Pagans with little room to object. The same could be said of his declaration of the 25th of December law, celebrating this day as the birthday of “the unconquerable sun.” With all of these careful word choices, Constantine was intentionally confusing and mixing up Jesus Christ with the sun because he wanted both Paganism and Christianity to start seeming like one religion. This was his way of bridging the gap between the two religions. The sun god was worshipped by Pagans and Jesus Christ was worshipped by Christians. By not making it clear who he was referring to, these new holidays could be worshipped by people of both religions. Evidence of this ambiguity could be seen on Constantine’s coin, where he never wrote the name Jesus, but only the name Jupiter.

While his military was achieving success with fortifying the city of Constantinople, the economy was still facing turmoil. Constantine saw that the bishops had money during this time while most of the population did not. Perhaps he took this as a sign that it was the bishops and Christianity that would lead the empire out of their financial decline. He decided that this was an opportunity to not only change the economic conditions of the empire, but also to spread Christianity as the religion that could be associated with monetary success. Constantine went about accomplishing this by first helping the bishops to sit on the council. He created a situation whereby to sit on the council one would need to pay large sums of money in taxes. This new rule made it so that most people would no longer desire to hold a position of council and would hesitate to object at the bishops being given these positions.

From here, Constantine started helping the bishops to take over secular courts. Some questioned whether Constantine was really taking these actions in support of the religion, or whether he was using the bishops (those with money) to help out himself and his own position of power. They wondered if he was supporting the religion or if he was supporting the people with money and only pretending to be interested in the religion. I believe Constantine looked at the bishops with money and took it as another sign that god was helping these people and that they were the ones who could help perpetuate Constantine’s success. In support of the claim that his ultimate goal was to spread Christianity, and not to use it only for his own advantage, is the fact that when Constantine did have money, he told Anulius, his representative in North Africa, to distribute it to the Catholic Church. Constantine was supporting Christianity, and the bishops with money were supporting him.

By helping the bishops secure positions of council and then take over the secular courts, Constantine was slowly bridging together the establishments of church and state. He declared that if a court made a decision, it could be appealed. This appeal would take place in front of a bishop, and from that, there could be no further rulings or appeals. In 319 A.D., Constantine declared a law that prohibited branding, where convicts and slaves were no longer to be branded in the face.  He put a stop to this process, claiming that “man is made in the image of god,” words that came directly from the book of Genesis. This was further evidence that Constantine was setting his sights on uniting the religious beliefs of Christianity with the laws of the empire.

Constantine’s motivations for the many changes he made to the Roman Empire have been put under scrutiny, mostly because of his late conversion to the Christian religion and the way both his success and the success of Christianity rose up simultaneously. Despite these questionable situations, and the way Constantine was very diplomatic in disguising his new laws for the empire, the reason behind each of his actions was to further the spread of the religion. He moved the empire from the west to the east in order to get away from the old world mentality of Paganism and to give the people something new to associate with a different religion. He gave them a new capital with Constantinople and a newfound military success as the new city became well-fortified and the land that was left behind in the west of Rome fell into the hands of German tribes. Constantine then went on to support the bishops and welcome them into positions of government while establishing new laws that would help bridge the gap between Paganism and Christianity. Despite his careful manipulation and ambiguity, one can clearly see how each of Constantine’s actions was made with the intention of perpetuating the Christian religion throughout the Roman Empire.


Bibliography

Books

1.Judge, Edward H., 2009, Connections, A World History, Volume One, to 1650

Vango Books, Pearson Education Inc, New Jersey


2.Lewis, Brenda Ralph, Great Civilizations

Paragon Books, New York, 1999


3.Gombrich, E.H., A Little History of the World,

Yale University Press, New Haven, 1999


4.Hall, Timothy C., World History, a Complete Guide

Alpha Books, New York, 2008