Constantine the Great
Equal to the Apostles Emperor Saint Constantine the Great (February 27, 272-May 22, 337) was proclaimed Augustus by his troops on July 25, 306 and ruled an ever-growing portion of the Roman Empire to his death. Constantine is famed for his re-founding of Byzantium as "New Rome," which was always called "Constantine's City"—Constantinople. With the Edict of Milan in 313, Constantine and his co-Emperor removed all onus from Christianity. By taking the personal step of convoking the Council of Nicea (325) Constantine began the Roman Empire's unofficial sponsorship of Christianity, which was a major factor in the faith's spread. His reputation as the "first Christian Emperor" was promulgated by Lactantius and Eusebius and gained ground in the succeeding generations. The Orthodox Church keeps his feast on May 21, along with his mother, Empress Saint Helen, as Holy Equals-to-the-Apostles.
He was born at Naissus, today's city of Niš in Upper Moesia (modern Serbia and Montenegro), to Constantius I Chlorus and an innkeeper's daughter, Helen. Constantine was well educated and served at the court of Diocletian in Nicomedia as a kind of hostage after the appointment of his father Constantius, a general, as one of the two Caesars (at that time a junior emperor), in the Tetrarchy in 293. In 305, the Augustus, Maximian, abdicated, and Constantius succeeded to the position. However, he died in 306. Constantine managed to be at his deathbed in Eboracum (York, England), where troops loyal to his father's memory proclaimed him Emperor. For the next 18 years, he fought a series of battles and wars that left him first as emperor of the west, and then as supreme ruler of the Roman Empire.
Constantine and Christianity
Constantine is perhaps best known for being the first Roman Emperor to endorse Christianity, traditionally presented as a result of an omen — a chi-rho in the sky, with the inscription "By this sign shalt thou conquer" — before his victory in the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312, when Constantine is said to have instituted the new standard to be carried into battle, called the labarum.
Christian historians ever since Lactantius have adhered to the view that Constantine "adopted" Christianity as a kind of replacement for the official Roman paganism. Though the document called the "Donation of Constantine" was proved a forgery (though not until the 15th century, when the stories of Constantine's conversion were long-established "facts") it was attributed as documenting the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity for centuries. Even Christian skeptics have accepted this formulation, though seeing Constantine's policy as a political rather than spiritual move.
By the end of the 3rd century, Christian communities and their bishops had become a force to contend with, in urban centers especially. Christians were preferred for high government positions; the Church was granted various special privileges; and churches like the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem were constructed. Christian bishops took aggressive public stances that were unknown among other cult leaders, even among the Jews. Proselytism had had to be publicly outlawed, simply to maintain public decorum. In the essential legions, however, Christianity was despised as womanish, and the soldiers followed pagan cults of Mithras and Isis. Since the Roman Emperors ruled by "divine right" and stayed in power through the support of the legions, it was important for them to be seen to support a strong state religion. The contumely of the Christians consisted in their public refusal to participate in official rites that no one deeply believed in, but which were an equivalent of an oath of allegiance. Refusal might easily bring upon all the Roman people the loss of the gods' support; such were the usual justifications for occasional lynchings of Christians by Roman soldiers, the fare of many martyrologies.
Constantine and Licinius' Edict of Milan (313) neither made paganism illegal nor made Christianity a state-sponsored religion. What it did was legalize Christianity, return confiscated Church property, and establish Sunday as a day of worship. Though the church prospered under Constantine's patronage, it also fell into the first of many public schisms. He called the First Ecumenical Council to settle the problem of Arianism, a dispute about the personhood and Godhood of Jesus Christ. It produced the Nicene Creed, which favored the position of Athanasius, Arius's opponent, and became official doctrine.
When the Altar of Victory was desecrated and removed from its place of honor in the Senate, the Senate deputized Symmachus to appeal to the emperor for its return. Symmachus publicly characterized the late Emperor Constantine's policy, in a plea for freedom of religion:
- He diminished none of the privileges of the sacred virgins, he filled the priestly offices with nobles, he did not refuse the cost of the Roman ceremonies, and following the rejoicing Senate through all the streets of the eternal city, he contentedly beheld the shrines with unmoved countenance, he read the names of the gods inscribed on the pediments, he enquired about the origin of the temples, and expressed admiration for their builders. Although he himself followed another religion, he maintained its own for the empire, for everyone has his own customs, everyone his own rites. The divine mind has distributed different guardians and different cults to different cities. As souls are separately given to infants as they are born, so to peoples the genius of their destiny. (Possible Christian insertion in italics.)
- Medieval sourcebook: The Memorial of Symmachus, prefect of the City. (The Memorial has been emended to address three emperors, Valentinian II (died 392), Theodosius I, and Arcadius (began to rule 395), a historical impossibility. Thus there may be other Christian adulterations of the text. The reply of Ambrose, bishop of Milan is appended, which is highly revealing in the character of his argument in rebuttal.)
Beyond the limites, east of the Euphrates, the Sassanid rulers of the Persian empire had usually tolerated their Christians. A Letter from Constantine to Shapur II, supposed to have been written in 324 urged him to protect the Christians in his realm… With the edicts of toleration in the Roman empire, the followers of Christ would be regarded as allies of Persia's ancient enemy. The persecutions began. Shapur II (ruled 310 - 379) wrote to his generals:
- You will arrest Simon, chief of the Christians. You will keep him till he signs this document and consents to collect for us a double tax and double tribute from the Christians … for we Gods have all the trials of war and they have nothing but repose and pleasure. They inhabit our territory and agree with Caesar, our enemy. (quoted in Freya Stark, Rome on the Euphrates 1967, p. 375)
It was not an unreasonable demand in the circumstances. The Sassanids were perennially at war with Rome. Christians were now suspected for potential treachery. The "Great Persecution" of the Persian Christian churches occurred in a later period, 340-363, after the Persian Wars that reopened upon Constantine's death. In 344 came the martyrdom of Catholicos Shimun bar Sabbae, with five bishops and 100 priests.
His victory in 312 AD over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge resulted in his becoming Western Augustus, or ruler of the entire western half of the empire. He gradually consolidated his military superiority over his rivals in the crumbling Tetrarchy until 324, when he defeated the eastern ruler, Licinius, and became sole emperor.
Constantine rebuilt the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, naming it Nea Roma, providing it with a Senate and civic offices similar to the older Rome. After his death it was renamed Constantinople, and gradually became the capital of the empire.
He was succeeded by his three sons, Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans, who secured their hold on the empire with the murder of a number of relatives and supporters of Constantine. The last member of his dynasty was his grandson, Julian the Apostate, who attempted to restore paganism.
Controversies surrounding Constantine's faith
The religion of Constantine the Great, while generally assumed to be Christian in view of his pro-Christian policies, is disputed by some secular historians, however the Church from the earliest times has considered him to be a devout Orthodox Christian.
One aspect of Constantine's life that secular historians use to indicate Constantine's incomplete acceptance of Christianity (from a modern view) was his notorious cruelty: he executed his own wife and eldest son in 326. He also had Licinius, the East Roman emperor, strangled after his defeat, something he had publicly promised not to do. It should be noted, however, that Constantine's wife attempted to seduce Constantine's son (her step-son) and when he refused her advances, she accused him of raping her. The penalty for doing this to an Empress was death, as was any act considered to be treason. Later, St. Constantine discovered the truth and had his wife executed. Licinius, in his bitter hatred of Constantine and of Christianity, began to persecute the Church in the Eastern half of the Empire. Constantine eventually could not stand Licinius' cruelty and relieved him of his co-rulership of the Empire.
The controversy that has surrounded Constantine's baptism is based upon the legend arising from the discredited documents of the Donation of Constantine, forged documents that date from about the mid eighth century. The story in the Donation of Constantine was built on a legend that arose during the fourth century within the Western Church which thought it inappropriate that Constantine could be baptized on his death bed by a bishop whose orthodoxy was in question and thus was an act that was a snub to the authority of Pope. The legend presents a story that earlier in Constantine's career Bishop Sylvester I of Rome had baptized Constantine after curing him of leprosy. Eusebius of Caesarea recorded that the bishops "performed the sacred ceremonies according to custom"  of baptizing Constantine in May 337 by the bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia before Constantine's death on May 22, 337 at age of 65.
Historiography Over the Ages
During his life and those of his sons, Constantine was presented as a paragon of virtue. Even pagans like Praxagoras of Athens and Libanius showered him with praise. When the last of his sons died in 361, however, his nephew Julian the Apostate wrote the satire Symposium, or the Saturnalia, which denigrated Constantine, calling him inferior to the great pagan emperors, and given over to luxury and greed. Following Julian, Eunapius began—and Zosimus continued—a historiographic tradition that blamed Constantine for weakening the Empire through his indulgence to the Christians.
In medieval times, Constantine was presented as an ideal ruler, the standard against which any king or emperor could be measured.
The Renaissance rediscovery of anti-Constantinian sources prompted a re-evaluation of Constantine's career. The German humanist Johann Löwenklau, discoverer of Zosimus' writings, published a Latin translation thereof in 1576. In its preface, he argued that Zosimus' picture of Constantine was superior to that offered by Eusebius and the Church historians, and damned Constantine as a tyrant. Cardinal Caesar Baronius, a man of the Counter-Reformation, criticized Zosimus, favoring Eusebius' account of the Constantinian era. Baronius' Life of Constantine (1588) presents Constantine as the model of a Christian prince.
For his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–89), Edward Gibbon, aiming to unite the two extremes of Constantinian scholarship, offered a portrait of Constantine built on the contrasted narratives of Eusebius and Zosimus. In a form that parallels his account of the empire's decline, Gibbon presents a noble war hero corrupted by Christian influences, who transforms into an Oriental despot in his old age: "a hero...degenerating into a cruel and dissolute monarch".
Modern interpretations of Constantine's rule begin with Jacob Burckhardt's The Age of Constantine the Great (1853, rev. 1880).
- Burckhardt's Constantine is a scheming secularist, a politician who manipulates all parties in a quest to secure his own power.
- Henri Grégoire, writing in the 1930s, followed Burckhardt's evaluation of Constantine. For Grégoire, Constantine only developed an interest in Christianity after witnessing its political usefulness. Grégoire was skeptical of the authenticity of Eusebius' Vita, and postulated a pseudo-Eusebius to assume responsibility for the vision and conversion narratives of that work.
- Otto Seeck, in Geschichte des Untergangs der antiken Welt (1920–23), and André Piganiol, in L'empereur Constantin (1932), wrote against this historiographic tradition. Seeck presented Constantine as a sincere war hero, whose ambiguities were the product of his own naïve inconsistency. Piganiol's Constantine is a philosophical monotheist, a child of his era's religious syncretism.
- Related histories by A.H.M. Jones (Constantine and the Conversion of Europe (1949)) and Ramsay MacMullen (Constantine (1969)) gave portraits of a less visionary, and more impulsive, Constantine. These later accounts were more willing to present Constantine as a genuine convert to Christianity.
- Beginning with Norman H. Baynes' Constantine the Great and the Christian Church (1929) and reinforced by Andreas Alföldi's The Conversion of Constantine and Pagan Rome (1948), a historiographic tradition developed which presented Constantine as a committed Christian.
- T. D. Barnes's seminal Constantine and Eusebius (1981) represents the culmination of this trend. Barnes' Constantine experienced a radical conversion, which drove him on a personal crusade to convert his empire.
- Charles Matson Odahl's recent Constantine and the Christian Empire (2004) takes much the same tack. Barnes' work, arguments over the strength and depth of Constantine's religious conversion continue.
- Certain themes in this school reached new extremes in T.G. Elliott's The Christianity of Constantine the Great (1996), which presented Constantine as a committed Christian from early childhood.
- A similar view of Constantine is held in Paul Veyne's recent (2007) work, Quand notre monde est devenu chrétien, which does not speculate on the origins of Constantine's Christian motivation, but presents him, in his role as Emperor, as a religious revolutionary who fervently believed himself meant "to play a providential role in the millenary economy of the salvation of humanity".
Troparion (Tone 8)
- Having seen the figure of the Cross in the heavens,
- And like Paul not having received his call from men, O Lord,
- Your apostle among rulers, the Emperor Constantine,
- Has been set by Your hand as ruler over the Imperial City
- That he preserved in peace for many years,
- Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O only lover of mankind.
Kontakion (Tone 3)
- Today Constantine and his mother Helen
- Reveal the precious Cross,
- The weapon of the faithful against their enemies.
- For our sakes, it has been shown to be a great sign, and fearsome in battle.
- Barnes, (Prof.) Timothy David. Constantine and Eusebius. Harvard University Press, 1981. ISBN 9780674165311
- Bruun, Patrick. "The Christian Signs on the Coins of Constantine." Arctos, Series 2, vol.3 (1962), pp.5-35.
- Elliott, Thomas George. The Christianity of Constantine the Great. University of Scranton Press, 1996. 366pp. ISBN 9780940866591
- Professor Elliott (University of Toronto) argues that Constantine's "miraculous" conversion (before the final definitive battle in 312 with his rival Maxentius for the senior Augustuship of the Roman Empire) is the stuff of legend; and the reality is that there are many indications that Constantine's Christianity developed earlier and along normal lines. This is more than a scholarly debate over dates. It focuses on the point that this more mature character of Constantine's Christian faith, had an important shaping impact on his imperial policy toward Christianity.
- Elliott, (Prof.) T.G.. "Constantine's Explanation of his Career." Byzantion 62 (1992). 212-234.
- Eusebius of Caesarea. Life of Constantine. Transl., with a commentary by Averil Cameron and Stuart George Hall. Clarendon Ancient History Series. Oxford University Press, 1999. 395pp. ISBN 9780198149170
- Jones, Arnold Hugh Martin. Constantine and the Conversion of Europe. (First published 1948). University of Toronto Press, 1978. 223pp. ISBN 9780802063694
- Leithart, Peter J. (PhD. Cambridge), Defending Constantine: the Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christianity. IVP Academic, 2010. 373pp. ISBN-10: 0830827226 ISBN-13: 978-0830827220
- MacMullen, Ramsay. Constantine. (First published 1969). Routledge, 1987. 263pp. ISBN 9780709946854
- Nicholson, Oliver. “Constantine's Vision of the Cross.” Vigiliae Christianae 54, no.3 (2000): 309-323.
- Odahl, Charles M.. "The Christian Basilicas of Constantinian Rome." Ancient World 26 (1995) 3-28.
- Odahl, Charles M.. Constantine and the Christian Empire. 400pp. Routledge, 2004. ISBN 9780415174855
- Great Synaxaristes: (Greek) Οἱ Ἅγιοι Κωνσταντίνος καὶ Ἑλένη οἱ Ἱσαπόστολοι. 21 Μαΐου. ΜΕΓΑΣ ΣΥΝΑΞΑΡΙΣΤΗΣ.
- Eusebius, Vita Constantini 4.62.4.
- Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, 272–23.
- Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, 273.
- Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, 273; Odahl, 281.
- Johannes Leunclavius, Apologia pro Zosimo adversus Evagrii, Nicephori Callisti et aliorum acerbas criminationes (Defence of Zosimus against the Unjustified Charges of Evagrius, Nicephorus Callistus, and Others) (Basel, 1576), cited in Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, 273, and Odahl, 282.
- Caesar Baronius, Annales Ecclesiastici 3 (Antwerp, 1623), cited in Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, 274, and Odahl, 282.
- Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 18, cited in Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, 274, and Odahl, 282. See also Lenski, "Introduction" (CC), 6–7.
- Gibbon, Decline and Fall, 1.256; David P. Jordan, "Gibbon's 'Age of Constantine' and the Fall of Rome", History and Theory 8:1 (1969): 71–96.
- Jacob Burckhardt, Die Zeit Constantins des Grossen (Basel, 1853; revised edition, Leipzig, 1880), cited in Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, 274; Lenski, "Introduction" (CC), 7.
- Lenski, "Introduction" (CC), 7.
- Lenski, "Introduction" (CC), 7–8.
- Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, 274.
- Lenski, "Introduction" (CC), 8.
- Lenski, "Introduction" (CC), 8–9; Odahl, 283.
- Odahl, 283; Mark Humphries, "Constantine," review of Constantine and the Christian Empire, by Charles Odahl, Classical Quarterly 56:2 (2006), 449.
- Averil Cameron, "Introduction," in Constantine: History, Historiography, and Legend, ed. Samuel N.C. Lieu and Dominic Montserrat (New York: Routledge, 1998), 3.
- Lenski, "Introduction" (CC), 10.
- Fabian E. Udoh, review, Theological Studies, June 2008.
- OCA: Equal of the Apostles Emperor Constantine
- Constantine & Helen, Equal to the Apostles GOARCH: Constantine & Helen
- Robert Arakaki. Constantine The Great: Roman Emperor, Christian Saint, History's Turning Point. Antiochian Orthodox Christian
- Saint Constantine the Great. Two part article on 33Knots Blog.
Archdiocese of North America.
- Christian Symbolism on bronze coins of Constantine the Great.
- Constantine the Great article on ServingHistory.com.