The Roman emperor Constantine’s decision to convert to Christianity had wide-reaching effects. It greatly changed both the empire and Christianity itself. What prompted a powerful man like Constantine to come to believe in Jesus of Nazareth?
The Path to Christianity
According to the ancient historian Lactantius, Constantine had a dream the night before an important battle in 312 CE. He and his armies were facing the far larger forces of Maxentius, one of the other emperors of the Roman tetrarchy, the four rulers who oversaw the empire. The dream instructed Constantine to place a symbol of Christianity on the shields of his soldiers. The first two Greek letters of the word for Christ are called chi, which looks like an x, and rho, which looks like a p. When these Greek letters are written on top of one another, they form a sort of cross. After having the dream, Constantine had his soldiers carry this chi rho symbol into battle on their shields.
The next day, at a bridge over the Tiber River north of Rome, Constantine’s smaller force achieved victory, and Maxentius fell into the river and drowned. Constantine then became the ruler of the western half of the Roman Empire. He attributed his unlikely victory to the power of Christ.
In the following year, Constantine and Licinius, another of the emperors, met in the city of Milan and formed an alliance. They also issued the Edict of Milan, which called for the official tolerance of all religions, including Christianity. Despite their accomplishments, the alliance between the two emperors did not last. In 314, Constantine accused Licinius of harboring a man who had plotted to overthrow Constantine. A civil war began between the two men, eventually ending with Constantine’s victory. Within the next few years, Constantine defeated the other emperors and became the sole emperor of the entire Roman Empire.
Changes in Christianity
Constantine’s conversion to Christianity was a turning point in the growth of Christianity. Since the early days of its recognition as a religion distinct from Judaism, Christianity had faced many attackers. Those in power often persecuted Christians. They expelled Christians from the army, threw them to lions or other wild animals in the Colosseum, and even crucified them. Often false ideas about Christianity sprung from misunderstandings. For example, because Christians spoke of eating the body and the blood of Christ in the Eucharist, some people believed they practiced cannibalism. Some also accused Christians of atheism because they refused to offer incense to the emperor or to the Roman gods. In 303 a decree from the emperor Diocletian had called for the destruction of all Christian books and buildings. For eight years Christians suffered, until Emperor Galerius (one of three rulers) ended the persecution in 311.
Constantine’s conversion after 312 brought further improvements to the lives of Christians. For example, Constantine appointed Christians to government positions. This was quite a change from earlier days under Emperor Diocletian, when Christians could not hold positions of power or serve in the military.
While living under previous emperors, some Christians had met secretly in houses. Now, with Constantine’s support, they felt more comfortable building large churches in the open, without fear of persecution. Constantine even built one in his new capital, Constantinople. His mother, Helena, who also became a Christian, had two large churches built in the Holy Land in Israel. The churches were often decorated with mosaics that depicted stories from the Bible. Whenever Christ was portrayed, he was shown sitting on a throne similar to that of the emperor’s throne. Earlier art had often pictured Christ as a shepherd. Now he was represented as having authority and power.
In addition to large buildings, the Christian church also started to develop a hierarchy (a system that defines different levels of power) of bishops and priests. With more widespread and accepted Christianity, major changes happened within the church. Whereas the early Church had relied on its women supporters, the developing church diminished their role. The relationship between the church and the wealthy also changed as time moved forward. Early in Christianity, the followers of Jesus, who had been a carpenter, were mostly poor. Once Christianity became the religion of the emperor, however, wealthy aristocrats converted as well. Now the church had members with access to great wealth and political power.
Not everyone approved of the church’s new rules or of its growing relationship with the wealthy, ruling class. Some Christians believed the church was growing too worldly through its involvement with the rich and powerful. They worried that the church’s focus was shifting away from Christ. As a result of this thinking, many men and women withdrew from society and went into the desert to lead lives of quiet prayer instead. This was the beginning of the monastic movement, with nuns and priests who lived alone or in a community, devoting themselves to prayer and good deeds.
However, church members were not the only ones with concerns. Trouble was brewing among the church leaders as well. The church had settled on recognizing the authority of the 12 apostles who followed Jesus and also a series of popes and bishops. However, church leaders had not yet agreed upon a doctrine, or set of beliefs, for all the members to follow. There were different opinions about who Jesus was and what his life and death meant. Conflicts resulted.
Constantine did not like the strife these arguments caused within the empire. In response, he called a meeting of important leaders in the church. The meeting, called a council, met in 325 CE in the city of Nicaea. At that meeting, the leaders determined which beliefs of Christianity they all agreed upon and wrote them down. For example, the members of the council finally agreed that Jesus was both fully God and fully human. This document became known as the Creed of Nicaea, and it eventually changed into the Nicene Creed. Today in many churches, people still recite the Nicene Creed during the worship service.
Changes in the Empire
It is nearly impossible to separate Constantine’s political actions from his personal commitment to Christianity. Many of the decisions that he made regarding the Roman Empire were built upon a foundation of Christian concerns. For example, his proclamation calling for the replacement of Roman coinage was not issued because of a change in coin value but for the purpose of removing the non-Christian imagery and legends that appeared on the coins.
Regardless of Constantine’s motivations, his decisions as emperor greatly influenced the Roman Empire for years to come. It was under his rule that Christianity was able to move away from its longtime status as a small, outsider religion and claim the respected position it enjoys today. Constantine did not accomplish this change by forcing Christianity on the people or by forbidding other religions through laws. Instead, he simply made Christianity fashionable by introducing it to the ruling class.
The Christianization of the Roman Empire changed the culture of an entire people, influencing not only their art and literature but also the way they thought and worshipped. Constantine’s conversion to Christianity changed the Roman Empire and ultimately helped Christianity grow in to one of the world’s major belief systems.
Questions- After reading the passage, answer the following questions.
Multiple Choice: (2 points each)
1. What event caused Constantine to believe in the power of the Christian God?
A. the edict that he issued allowing Christians to worship
B. the way that Christians died bravely in the Colosseum
C. the churches his mother built in the Holy Land
D. the dream that foretold his victory over Maxentius
2. Which of the following events contributed most to the Christianization of the Roman Empire?
A. the relocation of the capital to Constantinople
B. the removal of pagan imagery from coins
C. the acceptance of Christianity by the governing class
D. the building of churches in Rome and the Holy Land
3. How did some Christians respond when wealthy people began to influence the church?
A. They refused to attend services in the new churches.
B. They formed a separate, new church.
C. They went to the desert to be alone and pray.
D. They petitioned Constantine not to hold a council.
Short Answer: (8 points)
Prior to Constantine’s rule, Christians suffered greatly because of their beliefs. To what extent did Constantine’s conversion lead to the survival and growth of Christianity? Provide evidence from the passage to support your answer.