Nicholas F. O’Brien
Ms. Bergen/Mrs. Downer
English 10-4/Latin II-7
10 November 2011
Constantine the Great: The Christian Emperor
"In principle he [Constantine] treated religion as a matter of choice and conscience, an arena free of state meddling...Liberis mentibus — "With Free minds" — all are to worship their Gods." Peter J. Leithart
Emperor Constantine spearheaded the movement from Paganism to Christianity, perhaps the largest religious change in history. With him, the Catholic Church began. The Church influenced an uncountable number of people, and events, in its approximately 2000 years of existence. The official Catholic Church is 1686 year old; however, Catholicism truly began when the young, Jewish carpenter first preached the word of His God to the people of Israel. That poor descendent of David, Jesus, would reshape the world. Constantine organized his efforts, and in doing so, Constantine helped to influence the world as we know it today. His influence and power stretch across the centuries. Emperor Constantine accomplished a number of achievements that earned him the title “Great”; chief among them was his role in the creation of the Roman Catholic Church.
Christianity had to find somewhere to root itself at its dawn. The followers of Jesus had to find a place to wait and grow in numbers in order to proceed with Jesus’ mission of spreading the Good News. Christianity found itself in Rome shortly after the death of their Messiah. Christianity’s first Roman contact was the Apostle Paul. He said in his letter to the Corinthians: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures , and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve” (Zondervan 815). Paul wrote many of these letters to people all over, from the Mediterranean to the East. His aim was to convert as many people as possible to grow the new religion and spread the word. His letters helped to find the new religion, a foundation in a tough society. Constantine took Paul’s work and reshaped it in his own image to make it a true religion. Constantine helped to form a freedom for the Christians in their time of need. The Christians had been given a disagreeable reputation since their introduction into Rome. A reputation brought up from Rome’s ignorance and the lies people in power told about the Christians. For approximately 280 years (from Jesus’ death in 33 AD to the Edict of Milan in 312 AD), Christianity survived underground. They worshipped in secret until Constantine and his co-consul, Licinius, formed the Edict of Milan. The Edict allowed freedom of religion within the Roman Empire. Licinius agreed to the Edict for political reasons. By contrast, for Constantine, the Edict was for the job of unity in the Empire. It was also now one of religion.
Eusebius the Bishop of Caesarea give the most agreed upon account of Constantine’s conversion. They story is: God gave Constantine a sign from the sky, “Above the setting sun the Emperor, and his army with him, saw the sign of the Cross, outlined in rays of light, and with the words: ‘In this sign thou shalt conquer.’ [Lain script: “hoc signo victor eris” (Roman Emperors)] He did not at first understand the vision-so he maintained an oath to Eusebius-until Christ appeared to him in a dream and commanded him to copy the sign that he had seen in the sky and use it in battle as a talisman of defense.” (Alfoldi 16). He then had an elaborate standard made to flaunt at the head of his armies. After that it was borne at the head of all his armies. Constantine talked to Christian priests and they taught him their religion. From then on Constantine was a devout Christian. There are several versions of the story of Constantine’s conversion that all have differences. However, they all have one very important piece in common. All the stories tell that Constantine went through some great event that changed his mind on theology. They all spoke of his conversion from polytheistic pagan to monotheistic Christian. His conversion marked a shift in human history. From now on, Constantine thought like a Christian and made decisions like a Christian. It
changed him and through him, Rome. It began a new era. The Christians now had power in the world.
In order to thrive, the Christians needed to gain sole power over Rome; this lead to the struggle between Constantine and Licinius. Charles Odahl says, “Constantine had seen each of the persecuting emperors come to ruin. Only he and his eastern colleague Licinius, who were protecting Christians in their domains, still remained in power and ruled in prosperity” (Odahl 340). In order for the co-consuls to survive, they had to appeal to all people. From that need to survive, the Edict of Milan was formed. But the two consuls were still not on even grounds.
In 316, war broke out between the two emperors. Their first battle was at Cibalae in Pannonia; where Licinius’ forces sustained heavy losses. The second battle was at Ardiensis in Thrace; where there was no decisive victory. A settlement left Licinius at his position of power. However, in 324 war, broke out again with Constantine as the victor. He spared Licinius’ life, but a few months later had Licinius and his son executed. With the death of Licinius, Constantine became the sole emperor of Rome. This gave the Christians the momentum they needed to gain power and organization.
The next year, in 325 AD, Constantine held the First Ecumenical Council of the Church or the Council of Nicaea. At this council, the bishops of the church gathered to decide on the doctrines and the theology of the new Roman Catholic Church. At the Council, the bishops of Rome debated about subjects such as: Jesus of Nazareth’s divinity, the Holy Trinity, and the books of the New Testament. The main debate was over whether Christ is “homoousios” or “identical in substance.” There was an argument which threatened to divide the new Church. In his book, A Concise History of the Catholic Church, Thomas Bokenkotter summarizes the debate of homoousios as:
Though the bishops for the most part were men of modest learning, it did not take them long to decide that Arianism [“Arianism maintained that the Son of God was created by the Father and was therefore neither coeternal with the Father, nor consubstantial.” (Oxford Dictionary)] was not what they had been teaching and preaching all their lives. The vote against it was virtually unanimous; the divinity of Christ was not to be an open question in the Church. The creed they issued is with some additions still recited at Sunday Mass. It unequivocally condemned Arianism, asserting that the Son was begotten, not created, and was “identical in substance” with the Father (Greek: homoousios). In other words, the Word shared the divine nature and was fully equal to the Father. (Bokenkotter 51)
The Council literally formed the Church as we know it today. The importance of this event is almost indefinable. The doctrine composed at the Council is the cornerstone of the Catholic religion and is what the religion is founded on. Without a foundation, the Church on a whole would crumble. The divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy Trinity, and the books of the New Testament are the main teachings of the Church. Anyone who has been to a Catholic Mass can attest to this. Without these teachings, the Church would be nothing just as a person without core principles is nothing. Without its core, a person or the Church is an empty shell. That is what the Council of Nicaea provided; substance.
With the Church’s rise and expansion came the end of an ancient religion. The Roman Pagan tradition was dying. A religion that lasted millennia in one culture or another was in its final moments. With the building of Christian monuments, came the destruction of pagan monuments. As Andrew Alfoldi said in his book The Conversation of Constantine and Pagan Rome:
Paganism finally died of the wounds suffered in the last years of Constantine-but it was the case of ‘delayed action’. The aggressive policy which found its full development in these years had begun many years earlier and had been slowly ripening. But still it implied a new and violent revolution quite incompatible both with the toleration proclaimed to the Christians by the Edict of A.D. 312 and with that promised to the pagans in A.D. 324. No tears be shed if a few oriental temples, in which immortality was rife, were destroyed. Many an Emperor before Constantine had laid his hands on temple treasures in his hour of financial need or had caused precious monuments of art to be hauled from Greek temples to beautify Rome: but none of them had intended, as Constantine intended, to destroy. Fundamentally this was a campaign of annihilation like that of Diocletian (a self-proclaimed emperor who committed the last official mass persecution of Christians in Rome) a generation earlier against the Christians. (Alfoldi 107-8)
Most people forget the contemptible actions of someone when they have done so much that was considered commendable. Constantine was a prime example of that. In organizing the Church, Constantine destroyed some of the richest history that will never be seen again, because of Constantine’s achievements, so much ancient art, history, culture, knowledge, etc. will be lost forever, destroyed in a blatant disregard for the work that went into creating everything Constantine under his Christian banner destroyed; but what more modern civilization gained evens out what it lost. According to Georgetown University, the total number of Catholics in the world is 398,543.277 people or 17% of the world’s population. The total number of Christians in the world, according to the Christian Post, is 2.14 billion or 34% of the world’s population of 6,775,235,700 people. Without Catholicism there would be no Anglican, Evangelists, Mormons, Baptists, Lutherans, Later Day Saints, Jehovah Witnesses, Nondenominational, Brethren, Methodists, etc. Without Constantine there would be no Catholicism.
Constantine the Great did a great deal for the Roman Empire that has carried on to modern day. As his religion teaches, Constantine was not a perfect man. He did huge quantities of positive work that is a part of more than 2 billion people’s lives. Without Constantine, there would not be a Catholic Church, and without the Catholic Church there would be no other Christian religions. One man’s efforts continues to have an effect on billions of people almost 2000 years later. That is quite the accomplishment and it is deserving of his “great” title.
Alfoldi, Andrew. The Conversation of Constantine and Pagan Rome. Oxford: Clarendon, 1948.
Bokenkotter, Thomas S. A Concise History of the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday,
Georgetown University: Frequently Requested Church Statistics. Georgetown University, 2011. Web. 24 October 2011
Holy Bible: New Testament : Today's New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan,
Leithart, Peter J. Defending Constantine: the Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010. Print.
Odahl, Charles. "God and Constantine." Catholic University of America Press 81.3 (1995): 1-27.
Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press, 2011. Web. 24 October 2011.