The Emperor Constantine is one of the best-known Roman Emperors, mainly because of his conversion to Christianity. Constantine’s influence on the early Church was significant. In 325, he called the first ecumenical council at Nicaea. This council was an attempt to gain consensus in the Church around contested issues in Christian doctrine, such as the nature of the Trinity—the outcome of which debate was the Nicaean Creed, discussed in E-SOURCE 2.3. Constantine also built important centers of worship, and lent his influence to determine important holy sites of the Christian faith. The selection below concerns the nature of Constantine’s conversion.
As you read, consider these questions:
How does the author describe Constantine and his conversion? How might this portrayal represent the author’s point of view?
Several supernatural events take place in the reading. How are these similar to events described in the Old and New Testaments? What might the author’s motivation be in using such imagery?
EUSEBIUS, The Life of The Blessed Emperor Constantine (339)
Chapter 27: After reflecting on the downfall of those who had worshipped idols, he chose Christianity.
Being convinced, however, that he needed some more powerful aid than his military forces could afford him, on account of the wicked and magical enchantments which were so diligently practiced by the tyrant, he began to seek Divine assistance; deeming the possession of arms and a numerous soldiery of secondary importance, but trusting that the co-operation of a Deity would be his security against defeat or misfortune. He considered, therefore, on what God he might rely for protection and assistance. While engaged in this inquiry, the thought occurred to him that, of the many emperors who had preceded him, those who had rested their hopes in a multitude of gods, and served them with sacrifices and offerings, had in the first place been deceived by flattering predictions, and oracles which promised them all prosperity, and at last had met with an unhappy end, while not one of their gods had stood by to warn them of the impending wrath of Heaven. On the other hand he recollected that his father, who had pursued an entirely opposite course, who had condemned their error, and honored the one Supreme God during his whole life, had found Him to be the Savior and Protector of his empire, and the Giver of every good thing. Reflecting on this, and well weighing the fact that they who had trusted in many gods had also fallen by manifold forms of death, without leaving behind them either family or offspring, stock, name, or memorial among men: and considering further that those who had already taken arms against the tyrant, and had marched to the battle field under the protection of a multitude of gods, had met with a dishonorable end (for one of them had shamefully retreated from the contest without a blow, and the other, being slain in the midst of his own troops, had become as it were the mere sport of death); reviewing all these considerations, he judged it to be folly indeed to join in the idle worship of those who were no gods, and, after such convincing evidence, to wander from the truth; and therefore felt it incumbent on him to honor no other than the God of his father.
Chapter 28: How, while he was praying, God sent him a vision of a cross of light in the heavens at mid-day, with an inscription admonishing him to conquer in that sign.
Accordingly he called on Him with earnest prayer and supplications that He would reveal to him who He was, and stretch forth His right hand to help him in his present difficulties. And while he was thus praying with fervent entreaty, a most marvelous sign appeared to him from heaven, the account of which it might have been difficult to believe, had it been related by any other person. But since the victorious emperor himself long afterwards declared it to the writer of this history, when he was honored with his acquaintance and society, and confirmed his statement by an oath, who could hesitate to accredit the relation, especially since the testimony since then has established its truth? He said that about mid-day, when the sun was beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, CONQUER BY THIS. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which happened to be following him on some expedition, and witnessed the miracle.
Chapter 29: How the Christ of God appeared to him in is sleep and commanded him to use on his arms a standard made in the form of a cross.
He said, moreover, that he doubted within himself what the import of this apparition could be. And while he continued to consider its meaning, night imperceptibly drew on; and in his sleep the Christ of God appeared to him with the same sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to procure a standard made in the likeness of that sign, and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies.
Chapter 30: The making of the standard of the cross
At dawn of day he arose, and communicated the secret to his friends. And then, calling together the workers in gold and precious stones, he sat in the midst of them, and described to them the figure of the sign he had seen, bidding them represent it in gold and precious stones. And I myself have had the opportunity of seeing this representation.
Chapter 31: A description of the standard of the cross, which the Romans now call the labarum
Now it was made in the following manner. A long spear, overlaid with gold, formed the figure of the cross by means of a piece transversely laid over it. On the top of the whole was fixed a crown, formed by the intertexture of gold and precious stones; and on this, two letters indicating the name of Christ, symbolized the Savior’s title by means of its first characters, the letter P [Greek: ‘Rho’] being intersected by X [Greek: ‘Chi’] exactly in its centre: and these letters the emperor was in the habit of wearing on his helmet at a later period. [Editor: Chi and Rho are the first two letters in the Greek ‘Christos’, i.e Christ.] From the transverse piece which crossed the spear was suspended a kind of streamer of purple cloth, covered with a profuse embroidery of most brilliant precious stones; and which, being also richly interlaced with gold, presented an indescribable degree of beauty to the beholder. This banner was of a square form, and the upright staff, which in its full extent was of great length, bore a golden half-length portrait of the pious emperor and his children on its upper part, beneath the trophy of the cross, and immediately above the embroidered streamer.
The emperor constantly made use of this salutary sign as a safeguard against every adverse and hostile power, and commanded that others similar to it should be carried at the head of all his armies.
Source: Eusebius Pamphilus, “The Life of The Blessed Emperor Constantine,” The Greek Ecclesiastical Historians of The First Six Centuries of The Christian Era (London: Samuel Bagster And Sons, 1845), 25-30. Text modified by Phillip C. Adamo.
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