The words of the Nicene Creed reverberate in Catholic cathedrals every Sunday, reaching over one billion worshipers who reassert ancient principles established in Rome around 325 CE. This monumental accord emerged from the Council of Nicaea, where the first universal assembly of Christian bishops conceived the fundamental theology and organization of the Catholic Church seen today. The astronomical success of this gathering can be attributed to one man, Constantine the Great. Through this council, he elevated the Church from a persecuted and disorganized cult into a political juggernaut that transformed the Roman Empire. Constantine achieved this result in three ways: he converted to Christianity and ended Diocletian’s persecution, he used Christianity to achieve political stability in order to unify a recently conquered and divided empire, and he supervised the Council of Nicaea after previous failures to mollify inter-Church strife.
In order to understand Constantine’s role in ensuring the success of the Council of Nicaea, one must comprehend the controversies it addressed and the results of the assembly. The Council of Nicaea convened in order to resolve a dispute regarding the hierarchy of the Christian trinity and a dissention over the proper date for which to celebrate Easter. Even more importantly however, this council produced the Nicene Creed, a definitive proclamation of a universal standard of faith that became a central part of Christian doctrine and, even today, constitutes an important rite in every Catholic mass.
A dispute over the nature of the Christian trinity in Alexandria instigated the crisis that led to Nicaea. At the turn of the fourth century, a prebester (assistant) named Arius under the bishop Alexander gave an unorthodox answer when questioned regarding the divine nature of Jesus. This disagreement occurred because the bishop of Alexandria “tried one day to explain with too great philosophic precision that great theological mystery, the oneness of the Holy Trinity.”1 Arius continued to develop this controversial position during the debate, and refused to recant his vocations. The prebester argued for the superiority of the father over the son in the trinity, and Alexander “vacillated,” allowing this dispute to become a regional quarrel.2 As Arius sought support for his position, a schism eventually developed in the Eastern Roman Empire. Consequently, it took the authority of Emperor Constantine to enforce an armistice among Christian bishops in order to attempt the restoration of Christian unity throughout the empire.
Constantine the Great was led to convene a definitive Council of Nicaea primarily through his role in ending Diocletian’s persecution and personal conversion to Christianity in 312 CE. His embrace of Christianity occurred during a series of civil wars in which Constantine destroyed the existing tetrarchy and unified the Empire under his singular rule. Constantine obliterated the tetrarchic system constructed under the emperor Diocletian, an organization which attempted to stabilize Roman rule through a division of power between two Augusti as senior emperors, and two Caesares as their junior counterparts.3 Ironically this separation of authority had the opposite effect, and, in fact, played a critical role in producing the civil wars that resulted in Constantine’s ascension. The tetrarchic system proved just as fragile as the previous policy of genealogical succession, as “nothing more than consent” discouraged future rulers from grasping power by means of a civil war.4 This stability disintegrated under Constantine, who had been a successor to Constantius in 306 CE and ruled the territories of Gaul and Britain.5 In his position as Augusti, his ambition quickly outgrew his allotted territory, and Constantine brought war to Maxentius in order to unify the Western Roman Empire.
On the eve of battle against Maxentius in 312 CE, Constantine rejected his paganism (polytheism) and embraced Christianity after a prophetic vision, eliciting dramatic change in Roman religious policy. According to the church historian Eusebius, Constantine “saw with his own eyes a cross of light in the heavens” and prior to combat, angels told him, “By this [sign], conquer.”6 The emperor followed this divine advice and had his soldiers paint a cross on their shields prior to combat, and subsequently claimed that this act led to the defeat of Maxentius at the battle of Milvian Bridge. Because Constantine had explicitly converted during the civil war, he conquered the Western Roman Empire as a Christian defeating a pagan foe, thereby ushering in a Christian victory throughout the empire.
Constantine’s victory allowed him to justify his conquest as a Christian undertaking, and, to support this affirmation, he pronounced religious tolerance throughout the Roman Empire. When the emperor entered Rome, he immediately “proclaimed the Son of God to the Romans with the boldness of testimony.”7 Due to his position as emperor, this proclamation had the force of law and became the Edict of Milan, immediately ending Diocletian’s persecution and putting to rest centuries of official Roman animosity towards the Christian religion. This decree had an enormous impact on Christianity, allowing Christians to finally practice freely without fear of death. Previously, according the Roman state, Christians had committed “the greatest crime” and were executed if they refused to sacrifice to the emperor’s cult.8 With Constantine’s edict of tolerance, Christians could worship without reprisal throughout the Empire, forming an essential prerequisite for the organization of the Church in the Council of Nicaea.
Constantine’s conversion allowed Christianity to abuse an ancient imperial loyalty mechanism that massively transformed the empire, resulting in the elevation of Christianity and the repression of all other religions. Since the beginning of the Roman Empire, the Caesars had been considered living gods who had a “personal secret with the Divine Mind,” and therefore promoted their favorite cults extensively throughout the empire.9 In the world of antiquity, divine recognition of the Roman Emperor amounted to an act similar to a modern pledge of allegiance.10 This acknowledgement did not constitute an act of religious conversion, as polytheism accepted all deities and did not preclude local worship; therefore ‘divine recognition’ constituted submission instead of genuine religious change. Constantine altered this precedent by accepting Christianity and endorsing a monotheistic religion as a Roman Emperor. Through this act, Constantine required recognition of a religion, which in turn denied the authority of other faiths, stimulating Christianity and stifling traditional paganistic faiths through the exclusive nature of Christianity.
This practice also brought significant benefactions for Christianity. Constantine’s endorsement bestowed upon it “the imperial prizes expected for a favored cult or religious group,” elevating Christianity from persecution to imperial favor.11 A massive church building project began, designed to increase the prestige of Christianity, and conspicuous examples of imperial favor began to dominate the skyline of cities. Furthermore, Constantine exempted Christians from performing the duties of Roman Citizenship, which included military participation and some forms of taxation.12 These actions demonstrated that Constantine had not only reversed Christianity’s previous persecution, but he also had personally advanced it to the status of a privileged faith within the empire. Thus, the meteoric rise of Christianity gave the religion the legitimacy and authority it needed to hold an authoritative gathering, the definitive Council of Nicaea which cemented the position of Christianity within the Roman Empire.
Though the surviving history of Constantine’s conversion remains inadequate to provide an unbiased comprehension of the end of Christian persecution, the Eusebian story of his epiphany remains important for political reasons. As no biographies or secular histories of Constantine the Great exist, the fact that only ecclesiastical sources remain have contributed to a scholarly disagreement over the validity of Constantine’s story of the cross. The emperor’s sighting of a cross in the sky had been observed by others previously, and in fact was “a well-known physical phenomenon.”13 Furthermore, Romans often converted after experiencing prophetic visions, which lends credence to the truth of Eusebius’s account of Constantine’s conversion. However, other scholars such as Wiseman believe that Constantine “was born to the faith” and supported Christianity throughout his entire stay in power.14 Regardless of the circumstances of Constantine’s conversion, the story of his battlefield epiphany provided legitimacy for the emperor’s aggression and initiation of a civil war, allowing him to frame the conflict in religious rather than political terms. Hence, this legend provided an important propaganda victory for Christianity, and Constantine supported the religion with imperial sponsorship throughout the region in order to augment his legitimacy. Consequently, Constantine’s conversion and embrace of Christianity brought forth an authoritative Council of Nicaea by legitimizing the existence of the faith itself, thereby making its organizational decisions binding and more likely to be followed by the religion as a whole.
Constantine depended upon Christianity not only because it augmented his wartime legitimacy; he needed this religion in order to unify a Roman Empire stricken by civil war and dissention. This reliance resulted from Constantine’s subjugation of the Eastern Roman Empire and led to the desire for a guiding ideology in order to augment the loyalty of his subjects and to provide cohesion for a faltering empire. In 320 CE, Constantine attacked Licinius and launched an invasion of the entire Eastern Roman Empire. These rulers had coexisted peacefully in the seven previous years, agreeing to end Christian persecution and cementing their alliances through royal marriage. However, Licinius commenced Christian persecution in 312 CE, and subsequently “expelled all Christians thence from his authority” and directed attacks against the organization of the church, which gave Constantine the opportunity to wage another holy war and attempt to unify the Roman Empire.15 Interestingly, the Arian controversy initiated this repression, as Licinius responded to inter-Church strife by repressing the entire institution itself.16 In order to avenge this persecution, Constantine began a new Christian crusade, and eventually defeated Licinius at the battle of Chrysopolis, which reunited the Roman Empire under a single man. Throughout these actions, Constantine had again used Christianity as a justification for his aggressive invasion, touting his religion in order to garner authenticity for his rule.17
As a result of his incursions, Constantine had destroyed the institutions that provided societal cohesion and required a new guiding philosophy in order stabilize his empire. This organization had been created by Diocletian, who rescued the Roman Empire from a half century of turmoil and anarchy. Without Diocletian’s stable reign, the Roman Empire would have fallen in the previous century.18 The state suffered “barbarian invaders, the plague, and notorious inflation” when the Parthians and Germans simultaneously invaded and introduced smallpox into the Roman Empire.19 The economy experienced hardship as well, causing the silver content in Roman coins during the period to be devalued by 400 percent, triggering massive price increases throughout the empire.20 In addition to external invasion and hyperinflation, Roman succession practices caused a series of civil wars that further destabilized the state. A new emperor proclaimed his hegemony nearly every year between 235 and 284 CE, while the frontier legions “became more interested in profitable civil war then external defense.”21 Diocletian restored order to the Roman Empire throughout his twenty-two year reign by means of increased military might and installation of a tetrarchic system designed to discourage civil war while renewing the empire’s economic base. Of particular importance, Diocletian attempted to secure the unity of the Roman Empire through persecution of the Christians, and escalated this suppression beyond the level of previous Christian subjugations.22 By these means, Diocletian restored the unity of the Empire based upon a fragmented, paganistic system soon to be eradicated by Constantine’s ascension.
Constantine obliterated these institutions in his conquest of the Roman Empire, necessitating a new ideology and organization in order to promote peace and unity. As he had previously relied on Christianity in order to justify his invasions, it seemed logical that Constantine would continue to use this doctrine in order to establish cohesion for his empire. Christianity had been remarkable for its determination in the face of persecution, and had defied the Roman Empire by continuing to exist for three centuries. Fantastic acts of devotion, such as the martyrdom of Polycarp demonstrated the depth of dedication Christians had for their faith. Even during executions designed to humiliate Christianity, martyrs defied the Romans through vigilance in death, such as Polycarp’s refusal to be bound securely to his funeral pyre, stating “Leave me as I am; for He that giveth me strength to endure the fire.”23 In this way, Christians used even death as a propaganda tool to disseminate their faith, by maintaining complete loyalty to their faith even under the most extreme oppression. Hence, throughout Diocletian’s persecution, these acts of fidelity impressed upon Constantine the power of the Christian faith. Constantine knew of the potency of Christian loyalty, and decided to embrace this devotion in order to secure the unity of the populace. Thus, Constantine decided to espouse Christianity as a tool in order to augment his personal legitimacy and enhance loyalty within the Roman Empire, using the Christian religion to replace the institutions he had destroyed throughout his conquests.
Since Constantine had tied Christianity to the Roman Empire, he needed to secure its unity in order to avoid political strife. Cameron summarizes this understanding well, stating “by now Constantine had realized that church harmony was an essential prerequisite for the Christian Empire,” demonstrating why Constantine as a Roman emperor adopted an active role in church affairs.24 In fact, Constantine interpreted his role in the Church to the fullest extent, going so far that “at a banquet he was giving to the bishops [he] declared that he too was a bishop.”25 He envisioned himself as a bishop for both Christians and pagans in his role as emperor, even a “thirteenth apostle,” and took an active interest in the affairs of the Church since he had tied their political fortunes to the Roman Empire.26 Constantine even believed that he had been appointed by God, and envisioned his position as a bishop of both those within and outside the Church in a manner now termed ceaseropapism.27 Therefore, Constantine now looked to the affairs of the Church in addition to secular matters gauge the political health of the empire, which provided a strong impetus for him to intervene and bring about the Council of Nicaea.
Constantine’s fusion of religion and politics in the Roman state led him to demand unity within the Christian church and actively endorse inter-Christian tolerance and consensus. Not surprisingly, Constantine required Christian solidarity in order to enhance the stability of the Roman state and allow him to use of this religion as a cohesive force throughout the empire. For this position, some scholars denigrate Constantine as “an essentially unreligious statesmen who grasped the strength of Christian organization and turned it to his own political ends.” 28
This depiction of Constantine may be unnecessarily negative, yet it portrays Constantine’s political actions extremely well, demonstrating that the emperor always had the Roman Empire in mind when dealing with religious affairs. This is also evident in Constantine’s dealings at the Council of Nicaea, where he attacked a schismatic bishop named Acesius who did not accept relapsed parishioners back into communion. Constantine declared, “Place a ladder, Acesius, and climb alone into heaven,” demonstrating his firm enforcement of tolerance and consensus within the Christian faith.29 Such an avowal served to further enhance the role of Christianity as the unifying social force within the Roman Empire. Constantine depended upon Christianity to serve as a cohesive force to replace the previous institutions he had destroyed, and through his demands for its cohesion he was actively driven to involve himself in the Council of Nicaea and produce a definitive organization for the Church he had promoted from persecution.
Not only did Constantine heavily influence the Council of Nicaea for personal political gain, but the emperor also determined to establish harmony in order to atone for previous failures in resolving church schisms. Constantine’s previous experience with the Donatist Schism in Africa compelled him to seek all available means to resolve the Arian controversy at Nicaea. This controversy emerged immediately after Constantine came to power in the West in 312 CE in Africa, when a large minority of Christians declared it intolerable to allow repenting clergy members back into communion with the Church once Constantine had proclaimed Christian tolerance. These church leaders had compromised their position by either sacrificing to the emperor or handing over Christian scripture for immolation during the persecution of Diocletian. Traditional church law barred these clergy from reentering the church, yet they attempted to continue their role in leading ecclesiastical affairs. Many Christians opposed such reacceptance, and division consumed the area around modern-day Tunisia, becoming Constantine’s first attempt to reunite and moderate the fractious Christians.
The Donatists immediately petitioned Constantine in order to resolve their controversy, and the emperor accepted, with the goal of securing peace in a very recently conquered region.30 The Donatists demonstrated surprising audacity in this action, confirming that they realized the full implications of the Edict of Milan, as they sought imperial interference from an organization that had repressed them less than a year previously.31 Constantine initially tried to resolve the disagreement through letter-writing and individual bishop support, but this policy quickly failed. He amplified his commitment by sending advisors to Africa, compelling them to action by stating, “I have such reverence for the legitimate Catholic Church that I do not wish you to leave schism or division in any place.”32 This action also failed, and Constantine resorted to a military option by sending out troops to Carthage in 317 CE to quell schismatic violence.33 However, even after sending legionaries, Constantine failed to end the controversy. Desperate, he ultimately intervened by utilizing an entirely ecclesiastical mechanism for consensus and encouraged the creation of a church council to resolve the schism.
Consequently, the Council of Arles convened in 314 CE which attempted to resolve the Donatist schism through a theological convention. Unlike the Council of Nicaea, Constantine had no direct influence and the council members represented only the regions affected by altercation.34 This gathering definitively rejected Donatist philosophy, yet its representative party immediately appealed the judgment and continued to revolt.35 Hence, the Council of Arles failed to resolve the dissention and Constantine continued to deal with violence between Donatists and Catholics in Africa throughout his reign.
Constantine initially attempted the same indirect intervention in the Arian controversy, with a similarly negligible effect. Having begun a tour of the Eastern Roman Empire only months after his victory over Licinius, Constantine had to halt his travels when word of the Arian controversy reached his camp. The emperor initially responded to this crisis by writing both Alexander and Arius, hoping imperial disfavor alone would resolve the dissention. He cared only for a religious reconciliation, accusing Alexander of “asking questions that should not be examined,” and both of quarrelling over “a small and inconsiderate point” in Christian theology.36 When the first letters failed to bring peace, Constantine sent further pleas of resolution to no avail.37 Through initial failure in both the Donatist and Arian controversies, Constantine understood that indirect pressure failed to resolve divergence within the Catholic Church and that “not even the fear of God’s vengeance could force the Christians to agree.”38 Therefore, the emperor halted his tour of the Eastern Roman Empire and began searching for more direct means of resolving this dispute, as his previous attempts to repair Christian infighting had failed to bring peace.
Constantine’s initial failure to resolve both the Donatist and Arian schisms and the political importance of the eastern provinces drove Constantine to directly intercede by assembling the Council of Nicaea. Unlike the Western Roman Empire, Constantine had never held dominion over any portion of the East prior to Chrysopolis in 324 CE, and therefore concerned himself more with order and security in the East than with his relatively protected western domains. The Persians constantly threatened the eastern frontier, posing such a grave threat that Constantine had to campaign against them subsequent to his victory over Licinius.39 In contrast, the Donatist territories of Africa held no similar external threat, poised to take advantage of internal dissention. Moreover, the provinces of Anatolia, Asia, and Egypt held much greater wealth than western Africa, and immensely increased Constantine’s interest in maintaining order throughout the eastern provinces.40 Most importantly, however, Constantine had begun a second capital called Constantinople in the East as a Christian city, and faced severe political and economic fallout should Christian dissent continue in the province that held a world capital founded with the intent of celebrating the glory and solidarity of the Christian faith. Therefore, Constantine realized that the severity of the stakes in the Donatist schism paled in comparison to the Arian controversy, and should he have failed to resolve this dispute, the political and economic repercussions in the Eastern Roman Empire could have been unimaginably harsh.
Moreover, Constantine realized that this controversy originated in Alexandria, one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire, which made restoration of order within the Christian religion even more important for fear of dissention in such an essential polity. Alexandria during the fourth century was the “second city of the empire,” and extremely crucial to the economy of Rome. The city provided all of the corn and cereal grains eaten in Rome, making this city absolutely essential for the survival of the Roman capital.41 “One of the most important cities in the Mediterranean” had to be protected by Constantine and forced him to place great importance on the Arian controversy due to its Alexandrian origin.42 Hence, Constantine believed that he had to directly intervene and resolve this schism or face repercussion of a much greater intensity than the Donatist schism, due to the importance of the Eastern Roman Empire, and more directly, the city of Alexandria.
Furthermore, the theological dispute in the Arian controversy demanded Constantine’s immediate attention and compelled him to directly intervene through a council in Nicaea. The Arian controversy posed a grave theological threat, and significantly overshadows the concerns of the Donatist schism, which had simply been a dispute over procedural orthodoxy, and “could be theoretically contained.”43 In contrast, the dispute at Alexandria concerned the most fundamental tenants of Christian theology, the trinity and position of Jesus himself. Constantine’s remark that the disagreement precipitated “over a small and inconsiderate point”completely underestimates the gravity of a dispute of the nature of the trinity.44 Arius’s simple claim that “once the father was not” denigrated the position of Jesus in the Catholic Church and removed much of the separation between Christianity and Judaism, at a time in which the former struggled to form a distinct identity.45 Romans already had much trouble distinguishing between Christianity and Judaism as they both proclaimed monotheistic doctrine in a polytheistic world and, in fact, Romans already perceived Christianity as an upstart branch of Judaism and many respected it less as it lacked the tradition Judaism could claim.46 The reduction of Jesus within Christianity would increase this negative perception of Christianity as a mere cult, and dissuade potential new converts. Therefore, the critical theological nature of the Arian controversy compelled Constantine to restore consensus within Christianity by any possible means or risk a permanent religious schism.
Constantine’s previous experience with Church councils likewise drove him to actively organize and oversee the Council of Nicaea. As opposed the Council of Arles, Constantine took pains to create a fully representative, or ecumenical, council in order to augment the assembly’s legitimacy, hoping that a universal council would facilitate cooperation and restore order to the Eastern Roman Empire once more. Furthermore, Constantine paid the travel expenses of attending bishops, as “he allowed some the use of a public means of conveyance, while he afforded to others an ample supply of horses for their transport.”47 Constantine changed the location of the intended gathering from Antioch to Nicaea, officially citing pleasant climate and proximity to the sea as reasons for the move, but in fact Constantine attempted to find neutral territory for which to convene the assembly.48 Most importantly, Constantine most directly intervened through physically attending and chairing the council. This act garnered the most legitimacy for the Council of Nicaea due the direct physical presence of the ruler of the Roman Empire, and through this action Constantine hoped to absolutely ensure that a definite and binding consensus emerged. Through these methods, “it was made clear that the results of the council were to be considered universally binding,” and that Constantine fully expected to resolve the problems begun at Alexandria.49 Therefore, Constantine’s previous experience with failure in the Donatist controversy and its relative unimportance compared to the political and economic stakes of Council of Nicaea compelled him to intercede. The significance of the Eastern Roman Empire, Alexandria, the theological nature of the Arian controversy, and of avoiding failure experienced in the Council of Arles combined to provide colossal impetus for the emperor’s direct involvement and produced a definitive Council of Nicaea resulting in the organization and domination of the Church for the subsequent millennia.
Under Constantine’s direction, the Council of Nicaea resulted in an authoritative and organized Christian church that subsequently came to dominate the political affairs of the late Roman Empire. This supremely important moment in Christian history came unexpectedly, and only the actions of Emperor Constantine elevated this religion from relative obscurity to overt prominence. Constantine achieved this transformation by adopting Christianity and subsequently attempting to apply the benefits of co-opting this religion in order to augment his political aims. The emperor both promoted Christianity for personal legitimacy and societal cohesion, which drastically altered the structure and operation of Christianity itself. Through his political actions, Constantine fundamentally altered the course of history with his role in the organization of Christianity, demonstrated by the continued role of the Catholic Church in the world today. Works Cited
Primary Sources: Athanasius. The Deposition of Arius.” In Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. Edited by Phillip Schaff. Grand Rapids: Christian Classical Ethereal Library, 1893.
Pamphilis, Eusebius. “The Life of Constantine.” In Eusebius Pamphilius: Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine. Edited by Phillip Schaff. Grand Rapids: Christian Classical Ethereal Library, 1893.
Pamphilis, Eusebius. “The Ecclesiastical History.” In Eusebius Pamphilius: Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine. Edited by Phillip Schaff. Grand Rapids: Christian Classical Ethereal Library, 1893.
The Martyrdom of Polycarp. Translated and Edited by J.B. Lightfoot. Athena Data Products, 1990 http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/martyrdompolycarp-roberts.html
Secondary Sources: Burn, Andrew Eubank. The Council of Nicaea. New York: Macmillan Co., 1925.
Cameron, Averil. The Later Roman Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.
Drake, H.A.. "Constantine and Consensus." Church History64, no. 1 (1995): 1-15.
Drake, H.A . "Review: The Christianity of Constantine the Great."Phoenix 51, no. 3 (1997): 427-430.
Fox, Robin Lane. Pagans and Christians. New York: HarperCollins, 1986.
Grant, Robert. "Religion and Politics at the Council of Nicaea." The Journal of Religion 55, no. 1 (1975): 1-12.
Luibheid, Colm. The Council of Nicaea. Galway: Galway University Press, 1982.
Nicholson, Oliver. "Constantine's Vision of the Cross." Vigilae Christianae 54, no. 3 (2000): 309-323.
Seston, W.. "Constantine as a 'Bishop'." The Journal of Roman Studies 37, no. 1 (1947): 127-131.
1 Luibheid, The Council of Nicaea, p. 5
2 Luibheid, The Council of Nicaea, p. 7
3 Cameron, The Later Roman Empire, p. 32
4 Cameron, The Later Roman Empire, p. 33
5 Cameron, The Later Roman Empire, p. 31
6 Eusebius, The Life of Constantine, p. 972
7 Eusebius, The Life of Constantine, p. 980
8 Fox, Pagans and Christians, p. 594-595
9 Nicholson, Constantine’s Vision of the Cross, p. 309