Blog Assignment #8
For the first two centuries it existed, Christianity was almost unknown to the world because of the small the population of its followers. Now the Christian population is over 2.18 billion which is roughly a third of the global population. How did a religion that was virtually invisible go from minority to majority? There is one man who played a pivotal role in elevating the Christians to a higher status and even shaped modern Christianity, his name is Emperor Constantine. With his help Christianity went from public persecution, to openly embraced and was eventually made the primary religion of the Roman Empire.
The year was 306 C.E. when Constantine ascends the throne and becomes emperor of the Roman Empire. Paganism is currently the primary religion of the Romans and the Imperial cult is in power. The Imperial cult believes that emperors’ and some members of their families to be divinely sanctioned authority over the Roman state. Christianity is a minority during this time and their edicts tell of only one divine God with no others before Him. Since the Christians do not believe in the divinity of the Roman leaders they refuse to take part in the Imperial cult which is considered an act of treason. This leads to the discrimination and open persecution of Christians. Treason is punishable by death and people have been known to murder a Christian who was displaying their faith. Despite public opinion Constantine began to preach the acceptance of Christians, and even began passing laws and edicts to stop the mistreatment of Christians. Many were confused on why he seemingly favored this minority, but the Christians weren’t about to turn away the help, and glorified all his efforts, in time making him a saint. Modern historians look back and wonder why it was he chose this religion that he eventually converted the empire to. The reason why Constantine made the shift was for political power, but modern historians have suggested other reasons why he decided to make this change. I will discuss the other theories on why he chose this path, such as his own calling towards the Christian God, the military power, or for social stability and using evidence show that the most likely reason was for political gain.
The historiography of the change of the dominant religion of the Roman Empire is viewed differently by many because the motivation to change is still unclear. Until recently the common belief of historians, both Christian and not, was the perspective that Constantine’s transformation was divinely inspired, first with feeling a empathy and call towards the Christian people and having seen signs from the Christian God to carry the sign of Christ on the shields of his men, though most were pagans, in order to achieve victory over overwhelming odds, which will be discussed later. The emperor payed homage to this powerful God and declared this proof of God’s will and His approval of Christianity, which began to spread and be accepted throughout the empire. This victory followed by many more, only encouraged the citizens that the Christian God was strong, and to be taken seriously. Most historians have viewed his actions regarding Christianity genuine, though the truth behind the conversion may never be known. As more evidence surfaced about Constantine through the years the theories of piety, military power, and social stability began to surface, but the most likely is that this conversion was for his own political progress.
The first theory behind the reason for the conversion that I will discuss is Constantine’s’ personal feelings towards the religion. This is thought to have been brought on by his mother Helena, who is also of great importance to the church. Helena was a devout Christian and is credited with her pilgrimage to Syria Palaestina where she claimed to have discovered the cross of Jesus’s crucifixion. When she gave birth to Constantine her husband Constantius divorced her to find a wife who would be more readily available to help with his rising status. This allowed her and her son to grow up in obscurity, having only each other they grew very close. Many historians believe that during this time she passed on the teachings of Christianity to young Constantine who would grow up having a personal connection to the religion because of his mother’s efforts. Growing up in the faith could explain why he favored the Christians and why he stopped their persecution. Child rearing indeed can have a great impact on the beliefs of a child, but as many know, does not guarantee full devotion.
Before he became emperor, Constantine never showed much preference towards the religion through his adult life, his actual conversion to Christianity not occurring until he was in his 40’s. While it is known that he respected and loved his mother, he was never fully committed to the Faith. Even after the empire formally converted to Christianity the sigil of the pagan sun god remained imprinted on their coins and Constantine still allowed public displays of the pagan faiths, until his subjects, ironically, began to turn on the pagans calling their ways blasphemous. The coins did not change until later, the sun god could still be found up to five years after the change. This shows that the emperor was still trying to remain appealing to his pagan citizens, much as a politician might do to remain appealing to a larger population. This evidence leads one to believe that piety was not the reason for the change.
The second theory of why Constantine decided to convert that I will discuss is for military power. The first major instance of Constantine referencing the Christian God was actually before the battle of Milvian Bridge. The battle was going to be brutal, Constantine and his man drastically outnumbered when he and his men allegedly received a vision in the sky from God telling them to bear “His symbol” on their shields and they would be victorious. Though many of his men were pagan at this point, they all brandished the holy symbol and the Roman army was victorious. After this instance Christianity became widely accepted among the Roman citizens many now converting to the new and successful Deity. With the ability to divinely sanction his military campaigns Constantine became very powerful in the eyes of the public having the “Favor of God”, doubting his rule would be like doubting God, which is where he would garner his Military power from. Other countries would fear this new power the Romans had, allowing the Romans victory after victory.
Though this does seem like a fair point, Constantine was cleverer than just someone who was thirsty for military power. Years before the Battle of Milvian Bridge, in order to help give back to the persecuted Christians, the emperor elevated several into government positions and even helped return property and built churches. Constantine saw how the Christians viewed him and knew the loyalty they would show him, but knew he would never have their full support if he were not Christian. When the time came before the Battle, Constantine was in need of an answer and found it in God, so to speak. He knew that should he win the upcoming battle and proclaimed it a sign from God he would sway the hearts of those he placed in power. It is said that Constantine built the first Christian empire, is this case it is especially true politically. After the battle with many of his subjects converting, his newly appointed officials would follow anything he said. Having fierce support of his own making no opponent would dare strike against him politically. Rather than a two dimensional power seeking man, Constantine was more than that and had a plan all along to benefit him at every move.
The final theory behind the shift that I will discuss is that Constantine enacted it to gain social stability. A few years after the conversion there came a dispute among the Christians as to what kind of Christianity was to be observed. The Roman government became frozen and caught up in the Arian controversy, which brought to light the question of was Jesus actually divine, or was he just a great man? This controversy began to spiral out of control until it seemed a division was going to be made in the people. Constantine wasn’t about to let this happen, so he summoned all of the bishops and dukes and met them in Nicea, roughly 318 individuals. After forcing them into a room and demanding a compromise be made, they came up with the Nicene Creed. This creed declared that Jesus and God were made of the same substance meaning they believed Jesus was divine.
While this evidence can be used to argue that Constantine was only interested in preserving social integrity, it can also be argued that Constantine was simply trying to hold on to the power he had so meticulously established. The emperor saw a split in his power imminent should this controversy find no end. The urgency that is expressed by summoning all of the holy men together then forcing them to reach a decision indicates that he wasn’t interested in allowing his subjects to be divided. If social integrity was his true interest the emperor could have issued another decree of accepting both edicts, but instead held fast to all the power he had created by not allowing any rift in the citizens. Constantine would be in a better position politically if all of the Romans were united under one banner, rather than allowed to have their differences.
After going over the different theories as to the motive for the change and viewing all the evidence it seems the most likely reason that Constantine made this shift was because he sought political power. By stopping the persecution of the Christians he gained new followers that would be loyal to him, then by elevating them politically he built a power base that would owe him a debt and would be open to his designs, ensuring that his place in society was firmly rooted. By proclaiming that he had God’s favor in battle won the hearts of the officials he appointed, and after seeing the “power” of the Christian God many of his subjects converted giving these new Christian officials new followers seeking them out to learn of this new God. As the belief that Constantine was divinely sanctioned spread, his grip over the empire only tightened. Then, by forcing a compromise with the Nicene Creed in order to reunite his citizens under one banner, it was assured there would be no division of power. Constantine was a master tactician politically and had the military expertise to back his claims. Truly Constantine was a great man but not because of his relationship with God, but because of his sharp mind and knowledge of how to control his people.
- Bomgardner, D. L. The Story of the Roman Amphitheatre. New York: Routledge, 2000.
- Brown, Peter. The Rise of Christendom. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.
- Bryant, Joseph M. 1993. “The Sect-Church Dynamic and Christian Expansion in the Roman Empire: Persecution, Penitential Discipline, and Schism in Sociological Perspective.”The British Journal of Sociology 44 (2): 303–39. doi:10.2307/591221.
- “Constantine I (Roman Emperor).” 2014. Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed December 8.http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/133873/Constantine-I.
- Curran, John. 1996. “Constantine and the Ancient Cults of Rome: The Legal Evidence.” Greece & Rome, Second Series, 43 (1): 68–80.http://www.jstor.org/stable/643085.
- Drijvers, J.W. Helena Augusta: The Mother of Constantine the Great and the Legend of Her Finding the True Cross. N.p.: Leiden, 1991.
- Holloway, R. Ross. 2004.Constantine & Rome R. Ross Holloway. New Haven: Yale University Press, ©2004.
- Nicene Creed, The American Book of Common Prayer
- Noll, M. Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. Inter-Varsity Press: n.p. 1997.
- Percival, Jack. “On the Question of Constantine’s Conversion to Christianity.” CLIO History Journal, 2008.
- Shean, J.F. 2010. Soldiering for God: Christianity and the Roman Army. Brill. http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/books/9789004187337.
- “The World Factbook.” 2014. Accessed December 12. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/.
- Wilken, Robert Louis. 2012. The First Thousand Years : A Global History of Christianity / Robert Louis Wilken. New Haven: Yale University Press.
 “The World Factbook.” 2014. Accessed December 12. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/.
 Bomgardner, D. L. The Story of the Roman Amphitheatre. New York: Routledge, 2000. p. 142
 “Constantine I (Roman Emperor).” 2014. Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed December 8.http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/133873/Constantine-I.
 Drijvers, J.W. Helena Augusta: The Mother of Constantine the Great and the Legend of Her Finding the True Cross. N.p.: Leiden, 1991.
 Brown, Peter. The Rise of Christendom. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003. p. 60
 Shean, J.F. 2010. Soldiering for God: Christianity and the Roman Army. Brill. http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/books/9789004187337.
 Percival, Jack. “On the Question of Constantine’s Conversion to Christianity.” CLIO History Journal, 2008.
 Wilken, Robert Louis. 2012. The First Thousand Years : A Global History of Christianity / Robert Louis Wilken. New Haven: Yale University Press.
 Bryant, Joseph M. 1993. “The Sect-Church Dynamic and Christian Expansion in the Roman Empire: Persecution, Penitential Discipline, and Schism in Sociological Perspective. “The British Journal of Sociology 44 (2): 303–39. doi:10.2307/5
 Noll, M. Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. Inter-Varsity Press: p.52. 1997.
 Nicene Creed, The American Book of Common Prayer