How Constantine the Great influenced the development of Christianity

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The early Christian community was merely one of the many religious groups that existed in the Roman Empire. The Roman government however, viewed them with suspicion and persecuted them for their refusal to conform. After centuries of persecution, the destiny of Christianity changed when the Roman emperor Constantine I became Christian. His decision changed the world forever. In this article, I shall outline Constantine’s influence on the development of Christianity.

Christianity during the early life of Constantine

By the time Constantine was born, Christianity had been around for a few centuries. As a community, the Christians were well organized, tightly knit, rich and influential. But they were still a minority in the pagan Roman Empire, distrusted by the government. The early Christians obeyed their bishops, avoided military duties and refused to participate in pagan rituals for the good of the empire. In short, they disobeyed imperial authority. Repeated persecutions however failed to make them conform. It merely created Christian martyrs which inspired further opposition. Near the end of the Roman emperor Diocletian’s reign, imperial decree forbade Christian worship, authorized the demolishing of churches and denied Christians their legal rights. 1

Around 299, two major incidents occurred. Firstly, blame for the disruption of imperial pagan rituals fell on the Christians. Secondly, a fire at Diocletian’s palace in Nicomedia was also pinned on them. These serious offences resulted in severe persecutions that brought about the deaths of many Christians. The persecutions began with the army, whose obedience was necessary to maintain order. But due to Christian sympathizers, the severity of these persecutions was greater in the East than the West. Ultimately, the persecutions failed to destroy Christianity. In 311, the Eastern emperor Galerius realized the futility of the persecutions and ended it with his Edict of Serdica. During this period of unrest, Constantine, who grew up at Diocletian’s court, found the persecutions he witnessed to be disturbing. 2

How Constantine became a Christian

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Throughout his life, Constantine was prone to supernatural encounters. But in 312, a dream he had before the Battle of Milvian Bridge changed his life. In the dream, God instructed Constantine to use the labarum as his battle standard against his enemies. The labarum consisted of the initial letters of Christ, Chi-Rho, on top of a cross. The labarum was ambiguous. Pagans could also associate this sign with their own beliefs. Constantine knew that in a predominantly pagan empire, it was important to have universal support. With his victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, Constantine was henceforth an avowed Christian. He believed that God had enabled him to triumph over Maxentius. The labarum would go on to see active duty in many battles. Meanwhile, future Christian emperors would also attribute victory and defeat to God. 3

But Constantine favoured Christianity for other reasons as well. Firstly, he realized that the persecutions had failed against the Christians. Instead it only resulted in disharmony which he disliked immensely. Secondly, he had a deep admiration for the organization and values of the Christians. He believed that their love, charity and mercy would bring about unity and harmony to the Roman Empire. Due to the power and influence of paganism, Constantine proceeded with caution to Christianize the empire. 4

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How Constantine changed the lives of the Christians

In 313, Constantine came to an agreement with the Eastern emperor Licinius. The result was the Edict of Milan. This edict improved on Galerius’s edict of tolerance. Some of the benefits included reclamation of property, reimbursement of losses and legal rights in disputes. Next, Constantine issued a series of legislations that favoured the Christian clergy. Henceforth, church lands were tax free. The clergy would receive an allowance so that they could focus their energies on serving God. Christians also had permission to obtain help from government officials in building new churches. Constantine himself would embark on a building frenzy of churches throughout the empire to glorify his new religion. 5

But the price for Constantine’s generosity was Caesaropapism; monarchical control over the church. Through the Church, Constantine controlled the Christians in his empire. The bishops now found themselves serving as Constantine’s principal advisors and following his will. Many bishops actually owed their positions to Constantine. In return, Constantine gave them religious and judicial powers. However, the side effect of this worldly involvement on the Church and vice versa disgusted some Christians. They fled to the deserts to begin a hermitic life, leading to the rise of monasticism. 6

Constantine and his Christian court

Constantine believed that God chose him to carry out his divine will on Earth. Furthering this view, Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea, suggested that Constantine’s court was actually a duplicate of the heavenly court. Filled with divine purpose, Constantine adjusted the laws of the empire to reflect his Christian values. He was harsh on sexual inappropriateness like adultery and the taking of concubines. At the same time he abolished gladiator games and crucifixion due to their cruelty. His laws also championed the lot of widows, children, orphans, beggars and slaves. By instilling good Christian values throughout his empire, Constantine hoped to establish a lasting harmony. 7

Constantine and heresy: The Donatists

Sadly for Constantine, Christianity would not bring unity. Constantine’s original intention was to set up an official church for all Christians. The state however would control the church. Those who rejected this church and its official doctrines were heretics. But Christianity as Constantine discovered, had a long history of disagreement. 8

The first challenge to imperial unity came from the Donatists in North Africa. During Diocletian’s persecutions, many Christians conformed to save their lives. The Donatists condemned these weak-willed traitors of the faith for taking part in pagan ceremonies. Furthermore, the Donatists refused to be a part of Constantine’s imperial church because they questioned the moral integrity of its bishops. 9

But the Donatists had to accept Constantine’s influence over Christianity. In 313, they wrote to Constantine, asking him to resolve a religious dispute for them. The Donatists opposed the appointment of Felix the bishop of Aptunga, whom they believed to be a traitor of the faith. However, the judges that Constantine appointed in 314, held a council that did not resolve this matter. Undaunted, the Donatists continued to irritate Constantine over Felix’s appointment. In 316, Constantine lost his patience but failed in his attempt to eradicate the Donatists by force. By 321, Constantine decided to stop his futile attacks and to tolerate their presence instead. But by using force against Christian heretics, Constantine set an ugly precedent for centuries to come. 10

Constantine and heresy: Arianism

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The second challenge to imperial unity was Arianism. Arianism, founded by Arius, taught that Jesus was inferior in essence to God his father. Such issues may seem trivial to us, but to the Christians then it was of vital importance. Passionate debate raged amongst the Christians over this matter. 11

Once again Constantine mediated in the dispute. In 325, to re-establish unity amongst the Christians, Constantine held the First Council of Nicaea to resolve this matter. Around 2,000 bishops attended as imperial guests with expenses provided for by Constantine himself. During the 2 months that this council was in session, the participants debated the precise nature of Jesus Christ. The conclusion of this council, the Nicene Creed, declared that Jesus was of the same substance as God his father. Arianism and Arius were condemned and excommunicated. 12

But this was not the end of the dispute. 3 views emerged as a result of this council. On the one end was the Nicene Creed. On the other end was Arianism. Then, there was the middle ground doctrine which declared that Jesus was of like substance as God. Of course the middle ground pleased no one and failed to establish the unity Constantine hoped for. Further councils failed to resolve the matter of Arianism which outlived Constantine. But due to Constantine’s example, future emperors would also mediate in the disputes of Christianity. 13

Constantine and paganism

To pave the way for Christianity, Constantine had to weaken the hold of paganism over the majority of his empire. Initially, he tolerated pagan practices for the sake of harmony. But gradually, Constantine weakened the pagan communities and practices through his proclamations. He had important pagan individuals killed off under false charges. Then he banned pagan sacrifices. Based on convenient excuses, Constantine confiscated the precious metals of pagan temples to fill his treasury for his building projects. He even had temples destroyed on the pretext of exorcising demonic influences. By the end of his reign in 337, Constantine succeeded in crippling paganism. In another few decades, Christianity would become the official religion of the Roman Empire. 14

Constantine and his missionary work

Constantine was also active in his conversion of barbarian, particularly the Germanic and the Sarmatian tribes. Whenever he conquered new territory and people, one of his demands was conversion to Christianity. So successful was he in his missionary zeal that writers compared his evangelical successes to that of Paul the Apostle. Constantine also took an interest in the Christians living in the Persian Empire. He wrote to the Persian king to inform him that the Persian Christians had his protection as well. Later Byzantine emperors followed Constantine’s example as protectors of the Christian faith. 15

Reflections of the Vizier

As the first Christian emperor, Constantine changed the world forever. He laid the foundation for Caesaropapism and set many precedents for future emperors to follow. Although the rise of Christianity over paganism was probably inevitable, he did much to hasten the process. As a result, the medieval ages and much of Europe became Christian thanks to him.

What are your thoughts on Constantine’s adoption of Christianity? Was there anything else he could have done to better the lot of Christians? Could he have acted differently to resolve the disputes in his empire?

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References

Grant, Michael. The Emperor Constantine. England: Orion Books Ltd, 1998.

Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.

Treadgold, Warren. A History of the Byzantine State and Society. California: Stanford University Press, 1997.

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  1. Michael Grant, The Emperor Constantine (England: Orion Books Ltd, 1998), 126-127, 129; John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries (England: Penguin Books, 1990), 34; Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society (California: Stanford University Press, 1997), 25. []
  2. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 127-128, 137, 155; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 34; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 25. []
  3. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 138-144; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 38-42, 51; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 31-33. []
  4. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 150-155; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 42-43. []
  5. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 156-159, 189-207; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 44-45, 51; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 33. []
  6. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 159-161. []
  7. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 148, 184-186. []
  8. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 161-162; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 52; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 34-35. []
  9. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 164-165; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 52. []
  10. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 165-167; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 52. []
  11. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 167-169; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 52-53; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 35. []
  12. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 169-174; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 53-55; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 42-43. []
  13. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 175-176; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 71-74; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 44-47. []
  14. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 177-180; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 52, 68; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 40-42, 50. []
  15. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 183. []
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