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Emperor Constantine and Christianity

Constantine was the son of a junior co-emperor, Constantius, who died in Britannia (at York) in 306. Emperor Diocletian was retired and his son-in-law was a co-emperor in the east. Constantine (age 34) was declared emperor by his father's troops, and he had to make war to establish himself as co-emperor in the west, which he did by landing on the continent and marching on Rome.

His half of the empire was from 5 to 10 percent Christian. His mother had been a stable maid and mistress or consort to the emperor and had separated from Constantius sometime before the year 289. Constantine was her only son. When she became a Christian in unknown. She has been described as a major influence on her son, and today is celebrated by Christians as Saint Helena.

As emperor, Constantine began with support for paganism, giving recognition to his father's favorite god, the sun god Sol Invictus. By the year 313 he was in agreement with a new co-emperor of the east, Licinius, that Christianity should have full equality with other religions and that property taken from Christians during prosecutions should be returned. This was the famous Edict of Milan. People were given freedom to worship whatever diety they pleased and to organize churches.

Constantine gave the Christians property in Rome where a new church, the Lateran Basilica, would be built. Like other religions, church clergy would now be exempt from taxation, from military service or forced labor. In 321 he accommodated Christianity by making the day of Sol Invictus, Sunday, a holy day and day of rest for Christians.

Christian bishops sought Constantine's authority in judging their disputes over what they called true Christianity. Constantine wanted Christianity to end its bickering. For more than two centuries the bishops had been attempting to assert their authority over what Christians should and should not believe. The bishops opposed the belief of Gnostic Christians that God distributed revelations without considering rank among the Christians, and here again the bishops were associating rank with revelation. The first Bishop of Rome, Clement (who lived to around the year 97) had described a hierarchy of authority that began with God, then Jesus, the apostles, and finally to the bishops, and he had added that God had granted Rome "the authority of empire," glory, and honor.

In the year 325, at the Church had its first ecumenical council, at Nicaea, attended by 318 bishops. There, Constantine decided against the claim of Bishop Arius and bishops who supported him that God and Jesus were separate beings (Arianism). Constantine decided that Bishop Arius and his supporters would be allowed to remain within the Church and would not be forced to recant, but those who failed to sign the settlement were to be exiled. Others who did not conform to the council's ruling would be considered heretics and wold have their meeting places confiscated.

With the power of the state behind them, the bishops extended their authority within the Church. Christianity had not been developing in an age of democracy. Christians were not to choose their own bishop. Church authority was to be maintained, with local bishops chosen only by other bishops.

In 324, Constantine's military defeated Licinius, and Constantine became emperor over the entire empire. He confiscated from pagan priests much of the wealth they had accumulated, including their sacred icons, which brought him wealth in the form of precious metal, and he gave it to the Church.

Constantine was described as a man of virtue, but it was a time of different values and politics from today. There were domestic tensions within his family, and in 326 as the Pontifex Maximus (Rome's high priest and protector of virtue) he had his eldest son, Crispus, seized and put to death. And he had his wife, the Empress Fausta executed. References to them were erased and memory of the two was condemned.

There were severe penalties for adultery, concubinage, and prostitution. For some other crimes eyes were gouged out or legs maimed. But influenced by Christianity, Constantine had ended crucifixion as a form of execution. He banned the gladiator shows and ended branding criminals and slaves on their face. He forbade separating slave families. But anyone caught sheltering a runaway slave was to be fined. And, with the agreement of bishops, slaves who sought refuge in Christian churches were to be returned to their masters.

As it had been under Diocletian, everyone was forced to follow their parent's occupation, including the sons of soldiers. The state tried to keep people working in crafts where there was a shortage of such workers. Taxes remained oppressive. Local government was becoming a hereditary duty rather than inspired by any kind of civic pride. Senate seats were passing from father to son, but the Senate remained without powers. It was a prestigious club for conversation. Only a few senators who happened to live in Rome attended Senate meetings.

The Bishop Eusebius (of Caesarea in Palestine) was a Church's historian and scholar, and close to Constantine. He described the Roman Empire as having allowed Christianity to take root and grow to maturity, that if Jesus Christ had been born into the world at any other time the world would not have been able to receive Him. Rome's rise as an empire, he wrote in Praeparatio Evangelica, was part of God's divine plan.

It is written that it was just before Constantine died (in his early fifties in May 337) he chose to be baptized a Christian. Performing the baptism was Eusebius. He claimed that Constantine, just before his death, told him that he and his army had seen a flaming cross against the sun, accompanied by the words "conquer with this." This was at the battle that made Constantine ruler of the western half of the empire. Eusebius saw this as indicating that Constantine was the chosen agent of God, that Constantine had been "crowned with the virtues which are inherent in God." (The Tricennial Oration, c. 5:1.)

With Constantine, according to Eusebius, nations "found rest and respite from their ancient miseries." He wrote that government as practiced by Constantine was "a system and method of government for all states." Its rival, political equality and democracy, he described as "polyarchy" and as "anarchy and dissension rather than a form of government." Supporting a singular theocratic authority, Eusebius wrote that there is "one God – not two or three or more." (Tricennial Oration, c. I:6)

Constantine had designated his three sons as his heirs, to rule simultaneously as co-emperors. Eusebius wrote approvingly of Constantine schooling his sons "into harmony with the reins of inspired unison and concord." The harmony that Eusebius had been referring to was to be tested by events.

CONTINUE READING: Ethnicities and the Fall of Rome

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Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.