J. G. Hoffmann: Ruina Superstitionis Paganae. Vitemb. 1738. Tzschirner: Der Fall des Heidenthums. Leipz. 1829. A. Beugnot: Histoire de la destruction du paganisme en occident. Par. 1835. 2 vols. Et. Chastel (of Geneva): Histoire de la destruction du paganisme dans l’empire d’orient. Par. 1850. E. v. Lasaulx: Der Untergang des Hellenismus u. die Einziehung seiner Tempelgüter durch die christl. Kaiser. Münch. 1854. F. Lübker: Der Fall des Heidenthums. Schwerin, 1856. Ch. Merivale: Conversion of The Roman Empire. New York, 1865.
2. Constantine the Great. a.d. 306-337
1. Contemporary Sources
Lactantius († 330): De mortibus persecutorum, cap. 18 sqq. Eusebius: Hist. Eccl. l. ix. et x.; also his panegyric and very partial Vita Constantini, in 4 books (Εἰς τὸν βίον τοῦ μακαρίου Κωνσταντίνου τοῦ βασιλέως) and his Panegyricus or De laudibus Constantini; in the editions of the hist. works of Euseb. by Valesius, Par. 1659-1673, Amstel. 1695, Cantabr. 1720; Zimmermann, Frcf. 1822; Heinichen, Lips. 1827-30; Burton, Oxon. 1838. Comp. the imperial documents in the Codex Theodos.l. xvi. also the Letters and Treatises of Athanasius († 373), and on the heathen side the Panegyric of Nazarius at Rome (321) and the Caesars of Julian († 363).
2. Later Sources
Socrates: Hist. Eccl. l. i. Sozomenus: H. E. l. i et ii. Zosimus (a heathen historian and court-officer, comes et advocatus fisci, under Theodosius II.): Ἱστορία νέα, l. ii. ed. Bekker, Bonn. 1837. Eusebius and Zosimus present the extremes of partiality for and against Constantine. A just estimate of his character must be formed from the facts admitted by both, and from the effect of his secular and ecclesiastical policy.
3. Modern Authorities
Mosheim: De reb. Christ. ante Const. M. etc., last section (p. 958 sqq. In Murdock’s Engl. transl., vol. ii. p. 454-481). Nath. Lardner, in the second part of his great work on the Credibility of the Gospel History, see Works ed. by Kippis, Lond. 1838, vol. iv. p. 3-55. Abbé de Voisin: Dissertation critique sur la vision de Constantin. Par. 1774. Gibbon: l.c. chs. xiv. and xvii.-xxi. Fr. Gusta: Vita di Constantino il Grande. Foligno, 1786. Manso: Das Leben Constantins des Gr. Bresl. 1817. Hug (R.C.): Denkschrift zur Ehrenrettung Constant. Frieb. 1829. Heinichen: Excurs. in Eus. Vitam Const. 1830. Arendt (R.C.): Const. u. sein Verb. zum Christenthum. Tüb. (Quartalschrift) 1834. Milman: Hist. of Christianity, etc., 1840, book iii. ch. 1-4. Jacob Burckhardt: Die Zeit Const. des Gr. Bas. 1853. Albert de Broglie: L’église et l’empire romain au IVme siècle. Par. 1856 (vols. i. and ii.). A. P. Stanley: Lectures on the Hist. of the Eastern Church, 1862, Lect. vi. p. 281 sqq. (Am. Ed.). Theod. Keim: Der Uebertritt Constantins des Gr. zum Christenthum. Zürich, 1862 (an apology for Constantine’s character against Burckhardt’s view).
Th. Zahn: Constantin der Grosse und die Kirche. Hannover, 1876. Demetriades: Die christl. Regierung und Orthodoxie Kaiser Constantin’s des Gr. München, 1878. Th. Brieger: Constantin der Gr. als Religionspolitiker. Gotha, 1880. E. L. Cutts: Constantine the Great. Lond. And N. Y., 1881. W. Gass: Konstantin der Gr. und seine Söhne, in Herzog,2 vii. (1881), 199-207. John Wordsworth: Const. the Gr. and his Sons, in Smith and Wace, i. 623-654. Edm. Stapfer: in Lichtenberger, iii. 388-393. — Comp. also vol. ii. p. 64-74, especially on the Edicts Of Toleration (only two, not three, as formerly assumed). Victor Schultze Geschichte des Untergangs des Griechisch-römischen Heidenthums. Jena, 1887, Vol. i. 28-68.
Constantine the Great
The last great imperial persecution of the Christians under Diocletian and Galerius, which was aimed at the entire uprooting of the new religion, ended with the edict of toleration of 311 and the tragical ruin of the persecutors. The edict of toleration was an involuntary and irresistible concession of the incurable impotence of heathenism and the indestructible power of Christianity. It left but a step to the downfall of the one and the supremacy of the other in the empire of the Caesars.
This great epoch is marked by the reign of Constantine I. He understood the signs of the times and acted accordingly. He was the man for the times, as the times were prepared for him by that Providence which controls both and fits them for each other. He placed himself at the head of true progress, while his nephew, Julian the Apostate, opposed it and was left behind. He was the chief instrument for raising the church from the low estate of oppression and persecution to well deserved honor and power. For this service a thankful posterity has given him the surname of the Great, to which he was entitled, though not by his moral character, yet doubtless by his military and administrative ability, his judicious policy, his appreciation and protection of Christianity, and the far-reaching consequences of his reign. His greatness was not indeed of the first, but of the second order, and is to be measured more by what he did than by what he was. To the Greek church, which honors him even as a canonized saint, he has the same significance as Charlemagne to the Latin.
Constantine, the first Christian Caesar, the founder of Constantinople and the Byzantine empire, and one of the most gifted, energetic, and successful of the Roman emperors, was the first representative of the imposing idea of a Christian theocracy, or of that system of policy which assumes all subjects to be Christians, connects civil and religious rights, and regards church and state as the two arms of one and the same divine government on earth. This idea was more fully developed by his successors, it animated the whole middle age, and is yet working under various forms in these latest times; though it has never been fully realized, whether in the Byzantine, the German, or the Russian empire, the Roman church-state, the Calvinistic republic of Geneva, or the early Puritanic colonies of New England. At the same time, however, Constantine stands also as the type of an undiscriminating and harmful conjunction of Christianity with politics, of the holy symbol of peace with the horrors of war, of the spiritual interests of the kingdom of heaven with the earthly interests of the state.
In judging of this remarkable man and his reign, we must by all means keep to the great historical principle, that all representative characters act, consciously or unconsciously, as the free and responsible organs of the spirit of their age, which moulds them first before they can mould it in turn, and that the spirit of the age itself, whether good or bad or mixed, is but an instrument in the hands of divine Providence, which rules and overrules all the actions and motives of men.
Through a history of three centuries Christianity had already inwardly overcome the world, and thus rendered such an outward revolution, as has attached itself to the name of this prince, both possible and unavoidable. It were extremely superficial to refer so thorough and momentous a change to the personal motives of an individual, be they motives of policy, of piety, or of superstition. But unquestionably every age produces and shapes its own organs, as its own purposes require. So in the case of Constantine. He was distinguished by that genuine political wisdom, which, putting itself at the head of the age, clearly saw that idolatry had outlived itself in the Roman empire, and that Christianity alone could breathe new vigor into it and furnish its moral support. Especially on the point of the external Catholic unity his monarchical politics accorded with the hierarchical episcopacy of the church. Hence from the year 313 he placed himself in close connection with the bishops, made peace and harmony his first object in the Donatist and Arian controversies and applied the predicate “catholic” to the church in all official documents. And as his predecessors were supreme pontiffs of the heathen religion of the empire, so he desired to be looked upon as a sort of bishop, as universal bishop of the external affairs of the church. All this by no means from mere self-interest, but for the good of the empire, which, now shaken to its foundations and threatened by barbarians on every side, could only by some new bond of unity be consolidated and upheld until at least the seeds of Christianity and civilization should be planted among the barbarians themselves, the representatives of the future. His personal policy thus coincided with the interests of the state. Christianity appeared to him, as it proved in fact, the only efficient power for a political reformation of the empire, from which the ancient spirit of Rome was fast departing, while internal, civil, and religious dissensions and the outward pressure of the barbarians threatened a gradual dissolution of society.
But with the political he united also a religious motive, not clear and deep, indeed, yet honest, and strongly infused with the superstitious disposition to judge of a religion by its outward success and to ascribe a magical virtue to signs and ceremonies. His whole family was swayed by religious sentiment, which manifested itself in very different forms, in the devout pilgrimages of Helena, the fanatical Arianism of Constantia, and Constantius, and the fanatical paganism of Julian. Constantine adopted Christianity first as a superstition, and put it by the side of his heathen superstition, till finally in his conviction the Christian vanquished the pagan, though without itself developing into a pure and enlightened faith.
At first Constantine, like his father, in the spirit of the Neo-Platonic syncretism of dying heathendom, reverenced all the gods as mysterious powers; especially Apollo, the god of the sun, to whom in the year 308 he presented munificent gifts. Nay, so late as the year 321 he enjoined regular consultation of the soothsayers in public misfortunes, according to ancient heathen usage; even later, he placed his new residence, Byzantium, under the protection of the God of the Martyrs and the heathen goddess of Fortune; and down to the end of his life he retained the title and the dignity of a Pontifex Maximus, or high-priest of the heathen hierarchy. His coins bore on the one side the letters of the name of Christ, on the other the figure of the Sun-god, and the inscription “Sol invictus.” Of course these inconsistencies may be referred also to policy and accommodation to the toleration edict of 313. Nor is it difficult to adduce parallels of persons who, in passing from Judaism to Christianity, or from Romanism to Protestantism, have so wavered between their old and their new position that they might be claimed by both. With his every victory, over his pagan rivals, Galerius, Maxentius, and Licinius, his personal leaning to Christianity and his confidence in the magic power of the sign of the cross increased; yet he did not formally renounce heathenism, and did not receive baptism until, in 337, he was laid upon the bed of death.
He had an imposing and winning person, and was compared by flatterers with Apollo. He was tall, broad-shouldered, handsome, and of a remarkably vigorous and healthy constitution, but given to excessive vanity in his dress and outward demeanor, always wearing an oriental diadem, a helmet studded with jewels, and a purple mantle of silk richly embroidered with pearls and flowers worked in gold, His mind was not highly cultivated, but naturally clear, strong, and shrewd, and seldom thrown off its guard. He is said to have combined a cynical contempt of mankind with an inordinate love of praise. He possessed a good knowledge of human nature and administrative energy and tact.
His moral character was not without noble traits, among which a chastity rare for the time, and a liberality and beneficence bordering on wastefulness were prominent. Many of his laws and regulations breathed the spirit of Christian justice and humanity, promoted the elevation of the female sex, improved the condition of slaves and of unfortunates, and gave free play to the efficiency of the church throughout the whole empire. Altogether he was one of the best, the most fortunate, and the most influential of the Roman emperors, Christian and pagan.
Yet he had great faults. He was far from being so pure and so venerable as Eusebius, blinded by his favor to the church, depicts him, in his bombastic and almost dishonestly eulogistic biography, with the evident intention of setting him up as a model for all future Christian princes. It must, with all regret, be conceded, that his progress in the knowledge of Christianity was not a progress in the practice of its virtues. His love of display and his prodigality, his suspiciousness and his despotism, increased with his power.
The very brightest period of his reign is stained with gross crimes, which even the spirit of the age and the policy of an absolute monarch cannot excuse. After having reached, upon the bloody path of war, the goal of his ambition, the sole possession of the empire, yea, in the very year in which he summoned the great council of Nicaea, he ordered the execution of his conquered rival and brother-in-law, Licinius, in breach of a solemn promise of mercy (324). Not satisfied with this, he caused soon afterwards, from political suspicion, the death of the young Licinius, his nephew, a boy of hardly eleven years. But the worst of all is the murder of his eldest son, Crispus, in 326, who had incurred suspicion of political conspiracy, and of adulterous and incestuous purposes towards his step-mother Fausta, but is generally regarded as innocent. This domestic and political tragedy emerged from a vortex of mutual suspicion and rivalry, and calls to mind the conduct of Philip II. towards Don Carlos, of Peter the Great towards his son Alexis, and of Soliman the Great towards his son Mustapha. Later authors assert, though gratuitously, that the emperor, like David, bitterly repented of this sin. He has been frequently charged besides, though it would seem altogether unjustly, with the death of his second wife Fausta (326?), who, after twenty years, of happy wedlock, is said to have been convicted of slandering her stepson Crispus, and of adultery with a slave or one of the imperial guards, and then to have been suffocated in the vapor of an over-heated bath. But the accounts of the cause and manner of her death are so late and discordant as to make Constantine’s part in it at least very doubtful.
At all events Christianity did not produce in Constantine a thorough moral transformation. He was concerned more to advance the outward social position of the Christian religion, than to further its inward mission. He was praised and censured in turn by the Christians and Pagans, the Orthodox and the Arians, as they successively experienced his favor or dislike. He bears some resemblance to Peter the Great both in his public acts and his private character, by combining great virtues and merits with monstrous crimes, and he probably died with the same consolation as Peter, whose last words were: “I trust that in respect of the good I have striven to do my people (the church), God will pardon my sins.” It is quite characteristic of his piety that he turned the sacred nails of the Saviour’s cross which Helena brought from Jerusalem, the one into the bit of his war-horse, the other into an ornament of his helmet. Not a decided, pure, and consistent character, he stands on the line of transition between two ages and two religions; and his life bears plain marks of both. When at last on his death bed he submitted to baptism, with the remark, “Now let us cast away all duplicity,” he honestly admitted the conflict of two antagonistic principles which swayed his private character and public life.
From these general remarks we turn to the leading features of Constantine’s life and reign, so far as they bear upon the history of the church. We shall consider in order his youth and training, the vision of the Cross, the edict of toleration, his legislation in favor of Christianity, his baptism and death.
Constantine, son of the co-emperor Constantius Chlorus, who reigned over Gaul, Spain, and Britain till his death in 306, was born probably in the year 272, either in Britain or at Naissus (now called Nissa), a town of Dardania, in Illyricum. His mother was Helena, daughter of an innkeeper, the first wife of Constantius, afterwards divorced, when Constantius, for political reasons, married a daughter of Maximian. She is described by Christian writers as a discreet and devout woman, and has been honored with a place in the catalogue of saints. Her name is identified with the discovery of the cross and the pious superstitions of the holy places. She lived to a very advanced age and died in the year 326 or 327, in or near the city of Rome. Rising by her beauty and good fortune from obscurity to the splendor of the court, then meeting the fate of Josephine, but restored to imperial dignity by her son, and ending as a saint of the Catholic church: Helena would form an interesting subject for a historical novel illustrating the leading events of the Nicene age and the triumph of Christianity in the Roman empire.
Constantine first distinguished himself in the service of Diocletian in the Egyptian and Persian wars; went afterwards to Gaul and Britain, and in the Praetorium at York was proclaimed emperor by his dying father and by the Roman troops. His father before him held a favorable opinion of the Christians as peaceable and honorable citizens, and protected them in the West during the Diocletian persecution in the East. This respectful tolerant regard descended to Constantine, and the good effects of it, compared with the evil results of the opposite course of his antagonist Galerius, could but encourage him to pursue it. He reasoned, as Eusebius reports from his own mouth, in the following manner: “My father revered the Christian God and uniformly prospered, while the emperors who worshipped the heathen gods, died a miserable death; therefore, that I may enjoy a happy life and reign, I will imitate the example of my father and join myself to the cause of the Christians, who are growing daily, while the heathen are diminishing.” This low utilitarian consideration weighed heavily in the mind of an ambitious captain, who looked forward to the highest seat of power within the gift of his age. Whether his mother, whom he always revered, and who made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in her eightieth year (a.d. 325), planted the germ of the Christian faith in her son, as Theodoret supposes, or herself became a Christian through his influence, as Eusebius asserts, must remain undecided. According to the heathen Zosimus, whose statement is unquestionably false and malicious, an Egyptian, who came out of Spain (probably the bishop Hosius of Cordova, a native of Egypt, is intended), persuaded him, after the murder of Crispus (which did not occur before 326), that by converting to Christianity he might obtain forgiveness of his sins.
The first public evidence of a positive leaning towards the Christian religion he gave in his contest with the pagan Maxentius, who had usurped the government of Italy and Africa, and is universally represented as a cruel, dissolute tyrant, hated by heathens and Christians alike, called by the Roman people to their aid, Constantine marched from Gaul across the Alps with an army of ninety-eight thousand soldiers of every nationality, and defeated Maxentius in three battles; the last in October, 312, at the Milvian bridge, near Rome, where Maxentius found a disgraceful death in the waters of the Tiber.
Here belongs the familiar story of the miraculous cross. The precise day and place cannot be fixed, but the event must have occurred shortly before the final victory over Maxentius in the neighborhood of Rome. As this vision is one of the most noted miracles in church history, and has a representative significance, it deserves a closer examination. It marks for us on the one hand the victory of Christianity over paganism in the Roman empire, and on the other the ominous admixture of foreign, political, and military interests with it. We need not be surprised that in the Nicene age so great a revolution and transition should have been clothed with a supernatural character.
The occurrence is variously described and is not without serious difficulties. Lactantius, the earliest witness, some three years after the battle, speaks only of a dream by night, in which the emperor was directed (it is not stated by whom, whether by Christ, or by an angel) to stamp on the shields of his soldiers “the heavenly sign of God,” that is, the cross with the name of Christ, and thus to go forth against his enemy. Eusebius, on the contrary, gives a more minute account on the authority of a subsequent private communication of the aged Constantine himself under oath — not, however, till the year 338, a year after the death of the emperor, his only witness, and twenty-six years after the event. On his march from Gaul to Italy (the spot and date are not specified), the emperor, whilst earnestly praying to the true God for light and help at this critical time, saw, together with his army, in clear daylight towards evening, a shining cross in the heavens above the sun) with the inscription: “By this conquer,” and in the following night Christ himself appeared to him while he slept, and directed him to have a standard prepared in the form of this sign of the cross, and with that to proceed against Maxentius and all other enemies. This account of Eusebius, or rather of Constantine himself, adds to the night dream of Lactantius the preceding vision of the day, and the direction concerning the standard, while Lactantius speaks of the inscription of the initial letters of Christ’s name on the shields of the soldiers. According to Rufinus, a later historian, who elsewhere depends entirely on Eusebius and can therefore not be regarded as a proper witness in the case, the sign of the cross appeared to Constantine in a dream (which agrees with the account of Lactantius), and upon his awaking in terror, an angel (not Christ) exclaimed to him: “Hoc vince.” Lactantius, Eusebius, and Rufinus are the only Christian writers of the fourth century, who mention the apparition. But we have besides one or two heathen testimonies, which, though vague and obscure, still serve to strengthen the evidence in favor of some actual occurrence. The contemporaneous orator Nazarius, in a panegyric upon the emperor, pronounced March 1, 321, apparently at Rome, speaks of an army of divine warriors and a divine assistance which Constantine received in the engagement with Maxentius, but he converts it to the service of heathenism by recurring to old prodigies, such as the appearance of Castor and Pollux.
This famous tradition may be explained either as a real miracle implying a personal appearance of Christ, or as a pious fraud, or as a natural phenomenon in the clouds and an optical illusion, or finally as a prophetic dream.
The propriety of a miracle, parallel to the signs in heaven which preceded the destruction of Jerusalem, might be justified by the significance of the victory as marking a great epoch in history, namely, the downfall of paganism and the establishment of Christianity in the empire. But even if we waive the purely critical objections to the Eusebian narrative, the assumed connection, in this case, of the gentle Prince of peace with the god of battle, and the subserviency of the sacred symbol of redemption to military ambition, is repugnant to the genius of the gospel and to sound Christian feeling, unless we stretch the theory of divine accommodation to the spirit of the age and the passions and interests of individuals beyond the ordinary limits. We should suppose, moreover, that Christ, if he had really appeared to Constantine either in person (according to Eusebius) or through angels (as Rufinus and Sozomen modify it), would have exhorted him to repent and be baptized rather than to construct a military ensign for a bloody battle. In no case can we ascribe to this occurrence, with Eusebius, Theodoret, and older writers, the character of a sudden and genuine conversion, as to Paul’s vision of Christ on the way to Damascus; for, on the one hand, Constantine was never hostile to Christianity, but most probably friendly to it from his early youth, according to the example of his father; and, on the other, he put off his baptism quite five and twenty years, almost to the hour of his death.
The opposite hypothesis of a mere military stratagem or intentional fraud is still more objectionable, and would compel us either to impute to the first Christian emperor at a venerable age the double crime of falsehood and perjury, or, if Eusebius invented the story, to deny to the “father of church history” all claim to credibility and common respectability. Besides it should be remembered that the older testimony of Lactantius, or whoever was the author of the work on the Deaths of Persecutors, is quite independent of that of Eusebius, and derives additional force from the vague heathen rumors of the time. Finally the Hoc vince which has passed into proverbial significance as a most appropriate motto of the invincible religion of the cross, is too good to be traced to sheer falsehood. Some actual fact, therefore, must be supposed to underlie the tradition, and the question only is this, whether it was an external visible phenomenon or an internal experience.
The hypothesis of a natural formation of the clouds, which Constantine by an optical illusion mistook for a supernatural sign of the cross, besides smacking of the exploded rationalistic explanation of the New Testament miracles, and deriving an important event from a mere accident, leaves the figure of Christ and the Greek or Latin inscription: By this sign thou shalt conquer! altogether unexplained.
We are shut up therefore to the theory of a dream or vision, and an experience within the mind of Constantine. This is supported by the oldest testimony of Lactantius, as well as by the report of Rufinus and Sozomen, and we do not hesitate to regard the Eusebian cross in the skies as originally a part of the dream, which only subsequently assumed the character of an outward objective apparition either in the imagination of Constantine, or by a mistake of the memory of the historian, but in either case without intentional fraud. That the vision was traced to supernatural origin, especially after the happy success, is quite natural and in perfect keeping with the prevailing ideas of the age. Tertullian and other ante-Nicene and Nicene fathers attributed many conversions to nocturnal dreams and visions. Constantine and his friends referred the most important facts of his life, as the knowledge of the approach of hostile armies, the discovery of the holy sepulchre, the founding of Constantinople, to divine revelation through visions and dreams. Nor are we disposed in the least to deny the connection of the vision of the cross with the agency of divine Providence, which controlled this remarkable turning point of history. We may go farther and admit a special providence, or what the old divines call a providentia specialissima; but this does not necessarily imply a violation of the order of nature or an actual miracle in the shape of an objective personal appearance of the Saviour. We may refer to a somewhat similar, though far less important, vision in the life of the pious English Colonel James Gardiner. The Bible itself sanctions the general theory of providential or prophetic dreams and nocturnal visions through which divine revelations and admonitions are communicated to men.
The facts, therefore, may have been these. Before the battle Constantine, leaning already towards Christianity as probably the best and most hopeful of the various religions, seriously sought in prayer, as he related to Eusebius, the assistance of the God of the Christians, while his heathen antagonist Maxentius, according to Zosimus, was consulting the sibylline books and offering sacrifice to the idols. Filled with mingled fears and hopes about the issue of the conflict, he fell asleep and saw in a dream the sign of the cross of Christ with a significant inscription and promise of victory. Being already familiar with the general use of this sign among the numerous Christians of the empire, many of whom no doubt were in his own army, he constructed the labarum, or rather he changed the heathen labarum into a standard of the Christian cross with the Greek monogram of Christ, which he had also put upon the shields of the soldiers. To this cross-standard, which now took the place of the Roman eagles, he attributed the decisive victory over the heathen Maxentius.
Accordingly, after his triumphal entrance into Rome, he had his statue erected upon the forum with the labarum in his right hand, and the inscription beneath: “By this saving sign, the true token of bravery, I have delivered your city from the yoke of the tyrant.” Three years afterwards the senate erected to him a triumphal arch of marble, which to this day, within sight of the sublime ruins of the pagan Colosseum, indicates at once the decay of ancient art, and the downfall of heathenism; as the neighboring arch of Titus commemorates the downfall of Judaism and the destruction of the temple. The inscription on this arch of Constantine, however, ascribes his victory over the hated tyrant, not only to his master mind, but indefinitely also to the impulse of Deity; by which a Christian would naturally understand the true God, while a heathen, like the orator Nazarius, in his eulogy on Constantine, might take it for the celestial guardian power of the “urbs aeterna.”
At all events the victory of Constantine over Maxentius was a military and political victory of Christianity over heathenism; the intellectual and moral victory having been already accomplished by the literature and life of the church in the preceding period. The emblem of ignominy and oppression became thenceforward the badge of honor and dominion, and was invested in the emperor’s view, according to the spirit of the church of his day, with a magic virtue. It now took the place of the eagle and other field-badges, under which the heathen Romans had conquered the world. It was stamped on the imperial coin, and on the standards, helmets, and shields of the soldiers. Above all military representations of the cross the original imperial labarum shone in the richest decorations of gold and gems; was intrusted to the truest and bravest fifty of the body guard; filled the Christians with the spirit of victory, and spread fear and terror among their enemies; until, under the weak successors of Theodosius II., it fell out of use, and was lodged as a venerable relic in the imperial palace at Constantinople.
After this victory at Rome (which occurred October 27, 312), Constantine, in conjunction with his eastern colleague, Licinius, published in January, 313, from Milan, an edict of religious toleration, which goes a step beyond the edict of the still anti-Christian Galerius in 311, and grants, in the spirit of religious eclecticism, full freedom to all existing forms of worship, with special reference to the Christian. The edict of 313 not only recognized Christianity within existing limits, but allowed every subject of the Roman empire to choose whatever religion he preferred. At the same time the church buildings and property confiscated in the Diocletian persecution were ordered to be restored, and private property-owners to be indemnified from the imperial treasury.
In this notable edict, however, we should look in vain for the modern Protestant and Anglo-American theory of religious liberty as one of the universal and inalienable rights of man. Sundry voices, it is true, in the Christian church itself, at that time, as before and after, declared against all compulsion in religion. But the spirit of the Roman empire was too absolutistic to abandon the prerogative of a supervision of public worship. The Constantinian toleration was a temporary measure of state policy, which, as indeed the edict expressly states the motive, promised the greatest security to the public peace and the protection of all divine and heavenly powers, for emperor and empire. It was, as the result teaches, but the necessary transition step to a new order of things. It opened the door to the elevation of Christianity, and specifically of Catholic hierarchical Christianity, with its exclusiveness towards heretical and schismatic sects, to be the religion of the state. For, once put on equal footing with heathenism, it must soon, in spite of numerical minority, bear away the victory from a religion which had already inwardly outlived itself.
From this time Constantine decidedly favored the church, though without persecuting or forbidding the pagan religions. He always mentions the Christian church with reverence in his imperial edicts, and uniformly applies to it, as we have already observed, the predicate of catholic. For only as a catholic, thoroughly organized, firmly compacted, and conservative institution did it meet his rigid monarchical interest, and afford the splendid state and court dress he wished for his empire. So early as the year 313 we find the bishop Hosius of Cordova among his counsellors, and heathen writers ascribe to the bishop even a magical influence over the emperor. Lactantius, also, and Eusebius of Caesarea belonged to his confidential circle. He exempted the Christian clergy from military and municipal duty (March, 313); abolished various customs and ordinances offensive to the Christians (315); facilitated the emancipation of Christian slaves (before 316); legalized bequests to catholic churches (321); enjoined the civil observance of Sunday, though not as dies Domini, but as dies Solis, in conformity to his worship of Apollo, and in company with an ordinance for the regular consulting of the haruspex (321); contributed liberally to the building of churches and the support of the clergy; erased the heathen symbols of Jupiter and Apollo, Mars and Hercules from the imperial coins (323); and gave his sons a Christian education.
This mighty example was followed, as might be expected, by a general transition of those subjects, who were more influenced in their conduct by outward circumstances, than by inward conviction and principle. The story, that in one year (324) twelve thousand men, with women and children in proportion, were baptized in Rome, and that the emperor had promised to each convert a white garment and twenty pieces of gold, is at least in accordance with the spirit of that reign, though the fact itself, in all probability, is greatly exaggerated.
Constantine came out with still greater decision, when, by his victory over his Eastern colleague and brother-in-law, Licinius, he became sole head of the whole Roman empire. To strengthen his position, Licinius had gradually placed himself at the head of the heathen party, still very numerous, and had vexed the Christians first with wanton ridicule then with exclusion from civil and military office, with banishment, and in some instances perhaps even with bloody persecution. This gave the political strife for the monarchy between himself and Constantine the character also of a war of religions; and the defeat of Licinius in the battle of Adrianople in July, 324, and at Chalcedon in September, was a new triumph of the standard of the cross over the sacrifices of the gods; save that Constantine dishonored himself and his cause by the execution of Licinius and his son.
The emperor now issued a general exhortation to his subjects to embrace the Christian religion, still leaving them, however, to their own free conviction. In the year 325, as patron of the church, he summoned the council of Nice, and himself attended it; banished the Arians, though he afterwards recalled them; and, in his monarchical spirit of uniformity, showed great zeal for the settlement of all theological disputes, while he was blind to their deep significance. He first introduced the practice of subscription to the articles of a written creed and of the infliction of civil punishments for non-conformity. In the years 325-329, in connection with his mother, Helena, he erected magnificent churches on the sacred spots in Jerusalem.
As heathenism had still the preponderance in Rome, where it was hallowed by its great traditions, Constantine, by divine command as he supposed, in the year 330, transferred the seat of his government to Byzantium, and thus fixed the policy, already initiated by Domitian, of orientalizing and dividing the empire. In the selection of the unrivalled locality he showed more taste and genius than the founders of Madrid, Vienna, Berlin, St. Petersburg, or Washington. With incredible rapidity, and by all the means within reach of an absolute monarch, he turned this nobly situated town, connecting two seas and two continents, into a splendid residence and a new Christian Rome, “for which now,” as Gregory of Nazianzen expresses it, “sea and land emulate each other, to load it with their treasures, and crown it queen of cities.” Here, instead of idol temples and altars, churches and crucifixes rose; though among them the statues of patron deities from all over Greece, mutilated by all sorts of tasteless adaptations, were also gathered in the new metropolis. The main hall in the palace was adorned with representations of the crucifixion and other biblical scenes. The gladiatorial shows, so popular in Rome, were forbidden here, though theatres, amphitheatres, and hippodromes kept their place. It could nowhere be mistaken, that the new imperial residence was as to all outward appearance a Christian city. The smoke of heathen sacrifices never rose from the seven hills of New Rome except during the short reign of Julian the Apostate. It became the residence of a bishop who not only claimed the authority of the apostolic see of neighboring Ephesus, but soon outshone the patriarchate of Alexandria and rivalled for centuries the papal power in ancient Rome.
The emperor diligently attended divine worship, and is portrayed upon medals in the posture of prayer. He kept the Easter vigils with great devotion. He would stand during the longest sermons of his bishops, who always surrounded him, and unfortunately flattered him only too much. And he even himself composed and delivered discourses to his court, in the Latin language, from which they were translated into Greek by interpreters appointed for the purpose. General invitations were issued, and the citizens flocked in great crowds to the palace to hear the imperial preacher, who would in vain try to prevent their loud applause by pointing to heaven as the source of his wisdom. He dwelt mainly on the truth of Christianity, the folly of idolatry, the unity and providence of God, the coming of Christ, and the judgment. At times he would severely rebuke the avarice and rapacity of his courtiers, who would loudly applaud him with their mouths, and belie his exhortation by their works. One of these productions is still extant, in which he recommends Christianity in a characteristic strain, and in proof of its divine origin cites especially the fulfilment of prophecy, including the Sibylline books and the Fourth Eclogue of Virgil, with the contrast between his own happy and brilliant reign and the tragical fate of his persecuting predecessors and colleagues.
Nevertheless he continued in his later years true upon the whole to the toleration principles of the edict of 313, protected the pagan priests and temples in their privileges, and wisely abstained from all violent measures against heathenism, in the persuasion that it would in time die out. He retained many heathens at court and in public office, although he loved to promote Christians to honorable positions. In several cases, however, he prohibited idolatry, where it sanctioned scandalous immorality, as in the obscene worship of Venus in Phenicia; or in places which were specially sacred to the Christians, as the sepulchre of Christ and the grove of Mamre; and he caused a number of deserted temples and images to be destroyed or turned into Christian churches. Eusebius relates several such instances with evident approbation, and praises also his later edicts against various heretics and schismatics, but without mentioning the Arians. In his later years he seems, indeed, to have issued a general prohibition of idolatrous sacrifice; Eusebius speaks of it, and his sons in 341 refer to an edict to that effect; but the repetition of it by his successors proves, that, if issued, it was not carried into general execution under his reign.
With this shrewd, cautious, and moderate policy of Constantine, which contrasts well with the violent fanaticism of his sons, accords the postponement of his own baptism to his last sickness. For this he had the further motives of a superstitious desire, which he himself expresses, to be baptized in the Jordan, whose waters had been sanctified by the Saviour’s baptism, and no doubt also a fear, that he might by relapse forfeit the sacramental remission of sins. He wished to secure all the benefit of baptism as a complete expiation of past sins, with as little risk as possible, and thus to make the best of both worlds. Deathbed baptisms then were to half Christians of that age what deathbed conversions and deathbed communions are now. Yet he presumed to preach the gospel, he called himself the bishop of bishops, he convened the first general council, and made Christianity the religion of the empire, long before his baptism! Strange as this inconsistency appears to us, what shall we think of the court bishops who, from false prudence, relaxed in his favor the otherwise strict discipline of the church, and admitted him, at least tacitly, to the enjoyment of nearly all the privileges of believers, before he had taken upon himself even a single obligation of a catechumen!
When, after a life of almost uninterrupted health, he felt the approach of death, he was received into the number of catechumens by laying on of hands, and then formally admitted by baptism into the full communion of the church in the year 337, the sixty-fifth year of his age, by the Arian (or properly Semi-Arian) bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, whom he had shortly before recalled from exile together with Arius. His dying testimony then was, as to form, in favor of heretical rather than orthodox Christianity, but merely from accident, not from intention. He meant the Christian as against the heathen religion, and whatever of Arianism may have polluted his baptism, was for the Greek church fully wiped out by the orthodox canonization. After the solemn ceremony he promised to live thenceforth worthily of a disciple of Jesus; refused to wear again the imperial mantle of cunningly woven silk richly ornamented with gold; retained the white baptismal robe; and died a few days after, on Pentecost, May 22, 337, trusting in the mercy of God, and leaving a long, a fortunate, and a brilliant reign, such as none but Augustus, of all his predecessors, had enjoyed. “So passed away the first Christian Emperor, the first Defender of the Faith, the first Imperial patron of the Papal see, and of the whole Eastern Church, the first founder of the Holy Places, Pagan and Christian, orthodox and heretical, liberal and fanatical, not to be imitated or admired, but much to be remembered, and deeply to be studied.”
His remains were removed in a golden coffin by a procession of distinguished civilians and the whole army, from Nicomedia to Constantinople, and deposited, with the highest Christian honors, in the church of the Apostles, while the Roman senate, after its ancient custom, proudly ignoring the great religious revolution of the age, enrolled him among the gods of the heathen Olympus. Soon after his death, Eusebius set him above the greatest princes of all times; from the fifth century he began to be recognized in the East as a saint; and the Greek and Russian church to this day celebrates his memory under the extravagant title of “Isapostolos,” the “Equal of the apostles.” The Latin church, on the contrary, with truer tact, has never placed him among the saints, but has been content with naming him “the Great,” in just and grateful remembrance of his services to the cause of Christianity and civilization.
3. The Sons of Constantine. a.d. 337-361
For the literature see §2 and §4.
With the death of Constantine the monarchy also came, for the present, to an end. The empire was divided among his three sons, Constantine II., Constans, and Constantius. Their accession was not in Christian style, but after the manner of genuine Turkish, oriental despotism; it trod upon the corpses of the numerous kindred of their father, excepting two nephews, Gallus and Julian, who were saved only by sickness and youth from the fury of the soldiers. Three years later followed a war of the brothers for the sole supremacy. Constantine II. was slain by Constans (340), who was in turn murdered by a barbarian field officer and rival, Magnentius (350). After the defeat and the suicide of Magnentius, Constantius, who had hitherto reigned in the East, became sole emperor, and maintained himself through many storms until his natural death (353-361).
The sons of Constantine did their Christian education little honor, and departed from their father’s wise policy of toleration. Constantius, a temperate and chaste, but jealous, vain, and weak prince, entirely under the control of eunuchs, women, and bishops, entered upon a violent suppression of the heathen religion, pillaged and destroyed many temples, gave the booty to the church, or to his eunuch, flatterers, and worthless favorites, and prohibited, under penalty of death, all sacrifices and worship of images in Rome, Alexandria, and Athens, though the prohibition could not be carried out. Hosts now came over to Christianity, though, of course, for the most part with the lips only, not with the heart. But this emperor proceeded with the same intolerance against the adherents of the Nicene orthodoxy, and punished them with confiscation and banishment. His brothers supported Athanasius, but he himself was a fanatical Arian. In fact, he meddled in all the affairs of the church, which was convulsed during his reign with doctrinal controversy. He summoned a multitude of councils, in Gaul, in Italy, in Illyricum, and in Asia; aspired to the renown of a theologian; and was fond of being called bishop of bishops, though, like his father, he postponed baptism till shortly before his death.
There were there, it is true, who justified this violent suppression of idolatry, by reference to the extermination of the Canaanites under Joshua. But intelligent church teachers, like Athanasius, Hosius, and Hilary, gave their voice for toleration, though even they mean particularly toleration for orthodoxy, for the sake of which they themselves had been deposed and banished by the Arian power. Athanasius says, for example: “Satan, because there is no truth in him, breaks in with axe and sword. But the Saviour is gentle, and forces no one, to whom he comes, but knocks and speaks to the soul: Open to me, my sister? (Son_5:2) If we open to him, he enters; but if we will not, he departs. For the truth is not preached by sword and dungeon, by the might of an army, but by persuasion and exhortation. How can there be persuasion where fear of the emperor is uppermost? How exhortation, where the contradicter has to expect banishment and death?” With equal truth Hilary confronts the emperor with the wrong of his course, in the words: “With the gold of the state thou burdenest the sanctuary of God, and what is torn from the temples, or gained by confiscation, or extorted by punishment, thou obtrudest upon God.”
By the laws of history the forced Christianity of Constantius must provoke a reaction of heathenism. And such reaction in fact ensued, though only for a brief period immediately after this emperor’s death.