It was a strange experience for the Christian subjects of the Empire to find themselves not merely tolerated but even favored The open profession of belief by Constantino placed the long persecuted religion in a new light, and it is not difficult to conceive that vast numbers of all classes, under these new circumstances gradually joined the Christian communities. Licinius, the fellow Emperor of Constantine, it is true, was no real friend of Christianity; but the power and influence of the great Western Emperor from A. D. 313 to A. D. 321 ensured the freedom of Christian worship in the East where Licinius was supreme. A dispute and a short war between the two Emperors in A. D. 314, which ended in victory for the armies of Constantine, placed well-nigh all the provinces of Eastern Europe under the Western Sovereign.
In these years must be placed the foundation and, in some instances, the completion of not a few of the proud basilicas of the Constantinian period, notably the great churches of Peter on the Vatican, of Paul on the Ostian Way, of S. Laurence, of St. Agnes, and of the basilica and palace of the Bishops of Rome in the Lateran Gardens. These were in Rome; but in numberless cities of the Empire in these years churches were erected, some of great magnificence and splendidly adorned. Among these the basilica of Tyre is memorable owing to the detailed picture of this lordly fane contained in the inaugural discourse pronounced at Tyre by Eusebius. That such a magnificent building should arise in a city which had so lately taken the lead on the side of Paganism in the last days of the persecutions of Maximin Daia illustrates the power and opulence of the Christian party. "Nor would the Christian orator venture greatly to exaggerate the splendor of a building which stood in the midst of and provoked, as it were, a comparison with temples ot high antiquity and unquestioned magnificence." The basilica of Tyre was only one among the many stately churches which arose in these early years of the peace of the Church, in Rome and in the chief cities of the Empire. And the student, as he reads the great historian's description of the Tyre basilica, evidently of vast proportions, with its rich sculptures, its roofs of cedar, its pavements of inlaid marbles, its arrangements for carefully ordered services, is amazed at the latent power and resources of the Christian sect, which only needed a few years of assured peace and Imperial favor to create such mighty works and to develop a ritual so stately and so elaborate.
It has been sorrowfully remarked that while Constantine could give protection, he could not give peace to Christianity and its inner life. Very early in its days of unlooked for prosperity the Church was rent with internal dissensions. These first quarrels, to us who look back through the long waste of centuries, seem to have sprung from seemingly unimportant causes. The old questions respecting the different degrees of guilt incurred by the "Lapsi," or those who had fallen away in the late persecution, were fiercely agitated, especially in the provinces of North Africa, ever a fruitful soil for these sad disputes. The validity of the election of Caecilian, Bishop of Carthage, was called in question by a group of Numidian prelates, who alleged that he had been unlawfully consecrated by a certain Felix, Bishop of Aptunga, who, they said, had been a "traditor"—one who, under pressure, had given up to the Pagans the sacred books. The malcontents appealed to the civil power, and the Emperor relegated the cause to a council held at the Lateran under Miltiades, the Bishop of Rome, The Lateran Council decided in favor of Caecilian. The African malcontents were not satisfied. And, as a consequence, a rival bishop was set up in Carthage. Constantine, in the hope of avoiding a permanent schism in the North African provinces, summoned a council from all parts of the West to meet at Aries in Gaul. This Aries Council, which met in the year 314, was the greatest ecclesiastical assembly that had been known, numbering as it did over two hundred bishops. Pope Silvester, who had succeeded Miltiades as Bishop of Rome, was represented at Aries by two priests and two deacons. Again the decision was in favor of the legality of the consecration of Caecilian. The details of this long drawn out and dangerous controversy do not belong to the scheme of our history. But some of the canons passed at Aries must be briefly noticed, as they throw considerable light on the connection of the fast-growing Christianity with civil society in the reign of Constantino at this period, A. D. 314. One of the most remarkable of these canons forbade, under pain of excommunication, any Christian to take part as an actor in any of the public games so popular among the people, particularizing the parts of charioteer or comedian. Another canon of a different complexion supported with the weight of the Catholic Church, the duty of Christians towards the State by pronouncing the sentence of excommunication upon any Christian soldier who should, through any mistaken conscientious scruple, decline to perform his military duties.
The influence of the Christian bishops and others among the leading men at the Court of Constantino during the ten years of which we are speaking, A. D. 313-23, was very marked. Some forty years later, in the brief Pagan reaction, the Emperor Julian bitterly notices this, commenting upon Constantino as an innovator, as one who disturbed the ancient laws and upset the old customs.
Amongst the new remarkable laws which were promulgated in the Empire in these years and which were directly attributable to Christian influences was the rescript directing the celebration of the Christian Sabbath; it was cautiously worded, and bore no special allusion to the peculiar sanctity of the day in the eyes of the Christian communities. Out of deference, no doubt, to the votaries of the ancient religion, it was termed "the day of the Sun," but it was to be generally observed, the law courts were to be closed, and the noise and bustle of public business were no longer to disturb the repose of the holy day. The only legal work that might be transacted was that connected with the manumission of slaves, a strange exception, and one undoubtedly due to the new spirit which was brooding over the Imperial chancery, which at this time issued various laws bearing on the relief of the great slave class. Other ordinances were put forth under the same Christian inspiration, such as the abrogation of the laws inimical to celibacy. Laws, too, dealing with immorality were passed. The punishment of crucifixion was significantly abolished. One most important concession appears at this time, giving the Church the fullest power to receive the bequests of the pious, an ordinance which had far-reaching consequences in after ages.
But, although the Emperor had accepted the groundwork of the Christian revelation, and had evidently resolved, as far as his conception of imperative duties imposed upon him as Emperor allowed, quietly to assist and promote the interests of the religion which he believed to be true, he resisted any attempt made by the more favored sect to obtain through their religion any undue rights or privileges which, if acknowledged, might be inimical to the interests of the State. The ecclesiastical order had obtained, through the Imperial favor, an exemption from the necessity of serving in any of the burdensome and costly offices belonging to the municipalities; offices which at this time were disliked and, when possible, avoided, on the just plea that the duties attendant on such offices were incompatible with their religious obligations. To secure their exemption from a hated duty many entered the clerical order. To remedy this manifest abuse of a privilege, Constantine decreed that none were to be admitted into the sacred order except on the vacancy of a religious charge, and then only those whose want of fortune exempted them from these costly municipal functions.
The position of Constantine in these early years which succeeded the famous Edict of Milan was a somewhat strange one. He was a Christian not merely in name, but, as we have insisted, was reality persuaded of the truth of the great Christian doctrines. But, at the same time, he was the supreme head of the Pagan religion of the Empire, which certainly for some years after A. D. 313 was still professed by the majority of his subjects. Constantine never seems to have laid aside the Imperial rank of Pontifex Maximus, or to have dispensed with the ancient Pagan titles upon his medals and coins. His apologists, with some justice, plead that it was his desire to maintain the public peace and tranquility, which induced him to preserve these official ensigns of power over what was still the State religion. He was thus possessed of the supreme authority in both religions. Invested as he was with the right of superintending the ancient Pagan cult, he was enabled to restrict it in various ways, and gradually, without using any violent measures, to separate it from the ordinary social life of the citizens of the Empire, while it continued for a while to be the official worship. As early as A. D. 313, the year of the proclamation of the Edict of Milan, he declined to sanction the celebration of the secular games, the chief Pagan festival, and in the year 319 we find him forbidding all private sacrificial ceremonies. The public and official rites seem to have been continued, but they were by degrees shorn of their ancient pomp and distinction as the coldness and dislike of the Emperor became more and more manifest and apparent. The rapid decay of Paganism was witnessed with apprehension and dismay by the more earnest of the still very numerous party who, for various reasons, adhered to the old Roman cult.
In the year 323 a civil war broke out between the two Emperors, Constantino and Licinius. The Eastern Emperor, under the dominant influence of his greater colleague, had signed the Edict of Milan; but it seems that Licinius never really favored Christianity, and it was only with a halfhearted toleration that he suffered the worshippers of the Crucified openly to practise their religion in his Eastern dominions. It was to Licinius that the hopes of the Pagan party in the Empire turned when the rapid decay of their religion alarmed and disturbed them.
We have seen how in A. D. 314 discord between the two Emperors, in spite of the matrimonial connection—Licinius, it will be remembered, had married Constantine's half-sister, Constantia—precipitated a bitter civil war. This war ended in favor of Constantine, and the terms of peace included the cession to Constantine of the larger portion of the European dominions of Licinius. A hollow and uncertain peace which lasted some nine years from A. D. 314 to A. D. 323 succeeded. But the marked favor and encouragement showed by Constantine to Christians was viewed by his Eastern colleague with dislike and dread. Gradually the aversion of Licinius to Christianity was more and more openly manifested. Synods of clergy were at first forbidden, insulting decrees to Christian bishops were issued; in some of his provinces, in direct contravention of the Edict of Milan, Christian churches were closed, and at length a partial persecution was sanctioned. It was a final effort of Paganism to assert itself against the fast growing Christianity of the Empire. Once more a bitter civil war between the East and West blazed forth, which assumed the aspect of a contest of religions. Again the superior genius of Constantine, and probably his better-equipped and disciplined legions, enabled him, after a short struggle, to vanquish his adversary. The campaign was soon concluded by a naval victory and by the yet more decisive battle of Hadrianople, in which Licinius suffered a complete defeat.
The death of Licinius which quickly followed left Constantine sole master of the East and West. The first act of the conqueror was at once to withdraw the recently promulgated anti-Christian edicts of the late Emperor of the East, and to grant to the Eastern followers of the Crucified all the privileges which his Christian subjects in the West had been long enjoying. The year 323 witnessed what was virtually the close of the long drawn out struggle between Christianity and Paganism.