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CONSTANTINE AND THE COMING OF THE CHRISTIAN STATE

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We have received from Divine Providence the supreme favour of being relieved from all error.

THE EMPEROR CONSTANTINE IN A LETTER TO THE CHURCH IN ALEXANDRIA 1

In the fourth century Christianity became the “official” religion of the Roman empire. The emperor responsible for ending Diocletian’s persecution of Christians and bringing Christianity into the structure of the state was his successor, Constantine. Constantine’s story is often simply told. He has a vision sent by God before a major battle (the battle of the Milvian Bridge, outside Rome), wins the battle and then converts to Christianity. It is often assumed that Constantine simply and wholly accepted the authority of the church, which was now able to conduct its business openly, consolidate its doctrine and proceed to convert the masses. The main reason why this story has so often been accepted so uncritically is that our major source for his exploits is the Life of Constantine by Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea. Eusebius writes, as would be expected, from a Christian perspective, and he shapes his evidence accordingly—but he is also writing a new form of biography, that of the Christian hero, and his Life of Constantine is openly panegyrical. His account, for instance, equates Constantine with Moses, who received evidence of God’s support through divine signs. So too does God offer divine signs, visions and opportune military victories to Constantine.

Recent research, however, is emphasizing another Constantine. Outside Eusebius’ Life, there is virtually no evidence that suggests that Constantine knew anything much about Christ or even of the requirements for Christian living. His main concern may rather have been to ensure that the growing Christian communities supported his imperial rule, but, shrewd political leader that he was, he also carefully maintained his relationship with paganism to a degree that Eusebius was unwilling to admit. In a recent assessment by H. A. Drake: “Constantine’s goal was to create a neutral public space in which Christians and pagans could both function . . . [and] he was far more successful in creating a stable coalition of both Christians and non-Christians in support of this program of ‘peaceful co-existence’ than has generally been recognised.”2

According to this interpretation, the battle of the Milvian Bridge, rather than being a conversion to Christianity in the traditional sense of the word, was a means by which Constantine could provide a rationale for his support for Christianity. Ironically (and here Constantine’s lack of knowledge of Christianity becomes apparent), it meant creating a false link between Christianity and success in war that was subsequently integrated into the Christian tradition. The importance of this can hardly be exaggerated.

Constantine’s family roots lay in the Balkans. His father, Constantius, came from Illyria and had served as governor of Dalmatia, the Roman province along the east of the Adriatic Sea, before being made one of the empire’s two Caesars by Diocletian and given control in the west.3 Constantine, born in 272 or 273, was by then twenty and old enough to start his own career. His first appointment was as a tribune, an officer of the imperial guard, at Diocletian’s court. He was soon on active service against the Sassanids, in the east, and the Sarmatians, one of the many migratory tribes on the empire’s northeastern frontiers. Then, released to join his father in the west, Constantine arrived in York in 306, just before Constantius died. Constantius’ bereaved troops acclaimed his son as an Augustus, but Diocletian’s successor as Augustus in the east, Galerius, would not accept such a dramatic promotion, and Constantine had to accept the more junior post of Caesar. He showed himself to be one of the finest commanders the empire had yet seen. He had a dominating personality, was a superb organizer (it was under Constantine that many of Diocletian’s administrative and military reforms were finally implemented) and a decisive, if often brutal, general. He had soon brought the Rhine under control, as well as all of the western empire outside Italy and the African provinces that had been seized by Maxentius, the son of Diocletian’s co-Augustus, Maximinian, in 307. By 307 Galerius had been forced to face political reality and acknowledge Constantine as co-Augustus of the empire. Even this was to prove too confining for Constantine, who could see the Tetrarchic system collapsing around him as rival Caesars and usurpers (Maxentius among them) struggled for power. By 310 he had broken free of the Tetrarchy and stressed his independent legitimacy as the son of his father. Panegyrics to Constantine that survive from the years immediately after Constantius’ death assume that Constantius is among the gods and that Constantine, “similar to you [Constantius] in appearance, in spirit and in the power of empire,” 4 holds power on earth as a symbol of his father’s immortality. Constantine also stressed his independence from Diocletian’s Tetrarchy by stretching Constantius’ own legitimacy back to an early-third-century emperor, Claudius Gothicus, emperor A.D. 268–70, whose major victory over the Goths at Naissus (Constantine’s birthplace) in 269 blunted their strength for over a century. With a line of descent from an earlier emperor and divine support assumed through his father, Constantine had now established a firm claim to rule the western empire in his own right. It was an early indication of his political shrewdness and ambition.5

If Constantine’s legitimacy depended on the support of the gods, then his own conception of the divine becomes crucial for understanding his reign. His early allegiances were entirely conventional. When in 307 he married, as a second wife, Fausta, the daughter of Maximinian, who had abdicated as Augustus in 305, he adopted Maximinian’s favoured protecting god, Hercules. By 310, when he asserted his descent from Claudius Gothicus, he claimed that Apollo had appeared to him in a vision (clearly Constantine’s favoured method of receiving divine messages), offering him a laurel wreath and promising that he would rule for thirty years. About the same time he became intrigued by the cult of Sol Invictus, the cult of “the unconquered sun.” The sun, as the source of light and heat, had traditionally been integrated into an enormous variety of spiritual and philosophical contexts. Apollo had been associated with the sun since the fifth century B.C., while in the fourth century B.C. Plato had used the sun as a symbol of supreme truth, “the Good,” the apex of the Forms. The cult of Sol Invictus had been imported from Syria in the third century. It had proved popular among soldiers, and the emperor Aurelian (270–75) had built a massive temple to the cult in Rome. So when Constantine began using the sun as a mark of imperial power, often portraying himself on coins or statues with rays coming from his head, he was exploring a well-recognized symbol of both spirituality and power. Like many of his predecessors as emperor, he had a fine appreciation of the value of visual propaganda and he knew how to use a variety of symbols to enhance his image.

Then, in 312, Constantine moved against Maxentius. As he made his way through Italy, Maxentius sent three armies in succession to confront him. All were defeated. Finally, Maxentius himself marched north from Rome to where the Via Flaminia, the main road to the north, crossed the Tiber. Here he pulled down the Milvian Bridge, replacing it with a bridge of boats that could be broken up if Constantine tried to cross. It proved a disastrous strategy. Defeated on the far side of the bridge, Maxentius and his men fled back over it towards Rome. Under the weight of panicking soldiers, the “bridge” disintegrated and Maxentius was drowned with hundreds of his men. All Italy and then the provinces of north Africa were in Constantine’s grasp.

Constantine announced that his victory was due to the support he had received from “the supreme deity,” by which Christians such as Eusebius claimed he meant the God of the Christians. The earliest account we have is from two or three years after the battle. Lactantius, a convert to Christianity, reported that Constantine had had a dream the night before the battle in which he was commanded to place the “heavenly sign of god,” the chi-rho sign, on his soldiers’ shields, and he did so. Many years later Constantine, apparently under oath, told his biographer Eusebius a somewhat different version of the story. At some point before the battle, it is not clear when, a cross of light had appeared in the skies above the sun. (The placing of the cross by the sun in Constantine’s memory seems significant.) It was inscribed “By this sign, conquer,” and this command had been confirmed in a dream when Christ himself had appeared to Constantine and asked him to inscribe a cross on his standards as a safeguard against his enemies.6 In another section of Eusebius’ Life Constantine provides a wider perspective for his “conversion.” He tells his biographer how he was struck by how his father, unlike all his immediate predecessors, had died while still emperor and had bequeathed his power to his son. This made him think that whichever god Constantius supported must be the most dependable. Yet who was this god? Constantine did not know (he had after all been separated from his father for a crucial thirteen years), but apparently on the basis that Constantius believed in “a supreme god” and had stood aside from the persecutions of the Christians in Diocletian’s reign, Constantine had assumed that it was the God of the Christians.7

Within a few months of the battle Constantine had declared that Christianity should be tolerated, and within a year he had started an enormous building programme of churches, in a traditional (pagan) exercise of patronage that transformed the Christian communities. There is no doubt, therefore, that Constantine’s victory was associated with a programme of active support for the Christian churches, but was Constantine’s “conversion” quite as sudden and dramatic as the Christian commentators suggest? H. A. Drake argues that it was not.8 Constantine was, as we have suggested, a shrewd political operator. As he had observed earlier attempts to eradicate Christianity, he must have realized that they they were fruitless. They were simply reinforcing the very precedent, that of martyrdom, with which the harassed Christians already identified. If there was to be harmony in the empire, something more imaginative was required, perhaps a political volte-face as a result of which Christianity could be integrated into the state. It was a mark of Constantine’s political genius and flexibility that he realized it was better to utilize a religion that already had a well-established structure of authority as a prop to the imperial regime rather than exclude it as a hindrance. Drake argues that this idea of integrating rather than rejecting Christians may have grown in Constantine’s mind as the failure of the persecutions became obvious, and that he used the victory at the Milvian Bridge as a platform from which to launch his new policy.

The adoption of Christianity was not, however, to prove entirely straightforward. Constantine knew so little about Christianity that he immediately ran into difficulties. First, Christ was not a god of war. The Old Testament frequently involved God in the slaughter of his enemies, but the New Testament did not. Constantine would have to create a totally new conception of Christianity if he was to sustain the link between the Christian God and victory in war. Second, it was crucial for Constantine’s political survival that he did not break with the pagan cults that still claimed the allegiance of most of his subjects, yet Christianity emphatically rejected paganism; many Christian groups would never accept a relationship with a state still condoning paganism. Some very careful political manoeuvring was necessary if Constantine was to avoid offending either Christian or pagan. Finally, while Constantine might have hoped for a church that could be subservient to him, he found one racked with disputes and power struggles. This became even more apparent when he came to power in the east and confronted the maelstrom of conflict and rivalry among the Greek-speaking Christians.

Once he had announced his “conversion,” Constantine’s first task was formally to end the persecutions by ensuring toleration for Christians. Galerius’ successor in the eastern empire, Licinius, anxious to strengthen his own precarious position, made an alliance with Constantine in 313, and they jointly issued a proclamation in Milan, usually known as the Edict of Milan, that henceforth Christianity, and all other cults, would be tolerated throughout the empire. Any buildings damaged as a result of the persecutions of Christians would be restored.

With salutary and most upright reasoning, we resolved on adopting this policy, namely that we should consider that no one whatsoever should be denied freedom to devote himself either to the cult of the Christians or to such religion as he deems best suited for himself, so that the highest divinity, to whose worship we pay allegiance with free minds, may grant us in all things his wonted favour and benevolence.

So Constantine effectively brings the Christians back into the Roman community without jeopardizing the position of any other religious belief. A “highest divinity” is assumed, but the concept, as we have seen, could be as easily used in the pagan world as the Christian and offered no conflict with Constantine’s desire for political harmony. This edict deserves an honoured place in European history as the first proclamation of the right to freedom of worship, an idea implicit in Roman government but never stated so clearly as here.9

Three years after his victory at the Milvian Bridge, Constantine was honoured by a grand triumphal arch in the centre of Rome (it still stands by the Colosseum), supposedly erected by a decision of the Senate of Rome but clearly a further statement of his new policy. The arch is conventional in form and is notable for its use of reliefs removed from monuments to earlier emperors, Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. This may have been the result of a desire to get the arch finished before the tenth anniversary of Constantine’s accession to power, but it has also been suggested that Constantine wished to associate himself with “good” emperors, even though, of course, they had not been Christians. The imagery of the arch contains no suggestion of the influence of Christianity. There are, in fact, reliefs of Mars, Jupiter and Hercules, all traditional gods of war, and Constantine’s victory at the Milvian Bridge is associated with the power of the sun and the goddess Victory. The depiction of the battle itself shows no sign of the Christian visions or Christian symbols on the soldiers’ shields. Elsewhere on the arch Constantine is shown in traditional imperial roles, making a speech in the Roman Forum and handing out poor relief. On an inscription on the arch, Constantine’s victory is credited to the “instigation of the Divinity,” and bearing in mind that this was by now conventional pagan terminology, no one could have been offended by it.10

For committed Christians, the idea that their support might have been sought for purely political reasons would have been abhorrent. In so far as theirs was a religion requiring absolute dedication and the rejection of all other cults, conversion meant a complete change of lifestyle and the rejection of the conventional values and beliefs of Greco-Roman society. Constantine may not have been aware of this. As a traditional Roman, he had been brought up in a society where allegiance to several cults could be held simultaneously, as his own patronage of Hercules, Apollo and Sol Invictus shows. He seems to have assumed that Christianity would be the same and that any involvement he might have in Christian rituals would not be at the expense of earlier allegiances. This would explain why he continued to use the traditional imagery of the sun to support his authority. Constantine was still issuing coins bearing images of Sol Invictus as late as 320, and in the great bronze statue he later erected to himself in the Forum in Constantinople he was portrayed with the attributes of a sun-god, with rays emanating from his head.

One reason why this pagan association was so successful in maintaining the emperor’s status was that the sun was also used in Christian worship and symbolism. The resurrection was believed to have taken place on the day of the sun, the most important day of the week for Christian worship (as the English word “Sunday” still suggests). A third-century fresco from the Vatican Hill in Rome even shows Christ dressed as the sun-god in a chariot on his way to heaven. The Christian writer Lactantius, who was writing at this time, urged Christians to observe the sun as if it were heaven and a symbol of “the perfect majesty and might and splendour” of God. “It is likely,” concludes J. W. Liebeschuetz in his perceptive study of Constantine’s proclamations, Change and Continuity in Roman Religion, “that in the minds of many fringe Christians, Jesus and the sun were closely associated.”11 In the fifth century Pope Leo was to rebuke Christians at St. Peter’s for turning their backs on St. Peter’s tomb and standing on the front steps of the basilica to worship the rising sun.12 Remarkably, the main festival of Sol Invictus was the day of the winter solstice, December 25, adopted by Christians in the fourth century as the birthday of Christ. In short, the sun was a symbolic image through which Constantine could be presented effectively to both Christian and non-Christian audiences, thus maintaining his neutral position between opposing faiths. Constantine’s balancing act continued. Liebeschuetz suggests that imperial panegyrics, or at least those written in Latin, are, after 321, “written in terms of a neutral monotheism which would be acceptable to Christians and pagans alike.”13 Later in his reign Constantine authorized the city of Hispellum on the Flaminian Way in Umbria to build a temple “in magnificent style” to the cult of his family, another indication of his reluctance to abandon traditional worship.

However, despite his balanced policy towards both pagan and Christian, nothing can obscure the scale of the commitment Constantine showed to Christianity. He started with the granting of special favours to Christian clergy, in particular exemption from the heavy burden of holding civic office and taxation. Earlier emperors had granted exemptions to specific groups (doctors, teachers, athletes are among those recorded) but never, outside the special circumstances of Egypt, to clergy. The exemption was, in Constantine’s words, so that the clergy “shall not be drawn away by any deviation and sacrifice from the worship that is due to the divinity, but shall devote themselves without interference to their own laws . . . for it seems that, rendering the greatest possible service to the deity, they most benefit the state.”14 Here Constantine appears to be tying the Christian communities into the service of the state. He may have felt that only a powerful gesture such as tax exemption would succeed in allaying the distrust of Christians after so many decades of persecution by the state. However, he may not have foreseen the consequences. He appears to have been genuinely surprised at the number and diversity of communities calling themselves Christian, and soon after his victory he had to face the dilemma of whether to give patronage to all of these or to privilege some communities more than others. The issue arose first in north Africa. The provinces there, part of Maxentius’ territory, had surrendered to Constantine, who had acknowledged the bishop of Carthage, Caecilian, with imperial patronage, granting the clergy of his diocese exemptions from civic duties and taxation. Rival African bishops protested, claiming that Caecilian had no right to hold office, and thus receive imperial support, because he had been consecrated by a bishop who, during Diocletian’s first persecution, had surrendered the scriptures to the authorities to be burned—in other words, who had compromised with paganism. As Cyprian, the influential bishop of Carthage martyred in the previous century, had decreed, such a bishop had no legitimacy. The dissenting bishops went on to elect their own bishop of Carthage, Majorinus. Majorinus was succeeded by one Donatus in 313, and it is as the Donatists that the dissenters are remembered.

Writing to an official on the matter, Constantine expressed his fear that his own position as the ruler favoured by God would be jeopardized by these internal squabbles. He wrote: “I consider it absolutely contrary to the divine law that we should overlook such quarrels and contentions . . . whereby the Highest Divinity may perhaps be roused not only against the human race but also against myself, to whose care he has by his celestial will committed the government of all earthly things.”15 Reading between the lines, one might assume that Constantine’s real concern was that his policy of using the Christian churches as a stabilizing force for his regime was unravelling as their dissensions became increasingly apparent. He referred the dispute to two successive councils of bishops, one in Rome, the other in Gaul. Neither supported the Donatists, and in 316 Constantine withdrew his patronage from them. The evidence suggests that at first he had no clear preference for either group but that with time he became increasingly irritated by the rigid stance of the Donatists, who were clearly reluctant to compromise with the state and accept its authority.16Constantine could hardly have foreseen the momentous consequences of his decision for the western empire. By isolating the Donatists, who made up the vast majority of Christians in north Africa, he helped to define in the western Christian communities that were left what was to become the Roman Catholic Church.

Whatever his religious concerns, Constantine’s major preoccupations remained military ones. Between 313 and 315 he campaigned with further success along the northern borders of the empire, but he was also set on further expansion of his power within. He remained co-emperor with Licinius, his fellow signatory of the Edict of Milan. Licinius had married Constantine’s half-sister, Constantia, and the two emperors appeared on coins together. However, both were ambitious men. In 316 they fell out, and Constantine forced Licinius to cede his European provinces, although he allowed him to remain as Augustus of his remaining eastern provinces. The final settlement came in 324 when Constantine won two major victories over Licinius and forced him to abdicate. Licinius was executed in 325 and his son Licinius II, who had been appointed a Caesar in 317, was killed a year later. Constantine was supreme within the empire.

The eastern empire with its long and rich cultural history was very different from the provinces of western Europe. It was also much more heavily Christianized, and a tradition of intense debate over doctrine was more deeply embedded than it had been, or ever became, in the west. The bishops of the great sees lived in continuous rivalry with each other. Constantine was shocked by what he found. Eusebius wrote: “The bishop of one city was attacking the bishop of another . . . populations were rising up against each other, and were all but coming to physical blows, so that desperate men, out of their minds, were committing sacrilegious acts, even daring to insult the images of the emperors.” Addressing a group of bishops some years later, Constantine vented his own exasperation at their squabbles: “Even the barbarians now through me, the true servant of God [sic], know God and have learned to reverence him while you [the bishops] do nothing but that which encourages discord and hatred and, to speak frankly, which leads to the destruction of the human race.”17 In short, his political position was threatened by the endemic political and doctrinal disunity of the Christian Greeks. Almost immediately he was confronted by a major dispute between the bishop of the important see of Alexandria, Alexander, and a presbyter in the diocese called Arius. It concerned the central problem of Christian doctrine, the relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son. The dispute had erupted dramatically when Arius interrupted one of Alexander’s sermons and Alexander, supported by other local bishops, had him excommunicated.

Few areas of church history have been so completely rewritten in the past twenty years as the “Arian controversy.”18 Traditionally church historians have suggested that an “orthodox” understanding, which accepted Jesus the Son as divine and fully part of the Godhead, was already in place by the 320s and that Arius challenged this “orthodoxy” with his claim that Jesus had been created as “Son,” thus distinct from a pre-existing God and subordinate to him as Father. This tradition relied heavily on the main contemporary source for Arianism, the polemical anti-Arian writings of Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria from 328 to 373. In these Arius and all those who failed to accept the “orthodox” position were grouped together and excoriated. Later historians drew heavily on Athanasius. H. M. Gwatkin, for instance, writing in 1882, condemned the Arians with this trenchant judgment based on Athanasius’ work: “On the one side their doctrine was a mass of presumptuous theorising, supported by alternate scraps of obsolete traditionalism and uncritical textmongering, on the other it was a lifeless system of unspiritual pride and hard unlovingness.” 19Recently, however, historians have begun to decode Arianism. They have found that the movement Athanasius dubbed “Arian” was much broader and more complex than Athanasius had suggested and had a great deal of scriptural and theological backing.

To see the strength of the Arian position and why Arianism proved so difficult to eradicate from the Christian tradition, we might begin with some excerpts from the Gospels.20 Many passages suggest that Jesus himself saw God as somehow distinct from himself. Take, for instance, Mark 10:18, where Jesus says, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Again, in his agony at Gethsemene (Matthew 26:39), Jesus calls on God. “ ‘My father,’ he said, ‘if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it.’ ” In John 17:3 Jesus prayed, “And eternal life is this: to know you, the only True God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (that is, knowledge of God is distinguished by the “and” from knowledge of Jesus Christ). Similar passages are to be found in Paul’s Epistles. The last verse of the Epistle to the Romans reads: “. . . it is all part of the way the eternal God wants things to be. He alone [sic] is wisdom; give glory therefore to him through [sic] Jesus Christ for ever and ever.” The author of Hebrews (5:8), writing some time before A.D. 70, states, “Although he was the Son he learned to obey through suffering; but having been made perfect [the implication being that at some stage he was less than perfect], he became for all who obey him the source of eternal salvation and was acclaimed by God with the title of the High Priest of Melchizedek.” Then there is the verse from Proverbs (8:22) in which Wisdom, often identified by Christian exegetes with Christ, proclaims that “Yahweh created me when his purpose first unfolded, before the oldest of his works,” in other words, Christ, if identified with Wisdom, was a distinct creation. Drawing on such passages and ignoring those that were not so favourable to their interpretations, the Arians urged that Jesus was in some way distinct from and subordinate to God his Father, and perhaps essentially different in nature. Arian writings repeatedly return to the scriptures, in particular the Synoptic Gospels, for support.

In this the Arians drew on earlier Christian tradition. Many of the earlier Church Fathers, including Justin Martyr, Clement and Origen— the last two Alexandrians themselves—treated Jesus the Son as somehow derivative from the Father. Origen, perhaps the greatest of the early biblical scholars, used many of the texts cited above to make his point that the Son derives from the Father as the will derives from the mind. When Arius claimed to Alexander that he was following “our faith from our forefathers, which we have learnt from you,”21 these were the formidable theologians whose work he could draw on. As Richard Hanson has written: “Indeed, until Athanasius began writing every single theologian, east and west, had postulated some form of Subordinationism . . . it could, about the year 300, have been described as a fixed part of catholic [the word being used here in the sense of universal] theology.”22

The Arians also learned from those Platonists who had tried to link the eternal world of the Platonic Forms with the actual world of creation. As we have seen, the Platonists provided analogies that could be used to describe a supreme unchanging god, Plato’s highest Form, and a subordinate entity, logos, the eternal principle of reason or Word that provided a link with the lower created world. This was all part of the much wider debate within paganism over the distinction between the divine power of a supreme deity and the manifestations of that power. Jesus could be equated with logos, as John had done in the famous opening verses of his Gospel as early as the end of the first century. The vital point, Arius seemed to be arguing, was that the logos required a separate act of creation by God, God Himself being indivisible and self-sufficient, and hence if Jesus was logos he was subordinate to the Father, although, of course, high in the Platonic hierarchy compared to the mass of humanity below. Arius appears to have believed that in fact the logos was created at the beginning of time with the supreme and distinct role of mediator of his Father’s glory, a view that, if Christ was equated with Wisdom, received backing from the verse of Proverbs. In fact, it was this verse which became the centrepiece of the Arian argument and the most difficult for its opponents to refute. What clinched the matter for many Arians was the suffering of Christ so vividly portrayed in the Gospels. The key verse here was the agonized cry of Jesus recorded by Mark (15:34): “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Surely God the Father as a supreme unmoving force above all things (note here again the influence of Platonism) was unable to suffer or “feel” anything. The fact that Christ could and did suffer, and called on God to rescue him from his suffering, was “proof” that he was a lesser divinity.23

So when Arius challenged Alexander, he believed he was representing a theological position that could be cogently justified, with philosophy and tradition backing the scriptures. Jesus was divine (that was the only possible interpretation of John’s famous prologue, “And the Word was made flesh”—although some still argued that Jesus was merely human and had been “adopted” by God), but he was a distinct creation of God the Father, who became in fact “the Father” through the act of creation. There was no reason why God, as all-powerful, could not create a subordinate being, a “Son,” to act out his purposes in the material world, but Jesus’ exact status, in particular in his role as logos, the “Word” of John, and the ways in which he was similar to and different from his Father, were still disputed (which is why it is unwise to speak of a single coherent Arianism). 24 It was particularly difficult for those brought up on Platonism to accept a Platonic Form that had appeared as a human being.

This was the controversy facing Constantine, threatening his dream of political stability. Used to the more fluid spiritual allegiances of the Roman world, he could not believe that such “idle and trivial” speculations could cause so much unrest. As he complained in a letter to Arius and Alexander:

The cause of your difference has not been any of the leadership doctrines or precepts of the Divine Law, nor has any new heresy respecting the worship of God arisen among you. You are in truth of one and the same judgement: you may therefore well join in communion and fellowship . . . the Divine commandment in all its parts enjoins on us all the duty of maintaining a spirit of concord.25

He went on to stress how much the squabbling Christians could learn from pagan philosophers about how to conduct their disputes. By this time, however, the controversy had spread as other bishops had associated themselves with one side or the other. Constantine had to act if he was to achieve any stable support from the Christians, and so he took the initiative in calling a council of bishops at which he could enforce an agreed definition of Christian doctrine to be backed by the state. So was initiated the process by which church doctrine was decided in councils of bishops called under the auspices of the emperor; all church councils up to the eighth century conformed to this model.

The bishops were to assemble at the imperial palace at Nicaea in Asia Minor. Constantine knew he had to create an impact, and he spared no effort in doing so. Eusebius, who was present, described the emperor as “like some heavenly angel of God, his bright mantle shedding lustre like beams of light, shining with the fiery radiance of a purple robe, and decorated with the dazzling brilliance of gold and precious stones.” Those who beheld him were said by Eusebius to be “stunned and amazed at the sight—like children who have seen a frightening apparition.”26 The setting was designed to support the image, with the emperor sitting in a prominent place on a chair of gold. Constantine opened the council himself with a formal speech in Latin (reinforcing his distance from the Greek-speaking participants). Later Byzantine mosaics and frescoes (that from the monastery of the Great Lavra on Mount Athos, for instance) show Constantine as the central figure of the council, larger than the bishops assembled around him. Later tradition asserted that there were 318 bishops present, but the actual number was probably smaller; 318 was the number in the “domestic army” which Abraham gathered to rescue Lot (Genesis 14:14), an analogy used by later commentators on the Nicene Council as the number of bishops who rescued “orthodoxy” from the clutches of “heresy.” With almost no exceptions they were easterners—such debates had largely bypassed the Latin-speaking Christians. The bishop of Rome was represented only by observers.

Accounts of the Council of Nicaea are fragmentary, but we can assume that Constantine’s determination to establish a consensus, his dominating presence and the growing dependency of the church on him for patronage combined to give him an overpowering position. In his analysis of Constantine’s opening speech, H. A. Drake shows how it was cleverly worded so as to stress the overriding need for harmony, fulsomely (if prematurely) praising the bishops for their own (assumed) desire to reach this end. If they settled this controversy, Constantine assured his listeners, they would be “at the same time acting in a manner most pleasing to the supreme God, and they would confer an exceeding favour” on their “fellow-servant” the emperor.27 It was, after all, peace which was his aim.

The council began with the production of a creed drawn up by Eusebius, who was probably the most learned of the bishops present. It was conciliatory and cleverly avoided all the issues raised by Arius, stating belief first in God, then in Jesus Christ and then in the Holy Spirit. Jesus was “first born of all creation and begotten from the Father before all ages.” This sidestepped the question of whether there was a time when Jesus was “not.” The word “begotten” became crucial here, because it is possible to beget something of oneself without creating something new, and thus the word could be used to deny that Jesus was a separate creation. There was no mention of the relationship between Father and Son. Yet the creed which emerged from the conference was markedly different. First it included a statement that Jesus Christ “is of the substance (ousia) of the Father . . . true God of true God . . . consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father.” It ended with a number of anathemas condemning specific Arian beliefs, notably that there was a time that Jesus had never existed and that Jesus was of a different substance from the Father. The creed even condemned the view that Jesus had a separate hypostasis, or personality, from the Father, taking the creed close to the extreme Sabellian position.

It is impossible to know from the surviving evidence how or why the word homoousios, “of identical substance,” was introduced, although Eusebius later told his congregations that it was at the specific command of Constantine. It had no basis in scripture (as its opponents were repeatedly to stress in the years to come) and had seldom been used in theological discussions. In fact, at a council of bishops held in Antioch in 268, the word had been condemned as heretical, apparently on the grounds that a term implying a material entity was inappropriate to use for referring to God.28Plotinus had indeed used the word ousia, substance, to describe the common attributes of “the One,” the nous, and world-soul, but it seems only to have been later in the century, in the writings of the Cappadocian Fathers (see below, pp. 188–89), that Plotinus’ terminology entered Christian theology. One view is that the word may have been introduced at Nicaea because Arius himself had specifically condemned the use of homoousios as a term to describe the relationship between God and Jesus, and it was deliberately used to emphasize the rejection of Arius.29

It is also not known why the council rounded so emphatically on Arius. The most likely explanation, although this suggestion can only be tentative, is that an impatient Constantine simply forced the formula through in the hope of quelling the dispute. He may have sensed that a majority of the council opposed Arius and capitalized on its mood. There were also political advantages in having Christ within the Godhead rather than, as in the Arian formulations, a distinct figure outside it. Christ, a figure of peace rather than war, a representative of opposition to the empire who had actually been executed by a Roman governor, fitted nowhere in Constantine’s conception of Christianity—he may even have been an embarrassment. If he were kept apart as a distinct figure, what allegiances to the state might he not undermine? This may well explain why Christ plays such little part in Constantine’s theology; Alistair Kee goes so far as to argue that “Christ had no part in the religion of Constantine.”30 The homoousios formula allowed Christ’s identity to be subsumed in the Godhead. In doctrinal terms, of course, the formula had no precedent, and there is certainly some evidence that the bishops had to be pressured by Constantine into accepting it. In his Life of Constantine Eusebius has the emperor “urging all towards agreement, until he had brought them to be of one mind and one belief on all the matters in dispute.” A letter also survives in which Eusebius tries to explain to his flock in Caesarea why he signed a creed that differed in important ways from the one he had presented to the council. He pretends that the word “substance” is really of little importance, but he is clearly very uneasy about the creed.31 It was unlikely that the bishops, dependent as they were now on the patronage and support of Constantine, would have been able to resist him. The result was an enormous majority for the new creed, but Constantine used his own imperial powers to order the excommunication and exile from their sees of Arius and two of his closest supporters who refused to sign it. Nevertheless, wrote Eusebius, “the Faith prevailed in an unanimous form . . . ,” and he concludes, “When these things were finished, the Emperor said that this was the second victory he [sic] had won over the enemies of the Church, and held a victory-feast to God.” The churches had in fact succumbed to Constantine’s own conception of their role.

The Council of Nicaea has a hallowed place in Christian history as the first ecumenical council and as the moment of the first expression of the Nicene Creed, still used as the essential expression of orthodox Christian faith today. Yet this status was acquired only much later, when the creed, in an expanded form, was endorsed by another emperor, Theodosius I, at the Council of Constantinople in 381. In the short term, no one seems to have taken the council or its creed seriously. As Jaroslav Pelikan puts it in his study of the making of Christian doctrine, “[Other than Arius and the exiled bishops] all the rest saluted the emperor, signed the formula and went on teaching as they always had.” He continues: “In the case of most of them, this meant a doctrine of Christ somewhere between that of Arius and that of Alexander.”32

It is significant that within ten years of the Council of Nicaea all the leading supporters of the Nicene Creed had been deposed, exiled from their sees, or otherwise disgraced. Traditionally this has been seen as the retaliation of frustrated Arians, but this is much too simplistic a judgment. There was a variety of reasons for the depositions, but they can certainly be read as suggesting that no bishop gained any lasting status as a result of supporting the creed, and that many of them felt uneasy about the defeat of subordinationism. In 343 Bishop Ossius of Cordoba, who had been a leading figure at Nicaea, felt free to suggest a different creed at a conference of western bishops at Serdica. It did not include the word ousia and contained no reference to either the Nicene Council or its creed.33 The first mention of the council as ecumenical, and hence authoritative, comes only in the 350s, when Athanasius, Alexander’s successor as bishop of Alexandria, who had attended Nicaea, revived homoousios.34

It seems that Constantine himself realized that his enforced creed did nothing to maintain the allegiance of the majority of the Greek-speaking Christian communities, who remained Arian. His agenda required that consensus be maintained and that Christians should be brought so far as possible under the umbrella of the state.35 Freed from the immediate pressures of the council, Constantine actually began to move towards reconciliation with the Arians. The two exiled bishops were returned to their sees. Arius himself was welcomed personally by the emperor and his views (probably modified from those previously held) now declared to be orthodox. Bishop Alexander was ordered to reinstate Arius. He died without doing so, and his successor, Athanasius, also refused to carry out the order. Athanasius, who had shocked his fellow bishops by the violence with which he enforced his authority in Egypt, was the kind of hardline and intransigent bishop that Constantine knew would destroy his carefully balanced settlement, and he exiled him to Gaul, about as far from Alexandria as he could be sent.

Eventually, in 335, Constantine summoned Arius to Constantinople and ordered the bishop there to admit him to communion. However, there was a bizarre ending to the affair. The bishop, an opponent of Arius, apparently prayed that God should show who was right in the controversy by allowing only either himself or Arius to live to attend the service. The day before the service, Arius died, somewhat dramatically, of a haemorrhage in a public latrine in Constantinople. It was a convincing enough sign of God’s will for some (the pro-Nicene Ambrose of Milan went so far as to claim that the fact that Arius’ bowels spilled out showed that God equated him with the traitor Judas, who had suffered the same undignified end [Acts 1:18–19]), but the Arian tradition did not die with him. When Constantine himself was finally baptized it was at the hands of an Arian bishop, Eusebius of Nicomedia (not to be confused with the Eusebius who was Constantine’s biographer). The Nicene Creed appeared to be dead—even, in terms of what Constantine had hoped to achieve, a failure. If the issues had not been revived in the 350s, the council might have occupied no more than a footnote in history.

Those impressed by Constantine’s adoption of a Christian God might have hoped that he would have adopted Christian ethics. However, he appears to have shown no interest in the message of the Gospels. Rather, he attempts to use Christianity as a means of bringing order to society. In a letter issued to the peoples of the eastern empire in 324, Christianity is described as “the Law,” the basis of a regulated way of life under the auspices of a single god.36 Constantine did make divorce more difficult, requiring stated offences to be given as a reason, and he included infanticide in a law on murder. He banned crucifixion and public branding (and he may have banned sacrifices, although there is some scholarly dispute about this),37 but in many other of his laws he maintained a traditional Roman brutality—he shows none of the studied saintliness of the more devout medieval kings of Europe, for example. If a free woman had a sexual relationship with a male slave, both were to die, the slave by being burnt alive. Slaves who were found to be an accessory to the seduction of a young girl were to have molten metal poured down their throats. Christians played very little part in Constantine’s administration, and the army remained pagan. Nor did Constantine show any interest in creating a society of greater social equality, being concerned rather to maintain traditional distinctions. He enlarged, rather than diminished, the senatorial order, and at Constantinople, his “new Rome,” he created a second Senate as well as according the city one of the empire’s two consuls. Constantine’s personal brutality was shown in a mysterious incident in which his second wife, Fausta, and Crispus, his son by his first wife, Minervina, were executed in Italy in 326. According to the pagan historian Zosimus (writing much later), Crispus was suspected of having an affair with Fausta, his stepmother. Crispus was disposed of, but Constantine’s mother, Helena, took the death of her grandson so badly that to appease her Constantine had Fausta killed as well, drowned in an overheated bath. The event shocked non-Christians as much as it did Christians. One pagan source even suggests that it drew Constantine closer to Christianity because the Christians offered forgiveness for an offence no pagan would condone. It has also been suggested that Helena’s famous expedition to the Holy Land was a penance demanded by the church for her part in the affair.38

The murders certainly overshadowed the visit to Rome that Constantine made in 326 as part of the celebrations to mark the completion of his first twenty years in power. Quite apart from the tensions caused by the death of his son and his wife, Constantine found it difficult to know which ceremonies to attend. He had retained the ancient title of pontifex maximus, the head of the priesthood, but, under pressure from Bishop Ossius of Cordoba, who appears to have acted as his ecclesiastical adviser, it is said that he refused to carry out the traditional sacrifices on behalf of the army on the Capitoline Hill and that many were offended. Inside the city his benefactions were conventional ones. He completed a great basilica begun by Maxentius on the edge of the Forum and graced it with an enormous statue of himself, the head of which survives in the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitoline Hill in Rome. The impressive ruins of the basilica also stand. He also rebuilt parts of the Circus Maximus, the great hippodrome that ran alongside the Palatine Hill. His sensitivity to the pagan traditions of Rome was shown by the way in which he directed his patronage to the Christian communities of the city. The earliest Christian churches were confined to sites outside or on the edge of the city (the churches of St. John Lateran [originally dedicated to Christ the Redeemer] and St. Peter’s on the Vatican Hill), and, although their interiors were extraordinarily opulent, their exteriors appear to have been kept deliberately plain so as to avoid offending pagans.

It is understandable, however, that with his personal position in Rome so insecure, Constantine would have looked elsewhere for a city in which to make his centre of government. Rome had, of course, the additional disadvantage of being far from the empire’s borders and useless as a base for defending the empire. Constantine might have expanded one of the major cities of the north, Trier, Milan or Nicomedia, all suitable for the defence of the northern borders, but he wanted to craft a new foundation to celebrate his own glory. He chose an ancient Greek city, Byzantium, which occupied a stunning and well-defended site overlooking the southern end of the Bosphorus and had an important strategic position on the main routes between east and west. Byzantium had been enlarged by the Roman emperor Septimius Severus in the 190s, but it remained small enough to be completely replanned.

As its name suggests, Constantinople was Constantine’s city. 39 This is an important point because there has been considerable debate over whether Constantinople was founded as a Christian city or not. The issue arose because of Eusebius’ misleading claim, in his attempt to assert the Christian commitment of Constantine, that Constantinople was always wholly Christian and without a single pagan temple. For its founder this was not relevant; this was the city of Constantine, not of Christ, and Constantine may even have deliberately chosen a city without a Christian history to stress the point. Many elements of the foundation were traditional. According to the fifth-century historian Philostorgios, Constantine traced the line of the future walls of the city with a spear just as a Greek founder would have done. Pagan statues and monuments were brought from all over the empire to grace the public spaces, and the hippodrome, where the finest were grouped, appears to have been modelled on the Circus Maximus in Rome. Jerome tells of whole cities being stripped of monuments—among those known to have been taken by Constantine were the column commemorating the Greek victory over the Persians in 479 B.C. from Delphi (the base survives today in Istanbul), statues of Apollo, one of them possibly also from Delphi, and of the Muses from Mount Helicon in Boeotia. Eusebius is deeply embarrassed by these pagan imports, and he resorts to suggesting that Constantine used them as “toys for the laughter and amusement of the spectators,” but there is no evidence for this and, rather, ample evidence that many pagan statues remained in place as respected monuments for centuries to come. This was simply another example of Constantine using pagan symbolism when it suited his purpose. 40

In fact, Constantine recognized that Byzantium’s protecting goddesses had to be respected. The most ancient of these was Rhea, the mother of the Olympian gods. Another important deity was Tyche, the personification of good fortune, who was believed to be able to protect and bring prosperity to cities. Constantine honoured them both with new temples. His most ambitious plans, however, were to create a central complex of forum, hippodrome and imperial palace as a setting for his own majesty. The hippodrome (enlarged from one built by Severus) had an imperial box placed halfway along its length that could be entered directly from the palace. The emperor and his successors were able to stage-manage their own imperial displays. In the circular forum, on one of the highest hills of the city, Constantine erected a great porphyry column twenty-five metres high and arranged for it to be crowned by a gold statue of himself; the column still stands, in battered form, today. Here the emperor was again associated with the sun, whose rays spread from the statue’s head.41 There was another forum built in honour of Constantine’s mother, Helena (whose status appears to have been elevated after the death of Crispus and Fausta), and a major basilica in which the newly created Senate would meet.

All this was dedicated on a great day of celebration in May 330, as much a celebration of Constantine as of his city. A gold coin was struck to mark the occasion, and it showed Constantine gazing upwards in a pose made famous by Alexander the Great. Around his head ran an opulent diadem. The day’s ceremonies began in the presence of Constantine with the lifting of the great gold statue of the emperor onto its column. Dressed in magnificent robes and wearing a diadem encrusted in jewels, Constantine then processed to the imperial box. Among the events that followed one stood out: the arrival in the hippodrome of a golden chariot carrying a gilded statue of the emperor. The statue held a smaller figure of Tyche. For the next 200 years, the ritual drawing of the statue and chariot through the hippodrome was to be re-enacted on the anniversary of the dedication. (The gilded horses, which stood with the chariot between ceremonies and said to be already ancient at the time of the ceremony, may well be the same ones which the Venetians plundered for St. Mark’s when they sacked the city in 1204.)42

Where did Christianity fit into all this? In the original celebrations hardly at all. Space was, however, reserved in the centre of the city for churches, but their titles—Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom, Hagia Eirene, Holy Peace, and Hagia Dynamis, Holy Power—suggest that Constantine was once again deliberately using formulas that were as acceptable to the pagan world as to the Christian. According to Eusebius, statues of the Good Shepherd were erected on fountains in the city. “The Good Shepherd,” like the sun, was a symbol used by both pagans and Christians.43 It was keeping the consensus which was important: the only saints honoured with churches were local martyrs, and it was not until the end of the century that Constantinople could be seen as a fully Christian city.

In April 337 Constantine realized he was dying. Only then did he allow himself to be baptized. In the last weeks of his life (he died on May 22) he discarded the imperial purple and dressed himself in the white of the newly baptized Christian. He had already built his final resting place within Constantinople, and it provided an apt testimonial to how he saw himself in relation to the Christian God. He was buried in a circular mausoleum, his tomb lying under the central dome. Placed around the tomb were twelve sepulchres—each the symbolic burial place of one of the original Apostles; Constantine was to be the thirteenth. To orthodox Christians this might seem blasphemous, but it is consistent with Constantine’s perception of himself in relation to the “supreme deity.” After all, as Constantine had once told a meeting of bishops: “You are bishops of those within the church, but I am perhaps a bishop appointed by God over those outside.” 44 His position and his strategy required that he keep his distance from the institutional church. It is remarkable that there is no evidence that Constantine ever attended a church service. (The records suggest that bishops were summoned to attend him in his palaces.) After his death his sons issued a coin to commemorate their own consecratio. On one side it bore Constantine’s veiled head and an inscription, “The deified Constantine, father of the Augusti”; on the other Constantine is seen ascending to heaven in a chariot with God’s hand reaching out to welcome him, a portrayal similar to those of his pagan predecessors.45 His links to the traditions of pagan Rome were preserved to the last.

Constantine’s impact on the empire was dramatic, not least through his reassertion of the empire as a single political unity under one emperor. He had allowed Christianity to consolidate itself within his empire in a way that would not have seemed possible thirty years before, and he had achieved the remarkable feat of doing this without alienating those “pagans” drawn to monotheism, as many now were. However, by bringing Christianity so firmly under the control of the state, even to the extent of attempting to formulate its doctrine at Nicaea, Constantine was severing the traditional church from its roots. A host of new tensions—over the nature of Christian authority and where it lay, the appropriate use of material wealth for Christians now the subject of state patronage, the basis on which doctrine rested (the scriptures or imperially controlled councils)—had been created. Even today, 1,600 years later, many of them have not been resolved.

One of the most important of Constantine’s legacies was the creation of a relationship between Christianity and war. Constantine was a brilliant and effective soldier, and he associated his continuing success with the support of the Christian God. Once he had used the victory at the Milvian Bridge as a platform for the granting of toleration to Christians, each new victory strengthened the link. Eusebius makes the point succinctly, describing him as:

the only Conqueror among the Emperors of all time to remain Irresistible and Unconquered, Ever-conquering and always brilliant with triumphs over enemies, so great an Emperor . . . so God beloved and Thrice blessed . . . that with utter ease he governed more nations than those before him, and kept his dominion unimpaired to the very end.46

In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius refers to Constantine as “God’s Commander-in-Chief.” So a new element enters the Christian tradition. When the papacy and the Roman Catholic Church came under sustained attack for the first time in the Reformation, the Medici pope Leo X (pope 1513–21) ordered a great room to be built in the Vatican. Known as the Sala di Constantino, it had an unashamedly propagandist purpose. Its frescoes, by Raphael, show the early popes from Peter onwards and then, in four great scenes, the achievement of Constantine. One fresco shows the vision of the cross, another the battle of the Milvian Bridge itself. Leo associated himself with the victory. The palle from the Medici coat of arms are on Constantine’s tent, and lions, a reference to Leo’s name, are also found on the tent, with another depicted on a standard. At a moment of crisis and confrontation, this was the event the pope chose to highlight. As late as 1956 Pope Pius XII refused the right of conscientious objection, acknowledging in effect the overriding power of the state. “A Catholic may not appeal to his conscience as grounds for refusing to serve and fulfill duties fixed by law.”47 Constantine would have approved.

However, the problem of how to present Jesus, the man of peace, in this new Christian world, persisted. The ultimate response was to transform him, quite explicitly, into a man of war. By the 370s Ambrose, bishop of Milan, is able to state in his De Fide that “the army is led not by military eagles or the flight of birds but by your name, Lord Jesus, and Your Worship.”48 In the Archiepiscopal Chapel in Ravenna (c. 500), Jesus is shown dressed as a Roman soldier trampling a lion and an adder beneath his feet. There is, of course, no New Testament source for the presentation of Christ as a soldier (other than one in the Book of Revelation, where a warrior for justice [often assumed to be Christ] appears from heaven on a white horse with “a sharp sword to strike the pagans with” [19:11–16]), and, as has already been suggested, a military image was particularly inappropriate when it is remembered that Jesus was crucified by Roman soldiers as an enemy of the empire. The mosaicist had to draw on the more appropriate models offered in abundance by the Old Testament, as in Psalm 91:13, where the supplicant is promised that with the help of God he will survive battle and “tread on lion and adder, trample on savage lions and dragons.” This extraordinary transformation of Jesus’ role is a mark of the extent to which Constantine forced Christianity into new channels. (A step further is taken when, on the eleventh-century bronze doors of San Zeno Maggiore in Verona, Christ is shown being nailed to the cross by Jews rather than by soldiers.)

This chapter has viewed Constantine as an emperor who in traditional Roman terms was one of the most successful the empire had yet seen. The achievements of Diocletian in rallying and refocusing the empire after the catastrophes of the third century were remarkable enough, but under Constantine Diocletian’s reforms had been consolidated and the empire had been reunited under a single emperor who had survived in power longer than any since Augustus. Moreover, the empire’s borders had been successfully defended and even, in Dacia, extended. None of this could have been achieved if Constantine had not been supremely self-confident, able and brutal when he needed to be. This was not a man who felt any need to compromise or be diverted from his primary commitment to the maintenance of his own position as emperor and to the defence of the empire. Yet, remarkably, Constantine also sustained religious toleration to a degree unknown before him. The question was whether the newly enriched and privileged Christian communities would settle happily under state power or whether they would unsettle it by continued dissension.

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