The Adoption of the Faith

[323-6]

For my own part, I hold any sedition within the Church of God as formidable as any war or battle, and more difficult still to bring to an end. I am consequently more opposed to it than to anything else.

Constantine the Great, opening the Council of Nicaea, AD 325

During the years of civil war, throughout which the holy labarum was invariably carried before him into battle and never failed - as he saw it - to bring him victory, Constantine turned more and more exclusively towards the God of the Christians. For some years, as we have seen, he had been legislating in their favour. Confiscated property was restored; the clergy were exempted from municipal obligations; episcopal courts were given the right to act as courts of appeal for civil cases. Other laws, too, suggest a degree of Christian inspiration, such as that of 319 prohibiting the murder of slaves, regardless of their offence; that of 320 forbidding prison authorities to maltreat those in their charge; or - most celebrated of all - the law of 7 March 321 proclaiming Sunday, 'the venerable day of the Sun', as a day of rest. (This might be thought to be a throwback to the worship of Sol Invictus; in fact, Sunday had been gradually replacing Saturday as the Christian sabbath since the days of St Paul, and had been already enjoined on the faithful by a church council held at Elvira in Spain fifteen years before.) But in none of this legislation even then, is the name of Christ himself mentioned or the Christian faith in any way professed.

Now at last, with the Empire safely reunited under his sole authority, Constantine could afford to come into the open. In the long prayer quoted at the end of the previous chapter he makes his persuasion clear:

Although mankind has fallen deeply, and has been seduced by manifold errors, yet hast Thou revealed a pure light in the person of Thy Son (lest the power of evil should utterly prevail) and hast thus given testimony to all men concerning Thyself.

On the other hand, there must be no coercion: pagans must be allowed to continue in the old faith if they choose to do so. The prayer goes on:

Let those, therefore, who are still blinded by error be made welcome to the same degree of peace and tranquillity which they have who believe . .. Let no man molest another in this matter, but let everyone be free to follow the bias of his own mind . . . For it is one thing voluntarily to undertake the struggle for immortality, another to compel others to do likewise from fear of punishment.

But, though paganism might be tolerated, there must be no heresy. If the Church were to stand henceforth as the spiritual arm of an indivisible Empire, how could it itself be divided? Unfortunately it was. For years Constantine had battled in vain against two schismatic groups, the Donatists in North Africa and the Meletians in Egypt. These fiercely intractable Christians refused to accept the authority of any bishop or priest who had defected from the Church during the Persecutions and returned to it later, thus denying the orthodox view that the moral worthiness of the minister-who, as St Augustine had pointed out, was only a surrogate for Christ - had no effect on the validity of the sacrament. (The Donatists indeed went even further, maintaining that all who communicated with the traditores were themselves infected, and that consequently, since there was but a single holy Church, it consisted of Donatists alone.) Now there had emerged a third faction - which, to judge by the number of adherents that it was collecting inside and outside the Church and the vociferousness with which it was upheld or denounced, threatened to sow more discord than the other two put together.

This group had formed itself around a certain Arius, presbyter of Alexandria, a man of immense learning and splendid physical presence who had been a disciple of the famous St Lucian of Antioch, martyred during the Persecutions. His message was simple enough: that Jesus Christ was not co-eternal and of one substance with God the Father, but had been created by Him at a specific time as his Instrument for the salvation of the world. Thus, although a perfect man, the Son must always be subordinate to the Father, his nature being human rather than divine. Here, in the eyes of Arius's archbishop, Alexander, was a dangerous doctrine indeed; and he took immediate measures to stamp it out. In 320 its propagator was arraigned before nearly a hundred bishops from Egypt, Libya and Tripolitania and excommunicated as a heretic.

The damage, however, was done: the teaching spread like wildfire.

Those were the days, it must be remembered, in which theological arguments were of passionate interest, not just to churchmen and scholars but to the whole Greek world. Broadsheets were distributed; rabble-rousing speeches were made in the market place; slogans were chalked on walls. Everyone had an opinion: you were either for Arius or against him. He himself, unlike most theologians, was a brilliant publicist; the better to disseminate his views, he had actually written several popular songs and jingles - for sailors, travellers, carpenters and other trades - which were sung and whistled in the streets.1

After his excommunication, however, he could not stay in Alexandria. Departing in haste, he made first for Caesarea where Eusebius, now Bishop, espoused his cause with enthusiasm; he then travelled on to Nicomedia itself, where he was warmly welcomed by Licinius and Constantia and where the Bishop - confusingly, another Eusebius -called a local synod which declared overwhelmingly in his favour. Another synod, this time of Syrian prelates drummed up by Eusebius of Caesarea, did likewise; whereupon Arius, his position immeasurably strengthened, returned to Egypt and demanded to be reinstated. Alexander refused, and serious rioting broke out.

By the autumn of 323, when Constantine assumed complete control of his Empire, what had started as a subtle point of theology had become a dangerous cause celebre, not only in Egypt but throughout the Levant. Strong measures, it seemed, would have to be taken if the situation were not to deteriorate further, and the Emperor accordingly dispatched Bishop Hosius of Cordova - who for the past ten years had been his principal adviser on Christian affairs - to Egypt, with orders to settle the dispute in whatever way he saw fit, once and for all. Not surprisingly, the Bishop failed. The next year he tried again; this time his instructions were to deliver a letter from Constantine himself, addressed impartially to the two protagonists:

Constantine the Victor, Supreme Augustus, to Alexander and Arius:

Having enquired faithfully into the origin and foundation of your differences, I find their cause to be of a truly insignificant nature, and quite unworthy of such fierce contention . . . Now therefore must ye both exhibit an equal measure of forbearance, and accept the advice which your fellow-servant feels justly entitled to give.

What is this advice? It was wrong ever to propose such questions as these, or to reply to them when propounded. For points of discussion which are enjoined

1 'We do him too much honour when we hail him as the father of religious music in the Christian church' (Dictionnaire de Theologie Catbolique, article on 'Arianism'). VC'e certainly do.

by the authority of no law, but rather suggested by a contentious spirit which is in turn the consequence of misused leisure, should be confined to our own thoughts, and neither hastily produced in public assemblies nor ill-advisedly entrusted to the public ear. For how very few are those who are able either accurately to comprehend or adequately to explain matters so sublime and abstruse.1

Wise counsel indeed - which, had it only been heeded over the centuries, would have spared the world untold bitterness and bloodshed. It fell, however, on deaf ears, and resulted only in bringing both Arius and Alexander separately to Nicomedia to lay their respective cases before the Emperor.

It was now, towards the end of 324, that Constantine decided on the final solution to the problem. There would be no more synods of local bishops; instead, there would be a universal Council of the Church - a Council of such authority and distinction that both parties to the dispute would be bound to accept its rulings. The first proposal was that it should be held in Ancyra - the modern Ankara; but the venue was soon changed to Nicaea (Iznik). Not only was this city more accessible; it was also nearer to Nicomedia - a point of no little importance, for it soon became clear that the Emperor had every intention of participating himself.

Nicaea too boasted an imperial palace; and it was here that the great Council was held, between 20 May and 19 June 325. Despite the Emperor's hopes for a large attendance from the western churches, these were poorly represented: the controversy was of little interest to them. Apart from Bishop Hosius there were only the Bishops of Calabria and Carthage, two others respectively from Gaul and Illyria, and a couple of priests, sent from Rome - more as observers than anything else - by Pope Sylvester. From the East, on the other hand, the delegates arrived in force: 270 bishops at the lowest count but in fact probably 300 or more, many of them with impressive records of persecution and imprisonment for their faith. The proceedings were opened by Constantine in person.

When the whole assembly was seated with due dignity, a general silence prevailed pending the Emperor's arrival. First, three of his immediate family entered in order of rank, then came others heralding his own approach — not the soldiers or guards who normally attended him, but friends in the faith. And now, all rising at the signal that indicated the Emperor's entrance, at last he himself proceeded through the midst of the assembly like some heavenly Angel of God, clothed in a garment which glittered as though radiant with light, reflecting the glow of a purple robe and adorned with the brilliant splendour of gold and precious stones. When he had advanced to the upper end of the seats, he at first remained standing; and when a low chair of wrought gold had been set for him, he waited to sit down until the bishops had signalled to him to do so. After him the whole assembly did the same.1

It is plain from Constantine's letter to the two chief disputants that the doctrinal point at issue interested him not at all. If not altogether a westerner by birth, he was certainly one by upbringing: despite a naturally religious nature, his military cast of mind had little patience with theological niceties. He was, however, determined to put an end to the controversy. He therefore played a prominent part in the ensuing debate, arguing, encouraging, assuaging ruffled feelings, forever urging the importance of unity and the virtues of compromise, and even on occasion switching from Latin into halting Greek in his efforts to convince his hearers.

It was he, too, who proposed the insertion, into the draft statement of belief, of the key word that was to settle, at least temporarily, the fate of Arius and his doctrine. This was the word homoousios - meaning consubstantial, or 'of one substance', to describe the relation of the Son to the Father. Its inclusion in the draft was almost tantamount to a condemnation of Arianism, and it says much for Constantine's powers of persuasion - and, it must be suspected, of intimidation too - that he was able to secure its acceptance. Many of the bishops of Arian sympathies protested, as might have been expected; gradually, however, he won them round, pointing out to them that the word was of course to be interpreted only 'in its divine and mystical sense' - in other words, that it could mean precisely what they chose it to mean. By the time he had finished, nearly all the pro-Arians - including both Bishops Eusebius -had agreed, albeit reluctantly, to sign the final document; only seventeen maintained their opposition - a number that the threat of exile and possible excommunication subsequently reduced to two.2 The Council had delivered its verdict: Arius, with his remaining adherents, was formally condemned, his writings placed under anathema and ordered to be burnt. He was also forbidden to return to Alexandria. His exile to

1 De Vita Comtantini, III, 10.

2 According to later legend, a number of bishops with Arian sympathies inserted the letter i - the Greek iota - into the controversial word in the copy of the declaration that each was obliged to sign, so that it read homoiousios, meaning 'of like substance’. This would, however, have been taking a considerable risk and there is no evidence that it was actually done.

Illyricum, however, did not last long; thanks to persistent appeals by the Arian bishops, he was soon back in Nicomedia, where events were to prove that his stormy career was by no means over.

Having dealt satisfactorily, as it imagined, with the Arian question, the Council turned its attention to other matters, including the proper date for Easter. In most of the oriental churches this was still calculated according to the Jewish calendar, without regard for the day of the week; in Alexandria and the West, on the other hand, the feast was always fixed on a Sunday - that following the first full moon after the vernal equinox. At Nicaea, it was probably the Emperor's passionate hatred of the Jews that decided the issue: he himself made it clear, in the circular letter that he addressed to the various churches after the Council,1 that the very thought of celebrating the Resurrection of Christ on the same day as the Passover filled him with horror. In any case the Council finally agreed that all Christendom should thenceforth adopt the western system, the correct date to be calculated each year at Alexandria and communicated to Rome for onward transmission to the churches.2

And so the first Ecumenical Council of the Christian Church was brought to its end, a month less a day after it began. For Constantine it had been a triumph. He had succeeded in getting every major issue settled in the way he had wished; still more important from his point of view, the voting had been almost unanimous. He had established not only a great confederacy of both the eastern and the western churches but also his own moral supremacy over it, binding Church and State together with bonds that were to remain unbroken for a thousand years. He had, in short, good reason to congratulate himself; and the bishops too, whom he pressed to stay on another few weeks in Bithynia so that they could attend his vicennalia the celebration of his twenty years on the throne - with the magnificent banquet that he proposed to give in their honour. Eusebius of Caesarea - who, like his namesake of Nicomedia, had somehow come to terms with his conscience over the Arian question - was naturally present, and describes the occasion with rapture:

Not one of the bishops was absent from the imperial banquet, the circumstances of which were splendid beyond description. Detachments of the Emperor's personal guard and other troops surrounded the entrance to the palace with

1.   De Vita Constantini, III, 18.

2.   This decision was observed for twelve and a half centuries; it was only after the correction of the calendar by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 that the Eastern and Western calendars got out of alignment once again.

 

drawn swords, and through the midst of them the men of God proceeded without fear into the innermost of the imperial apartments, in which some were the Emperor's own companions at table, while others reclined on couches arranged on either side. One might have thought that a picture of Christ's kingdom was thus foreshadowed, and that the scene was less like reality than a dream.1

When at last the bishops left, each carried with him a personal present, placed in his hands by the Emperor himself. They were, Eusebius tells us, deeply impressed by all that they had seen - just as Constantine had intended them to be.

Early in January 326, Constantine left for Rome. The Romans had been deeply offended by his decision to hold his vicennalia at Nicaea instead of in their city as tradition demanded; he had therefore agreed to repeat the celebration among them, as a means of smoothing their feelings and of showing them that they had not, after all, been entirely ignored. He was accompanied on the journey by several members of his family: his mother Helena, his wife the Empress Fausta, his half-sister Constantia, her stepson Licinianus and his own first-born, the Caesar Crispus. The party, however, was not a happy one, for relations among these individuals could hardly have been worse.

Helena, for a start, never forgot that Fausta was the daughter of the Emperor Maximian, the adoptive father of that Theodora who had stolen her husband Constantius Chlorus nearly forty years before; while Fausta for her part fiercely resented Constantine's recent elevation of his mother to the rank of Augusta - like herself - during the vicennalia celebrations of the previous year. For Constantia there was the memory of her husband Licinius, less than two years dead, murdered despite his brother-in-law's express undertaking to save his life; for her stepson, similar sentiments were made still more bitter by the reflection that his own hopes of power had been extinguished and that he was now obliged to stand by while his younger rival Crispus enjoyed those honours which should equally have been his. As for Crispus himself, for some time now he had been conscious of his father's growing jealousy - jealousy aroused by his splendid victory in the Hellespont (for which he had received scant recognition) and, even more, by his popularity with the army and citizenry, which by now comfortably exceeded the Emperor's own. In the past year, he had seen his command in Gaul taken from him and given to his stepbrother Constantine II - who was still little more than a child

1 De Vita Constantini. III, 15.

— and had been passed over for the 326 Consulate in favour of his still younger brother Constantius.

None of these reasons alone, however, could altogether account for the train of events that began, so far as we can make out, when the imperial party reached Serdica, or possibly Sirmium, some time in February. Suddenly and without warning, Crispus and Licinianus were arrested; a few days later, at Pola - the modern Pula - they were put to death. Shortly afterwards they were followed by another, still more august victim: the Empress Fausta herself, who met her fate in the calidarium of the bath-house - though whether by scalding, stabbing or suffocation by steam we shall never know.

What, we may ask, launched Constantine into this sudden frenzy of slaughter - which, according to his near-contemporary Eutropius, was subsequently extended to many of his friends as well? The existing evidence is far from clear. One possibility must be that Crispus, sensing the depth of his father's animosity and seriously concerned for his own future, deliberately plotted with Licinianus - who would have needed little encouragement to lend himself to such a conspiracy - for the Emperor's overthrow. The plot would have been discovered in time, and Constantine would have acted with his usual decisiveness. The later executions would have occurred as other members of his entourage were found to have been implicated.

Such a solution may be straightforward enough; but it fails to explain the fate of Fausta. Conceivably, she too might have been involved in an intrigue against her husband; after all, her father Maximian had also met his death at Constantine's hands. But that had been sixteen years before, and he had richly deserved it; besides, she had since borne her husband five children, a fact which suggests that she must have been at least in some measure reconciled to him. It seems, therefore, that we must look for another solution to the problem.

Unfortunately for Fausta's reputation, at least four ancient historians associate her in one way or another with the fate of her stepson. Aurelius Victor maintains that she encouraged Constantine to get rid of Crispus; Philostorgus agrees, adding that she deliberately fabricated slanders against the young Caesar, while herself having an affair with a man from the circus. Zosimus, however - writing admittedly in the following century - introduces a new element altogether. 'Crispus,' he writes, 'was suspected of having adulterous relations with his stepmother Fausta, and was therefore executed.'1 One might well be inclined to ascribe this

1 Historia, II, 29.

manifestly improbable story to the chronicler's known hostility towards Constantine and his whole family, were it not for the fact that it is to some extent confirmed by another fifth-century writer, St Apollinaris Sidonius, Bishop of Auvergne, who writes gleefully of the scurrilous couplet said to have been posted up on the doors of the palace on the Palatine Hill when the imperial party arrived in Rome:

Who would now want the golden age of Saturn? Ours is a diamond age - of Nero's pattern.*

If this theory is correct, there are three possibilities. The first is that Crispus and Fausta were indeed having an affair; why then, however, were they not executed at the same time? The second is that Crispus made proposals to Fausta, who angrily rejected them and informed his father; but if so, why was she executed at all? We are left with a third hypothesis: that Crispus had no designs of any kind on Fausta and was unjustly accused by her - perhaps, as Gibbon suggests, because be rejected her advances - and that Constantine, discovering the falseness of her allegations only after his son's death, ordered that she too must suffer a similar fate. According to Aurelius Victor, his informant on this occasion was his mother Helena, who would certainly not have been sorry to see her daughter-in-law receive her just deserts.

Constantine's second visit to Rome had not begun well. It continued, if anything, worse. News of the family upheavals had preceded him to the city, and had done nothing to diminish the sense of mistrust that he had long inspired there, particularly among the nobility. There were several reasons for this: as Romans, they had not forgiven him for holding his real vicennalia elsewhere, and were increasingly concerned by the reports reaching them of the splendid new city that was rapidly growing up by the Bosphorus; as Republicans - or at least inheritors of the republican tradition - they were scandalized at the sight of a ruler who appeared to be less a Roman imperator than an oriental potentate, robed in silk and damask and attended by a multitude of fawning courtiers; and as staunch upholders of the traditional religion, they deplored his desertion of the

*The age of Saturn - commemorated annually in the Roman saturnalia — had been, according to legend, one of unbounded sexual licence; Nero was popularly believed to have enjoyed incestuous relations with his mother Agrippina. The implications could hardly have been clearer.

old gods and his adoption of the despised Christian faith, which they associated with the rabble of the streets and the lowest dregs of Roman society. They saw their Emperor, in short, as a traitor not only to his religion but also - what was to them very nearly as important - to his class. They had watched, powerless, as the walls of his great new basilica rose ever higher next to the old Lateran Palace; and on 3 January 326, only months before his arrival in the city, they had sat in sullen silence while his nominee, one Acilius Severus, formally took office as its first Christian Governor.

And now, after thirteen years, he was back in their midst. They received him with all due ceremony, but left him in little doubt of their true feelings; as for his own, he scarcely troubled to conceal them. He appeared dutifully at the vicennalia celebrations; as on his previous visit, however, he categorically refused to participate in the traditional Capitoline procession to the Temple of Jupiter - waiting, we are told, until the parade was already drawn up before announcing his decision. By any standards, this was dangerous behaviour, giving as it did quite unnecessary offence both to the Romans and to his own soldiers, the large majority of whom were still pagan. It says much for their loyalty, and for Constantine's own self-confidence, that he should have felt himself able to ride roughshod over their susceptibilities in this way; had, perhaps, his recent domestic tragedy left him slightly unbalanced? It is hard otherwise to account for what was certainly, even for him, an unusually truculent and overbearing mood.

But if the Emperor showed himself less tactful and diplomatic towards his Roman subjects than on his previous visit after the battle of the Milvian Bridge, he proved if anything still more assiduous in his determination to make Rome a Christian city. He endowed another great basilica, dedicated this time to St Paul, at the site of his tomb - and near that of his martyrdom - on the road to Ostia;1 and another in honour of the Holy Apostles, on the Appian Way - personally carrying, we are told, the first twelve basketfuls of earth from the site, one for each of them.2 His most important creation of all, however, was the basilica that

1.   The present church of S. Paolo fuori le Mura is, alas, a reconstruction, replacing the ancient basilica built by Constantine's successors which was virtually destroyed by fire in 1823. The much-restored mosaics on the triumphal arch - the gift of Galla Placidia - arc still worth careful study, and the romanesque cloister is the finest in Rome; but of Constantine's own day nothing survives.

2.   Now known as S. Sebastiano, the present church is baroque through and through - though the catacombs beneath both it and its neighbour S. Callisto pre-date Constantine and are full of mystery and magic.

he commanded to be built above the traditional resting-place of St Peter on the Vatican Hill, close to Nero's Circus. This, so far as we can tell, must have been begun a year or two earlier, since it was consecrated on 18 November 326, within a few months of the Emperor's arrival.1

Constantine's frenetic building activity in Rome proves beyond all doubt that he saw the city as the chief shrine of the Christian faith, excepting only Jerusalem itself; and he was determined to do all he could to ensure that it would be architecturally and financially worthy of its dignity. Personally, on the other hand, he never liked it, or felt at home in it, or stayed in it a moment longer than he could help. His heart was in the East, and it was there that the body of his work was to be done. Soon after the consecration of his Vatican basilica he left the old imperial capital for the last time. There was another city, eight hundred and more miles away, where he was awaited with impatience by whole regiments of architects, builders and engineers.

He had business in Byzantium.

1 It is consequently difficult to accept the old tradition that Constantine marked out the ground plan of the basilica with his own hands, just as he had delineated the walls of Constantinople. As everybody knows, old St Peter's was demolished by Pope Julius II at the beginning of the sixteenth century; the present building was consecrated 1,300 years to the day after its predecessor, on 18 November 1626. Between 1940 and 1949, excavations in the grotti Vaticane revealed the remains of a monument that may actually mark the tomb of St Peter.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!