By Amy Zahn
When most people hear the name “Constantine,” all they think is the word “Christian.” And there’s good reason for that – Constantine was the first Christian Roman emperor, after all.
However, there is much more to his story than just that.
Most people don’t know, for instance, that Constantine wasn’t even meant to be emperor in the first place. He had to dismantle the existing system of government – Diocletian’s Tetrarchy – and win a civil war to take power!
Additionally, his religious affiliation, one of Constantine’s most identifying features, is a topic of debate. Was he truly Christian? Or was his abrupt change of heart, right before battle, yet another skillful move by a political mastermind?
But let’s rewind to the time before Constantine came to power…
Constantine’s predecessor, Diocletian, reigned from 284-305 CE and made sweeping changes to the way the empire was governed. Not only did he abolish the age-old practice of having only one emperor, but in his belief that the empire had become too large to be governed by a single man, he divided Rome into two parts, the east and west.
Under this revolutionary new system, there would be one emperor called an Augustus to rule each half of the empire. Each Augustus would have a “deputy” emperor called a Caesar, both of whom would be groomed to eventually take the place of his Augustus. (NB: Since Roman succession was traditionally hereditary, this change was a big deal.)
Diocletian’s system of government would be called the Tetrarchy because the empire was, in effect, actually split into four parts, since the Caesars each governed large provinces as well.
When Diocletian created the Tetrarchy, he made himself Augustus in the east, and Maximian, a soldier, Augustus in the west. Their two Caesars were Galerius and Constantius, respectively, two other experienced soldiers.
By 301, Diocletian was in his sixties and ready to retire. To ensure an orderly succession, he wanted Maximian, his fellow Augustus, to retire as well so that they could both be succeeded by their Caesars.
Maximian learned of this in 304 when he was told that both he and Diocletian would be celebrating 20 years in power, despite the fact that Maximian had actually been emperor for a year less than Diocletian. Maximian was also informed that he was being forced to retire, and that Diocletian had taken the liberty of selecting the new Caesars.
However, Maximian and Constantius, both of whom had sons who were old enough to inherit the empire, were not pleased to see that traditional succession by inheritance was being totally snubbed in favor of this new system. In fact, Diocletian had not even reached his retirement palace in Solonae when Constantius, now senior Augustus, had begun to scheme.
During this time Constantius’ son, the one and only Constantine, had been residing at the court of his father’s co-Caesar, Galerius. Unfortunately, Constantius died shortly after requesting that his son be returned to him, leading his army to declare that the son, Constantine, was now emperor. This infuriated many people, and after a series of conflicts that came to a head in 311, Rome’s future was in the hands of two factions: one in favor of Constantine, and the other in favor of Maxentius, the son of Maximian.
Our attention now turns to Constantine’s famous conversion to Christianity.
The year was 312, and his conflict with Maxentius was still in full swing. Like most rulers, Constantine had adopted a guardian divinity, the Sun god, who was supposedly offering him protection and guidance. Being a deeply religious person, Constantine most likely truly believed that gods spoke to him, and he had begun to wonder about a strange god he had heard about – the god of the Christians.
This is where history becomes a little fuzzy. Because of our lack of primary sources, nobody can ever really know what happened during this part of Constantine’s invasion of Italy, though we do have some ideas. We know that Constantine declared his faith for a new god, one he referred to as “mens divina,” or “divine mind.” We cannot be sure, however, which god this was, since contemporary sources do not tell us, and it does not appear that Constantine himself was very specific.
Thus, most of our information about this crucial time comes from Eusebius of Caesarea, our main primary source about Constantine. According to Eusebius, Constantine told him that:
“about the time of the midday sun […] he saw with his own eyes, up in the sky and resting over the sun, a cross-shaped trophy formed from light, and a text attached to it which said, ‘By this conquer.’”
Eusebius then goes on to describe the next event in Constantine’s conversion, a dream in which:
“the Christ of God appeared to him with the sign which had appeared to him in the sky, and urged him to make himself a copy of the sign […] and to use this as protection against the attacks of the enemy.”
Then, on October 28, Maxentius was defeated in a pivotal battle near the Milvian Bridge. Constantine had won.
As far as most people are concerned, this was the start of the new Christianized Roman Empire. With nearly all of Constantine’s adversaries safely out of the way (with the exception of his longtime ally, Licinius, who Constantine eventually declared war on and defeated), Constantine was more or less free to do as he wished. This is why his moves as emperor are puzzling; rather than make any decisive actions for or against either Christianity or paganism, Constantine appears to have been playing both sides.
For example, the language of the Edict of Milan, a proclamation of religious freedom issued by Constantine and Licinius in 313, is extraordinarily gentle to both Christians and Pagans. Christians were to be permitted to practice “freely and without molestation,” and all others were granted “full authority to observe that religion which each preferred.”
Also noteworthy is the Arch of Constantine, which is littered with pagan imagery. It features both the Sun and Moon gods driving chariots, and its inscription attributes Constantine’s victories to an ambiguous, unnamed god – not any pagan god, and not the god of the Christians. This intentional ambiguity, as well as the imperially sanctioned pagan imagery that was commonplace during this time, might suggest that Constantine had not truly converted to Christianity as he claimed.
After all, why would a Christian emperor allow pagan ideals to run rampant in his empire? And why would he initially act so openly tolerant towards beliefs so different than own? (Remember, in the ancient world, this was rare.)
So, then, did Constantine truly convert to Christianity at the fabled battle at the Milvian Bridge, or was his conversion, as many suspect, something other than sincere? The question then is this: What political benefit, if any, could Constantine have gained from a disingenuous conversion to another religion?
To answer this, one must recall that Constantine took power by force and had a rather flimsy claim to the throne. Something else to remember is that the Romans were, at their core, a deeply traditional people. Long-established customs, particularly regarding religion, were revered and something that the average Roman profoundly believed in.
Further, Christianity was historically a very disliked religion in the empire, and had undergone persecution under several emperors, including the quite recent Diocletian. This indicates that there was no political benefit to be had from pretending to convert; in doing so, he risked alienating the empire by snubbing their traditions with a strange religion they despised.
In this context, it is easy to see why a Christian Constantine was so willing to allow many aspects of paganism to flourish in his empire. Why would somebody whose claim to power was sketchy at best and totally illegitimate at worst want to trifle with his peoples’ most ancient, revered, beliefs?
The answer is, he wouldn’t.
And Constantine didn’t. This is evidenced by the Edict of Milan and the Arch of Constantine, among other instances of pagan ideas that appeared under his rule. In order to govern successfully, Constantine needed legitimacy and a secure seat on the throne, and he could not accomplish these things by taking over an empire and immediately doing away with its religion.
Thus, his fabled conversion and subsequent actions as emperor seem to suggest that he had, in fact, actually converted. The evidence of him suddenly starting to worship a god that he refused to initially name in 312 supports this, and his decisions after this conversion evoke a man desperate for the acceptance of the empire he had just taken over, despite his newfound religion.
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