Faith, History

Saint Constantine, Christian Emperor

Saint Emperor Constantine the Great, Equal to the Apostles is one of the most influential men in all of history. As John Julius Norwich, a Byzantine historian has written, he perhaps deserves the title of “the Great” more than anyone else given such a title throughout history. However, to compare him to men like Alexander the Great is perhaps unjust – Constantine was a holy man, a Saint, who as tradition holds him, was Equal to the Apostles. He should be ranked among his equals, then, not among those other conquerors lacking piety, only renowned for their military feats. Constantine was not just a brilliant general, but a brilliant ruler, and a brilliant Christian. He was the sword of God, sent to lead the Church out of the Catacombs. Just as Prophet Joshua brought God’s people into the Promised Land with a sword, Constantine brought God’s people out of the Catacombs with a sword. Here we find a more fitting comparison, one I have explored earlier. Constantine should be measured up against other holy kings, generals, and emperors, both those before and after him. However, he is certainly one of a kind, and for those holy rulers that came after him, he is the standard they are called to meet. Truly each Emperor crowned in Constantinople must have wondered if they could live up to the glory and devotion of Constantine, the seemingly destined warrior of Christ that marked the beginning of a new Empire, an Empire that wasn’t an enemy of Christianity, but an Empire that was Christian.

Some may disagree with me when I assert that Constantine was a Christian. To them, the western academic view prevails. Constantine merely sympathized with Christianity, this sympathy only turning into faith on his deathbed. Much of this hinges on the myth that he was baptized right before he died, and baptized not by any bishop, but an Arian bishop. I call this a myth because it is most likely a myth – one embraced by historians and the faithful alike. Even though many who venerate Emperor Constantine will justify this theoretical baptism, considering it the result of a personal theological misunderstanding, some even saying that it only helps illustrate his faith more so, this account is not the only one of Constantine’s baptism. Lesser known is his baptism at Rome, a baptism that occurred much earlier in his life, where both he and his son were baptised. We read from the chronicle of Saint Theopanes the Confessor the most probable reality of this situation – that the deathbed baptism was an Arian myth meant to ruin the Emperor’s reputation, or alternatively claim him as a patron of their heretical side, and that he was actually baptised earlier in Rome by Saint Sylvester. Theophanes reasons that there was no way the Emperor could have presided over the First Council at Nicaea if he wasn’t baptised, as he most certainly received the Eucharist and participated in the Liturgies with the bishops gathered.

Theophanes writes:

“Constantine the Greater together with his son Crispus was baptized in Rome by Silvester. The inhabitants of Old Rome preserve even today the baptismal font as evidence that he was baptized in Rome by Silvester after the removal of the tyrants. The easterners, on the other hand, claim that he was baptized on his deathbed in Nicomedia by the Arian Eusebios of Nicomedia, at which place he happened to die. They claim that he had deferred baptism in the hope of being baptized in the river Jordan. In my view it is more likely to  be true that he was baptized by Silvester in Rome and the decrees addressed to Miltiades that are ascribed to him are Arian forgeries, since they were eager to win some glory from this or else wanted to denigrate this completely pious emperor by revealing in this fashion that he was not baptized, which is absurd and false. For if he had not been baptized at the Council of Nicaea, he could not have taken the holy sacraments nor joined in the prayers of the holy Fathers, something that is most absurd both to say and hold.”

I believe we should trust in the traditions of the Church, which holds Constantine as Equal to the Apostles. This Emperor is the man who changed history by bringing Christianity into the mainstream of the Roman Empire. He began the transformation of Rome from a pagan entity into a distinctly Christian state. Both the Church in the West – Roman Catholicism – and the Church in the East – Orthodoxy – despite their schism both hold to Roman traditions. To the Catholics, their traditions are Roman in the Western sense, while to the Orthodox, their traditions are Roman in the Byzantine, or Eastern sense. The division of the Empire into East and West seemed to also divide the Church into two distinct lungs, two distinct traditions. While the West may disregard Byzantium’s Roman legacy, the so-called “Empire of the Greeks” considered itself Roman even as the Turks bombarded Constantinople’s walls. Even in Constantine’s time, Rome was not suitable capital for the Empire – Rome did not require its ancestral city to hold claim to its glories. Rome survived in the East, while in the West it fell apart, only imitated. It is no wonder Constantine’s city became the new capital of Roman authority, the center of Byzantium, the stronghold of late Roman society. For Constantine is the man who brought forward a rebirth of Rome, a conversion of the Empire to the faith of Christ.

Now we will learn how Constantine achieved all of this, how he turned Roman power into a supporter of Christianity, when it had previously been an oppressor, a persecutor. Constantine was born in present-day Nis, Serbia, then the Roman Province of Dacia, on the 27th of February, most likely 274 A.D. He was the son of Constantius, who was known as Chlorus, and Helena, a Christian herself. So even from his childhood, Constantine saw the two sides of Rome. The pagan side, practiced by his father, and the emerging Christian side, the faith of his mother. I say emerging as during Constantine’s time, Christianity had yet to obtain a majority in the Empire. The Church was still in the Catacombs, suffering after every seemingly routine, yet unexpected purge. While many converted, numerous martyrs, some named, more unnamed, found their lives pass on to the thrones prepared for them in Heaven. Rome was still solidly pagan, where cults of various deities seemed to struggle for popularity. Christianity, on the other hand, was one single cult of Christ, which demanded its followers loyalties. While the pagans would switch from deity to deity, god to god, even abandoning a cult when the state came down upon its leaders, the Christians never gave up their God. This fortress-like faith most certainly intrigued Constantine in his later years. He would start out merely sympathetic to the religion of his mother, but would come to embrace the absolute truth of the one God in the Trinity.

Now, Constantine did not seem to be in a position to take the Imperial throne. Yet Diocletian split the Empire into two, then four. There were two Augusti, and two Caesars. The Augusti were the supreme rulers, co-emperors, while the Caesars were subordinate to the Augusti. It is poetic that Diocletian’s splitting up of the empire would lead to the reign of Christian Constantine. It is even more poetic that Constantine served under Diocletian, held nearly hostage at his court. See, during his youth, Constantine was not with his father, but with Diocletian, held there to insure Chlorus would cooperate, would recognize Diocletian’s authority. Yet Constantine clearly didn’t let this courtly imprisonment taunt him, for he proved to be an effective warrior during campaigns in Palestine, fighting twice against the Persians. Certainly he had began to warm up to Diocletian, the pagan Emperor, the most infamous persecutor of Christians. Yet this connection must have snapped when he witnessed the burning of a newly constructed cathedral in Nicomedia, the beginning of the greatest persecution in Roman history. His master had turned into a monster before his eyes – Constantine must have been torn by the events, as he was unable to act to protect the faith of his mother. Perhaps this guilt of inaction would have further troubled Constantine, and while he did feel the need to defend himself for such a crime later in his life, had it not been for a domino effect that was set off by Diocletian’s abdication. This forced Constantine to act in his own interests, as now Galerius and his father, Chlorus, were the Augusti of Rome. There was clearly a chance he’d be murdered in Nicomedia, now the court of Galerius, so Constantine made a daring escape, fleeing at night and heading for Boulogne. There he met his father, and the two joined together to bond over an expedition into Britain. They drove the Picts back to Hadrian’s Wall, father and son triumphant on the battlefield. However, Chlorus was taken by death at York. Immediately following this, Constantine was proclaimed the new Augustus, having gained the trust of his father’s allies and men. With that, Constantine found himself taking up the role of co-emperor, yet his co-rulers would only hesitantly declare him Caesar, not one of the Augusti. Galerius in particular was so angry at the idea of Constantine donning the imperial purple toga that he was ready to throw the letter he received straight into the flames.

So Constantine ruled as merely a Caesar and he ruled well. He was good to the West, to Gaul and Britain, and compared to his predecessors, he was a sober, righteous man. In 311, Galerius died, however, putting Constantine in another position where he was forced to act. Now there were three men supposed to be in charge – Licinius, Maximin, and Constantine. However, the son of Diocletian’s Augustus Maximian, a young man named Maxentius, felt he was meant to be Emperor. War was inevitable, so Constantine made an arrangement with Licinius, who had the rightful claim to Italy, and then he set out to crush Maxentius, who had come to be known as a tyrant. In 312, taking supreme command himself, Constantine began a campaign that would forever change both his life and the life of the Roman Empire, for before his triumph at the Milvian Bridge, his heart would be converted by the grace of God.

The Augustus Constantine first liberated the cities of Italy, preventing his men from pillaging, not wanting to be seen as a conqueror, but as the man who would free the country from an unjust tyrant. All the while, Maxentius sat at home. There the pretender, according to both Christian and pagan historians, dabbled in the occult. He tried to summon demons and cast spells against Constantine and his army, and even at one point sacrificed unborn children – this last practice should horrify us as it is extremely familiar to what we see in the world today. Of course, none of these practices could save Maxentius, for God was willing Constantine’s victory. A battle had to be fought, so Maxentius set out to meet his fate with the best reserves he had.

Before the battle, Constantine is said to have had a vision or a dream. It was most likely a dream, not the vision that manifested itself in the sky, the miracle most commonly associated with Saint Constantine. The first chroniclers of the Emperor’s life don’t even mention such a public vision, with only one speaking about a dream Constantine had, a personal vision he experienced, that led him to embrace the Christian God as the true God and adorn his men’s shields with the chi-rho, an early Christian symbol.

Constantine, who had long been dissatisfied with paganism, now finally embraced the monotheism of Christianity after God granted him a private revelation. He would conquer for Christ, bringing not only his own soul into the Church, but the souls of Rome at large. The Empire would be made Christian by his sword, and knowing that, he set out to meet Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge.

There, on the 28th of October, 312 A.D., an army marked with symbols of Christ routed the forces of a deranged occultist. They fled towards a bridge, a bridge they had hoped to collapse to prevent Constantine’s pursuit. Yet the engineers pulled the bridge down too early, only dooming their own comrades to death in the river below. Even Maxentius the pretender drowned, his body retrieved after the battle, washed ashore, his head cut off and stuck onto a lance. That lance was carried with triumph into Rome, later sent through North Africa as a sign of Constantine’s victory and authority.

Milvian Bridge

Now Constantine was ruler of the entire West, while Licinius was ruler of the East. A Christian Emperor and a Pagan Emperor were in charge of the Empire, split down the middle. All seemed well at first, as they both signed the Edict of Milan, mandating toleration of Christians – but also all religious beliefs, a sort of ancient secularism. Yet Christianity is named specifically in the edict and there is a reason we know it as the toleration of Christians, as most other religions weren’t persecuted throughout the Empire. Constantine was also able to pass it with ease due to this secular addition. He had to traverse a political landscape that was hostile to his faith, but he did so wisely. The Empire wouldn’t become Christian in a day, just as its ancestral capital wasn’t built in a day.

Either way, Constantine used his own purse to finance the now liberated Church. He financed the reconstruction of destroyed cathedrals and funded the building of new ones, all for the glory of God. At the same time, he saw the flaws inherent in ruling an intertwined Empire with two, supposedly equal in power Emperors. Clear tensions emerged between Constantine and Licinius, between the new saving light of Christianity, and the dimming flame of Paganism.

There was a straw that broke the camel’s back, though. Licinius knew Constantine would come to conquer the East sometime in the near future, as the Western capital was now temporarily established in the Balkans, right on the border with the East. War was bound to come, so Licinius decided it was best for him to strike at Constantine’s allies before he was lacking his head and his throne. Starting with the military, he kicked off another wave of persecutions. One of the Saint Theodores was martyred during this time, alongside the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, and many other faithful soldiers. Licinius was determined to purge his army of Christians, knowing that they’d fight alongside Constantine before defending his Pagan East. Licinius saw Constantine and Christianity as his enemy, so he eagerly defied the Edict of Milan.

Just as he had easily conquered Maxentius, Constantine easily conquered Licinius. The Emperor mustered up an army to bring justice to the East and he crushed the pagans with little effort. A swift campaign made Constantine the Emperor of all of Rome, of West and East, of an Empire no longer divided, no longer split into Augusti and Caesars.

There is a poetic irony to this. Diocletian had brought to Christianity its worst days, horrors and persecutions that we remember to this day through the veneration of the Martyrs. Yet Diocletian also split the Empire into four, and by doing so, gave Constantine the right to the throne. Despite Diocletian’s hate for Christianity, he granted it dominion over the Empire through this crucial mistake. The first Christian Emperor not only reversed the division of the Empire, uniting it once more, but also set forth the beginning of the end for Rome’s Pagan obsession. The Cults of powerless deities were replaced by the single Cult of Christ, that being His Church.

Now truly the Emperor, Constantine ruled well. He couldn’t just declare Christianity the Empire’s faith, though, as many under him still held onto their pagan ways. He continued as he had with enforcing the toleration of Christ’s Church, while also directing gold from his own wealth to its growth and expansion. With the burden of persecution, of the catacombs, removed from the Church, it would finally be able to convert the people of Rome without fear of execution. Many souls were saved, and unlike the past, the faithful who brought new brethren into the Church weren’t subject to the murder their ancestors had endured. This was a turning point, as Christianity, no longer underground, was much more persuasive than the pagan “buffet.” The truth of One God resonated with many people, and the Mysteries of the Church proved more enduring than any baseless ritual.

At the same time, the Church could finally consolidate. It was time for heresies to be put to rest, such as Arianism, which denied the divinity of Christ. Constantine himself recognized just how divided the Church was and for that reason called together the First Council at Nicaea, where the Nicene Creed was established and professed. The Emperor submitted himself to the theological authority of the Bishops, merely presiding over the council, not ruling over and dictating it as some historical revisionists propose. Constantine was a pious man, but many of the bishops gathered were just as pious as him. If there had been an attempt to force them to “paganize,” they would have embraced martyrdom, death, before allowing a temporal authority to change Christianity! In 325 A.D., eternal Christian truths were recognized and established, not created out of thin air as some Gnostics and Protestants seem to believe.

While Constantine’s life was full of victories, and he also helped bring about the decisive victory of the Church against paganism, an unfortunate tragedy struck the Emperor during his later days.

Constantine had a son from a wife that died, so he took another wife, Fausta, who he had two sons with. The Saintly Emperor was wise and knew Rome could only have one ruler if it hoped to survive, so he was determined to pass down the throne to his first son, Crispus. Constantine’s wife didn’t want this – she cared more for her own children then the rightful heir to the throne, her own stepchild. She came up with a plot to secure them an inheritance, a deceitful claim that would surely win her sons the imperial throne.

She came to Constantine and said that his son had raped her, and as a husband that trusted his wife, believed her accusation wholeheartedly. There was only one thing he could do to deal with this dishonor – he ordered the execution of his own son, convinced that he had raped his own stepmother. Saint Helena, Constantine’s mother, told her son that this claim was likely false, a lie, a story spun as a mean for Fausta’s ends.

The Emperor had a change in heart and tried to call off the execution of his son. Yet he was too late and the execution was carried out anyway, so Constantine’s heart was filled with grief and regret. Knowing that Fausta had deceived him, with sadness and righteous anger, he had her executed, too. This didn’t make up for his initial mistake, though, and lost in his depression, he spent the rest of his life in repentance. He built the most Churches during this time and helped his mother discover the True Cross. He prayed that God would forgive him for what he had done, and the Saintly Emperor, like anyone who comes to God begging for mercy, received His mercy.

For his good deeds and his faith to Jesus Christ, Constantine is considered Equal to the Apostles. With his sword he brought the Church out of the Catacombs. His reign over the Empire was good and just, and his brilliance on the battlefield was greatly renowned.

When he died on the 22nd of May, 337 A.D., he earned his crown in Heaven, and set a standard for all Christian kings, emperors, and rulers.

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