Constantine espouses Christianity

In what must have seemed an unequal contest between naked, ruthless force and unarmed, passive resistance, it was not the imperial government but Christianity which emerged victor. Presumably this would have been the eventual outcome, for Christianity was clearly proving itself the stronger. As it was, the individual who was preeminent in the surrender of the state was Constantine. Constantius Chlorus, the father of Constantine, was governing Britain, Gaul, and Spain as C^sar when the persecution broke out. He seems never to have had any stomach for it and to have been at best half-hearted in his enforcement of the anti-Christian edicts. When, after the abdication of his two superiors, Diocletian and Maximian, he became one of their successors under the title or Augustus, he appears to have allowed the anti-Christian measures to lapse. On the death of Constan-tius Chlorus, in 306, Constantine, then in York in distant Britain, already his father's known choice for the succession, was proclaimed Emperor by his troops. He was confronted with rivals and a prolonged struggle followed. He did not become sole Emperor until 323, when he defeated his last competitor, Licinius.

Constantine took the decisive step in his relation with Christianity in the year 312. He had invaded Italy on his march towards Rome and was faced with the army of his first formidable opponent, Maxentius. Apparently he knew that Maxentius was relying on pagan magic and felt the need of a more powerful supernatural force to offset it. Years later he told his friend, Bishop Eusebius, the most eminent of early Church historians, that, after noon, as he was praying, he had a vision of a cross of light in the heavens bearing the inscription, "Conquer by this," and that confirmation came in a dream in which God appeared to him with the same sign and commanded him to make a likeness of it and use it as a safeguard in all encounters with his enemies. How accurately Constantine remembered the experience we do not know, but Eusebius is usually discriminating in his evaluation of data, and he declares that he himself saw the standard which was made in response to the vision — a spear overlaid with gold, with a cross which was formed by a transverse bar and a wreath of gold and precious stones enclosing a monogram of the letters Chi and Rho for the name of Christ. The staff also had an embroidered cloth with the picture of Constantine and his children. Constantine was victor, the winning battle being at the Milvian Bridge, near Rome, and he therefore took possession of the capital. Presumably his faith in the efficacy of the Christian symbol was thus confirmed.

In the following year, 313, Constantine and Licinius, between whom the realm was temporarily divided, met at Milan and action was taken which was later looked back upon as having ensured toleration for the Christians throughout the Empire, Precisely what was done at Milan remains controversial. Some, including Eusebius, declare that an edict of toleration was issued. On the other hand it is contended that Constantine had already granted religious freedom and that whatever was done at Milan was by Licinius and was intended only for the eastern portions of the Empire where Licinius was in control. Whatever the details, it seems clear that important measures on behalf of the Christians were taken at Milan and that Constantine was consistently friendly.

The policy of Constantine was one of toleration. He did not make Christianity the sole religion of the state. That was to follow under later Emperors. He continued to support both paganism and Christianity. In 314, when the cross first appeared on his coins, it was accompanied by the figures of Sol Invictus and Mars Conservator. To the end of his days he bore the title of pontifex maximus as chief priest of the pagan state cult. The subservient Roman Senate followed the long-established custom and classed him among the gods. He did not persecute the old faiths.

As time passed, Constantine came out more and more pronouncedly in favour of Christianity. Whether he was a Christian from political motives only or from sincere religious conviction has been hotly debated. Perhaps he himself did not know. However, it is clear that he granted to members of the Christian clergy the freedom from all contributions to the state which had been the privilege of the priests of other religions which were accorded official recognition. However, this soon led to so great an influx into the Christian priesthood of those from the curial class who wished relief from the heavy burdens which were crushing that once privileged stratum of society that another edict followed which limited ordination to those whose exemption would mean little loss to the government. Wills in favour of the Church were permitted. The Christian Sunday was ordered placed in the same legal position as the pagan feasts, and provincial governors were instructed to respect the days in memory of the martyrs and to honour the festivals of the churches. The manumission of slaves in churches in the presence of the bishop and clergy was legalized. Litigants might bring suit in a bishop's court and the decision rendered was to be respected by the civil authorities. Constantine forbade Jews to stone such of their co-religionists as chose to become Christians. He had his children instructed in the Christian faith and kept Christian bishops and clergy in his entourage. He built and enlarged churches and encouraged bishops to do likewise and to call on the help of civil officials. When he removed his headquarters to Byzantium, on the Bosporus, and enlarged that city and renamed it Constantinople, he built in it many churches. He prohibited the repair of ruined temples and the erection of new images of the gods. He forbade any attempt to force Christians to participate in non-Christian religious ceremonies. He took an active part in the affairs of the Church, thus establishing a precedent which was to be followed by his successors. The fashion in which he sought to promote Christian unity by calling the first general council of the Church and presiding at it will be noted in the next chapter. While Constantine did not receive baptism until the latter part of his life, the deferment of that rite seems not to have been from indifference to it, but from the conviction, then general, that it washed away all previous sins and, being unrepeatable, had best be postponed until as near death as possible.

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