We may never know the real reasons for Constantine's conversion, although many have been proposed; it is likewise impossible to gauge the depth of Constantine's dedication to Christian doctrine. Many scholars ascribe sincere religious motives to him, while others see him as an opportunist currying favor with a vocal minority. We do know that Constantine's contemporaries and successors viewed his patronage of Christianity as a watershed: for pagans, such as Zosimus, it was the beginning of the end of a proud empire; for Christians, such as Eusebius, it was the dawning of a bright new day of Christian triumph. Constantine put a great deal of financial and political support behind Christianity, beyond the simple legalization of the movement in 313 C.E. (see the so-called Edict of Milan in Text 2). He built churches in the major cities of the empire, gave Christian clergy tax incentives and other perquisites, and intervened to settle intra-Christian disputes. For centuries, Christians had imagined the Roman Empire as their persecuting enemy; now they had an involved patron at the highest level of society. Over the course of the fourth and fifth centuries, Christian leaders and emperors both sought to articulate this new relationship.
Constantine's sons and successors (Constans, Constantius, and Constantine II) were as involved as their father in matters of ecclesiastical patronage and debate. Quickly, Christians came to see the role of the emperor in religious matters as natural and inevitable. This intertwining of imperial and Christian ideals was disrupted by the reign of Constantine's nephew, Julian. Soon after his ascension to the imperial throne in 361, Julian publicly renounced his Christian upbringing and set out to revitalize the traditional "Hellenic" (i.e., Greco-Roman or pagan) religious practices throughout the empire. Julian's reign was short (he died during a failed military campaign against the Persians in 363), but the effects were long lasting. Every emperor after Julian was pressed to prove his Christian loyalty. Gratian (reign 367-83) officially renounced the title of Pontifex Maximus, the imperial guardianship of pagan priesthoods. The Theodosian dynasty (beginning with the ascent of Theodosius I in 378 and ending with the death of his grandson Theodosius II in 450) further united imperial and Christian religious concerns. Under the Theodosians, Christianity became, for all intents and purposes, the official religion of the empire; pagan sacrifice and worship were outlawed, and heretics were subject to civil liabilities (see Chapter 4). The welfare of the empire was increasingly a matter of Christian fidelity as much as military or economic success.
In this chapter are diverse literary portraits of Roman emperors. Constantine, the first Christian emperor, is presented from three perspectives: religiously neutral ("The Origin of Constantine"), pro-Christian (Eusebius), and anti-Christian (Zosimus). Julian's attempts to de-Christianize the Roman Empire are presented in his own terms through his letters on religion and from the perspective of the Christian hymnographer Ephraim. Finally, a funeral oration for Theodosius I by Bishop Ambrose of Milan gives a sense of how Christianity not only became intertwined with the imperial house, but sought to exert religious authority over the person of the emperor. All of these writings give a sense of the urgency with which emperors and bishops, Christians and pagans, viewed the growing link between "church" and "state" in the later Roman Empire.
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