Christian Monotheism

He said that at midday, when the sun was sloping towards the west, he saw in the sky before his very eyes the triumphal sign of a cross, made of light. It was placed above the sun and had the following written upon it: "Conquer by means of this." At this sight both he and all the soldiers who were accompanying him on this march and who had also been witnesses of the miracle were astonished.

—Eusebius, Life of Constantine 1.28

In 312 C.E., on the eve of his battle against the usurper Maxentius, Constantine saw the vision Eusebius described above and "converted" to Christianity. This was a great turning point in the history of the early church. Until then, several Roman emperors—Domitian (96 C.E.), Marcus Aurelius (177 C.E.), Septimius Severus (202 C.E.), Decius (249-251 C.E.), Valerian (253-260 C.E.), and Diocletian (303-313 C.E.)—had persecuted Christians, either sporadically or methodically. From this point on, however, Christianity was a religio licita, "legal religion." Before he was a Christian, Constantine was a tolerant monotheist, a worshipper of the sun god Sol. In 310 C.E., he had even experienced an apparition of this god. As a political leader, he trusted in the fundamental principle of ancient pagan religious practice: only the proper worship of the gods ensured the security and prosperity of the state. His Christian monotheism was thus an efficient combination of his earlier, personal devotion to Sol and the politically pragmatic view that a uniform empire-wide religious worship guaranteed the welfare of the state.

Long before Constantine's famous conversion, the empire had been moving toward monotheism and away from polytheism. The ancient established tradition of the worship of Sol, which culminated in the reign of Aurelian (269/70-275 C.E.), had a long afterlife. In 321 C.E., nine years after his conversion, Constantine recognized the Dies Solis, "Day of the Sun," as a holiday and established its celebration on the same day as the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ (December 25); and from the notations in the Codex-Calendar of 354 C.E., we know that the worship of Sol was still being celebrated with games and circuses in the fourth century C.E.. Although the sweeping reforms of Diocletian (284-305 C.E.) saw a brief return to the ancient polytheistic worship of the gods of the state, the Christian monotheism of Constantine is here regarded, at least in part, as a continuum of the well-established monotheistic pagan worship of Sol.

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