Fourth Century Constantine to Theodosius and the Primacy of the Church of Rome

Though the expectation was that Constantine, the son of Constan-tius, and Maxentius, the son of Maximian, would be appointed Caesars at the abdication of their fathers in 305 C.E., this did not happen. In the east, Galerius became Augustus and appointed friends and relatives as his co-Augustus and their Caesars. This second tetrarchy fell into crisis at the death of Constantius in 306 C.E. His father's army immediately proclaimed Constantine the new Augustus and, shortly thereafter, Maxentius proclaimed himself princeps, "leader," In Rome. By 310 C.E., there were five different claims on the title of Augustus and by October of 312 C.E., the two claimants in the west, Constantine and Maxentius, engaged in battle at the Milvian Bridge just north of Rome. Here, just before the battle, Constantine is reported to have seen a vision in which he read the words hoc signo vinces, "by this sign you will conquer." He ordered his troops to mark their shields with the chi-rho symbol, the first two letters of the Greek xpiorog "Christ," superimposed upon one another. He was victorious in the battle and was quickly proclaimed Augustus by the senate. By imperial decree, the Christians were freed from persecution and from the enforced worship of the mos maiorum of Greco-Roman culture.

In the scramble for power at the death of Constantius on July 25, 306 C.E., Maxentius, the son of the former Augustus Maximian, at first seemed to be the stronger contender. Over Constantine, the son of Constantius and Minervina, a tavern keeper, he could claim that he was the legitimate son of an emperor; and, too, he was married to the daughter of Galerius, Augustus in the east. Moreover, he had the support of Rome, still a glorious and formidable power (at least nominally) and fractious in response to the steady diminution of its political clout under the tetrarchs. Constantine's victory against Maxentius and the traditional mos maiorum, therefore, seemed all the more influenced by the divinity of his vision. His building program was designed to broadcast the fact that Christianity was now an official state religion but also to suppress the memory of Maxentius whose own extensive building program was dedicated to the history and civic values of the mos maiorum. The strong visualization of Christianity in sacred sites ultimately converted Rome into the Christian center of the church. Next to beautiful temples and statues commissioned by secular aristocrats were the Christian holy places, the basilicas commissioned by Constantine. In the catacombs, especially, pagan and Christian images are (sometimes jarringly) juxtaposed. Rome took on its unique pagan, imperial, and Christian character in precisely this period even though Constantine had founded and consecrated Constantinople, the modern Istanbul, as a new Christian capital in 330 C.E.

After Constantine, the only return to a pagan imperial government occurred during the reign of Julian (361-363 C.E.) who was Constantine's nephew. As a young boy, he had seen his own father and several male relatives murdered by his Christian relatives in dynastic rivalry. Though he was raised as a Christian he seems to have acquired an abiding love of Greek and Latin literature and philosophy. As a young man he apos-tasized from Christianity to worship a syncretistic religious philosophy. When he became emperor in 361 C.E., he immediately issued an Edict on Religious Toleration and ordered that pagan temples, altars, sacrifices, and priesthoods be reinstated. State support for Christianity was minimized although there was no overt persecution. His aim was to unite the empire under a shared high culture based upon the Greek ideal of education, called paideia. For Julian, the divine word of the gods, the way to true salvation, was revealed in the incomparable and quasi-divine literature of writers like Homer, Hesiod, and Demosthenes and in the culture such literature engendered. Christians, on the other hand, bereft of this literary culture, relied upon the strange (he called it "deranged") myth of Jesus Christ. Because they rejected Hellenism, Julian issued the Edict on Teaching in 362 C.E. that forbade Christian teachers to teach classical literature. In another anti-Christian directive later that same year, he ordered that the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem be rebuilt. Upon his death a year later, the Christian Jovian became emperor. That highranking polytheists in Julian's court (who could have) did not attempt to become emperor or to continue his reforms suggests that they did not fear the religious policies of a "Christian" emperor, and that Christians and non-Christians were not so clearly divided as our modern perspective suggests.

From Constantine to Theodosius the duality of pagan and Christian Rome persisted—in architecture, sculpting, painting, and literature. The east could boast shrines and sites with biblical and New Testament associations, but Rome had the bones of the martyrs Peter and Paul, the twin founders of the Church. Yet this was not enough to make Rome the major see of the early church. In addition to the apostolic association Rome claimed through the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul, and in addition to Constantine's Christian building program, it was still necessary for Christians to appropriate a Christian antiquity. This they did in the Codex-Calendar of 354 C.E. and in the rise of the worship of saints under Pope Damasus (366-384 C.E.).

The Codex-Calendar established a Christian identity for Rome that could be traced well into antiquity, parallel to its polytheistic heritage. By associating commemorations and feasts for the Christian martyrs with pagan religious festivals and celebrations, the Codex-Calendar melded pagan and Christian sacred time and authenticated a Christian history. In addition to the Codex-Calendar, Constantine's churches built around the periphery of the city formed a liturgical pattern of sacred commemorative spaces. The tombs of Peter and Paul secured the identity of Roma Christiana, that is, "Christian Rome," in the apostolic succession of churches. Pope Damasus effectively consecrated Rome as the center of pilgrim worship. Sainted bishops' and martyrs' tombs and their relics become popular pilgrimage sites and under Damasus rites associated with relics, sacred Christian places, and Christian epigrams established Rome as a "new" Jerusalem.

Constantine adapted the vital tenet—quid pro quo—of polytheism to Christianity. He attempted to unify the empire in a single religious experience that had widespread appeal. The divinity, pleased by the broad worship, would (he anticipated) respond favorably. By establishing Christianity as a state religion and by inaugurating a vast and splendid Christian building program that invited all levels of society to convert, Constantine reestablished the old polytheistic pattern of common rituals and shared values. Among rival sects and heresies he promoted harmony, so that the state could receive the full benefit of the divinity's prescribed and united worship, just as had been insisted upon by so many previous emperors who persecuted the Christians for refusing to worship the state gods. Damasus oversaw the development of the cult of martyrs and saints whose relics and tombs formed a new Christian topography around which liturgies and pilgrimages developed. His interpretation, like that of Constantine, relied upon the same quid pro quo association with the gods that polytheistic Rome demanded: pilgrims who performed the "sacrifices" properly, that is, who came to Rome to pray at the tombs of martyrs and saints, would be heard by God.

The literary debate over traditional polytheism and Christianity is played out in the texts of Symmachus and Ambrose (see Primary Documents 5.2-5.4) who contend between themselves in literary debates about the removal of the altar of Victory from the Roman senate house. The identity of Rome was in the balance. Polytheism had the strength of antiquity, the traditional mos maiorum; Christianity had imperial support. Through their combined efforts, Constantine, who institutionalized Christianity, Damasus, who organized Rome as a web of holy places, and the Christian emperors who passed legislation against pagan religious practices and gave legal sanction to Christianity created Roma Christiana, the new center of the Christian church, over and above Jerusalem and Constantinople.


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