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The Roman Emperor Constantine

Image of Constantine - Roman Emperor AD 274-337

Constantine the Great

(about AD 274-337), Roman emperor (306-37), the first Roman ruler to proclaim conversion to Christianity. He was the founder of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), which remained the capital of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire until 1453.

Early Life

Constantine was born Flavius Valerius Constantinus at Nis, in what is now Serbia, son of the commander Constantius Chlorus (later Constantius I) and Helena (later Saint Helena), a camp follower. Constantius became co-emperor in 305. Constantine, who had shown military talent in the East, joined his father in Britain in 306. He was popular with the troops, who proclaimed him emperor when Constantius died later the same year. Over the next two decades, however, Constantine had to fight his rivals for the throne, and he did not finally establish himself as sole ruler until 324.

Following the example of his father and earlier 3rd-century emperors, Constantine in his early life was a solar henotheist, believing that the Roman sun god, Sol, was the visible manifestation of an invisible "Highest God" (summus deus), who was the principle behind the universe. This god was thought to be the companion of the Roman emperor. Constantine's adherence to this faith is evident from his claim of having had a vision of the sun god in 310 while in a grove of Apollo in Gaul. In 312, on the eve of a battle against Maxentius, his rival in Italy, Constantine is reported to have dreamed that Christ appeared to him and told him to inscribe the first two letters of his name (XP in Greek) on the shields of his troops. The next day he is said to have seen a cross superimposed on the sun and the words "in this sign you will be the victor" (usually given in Latin, in hoc signo vinces). Constantine then defeated Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, near Rome. The Senate hailed the victor as savior of the Roman people. Thus, Constantine, who had been a pagan solar worshiper, now looked upon the Christian deity as a bringer of victory. Persecution of the Christians was ended, and Constantine's co-emperor, Licinius, joined him in issuing the Edict of Milan (313), which mandated toleration of Christians in the Roman Empire. As guardian of Constantine's favored religion, the church was then given legal rights and large financial donations.

It was a great thing for the Church that the emperor of Rome should give it liberty;and Constantine, after sending forth the laws which put an end to the persecution,went on to make other laws in favour of the Christians. But he did not himselfbecome a Christian all at once, although he built many churches and gave richpresents to others, and although he was fond of keeping company with bishops,and of conversing with them about religion. Licinius, the emperor of the East, whohad joined with Constantine in his first laws, afterwards quarrelled with him, andpersecuted the eastern Christians cruelly, but Constantine defeated him in battle(AD 324), and the whole empire was once more united under one head.

After his victory over Licinius, Constantine declared himself a Christian, which hehad not done before; and he used to attend the services of the Church veryregularly, and to stand all the time that the bishops were preaching, however longtheir sermons might be. He used even himself to write a kind of discoursessomething like sermons, and he read them aloud in the palace to all his court; buthe really knew very little of Christian doctrine, although he was very fond of talkingpart in disputes about it. And, although he professed to be a Christian, he had notyet been made a member of Christ by baptism, for in those days, people had sohigh a notion of the grace of baptism that many of them put off their baptism untilthey supposed that they were on their deathbed, for fear lest they should sin afterbeing baptized, and so should lose the benefit of the sacrament. This was ofcourse wrong; for it was a sad mistake to think that they might go on in sin solong as they were not baptized. God, we know, might have cut them off at anymoment in the midst of all their sins, and even if they were spared, there was agreat danger that, when they came to beg for baptism at last, they might not havethat true spirit of repentance and faith without which they could not be fit to receivethe grace of the sacraments. And therefore the teachers of the Church used towarn people against putting off their baptism out of a love for sin; and when anyone had received "clinical" baptism, as it was called (that is to say, baptism on asick-bed), if he afterwards got well again, he was thought but little of in theChurch.

But to come back to Constantine. He had many other faults besides hisunwillingness to take on himself the duties of a baptized Christian; and, althoughwe are bound to thank God for having turned his heart to favour the Church, wemust not be blind to the emperor's faults. Yet, with all these faults, he reallybelieved the Gospel, and meant to do what he could for the truth.

It took a long time to put down heathenism; for it would not have been safe or wiseto force people to become Christians before they had come to see the falsehoodof their old religion. Constantine, therefore, only made laws against some of itsworst practices, and forbade any sacrifices to be offered in the name of theempire; but he did not hinder the heathens from sacrificing on their own account ifthey liked.

Soon after professing himself a Christian, the emperor began to build a newcapital in the East. There had been a town called Byzantium on the spot before;but the new city was far grander, and he gave it the name of Constantinople,which means the City of Constantine. It was meant to be altogetherChristian,--unlike Rome, which was full of temples of heathen gods. And theemperors, from this time, usually lived at Constantinople, or at some other placein the East.

There will be more to say about Constantine in the next heading. In the meantime, let us look at the progress of the Gospel.

It had, by this time, made its way into many countries beyond the bounds of theempire. There were Christians in Scotland and in India; there had long been greatnumbers of Christians in Persia and Arabia. Many of the Goths, who then livedabout the Danube, had been converted by captives whom they carried off in theirplundering expeditions, during the reigns of Valerian and Gallienus (about AD260), and other roving tribes had been converted by the same means. About theend of the third century, Gregory, who is called the Enlightener, had gone as amissionary bishop into Armenia, where he persuaded the king, Tiridates, toreceive the Gospel, and to establish it as the religion of his country: so thatArmenia had the honour of being the first Christian kingdom. The Georgians wereconverted in the reign of Constantine; and about the same time, the Ethiopians orAbyssinians (who live to the south of Egypt) were brought to the knowledge of thetruth in a very remarkable way.

There was a rich Christian of Tyre, named Meropius, who was a philosopher, andwished to make discoveries in the countries towards India, which were then butlittle known. So he set out in a ship of his own, sailed down the Red Sea, andmade a voyage to the East. On his way back, he and his crew landed at a placeon the coast of Ethiopia, in search of fresh water, when the people of the countryfell on them, and killed all but two youths named Aedesius and Frumentius, whowere relations of Meropius. These lads were taken to the king's court, where, asthey were better educated than the Ethiopians, they soon got into great favour andpower. The king died after a time, leaving a little boy to succeed him; and the twostrangers were asked to carry on the government of the country until the princeshould be old enough to take it into his own hands. They did this faithfully, andstayed many years in Ethiopia; and they used to look out for any Christian sailorsor merchants who visited the country, and to hold meetings with such strangersand others for worship, although they were distressed that they had no clergy tominister to them. At length the young prince grew up to manhood, and was able togovern his kingdom for himself; and then Aedesius and Frumentius set out fortheir own country, which they had been longing to see for so many years.Aedesius got back to Tyre, where he became a deacon of the Church. ButFrumentius stopped at Alexandria, and told his tale to the bishop, the great St.Athanasius (of whom we shall hear more by-and-by), and he begged that a bishopmight be sent into Ethiopia to settle and govern the Church there. Athanasius,considering how faithful and wise Frumentius had shown himself in all hisbusiness, how greatly he was respected and loved by the Ethiopians, and howmuch he had done to spread the gospel in the land of his captivity, said that noone was so fit as he to be bishop; and he consecrated Frumentius accordingly. Tothis day the chief bishop of the Abyssinian Church, instead of being chosen fromamong the clergy of the country, is always a person sent by the Egyptian bishopof Alexandria, and thus the Abyssinians still keep up the remembrance of the wayin which their Church was founded, although the bishopric of Alexandria is nowsadly fallen from the height at which it stood in the days of Athanasius andFrumentius.

Constantine used his influence with the king of Persia, whose name was Sapor, toobtain good treatment for the Christians of that country; and the Gospel continuedto make progress there. But this naturally raised the jealousy of the magi, whowere the priests of the heathen religion of Persia, and they looked out for somemeans of doing mischief to the Christians. So a few years after the death ofConstantine, when a war broke out between Sapor and the next emperor,Constantius, these magi got about the king, and told him that his Christiansubjects would be ready to betray him to the Romans, from whom they had gottheir religion. Sapor then issued orders that all Christians should pay an enormoustax, unless they would worship the gods of the Persians. Their chief bishop,whose name was Symeon, on receiving this order, answered that the tax wasmore than they could pay, and that they worshipped the true God alone, who hadmade the sun, which the Persians ignorantly adored.

Sapor then sent forth a second order, that the bishops, priests, and deacons ofthe Christians should be put to death, that their churches should be destroyed,and that the plate and ornaments of the churches should be taken for profaneuses, and he sent for Symeon, who was soon brought before him. The bishop hadbeen used to make obeisance to the king, after the fashion of the country; but oncoming into his presence now, he refused to do so, lest it should be taken as asign of that reverence which he was resolved to give to God alone. Sapor thenrequired him to worship the sun, and told him that by doing so he might deliverhimself and his people. But the bishop answered, that if he had refused to doreverence to the king, much more must he refuse such honour to the sun, whichwas a thing without reason or life. On this, the king ordered that he should bethrown into prison until next day.

As he was on his way to prison, Symeon passed an old and faithful servant of theking, named Uthazanes, who had brought up Sapor from a child, and stood high inhis favour. Uthazanes, seeing the bishop led away in chains, fell on his knee andsaluted him in the Persian fashion. But Symeon turned away his head, and couldnot look at him; for Uthazanes had been a Christian, and had lately denied thefaith. The old man's conscience was smitten by this, and he burst out intolamentation--"If my old and familiar friend disowns me thus, what may I expectfrom my God whom I have denied!" His words were heard, and he was carriedbefore the king, who tried to move him both by threats and by kindness. ButUthazanes stood firm against everything, and, as he could not be shaken in hisfaith, he was sentenced to be beheaded. He then begged the king, for the sake ofthe love which had long been between them, to grant him the favour that it mightbe proclaimed why he died--that he was not guilty of any treason, but was put todeath only for being a Christian. Sapor was very willing to allow this, because hethought that it would frighten others into worshipping his gods. But it turned out asUthazanes had hoped; for when it was seen how he loved his faith better than lifeitself, other Christians were encouraged to suffer, and even some heathens werebrought over to the Gospel. Bishop Symeon was put to death after having seen ahundred of his clergy suffer before his eyes; and the persecution was renewedfrom time to time throughout the remainder of Sapor's long reign.

Sole Ruler

A struggle for power soon began between Licinius and Constantine, from which Constantine emerged in 324 as a victorious Christian champion. Now emperor of both East and West, he began to implement important administrative reforms. The army was reorganized, and the separation of civil and military authority, begun by his predecessor, Diocletian, was completed. The central government was run by Constantine and his council, known as the sacrum consistorium. The Senate was given back the powers that it had lost in the 3rd century, and new gold coins (solidi) were issued, which remained the standard of exchange until the end of the Byzantine Empire.

Constantine intervened in ecclesiastical affairs to achieve unity; he presided over the first ecumenical council of the church at Nicaea in 325. He also began the building of Constantinople in 326 on the site of ancient Greek Byzantium. The city was completed in 330 (later expanded), given Roman institutions, and beautified by ancient Greek works of art. In addition, Constantine built churches in the Holy Land, where his mother (also a proclaimed Christian) supposedly found the True Cross on which Jesus was crucified. The emperor was baptized shortly before his death, on May 22, 337.

Constantine and the Council of Nicea (AD 325)

We might expect to find that, when the persecutions by the heathen were at anend within the Roman empire, Christians lived together in peace and love,according to their Lord's commandment; but it is a sad truth that they now beganto be very much divided by quarrels among themselves. There had, indeed, beenmany false teachers in earlier times; but now, when the emperor had become aChristian, the troubles caused by such persons reached much further than before.The emperors took part in them, and made laws about them, and the wholeempire was stirred by them.

Constantine was very fond of taking a part in Churchmatters, without knowing much about them. Very soon after the first law by whichhe gave liberty to the Christians, he was called in to settle a quarrel; which hadbeen raised in Africa by the followers of one Donatus, who separated from theChurch and set up bishops of their own, because they said that the bishops ofCarthage and some others had not behaved rightly when the persecutors requiredthem to deliver up the Scriptures. I will tell you more about these Donatists (asthey are called) by-and-by, and I mention them now only because it was they who first incited the emperor to judge in a dispute about religion.

When Constantine put down Licinius and got possession of the East (as has beensaid), he found that a dispute of a different kind from the quarrel of the Donatistswas raging there. One Arius, a presbyter (or priest) of Alexandria, had begunsome years before this time to deny that our blessed Lord was God fromeverlasting. Arius was a crafty man, and did all that he could to make his opinionlook as well as possible; but, try as he might, he was obliged to own that hebelieved our Lord to be a "creature". And the difference between the highest ofcreated beings and God, the maker of all creatures, is infinite; so that it matteredlittle how Arius might smooth over his shocking opinion, so long as he did notallow our Lord to be truly God from all eternity.

The bishop of Alexandria, whose name was Alexander, excommunicated Arius forhis impiety; that is to say, he solemnly turned him out of the Church, so that nofaithful Christian should have anything to do with him in religious matters. ThusArius was obliged to leave Egypt, and he lived for a while at Nicomedia, with abishop who was an old friend of his. And while he was there, he made a set ofsongs to be sung at meals, and others for travellers, sailors, and the like. Hehoped that people would learn these songs, without considering what mischiefwas in them, and that so his heresy would be spread.

When Constantine first heard of these troubles, he tried to quiet them by advisingAlexander and Arius not to dispute about trifles. But he soon found that this wouldnot do, and that the question whether our Lord and Saviour were God or a creaturewas so far from being a trifle, that it was one of the most serious of all questions.In order, therefore, to get this and some other matters settled, he gave orders for ageneral council to meet. Councils of bishops within a certain district had longbeen common. In many countries they were regularly held once or twice a year;and, besides these regular meetings, others were sometimes called together toconsider any business which was particularly pressing Some of these councilswere very great; for instance, the bishop of Alexander could call together thebishops of all Egypt, and the bishop of Antioch could call together all the bishopsof Syria and some neighbouring countries. But there was no bishop who could calla council of the whole Church, because there was no one who had any power overmore than a part of it. But now, Constantine, as he had become a Christian,thought that he might gather a council from all quarters of his empire, and thiswas the first of what are called the general councils.

It met in the year 325, at Nicaea (or Nice), in Bithynia, and 318 bishops attendedit. A number of clergy and other persons were also present; even some heathenphilosophers went out of curiosity to see what the Christians were to do. Many ofthe bishops were very homely and simple men, who had not much learning; buttheir great business was only to say plainly what their belief had always been, sothat it might be known whether the doctrines of Arius agreed with this or no; andthus the good bishops might do their part very well, although they were notpersons of any great learning or cleverness. One of these simpler bishops wasdrawn into talk by a philosopher, who tried to puzzle him about the truth of theGospel. The bishop was not used to argue or to dispute much, and might havebeen no match for the philosopher in that way, but he contented himself withsaying his Creed; and the philosopher was so struck with this, that he took tothinking more seriously of Christianity than he had ever thought before, and heended in becoming a Christian himself.

There was a great deal of arguing about Arius and his opinions, and the chiefperson who spoke against him was Athanasius, a clergyman of Alexandria, whohad come with the bishop, Alexander. Athanasius could not sit as a judge in thecouncil, because he was not a bishop, but he was allowed to speak in thepresence of the bishops, and pointed out to them the errors which Arius tried tohide. So at last Arius was condemned, and the emperor banished him with someof his chief followers. And, in order to set forth the true Christian faith beyond alldoubt, the council made that creed which is read in the Communion-service in ourchurches--all but some of the last part of it, which was made at a later time, as weshall see. It is called the Nicene Creed, from the name of the place where thecouncil met; and the great point in it is that it declares our blessed Lord to be"Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance" (that is tosay, of the same nature) "with the Father." For this truth, that our Lord has thesame nature with the Almighty Father--this truth that He is really God fromeverlasting--was what the Arians could not be brought to own.

The emperor attended the council during the latter part of its sittings; and a storyis told of him and a bishop named Acesius, who belonged to the sect ofNovatianists. You will remember that this sect broke off from the Church in St.Cyprian's days, because Novatian and others thought that St. Cyprian and theChurch were too easy with those who repented after having sacrificed in time ofpersecution (see page 27); and, from having begun thus, it came to be hard in itsnotions as to the treatment of all sorts of penitents. But, as it had been only aboutthe treatment of persons who had behaved weakly in persecution that theNovatianists at first differed from the Church, and as persecution by the heathenswas now at an end, Constantine hoped that, perhaps, they might be persuaded toreturn to the Church; so he invited some bishops of the sect to attend the councilsand Acesius among them. When the creed had been made, Acesius declaredthat it was all true, and that it was the same faith which he had always believed;and he was quite satisfied with the rules which the council made as to the time ofkeeping Easter, and as to some other things. "Why, then," asked Constantine,"will you not join the Church?" Acesius said that he did not think the Church strictenough in dealing with penitents. "Take a ladder, then," said the emperor, "and goup to heaven by yourself!"


Constantine unified a tottering empire, reorganized the Roman state, and set the stage for the final victory of Roman based Christianity at the end of the 4th century. Many modern scholars accept the sincerity of his religious conviction. His conversion was a gradual process; at first he probably associated Christ with the victorious sun god. By the time of the Council of Nicaea (325), he proclaimed himself as completely Christian, but still tolerated paganism among his subjects. Although criticized by his enemies as a proponent of a crude and false religion, Constantine strengthened the Roman Empire and ensured its survival in the East. He is historically recognized as the first emperor to rule proclaiming the name of Christ. His proclaimation of faith was not in accordance with the Apostolic Fathers teachings, yet he was a major figure in the foundation of medieval Christian Europe.

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