Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2019

Constantine the Great

Constantine the Great

Photograph via Wikipedia

[quote]I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

—Opening of Nicene Creed[/quote]

In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s timeless The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov shares a parable with his brother Alyosha. Ivan hypothesizes Jesus’s “second coming” during the height of the Spanish Inquisition. After Jesus establishes his identity through miracles, the “Grand Inquisitor” has him arrested. The charges—part heresy and part public disturbance—stem from the Inquisitor’s belief that Jesus’s reappearance endangers the hegemony that the Catholic Church had worked so hard to create.{{1}} The Inquisitor also expresses his frustration at the Lord’s decision to grant man free will. Free will, it turns out, is a real nuisance to those in power.{{2}} The Church wanted to reign over stability and good behavior—not free thinkers.

It’s a wondrous irony—Jesus was not accepted into what Christianity had become. True enough, the ruthless Catholic Church, long before the Inquisition’s apex, would never have been endorsed by Jesus of Nazareth. Still, even without grounding in their Messiah’s message, the Church felt justified in its show of strength and intimidation. Early Christians’ fear was that they and their churches lacked unity and influence. Three hundred years after Jesus’s death, dozens of sects were asking difficult, unanswerable questions, and those who weren’t asking them taught their own version of truth. Many Christians didn’t think Jesus was God, and others were even convinced there was no divinity in him whatsoever.{{3}} Christianity was a decentralized religion that could not make sense of the many voices and messages contained in the Bible.

Then came a man who began the consolidation of a centralized Christianity and the eradication of its dissenters. He was the Roman emperor Constantine. While most would qualify him for our list because of his allowance and endorsement of Christianity itself, his effects on Christianity and western civilization go much deeper.

In the early 300s, history’s strongest civilization had never seemed so fragile. After a brutal third century saw the Roman Empire visited by numerous scourges, including Germanic invasions, a collapsing economy, turncoat generals, deadly plagues, and a depleting allegiance to the emperor, the following century seemed only marginally more promising.

The emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305), a great but perhaps shortsighted emperor, admirably attempted to place infected band-aids over gushing wounds.{{4}} Among his policies was the attempt to purge the empire of an annoying quasi-Jewish religion called Christianity, which had a stubborn history of about 250 years. More than a few Romans, Diocletian included, noticed that Rome’s turbulent third century coincided with many Romans turning their backs on the many pagan gods in favor of the Christian one. This, they felt, was not a coincidence. Perhaps worse from the emperor’s perspective, many emperors claimed demigod status, a popular ancient tactic meant to frighten subjects, as citizens might face not only legal punishments in the here, but eternal punishments in the hereafter. The monotheistic Christians obviously opposed such heresy. The Diocletianic Persecutions of the early 300s tried to set Christians aright.{{5}} Christian martyrs numbered in the thousands. They were imprisoned, tortured, fed to lions, and lit on fire, often in front of applauding crowds in teeming arenas.

Diocletian’s rule did indeed restore Roman strength, at least momentarily, but perhaps the great tragedy of his reign was that many of his initiatives later backfired.{{6}} His persecutions were an abject failure. The executions were meant to terrify Christians and stymie their religion’s growth, but they actually strengthened the resolve of a determined minority. Christians were convinced that awaiting them after agony and death was eternal happiness.{{7}} Worse for Diocletian, by the time of the early fourth century, Christianity’s growth had reached the army, so many of the men charged with arresting and executing Christians were Christian soldiers who, of course, refused, and then they, too, were persecuted.{{8}} All the while, Christianity grew. If ever a leader was fighting an uphill battle with citizens, it was Diocletian with Christians.

A few years after the end of Diocletian’s reign was the rise of Constantine.{{9}} He ended post-Diocletian civil wars of western Rome through a series of military triumphs over numerous challengers, culminating in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge against the last remaining claimant, Maxentius, in the year 312. The battle’s importance goes well beyond validating Constantine’s ascension to emperor of western Rome, however. Constantine surprisingly credited the victory to the Christian God.{{10}} Subsequently, Constantine went to great lengths to show his appreciation to the religion. The following year, the Edict of Milan—signed jointly with the emperor of eastern Rome, Licinius—recognized Christianity, among other faiths, as a legitimate religion impervious to persecution.{{11}}

Did Constantine actually see a vision? Probably not. He had every political motivation to tolerate this growing religion; he just needed a reason to do so. His primary drive during his reign was to reunify and strengthen the empire under his rule, and he felt that the resources spent on, and internal strife caused by, the seemingly endless effort to snuff out a growing faith seemed counterproductive. Nevertheless, he needed a reason to reverse decades of Roman policy, and fabricating the Milvian Bridge vision was a means to that end.

Much to Christians’ delight, he did seem to have a sort of adoration for them.{{12}} The stronger he grew—ten years after signing the Edict of Milan with Licinius, he defeated him in battle and became the sole emperor of Rome until his death in 337—the more he supported Christianity. He returned the churches commandeered during the persecutions. He recognized Christianity’s hierarchy (bishops, for example, and the primacy of the bishop of Rome among them). He promoted Christians within his government at a faster rate than pagans. He offered bishoprics across the empire tax exemptions and other forms of imperial patronage, including gifts and legal immunities to clergy. All of a sudden, it became attractive to be Christian; pagan priests felt pressured to convert themselves and their flocks. In return, all Constantine requested was loyalty, recognition, and behavior from Christian leadership, which it largely provided.

In 330, Constantine relocated the Roman capital from Rome to the ancient Greek city of Byzantium on the Bosphorus Straight.{{13}} Humbly, he renamed it Constantinople—city of Constantine—and made it the first major Christian city. He poured into it imperial funds, constructing beautiful churches and monuments to Jesus (and himself). The Holy Land received similar constructions; the Church of the Nativity, supposed site of Jesus’s birth, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, supposed site of his burial, were each commissioned by Constantine.

Constantine died of illness in 337, but first got baptized, making him the first Christian emperor of Rome. He left behind an empire in the middle of a colossal transition from its pagan roots to its Christian future. A group that once met secretly for fear of getting extinguished came out of the closet, as it were, and proselytized. Ancient polytheism came under assault from both the church and state. Money flowed from pagan temples to Christian coffers. The temples themselves grew endangered and, later, extinct. This fourth century process might be the largest reallocation of property and wealth in history. For these reasons, Constantine’s endorsement of Christianity is traditionally seen as the moment when Christianity turned the corner.

But it’s not that simple. If it were, if Constantine truly took a religion from death’s doorstep and catalyzed its growth into the world’s largest modern religion, he could lay claim to being in this list’s Top 10. Yet, it must be understood that Christianity was experiencing a meteoric rise before Constantine even took the throne.

Sketchy population numbers cloud late antiquity, but some appraisals give us a basic picture of Christianity’s growth. Historian Ian Morris, in his thought-provoking Why the West Rules—For Now, estimates that by the year 250 there were about one million Christians (one of every forty Romans), and he approximates that Christianity grew at about three percent each year thereafter. The slow start, therefore, was increasing thanks in part to what Morris cleverly identifies as “compound interest.” He estimates that 60 years later, in 310—just before the Edict of Milan—there were ten million Christians, or one in four Romans, and counting.{{14}} (If Constantine was remotely aware of such a staggering upsurge, it could certainly explain why he sought a way to bring Christians into the fold.) Christianity was a runaway train; all Constantine did was shovel more coal into its engine. Such an act, while important, did not exactly alter the course of history, a prerequisite for this list.

Still, Constantine is enormously important for other reasons. First, it’s worth noting that while he did inherit an empire that was about one-fourth Christian, within a century of his ascension, it was almost fully Christian. That likely doesn’t happen without imperial support, or at least it doesn’t happen in time for the stagnant Middle Ages, when news traveled slow and ideas slower, filling nearly every remaining pagan crack of the continent as Christian. Western civilization certainly has Constantine to thank for lubricating the gears of Christian history.

Much more importantly, however, modern mainstream Christians have him to thank for the fact that their religion even has a coherent theology. If one looks at the Anti-Nicene Period (that is, Christian history before the Nicene Creed of 325), one understands that it’s Constantine who starts the centralization of Christianity.

Christian revisionism later went to great pains to re-write the first few centuries after Jesus. Early medieval scholars had every incentive to construct a history where Christianity was unified and accepting of everyone. Only recently have historians uncovered a much more uneven beginning. Simply put, by the time of Constantine, Christianity was a mess. Scores of sects were scattered throughout the Mediterranean. Fourth century estimates from the Christian thinkers Epiphanius and Augustine each counted over 80 interpretations of Christianity.{{15}} Many of these denominations disdained each other, dubbing foes as heretics. Rival bishops exchanged hateful letters. Violence erupted between Christian communities.

The underlying disagreement between the most powerful sects was the nature of Jesus. Was he God? Was he human? Was he somewhere in between? It was a crucial question, considering Jesus was the central figure in the new religion. Yet, there were so many different ideas about who or what he was, and the Gospels held competing accounts.{{16}}

This was the Christianity inherited by Constantine. It wouldn’t do. Constantine’s goal, remember, was to reign alone over a powerful, stable state. Accepting Christianity was a means to that end. Little did he know (it should be noted that Constantine knew little about Christianity, including its theology and early divisions) that the Christian community was itself unstable.

To rectify this problem, he invited every bishop from the empire to his palace in Nicaea, outside of Constantinople. About 300 of the empire’s 1,800 bishops attended, many of whom were local and held a similar belief that Jesus was fully divine. The Council of Nicaea set out to formalize this doctrine, and the Nicene Creed was born.{{17}} Jesus was officially God.{{18}}

Constantine worked to suppress all dissent. He pressured bishops to endorse the creed and withdrew the now relied-upon imperial patronage from any churches in the empire that did not adopt the newly official form of Christianity. There was pushback, of course, but gradually, dissenting opinions faded. Within a century, Christianity was not only dominant throughout the empire, but one particular interpretation was the last one standing, a process known as the “Constantinian shift.”{{19}}

One can understand why early medieval Christians did their best to rewrite these years. An emperor with no understanding of Christianity determined what Christianity came to be (a concept known as Caesaropapism—Caesar as the pope). Furthermore, he actively worked to suppress dissent and any theological inquiry, a precedent adopted by the later Catholic Church for a millennium while it controlled the West and a direct reversal of the Greco-Roman pursuit of knowledge championed by the likes of Aristotle (#30). It can be argued that Constantine’s policies ushered in medieval thinking.{{20}}

There’s more. Recall the move of the Roman capital to Constantinople. Such a move had enormous consequences for the empire. For starters, Constantine didn’t move alone. With him went large parts of the government, military, and treasury. While the eastern part of the empire strengthened, the western half became an afterthought. The two halves officially split in 395. Accordingly, the Western Roman Empire’s days were numbered.{{21}}

The move had another remarkable effect on western civilization. While Constantine’s considerable entourage included government officials and the military, it did not include the bishop of Rome. Rome’s bishop was considered the preeminent bishop in all of Christendom; tradition held that Peter, to whom Jesus had passed his movement before his crucifixion, was martyred there. After Peter’s death, the next Roman bishop tended to the city, and this process continued for centuries. After Constantine’s move, western bishops, all of whom answered to the Roman one, filled the power vacuum. By the time of the Western Roman Empire’s collapse, the bishop of Rome was the closest thing remaining to a unifying figure in western Europe. As such, many started calling him papa, or father. English speakers call him the pope. This figure dominated European politics for nearly the entire Middle Ages.{{22}}

It’s also worth noting that Constantine’s gratitude for Jesus’s help at Milvian Bridge set a far-reaching precedent for European leaders. Constantine rarely understood Christianity, and nowhere is this behavior clearer than in his classification of Jesus as a “war god.” Countless European leaders, secular and clerical alike, would later call to Jesus’s name in an effort to either violently defend or spread the word of Christ. Fearless knights painted crosses on their shining armor; probing galleons embroidered the same on their massive sails. (A crusade, of course, means to take up the Cross.) Constantine and his successors used Jesus for their own ends, but Jesus, an anti-authoritarian pacifist, would never have endorsed the many conquerors who justified their violent actions in his name.

Nor would Jesus have endorsed what the Catholic Church became by the time of its Inquisition. This is why Dostoyevsky’s Inquisitor rejected him.{{23}} Constantine set the precedent that elite Christians determine the truth, and everyone else must follow along or face punishment, exile, and death, a policy that guided monarchs and popes for a millennium. The Church governed with the memory that at one time it was a scattered, persecuted group, and it must show a unified strength. And while the Church’s power has weakened since the Middle Ages, the creed laid down at Constantine’s palace is the foundation of modern Christianity; meanwhile, the many rival interpretations of the fourth century, and perhaps the true intentions of Jesus himself, were swept under history’s rug.

For Constantine’s embrace of Christianity, his leadership in steering it to a coherent theology, the long-reaching effects of his move east, and his state-led appropriation of Jesus’s vision, he is the 23rd most influential person in Western history.

[[1]]“Why hast Thou come now to hinder us?” the Inquisitor asks his pious prisoner.[[1]]

[[2]]“Did you forget that a tranquil mind and even death is dearer to man than a free choice in the knowledge of good and evil?”[[2]]

[[3]]In the Inquisitor’s assault on God-given free will, he posits to Jesus, “Did it never occur to you that he [man] would at last reject and call in question even your image and your truth, if he were weighed down by so fearful a burden as freedom of choice?”[[3]]

[[4]]Christianity aside, Diocletian is best known for trying to better manage a bloated empire. With an increasingly porous border of about 10,000 miles, one man had a difficult time managing it all. His remedy was to divide the empire into two halves, appointing a co-emperor to administrate one of them (the western). Then, each emperor would appoint an heir to their half who could cut their teeth by governing a section inside their emperor’s territory. Diocletian also bulked up the empire’s defenses. Considering its massive borders, Rome’s legions grew exhausted as they dealt with feisty Germanic barbaric tribes to the north (Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Burgundians [of Joan of Arc (#27) fame], and Franks, to name a few) and the fledgling Sassanian Empire to the east. As a result, Diocletian ramped up recruitment, which required soldiers’ sons to serve in the military, but he also dipped into Germania itself for some of its fierce warriors.[[4]]

[[5]]Diocletian was hardly the first emperor to target Christians. The first century’s notorious Nero lit them on fire as torches to light the Roman night. Second century emperor Trajan, according to Pliny the Younger, would give Christians three chances to renounce their religion before being executed. Diocletian’s predecessors in the mid-third century—men like Decius and Valerian—also ordered aggressive Christian witch-hunts and executions.[[5]]

[[6]]His move from one ruler to four—known as the Tetrarchy—devolved after his reign into years of civil wars between competing heirs. His recruitment of barbarians momentarily bolstered Roman ranks, but when war with Germanic tribes erupted in the fourth and fifth centuries, many Germans’ allegiances to Rome were tested, and most eventually took advantage of a crumbling empire and rejoined their barbaric brethren.[[6]]

[[7]]The tradeoff, for many, wasn’t even a difficult decision. Many emperors, including Diocletian, often offered condemned Christians a way out of execution if they just made some token signal or sacrifice to a pagan God. Most refused, for fear that such a gesture would hinder their track to heaven. You can imagine the Roman leadership’s frustration at trying to persecute a people whose greatest goal might have been to die as horribly as Jesus did.[[7]]

[[8]]Some sources even suggest that Christian soldiers faced one of the more brutal military punishments, decimation, which took the head of every tenth soldier (dec meaning ten) who refused to comply to a command.[[8]]

[[9]]Constantine was born around 280 to a high-ranking officer in the Roman army, Constantius, who, in 305, rose to become emperor of the western half of Diocletian’s divided empire. In 306, Constantius died. His loyal soldiers proclaimed young Constantine, a general with several notable victories in the Middle East, as the next western emperor, but other generals and members of the tenuous Tetrarchy disagreed. Civil wars followed.[[9]]

[[10]]There are two primary, competing stories about Constantine’s experiences before Milvian Bridge. The first is that Jesus visited Constantine in a dream and told him to paint cross-like symbols on his soldiers’ shields. The second is that before or maybe even during the battle, Constantine saw a vision in the sky and saw a cross and the words in hoc signo vinces—“in this sign, conquer.” Neither story has much historical validity, but Constantine does indeed claim that the God of the cross—Jesus—must have interfered and led his forces to victory.[[10]]

[[11]]The edict is likely the first major example of religious toleration in western history, though later policies of Constantine and successors increasingly favored Christianity over other religions, often violently. Jews were still a marked people—momentum was gaining that they put Jesus to death—and, as we’ll soon see, “Christian heretics” were also targeted.[[11]]

[[12]]His devoutly Christian mother, Helena, likely had much to do with that.[[12]]

[[13]]Several factors contributed to this move, which, as I’ll soon discuss, had enormous ramifications. First, the city of Rome was a lousy base. It was deep in the empire, far from spots where important military and economic decisions had to be made. Second, the eastern half of the empire was much more lucrative. Byzantium sat on the trade route between Europe and Asia, and, moreover, its proximity to the wealthy eastern areas of the Middle East and Egypt made it more attractive. Third, with water surrounding most of it, Byzantium was easily defensible, while the increasingly energetic Germanic tribes in the west were always within one powerful invasion of breaking through the enormous northern border into Italy. Therefore, Constantine moved the seat of government; Rome was no longer the capital of its eponymous empire.[[13]]

[[14]]Christianity’s intense growth of the third through fifth centuries is usually attributed to two things: its proselytizing foundation—Matthew 28:19-20 asserts Jesus’s desire for his apostles to “go and make disciples of all nations”—and the dire circumstances of the Roman Empire during its most troubled years. When you’re poor and the sky is falling, a religion aggressively promising eternal happiness after death is pretty appealing. The subsequent spread of Christianity (specifically, Catholicism) will be addressed in later entries.[[14]]

[[15]]Among the most popular were Adoptionism, Arianism, Docetism, the Ebionites, several Gnostic groups, Montanism, and Donatism, but there were many, many more.[[15]]

[[16]]A problem was that Christianity had spread before the New Testament consolidated into a solid canon in the third century. Mark, likely the earliest Gospel, didn’t begin writing until three decades after Jesus’s death. The latest, John, dates close to the year 100. In either case, no Gospel author had ever met Jesus, nor was he working from any verifiable sources, as his closest apostles were illiterate. Therefore, decades after his death, much of Jesus’s life was based on hearsay. The other bulk of the New Testament, the writings of Paul of Tarsus, were similarly full of conjecture about Jesus’s life, as Paul claims only to have met an apparition of Christ after the crucifixion. As a result of these multiple voices speaking after Jesus’s death and the slow spread of these ideas across the Mediterranean region, his ideas evolved. Pockets of Christian communities drew their own conclusions at different times about competing texts. Some preferred John, the only book where Jesus promotes himself as a divine figure. Others preferred the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Synoptic meaning of “one eye,” as they were more similar to each other than they were with John), which did not promote Jesus as fully divine. Some thought he wasn’t even divine at all. Ultimately, a wide spectrum emerged with “Jesus is God,” on one end and “Jesus was just an inspired teacher” on the other.[[16]]

[[17]]The creed, the beginning of which was this column’s epigraph and the rest of which devout Christians can mouth, takes great pains to make absolutely clear that Jesus was one with God and “not made.” The reason was because the council’s most vocal dissenter, a popular Christian leader named Arius, who had an enormous following of Arians throughout the empire, argued vehemently that Jesus was only partly divine, as “there was a time when the Son was not.” In other words, Jesus the Son didn’t always exist, and therefore he cannot be God the Father, who was eternal. Arius and his followers, after Nicaea, were henceforth labeled as heretics, though Arianism did not go without a fight, and they even thrived in Germania.[[17]]

[[18]]Along with these developments is the creation of the Holy Trinity. It was difficult to explain many parts of Jesus’s life if he was God, not the least of which was his immense suffering at his execution. Further, with Jesus gone, many wondered how God still actively affected the world. Enter the Holy Spirit. Between the three, the Trinity was formed. God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are all of identical substance and form one deity, but the three are distinct from each other. This, of course, makes total sense and begs no further questions.[[18]]

[[19]]Of course, that one interpretation would later split. What became known as Roman Catholicism eventually separated from what became known as Eastern Orthodox. Catholicism’s eventual spread throughout western and central Europe will be discussed in a few months.[[19]]

[[20]]For more on medieval philosophy supporting Catholic domination and suppression of free thought, read my entry on Plato, who was the only respected pagan philosopher of the Middle Ages. It’s worth noting that this suppression of dissent was considered completely compatible with Platonism, as discussed in that entry. Plato’s most important “Form”—the “Good,” from which all goodness and knowledge emanates—was eternal and the ultimate truth. It was only understood by only a select few, and those who disagreed with that interpretation were clearly wrong. These select few were the clergy.[[20]]

[[21]]In the following century, the deprioritized west faced devastating raids from the Visigoths (410), Vandals (455), and an invasion led by the Germanic king Odoacer in 476. Odoacer deposed the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustus, and the empire fell. The Eastern Roman Empire, buoyed by the presence of the real Roman government, survived another thousand years. Constantinople was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, which marked the end of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire. Constantinople, it should be mentioned, grew to become one of the rare great cities that spanned the ancient, medieval, and modern worlds. It quickly became known as the “New Rome” and “the Rome of the East.” The greatest of all Eastern Roman emperors, Justinian (r. 527 – 565), improved the city, most notably with the Hagia Sophia. The city survives today as Istanbul in Turkey.[[21]]

[[22]]That is, until Philip IV of France (#29) stood up to him one thousand years later.[[22]]

[[23]]“Freedom, a free mind and science will lead them into such a jungle and bring them face to face with such marvels and insoluble mysteries that some of them will destroy themselves, others will destroy one another, and the rest, weak and unhappy, will come crawling to our feet and cry aloud: ‘Yes, you were right, you alone possess this mystery and we come back to you—save us from ourselves.’”[[23]]