Father Steve reviews Paul Stephenson's new biography of Constantine, Constantine: Roman Emperor, Christian Victor, which offers surprising insights into the person and motivation of Constantine and the early days of lawful Christianity in the Roman Empire.
Paul Stephenson has written a biography of the Roman emperor Constantine entitled “Constantine: Roman Emperor, Christian Victor.” Constantine has become a legendary figure, whose reality is obscured by both hagiography and scorn. However, admired or despised, no one denies his importance. His actions set civilizations in both the West and the East on a trajectory that is still being followed today. Thus, his life is worth our consideration, not just because of what he accomplished, but because it has something to teach us about ourselves.
Constantine was born into a Roman Empire that had been remade by circumstance into a political and cultural entity much different than the empire of the earliest Caesars. Rome was ruled, not by one man, but by two, and later by four. Constantine’s father, Constantius Chlorus was accomplished and ambitious enough to aspire to be one of these men. Constantine would spend his formative years in the court of Diocletian, where he learned both the privileges and consequences of imperial power. In time, he would prove himself to be a worthy bearer of the legacy of the Caesars. He would successfully out maneuver his opponents and would rise as the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Constantine would remake this empire as perhaps no other emperor had before; his accomplishment was not simply political, but cultural, forging a new Rome, shifting the Empire eastward and bringing into existence a new civilization. This civilization, which emerged out of Constantine’s imperial ambitions, had as its cornerstone Christianity- a faith that proclaimed that the one true God had taken for himself a human nature and in doing so had, paradoxically enough, become a victim of Roman imperial power.
Many might be familiar with the stories of Constantine’s victory at the Milvian Bridge and his vision of the “Chi Rho” superimposed on the sun, appearing with the declaration that in this sign he would conquer. Constantine, it is said, adopted this symbol as the standard of his armies and emblazoned it on their shields, crediting the divine power that it represented for his victory. The “Chi Rho” was an acronym representing the God of the Christians. The audacity of such a move cannot be underestimated considering that during the rule of Constantine’s patron, Diocletian, Christians suffered a terrible persecution, and even members of the imperial household were not immune from prosecution for their faith in Christ. Paul Stephenson sees the vivid accounts of Constantine’s vision to be a fabrication, but what he does not discount is Constantine’s belief that the God of the Christians was the power behind his victory, and therefore, the power behind his throne. If Constantine’s vision was not a real event, what was real was the fact that Constantine established as his imperial insignia a distinctly Christian symbol and attributed his victory to the God that Christians worshipped.
How did this happen? More legendary accounts of the Church’s relationship to Roman culture pictures it as a persecuted minority to that of an imperial superpower. This was the case, say, at the time of Nero, but by the time of Diocletian and later, of Constantine, the demographics of the empire had radically shifted. Diocletian’s concern was not that Christians were a troublesome minority, but that they were now an inevitable majority, a fact that the pragmatist Constantine would likely have appreciated and used to his advantage. By the time he had become a contender for imperial power, Constantine had rightly determined where the future of Rome was heading and that if he was to rule effectively he could not afford to persecute the Church or deny its now culturally ascendant role.
Constantine’s conversion to Christ was not as instantaneous as more hagiographical accounts might imply. His famous Edict of Toleration is precisely that, a toleration of not only the cult associated with the Christian God, but the cults of other gods as well. Through his own largesse he would support the Church, becoming its great patron and protector and this would have a profound effect on not only the Church, but the empire as a whole. The pagan cults would remain and the temples of the gods open for business throughout his reign. In matters of religion and politics, Constantine was a pragmatist and his goal was to rule an empire, not make that empire Christian- a fact that might surprise many. Constantine’s convocation of the Council of Nicea was not an act of pious devotion, but a matter of insuring that his empire was not beset by religious conflict, and one has the impression that he would have convened a council to resolve the nature of Jupiter’s divinity, had such an issue threatened the imperial order.
Was Constantine truly a Christian? It is hard to say precisely his conversion happened. It does not seem that Constantine accepted the Christian faith in a singular instance, but came to believe over time. Constantine would have been no stranger to the Christian faith, as it is clear that members of his own family were adherents, the most famous being his mother, Helena. What is unclear is whether Constantine himself shared such convictions, or even, when he had attributed his victory to the Christian God that he knew precisely what this God was all about. It seems that his early beliefs were henotheistic in regards to the Christian God, rather than strictly monotheistic and after Nicea it also seems that he was willing to tolerate if not the Arianism that this council had rejected, but Arius himself and his supporters. Stephenson asserts that Constantine’s conversion was likely gradual, and though he insists that stories regarding Constantine’s deathbed baptism are more hagiographical than historical, it does seem true that the emperor waited until late in life to accept full communion with the Church. This means that the pragmatic emperor spent most of his life in a liminal position vis a vis the Christian faith. After all, he was emperor, not only of the Christians, but of the pagans as well.
Though Constantine is a saint in the Orthodox Church of the East (the Latin Church of the West has been much more wary of such a designation, accepting only his mother, Helena, as the saint in the family), it is hard to make the case that his manner of life was exemplary in terms of the standards of the Gospel. He had his wife, Fausta and his son, Crispus executed, the circumstances that provoked all this are veiled in the familial intrigues that plagued all the emperors of Rome. He exercised imperial power as it had been applied for centuries, when persuasion failed to produce the desired result, deadly force was ruthlessly and quickly applied. It has been noted by many that his alleged late conversion was a pragmatic move, as Constantine realized that he could not rule an empire as a Christian, as the condition for the possibility of imperial power necessitated a way of life contrary to the teachings of Christ. If his baptism came late, this was not accident. Constantine, ever the pragmatist, had foreseen that the only route of access of a Roman emperor into heaven would be by the skin of his teeth.
Stephenson’s book is a helpful introduction to a figure of great historical importance, who like many of the significant players of history, proves to be as complicated as he is enigmatic. In contemporary culture Constantine continues to be a paradox. Oddly enough, those most inclined to lament his influence and decry the manner in which he effected the assimilation of the Church to Roman imperial power are now, more often than not, the ones inclined to insist that the Church now effect its assimilation to the imperial power of secular ambition.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.