Written by Vladimir Moss



     “It would be no exaggeration,” writes Protopresbyter James Thornton, “to call the reign of Saint Constantine a genuine revolution, particularly from the standpoint of religion. The Synaxarion for May 21, the day of his commemoration, states that the Church was ‘able to inspire governors and profoundly transform the lives of men and states with the inbreathing of evangelical principles’. However, the Christian revolution was a peaceful revolution, a revolution from above, one that retained all that was wholesome from pagan antiquity – for example art, architecture, literature, and law -, while slowly extinguishing that which was spiritually noxious, unworthy, or morally debilitating. It wisely left essentially untouched the Roman societal structure and the economic system, anticipating their gradual evolution towards the good, under the influence of Christian teaching. Yet, it was a revolution that imbued the Empire with renewed life…”[1]

      It was indeed a renewal, a Renovatio Imperii. Fr. George Florovsky writes: “The Age of Constantine is commonly regarded as a turning point of Christian history. After a protracted struggle with the Church, the Roman Empire at last capitulated. The Caesar himself was converted, and humbly applied for admission into the Church. Religious freedom was formally promulgated, and was emphatically extended to Christians. The confiscated property was returned to Christian communities. Those Christians who suffered disability and deportation in the years of persecution were now ordered back, and were received with honors. In fact, Constantine was offering to the Church not only peace and freedom, but also protection and close cooperation. Indeed, he was urging the Church and her leaders to join with him in the ‘Renovation’ of the Empire… Constantine was firmly convinced that, by Divine Providence, he was entrusted with a high and holy mission, that he was chosen to re-establish the Empire, and to re-establish it on a Christian foundation. This conviction, more than any particular theory, was the decisive factor in his policy, and in his actual mode of ruling.”[2]

     The renewal of the Roman Empire by the first Christian Emperor was surely a vindication of the Christians’ loyal and patient attitude to the pagan Roman empire. Tertullian had said in the third century, “The world may need its Caesars. But the Emperor can never be a Christian, nor a Christian ever be an Emperor.”[3] However, he was wrong: in response to the patience and prayer of the Christians, the most powerful, secular and pagan element in Old Roman society, the very apex of its antichristian system, was transfigured into an instrument of the Grace of God. “The kingdom of this world”, it seemed, had become “the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ” (Revelation 11.15). 

     Paradoxically, in spite of his vast – indeed, unprecedented - achievements, St. Constantine has received a remarkably bad press, not only from pagans and heretics in his own time but also from medieval and modern Christians. He has been accused of being the originator of “Caesaropapism”, of causing the fall of the very Church that he saved from destruction, even of a supposed “heresy of Constantinianism”…[4]

     Let us now examine the real essence of the Constantinian revolution, beginning with a brief description of his path to power… In 285 the Emperor Diocletian came to the throne. He promptly decided to divide his power into four, into a “tetrarchy” of emperors consisting of two Augusti, one for the East and the other for the West, together with their deputies, the Caesars. The four emperors were bound together through intermarriage and through the supposed descent of the Augusti from Jupiter and of the Caesars from Hercules, “gods by birth and creators of gods”.

     At first the reorganization worked well; peace and prosperity was restored to the empire. But then, in 299, an ominous event took place in Antioch. The priests repeatedly failed to get any responses to their questions through the entrails of their sacrifical victims. This seemed to indicate that the gods were displeased, and Diocletian was worried… In 302 the same thing happened, again at Antioch. Diocletian conferred with his fellow Augustus, Galerius, who advised him to persecute the Christians. Diocletian hesitated… Then he consulted the oracle of Apollo at Didyma. The oracle replied that “the just ones” had silenced the prophecy. “The just ones” were interpreted to mean the Christians, and on February 23, the feast of the Terminalia, the persecution began. Later, the tetrarchy assembled in Rome to celebrate their joint rule and to establish the old religions and their morals and “exterminate completely” the new ones. [5] Churches were destroyed, the Holy Scriptures burned, and Christians who refused to sacrifice were tortured and killed. 

     To many Christians it seemed that the world was about to end insofar as Diocletian’s persecution of the Christians, the worst in Roman history, threatened to destroy the Roman empire in its role as “that which restraineth” the advent of the Antichrist and thereby usher in the end of the world. As St. Constantine’s tutor, Lactantius, wrote: “It is apparent that the world is destined to end immediately. The only evidence to diminish our fear is the fact that the city of Rome continues to flourish. But once this city, which is the veritable capital of the world, falls and there is nothing in its place but ruins, as the sibyls predict, who can doubt that the end will have arrived both for humanity and for the entire world?”[6] 

     However, at the height of the persecution, on May 1, 305, Diocletian and Maximian abdicated and handed over power to four Caesars. This allowed the Caesar in the far West, Constantius Chlorus, to bring the persecution to an end in Gaul and Britain (it had in any case been very mild there). Then, after Constantinus’ death, on July 25, 306, the Roman troops in York proclaimed his son Constantine emperor. In 312 Constantine marched on Rome against the Caesar Maxentius.Just before the fateful battle of the Milvian Bridge, outside Rome, both Constantine and his army saw a cross of light in the sky with the words: “In this sign conquer” above it. Eusebius records the story as Constantine himself related it to him, confirming his words with an oath: “He said that at about midday, when the sun was beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription Conquer by This (Hoc Vince). At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also.”[7] 

     “Earlier than Eusebius, though,” writes Peter Leithart, “Lactantius, who as the tutor to Constantine’s sons was closer to the emperor than was Eusebius, recorded a similar story. According to his account, ‘Constantine was directed in a dream to cause the heavenly sign to be delineated on the shields of his soldiers, and so to proceed to battle.’ Following the directive, he had their shields marked with the Greek letter chi (an ‘X’ shape), through which a perpendicular line was drawn and then curved around the top. The result was a chi-rho combination (which looks like the English letters XP), the first letters of the name of Christ.”[8] Although the two accounts differ, Leithart has convincincly shown that they can both be accepted as true, referring as they probably did to two different events…[9]

     Constantine had the pagan standards removed and the Christian one with the chi-rho, the so-called Labarum, put in their place. The result was an easy victory over the much larger army of Maxentius. The next day, October 29, Constantine entered Rome and was hailed as Emperor of the West.[10]

     Breaking with tradition, Constantine refused to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods, and in particular to Jupiter in the Capitol. “And because Constantine made no supplication to evil spirits,” wrote St. Augustine, “but worshipped only the true God, he enjoyed a life more favoured by marks of worldly prosperity than anyone would have dared imagine was possible.”[11] 

     Moreover, he was not slow to ascribe his victory to Christ and the Cross: “In the royal city he raised this sacred standard and inscribed definitely and indelibly that this saving sign is the preserver of the Roman Empire and the whole kingdom. But when in the most crowded place of Rome they raised a statue to him, he immediately ordered that a long spear in the shape of a cross be put in the hand of his representation and that the following inscription be written word for word in Latin: ‘By this saving and famous sign, the true witness of courage, I saved and liberated your city from the yoke of tyranny, and on liberating it, returned to the Roman senate and people its freedom, its former glory and its celebrity.’”[12]

     He continued to experience the power of the Cross throughout his reign. Thus “wherever the sign of the cross was shown, enemies were turned to flight, while the victors pursued them. When the Emperor heard about this, he ordered the saving sign, as being the most genuine means of victory, to be transferred to the place where he saw one of his regiments weakening. Immediately victory was restored to it, because the warriors at the sight of it were strengthened by a vigour and a power sent from on high.”[13]

     In the West the persecution of the Christians was now over. However, in the East the persecution continued until 313. In that year St. Constantine met the new emperor in the East, Licinius, and with him proclaimed an Edict of religious toleration: “Our purpose is to grant both to the Christians and to all others full authority to follow whatever worship each man has desired; whereby whatsoever divinity dwells in heaven may be benevolent and propitious to us, and to all who are placed under our authority”.[14] As Fr. Alexis Nikolin writes: “The Edict of Milan decisively rejected many traditions of antiquity. St. Constantine clearly proclaimed that Christianity is not the property of any particular people, but is a universal religion, the religion of the whole of humanity. If formerly it was thought that a given religion belongs to a given people and for that reason it is sacred and untouchable, now the lawgiver affirmed a new principle: that the sacred and untouchable religion was that religion which belonged to all peoples – Christianity. It was obviously not an attempt to bring Christianity under the usual (pagan) juridical forms, but a principled change in those forms.”[15] 

     As a result, as Eusebius of Caesarea wrote: “Divine joy blossomed in all hearts as we saw that every place which a little whole before had been reduced to dust by the tyrants’ wickedness was now, as if from a prolonged and deadly stranglehold, coming back to life; and that cathedrals were again rising from their foundations high into the air, and far surpassing in magnitude those previously destroyed by the enemy. Emperors, too, the most exalted (Constantine and Licinius) by a succession of ordinances in favour of the Christians, confirmed still further and more surely the blessings God showered upon us; and a stream of personal letters from the emperor reached the bishops, accompanied by honours and gifts of money. Old troubles were forgotten, and all irreligion passed into oblivion; good things present were enjoyed, those yet to come eagerly awaited. In every city the victorious emperor published decrees full of humanity and laws that gave proof of munificence and true piety. Thus all tyranny had been purged away, and the kingdom that was theirs was preserved securely and without question for Constantine and his sons alone.”[16]

     Constantine’s triumphal progress continued: when Licinius turned from toleration to persecution of Christians, Constantine defeated him at Chrysopolis in 324. The whole of the East now came within his dominion… And yet the Triumph of the Cross under St. Constantine proved, paradoxically, that God does not need Christian kings in order to save the world. They help – they help greatly. But for almost three centuries from the Resurrection of Christ the Church had survived and grown in the teeth of everything that Jewish and pagan fury could hurl against her, and without the help of any earthly forces. 

     For, as Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow wrote: “there is benefit in the union of the altar and the throne, but it is not mutual benefit that is the first foundation of their union, but independent truth, which supports both the one and the other. May the king, the protector of the altar, be blessed; but the altar does not fear the fall of this protection. The priest is right who preaches that the king should be honoured, but not by right of mutuality, but by pure obligation, even if this took place without the hope of mutuality… Constantine the Great came to the altar of Christ when it already stood on the expanses of Asia, Europe and Africa: he came, not in order to support it with his strength, but in order to submit himself with his majesty before its Holiness. He Who dwells in the heavens laughed at those who later thought of lowering His Divine religion to dependence on human assistance. In order to make their sophistry laughable, He waited for three centuries before calling the wise king to the altar of Christ. Meanwhile, from day to day king, peoples, wise men, power, art, cupidity, cunning and rage rose up to destroy this altar. And what happened in the end? All this has disappeared, while the Church of Christ stands – but not because it is supported by human power…”[17]

May 21 / June 3, 2017.

[1] Thornton, Pious Kings and Right-Believing Queens, Belmont, Mass.: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 2013, p. 97.

[2] Florovsky, “Antinomies of Christian History: Empire and Desert”, Christianity and Culture, Belmont, Mass.: Nordland, 1974, pp. 72, 74.

[3] Tertullian, in Peter de Rosa, Vicars of Christ, London: Bantam Press, 1988, p. 155.

[4] Edward Leithart, Defending Constantine, Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2010, p. 250, note 61.

[5] Jean-Louis Voisin, “Le Songe de l’Empereur” (The Dream of the Emperor), Histoire (Le Figaro), 8, June-July, 2013, p.46.

[6] Lactantius, Divine Institutions; quoted in Robert Garland, “Countdown to the Beginning of Time-Keeping”, History Today, vol. 49 (4), April, 1999, p. 42.

[7] Eusebius, On the Life of Constantine, I, 28; quoted in John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, London: Penguin, 1990, p. 39. See Jan Bremmer, “The Vision of Constantine”, Much later, in the reign of Julian the Apostate, the Martyrs Eusignius and Artemius confirmed the truth of this vision, having been witnesses of it themselves.

[8] Leithart, op. cit., p. 71.

[9] Leithart, op. cit., chapter 4.

[10] Timothy D. Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, London & Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981, p. 43.

[11] St. Augustine, The City of God, 5.25.

[12]Eusebius, On the Life of Constantine, I, 40.

[13]Eusebius, On the Life of Constantine, II, 7.

[14] Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors, 48. 2-12.

[15] Nikolin, Tserkov’ i Gosudarstvo (Church and State), Moscow, 1997, p. 27.

[16] Eusebius, Church History, X, 2, 10.

[17] Metropolitan Philaret, quoted in Lev Regelson, Tragedia Russkoj Tserkvi, 1917-1945 (The Tragedy of the Russian Church, 1917-1945), Paris: YMCA Press, 1977, p. 23.

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