Written by Vladimir Moss



     A.N. Wilson writes: “Edmund Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire caused dismay to eighteenth-century churchmen with its controversial and primary contention that European civilization was undermined, less by the advance of the barbarian hordes without, than by the growth of Christianity within, its borders. What was it about Christianity, according to this diagnosis, which was so corrosive of the civilized idea? It was, surely, that the fanatical early Christians, zealous for a holy death, and fervently credulous about the greater reality of the life beyond than life before it, made civilization itself seemed superfluous. What use are the skills of statesmanship, of civil planning, of architecture, of laws, if at any moment, as the early Church taught and believed, the very edifice of worldly existence was going to be wound up, if the Maker was to bring the pageant of human history to a close, taking to Himself His few chosen ones in robles of white to sing perpetual hymnody before His throne, and hurling the rest, the huge majority, into pits and lakes of everlasting fire and destruction?”[1] 

     Of course, this is a parody of the true Christian teaching. If we take the very earliest writings of the New Testament, St. Paul’s epistles to the Thessalonians, we see that, while the early Christians certainly longed for the Second Coming of Christ, and thought it might be very soon, St. Paul warned against extreme apocalypticism: “Do not be shaken or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as thought the Day of Christ had come. Let no one deceive you by any means, for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshipped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself to be God” (II Thessalonians 2.2-4). 

     In other words, the Day of Christ is not just around the corner. Some important events have to take place first – specifically, the coming of the Antichrist.

     Moreover, the Antichrist will not come until another very important event has taken place – the fall of the Roman empire, or monarchical power in general. For this is how the Holy Fathers interpret the words: “He who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His Coming” (II Thessalonians 2.7-8).

     Roman, or monarchical power is that which “restrains” the coming of the Antichrist. When that is “removed”, then the Antichrist will appear – and only then will Christ come in glory to judge the living and the dead.

     “There is also another and a greater necessity,” writes Tertullian, “for our offering prayer on behalf of the emperors as also for the whole state of the empire, … since we know that by the prosperity of the Roman empire the mighty power impending on the whole world and threatening the very close of the age with frightful calamities shall be delayed. And as we are loath to suffer these things, while we pray for their postponement we favour the stability of Rome - nay, we pray for the complete stability of the empire and for Roman interests in general. For we know that the mighty shock impending over the whole earth – in fact, the very end of all things threatening dreadful woes – is only retarded by the continued existence of the Roman empire.”[2]

     “The subject here,” writes Professor Marta Sordi, “was the interpretation given to the famous passage from the second Epistle to the Thessalonians (2.6-7) on the obstacle, whether a person or an object, which impedes the coming of the Anti-Christ. Without attempting to interpret this mysterious passage, the fact remains that all Christian writers, up to and including Lactantius, Ambrose and Augustine, identified this restraining presence with the Roman empire, either as an institution or as an ideology. Through their conviction that the Roman empire would last as long as the world (Tertullian Ad Scapulam 2) the early Christians actually renewed and appropriated as their own the concept of Roma aeterna. ‘While we pray to delay the end’ – it is Tertullian speaking (Apologeticum 32.1) – ‘we are helping Rome to last forever’.”[3]

     Thus St. John Chrysostom wrote about “him that restraineth”: “Some say the grace of the Holy Spirit, but others the Roman rule, to which I much rather accede. Why? Because if he meant to say the Spirit, he would not have spoken obscurely, but plainly, that even now the grace of the Spirit, that is the gifts of grace, withhold him… If he were about come when the gifts of grace cease, he ought now to have come, for they have long ceased. But he said this of the Roman rule,… speaking covertly and darkly, not wishing to bring upon himself superfluous enmities and senseless danger.[4] He says, ‘Only there is the one who restraineth now, until he should be taken out of the midst’; that is, whenever the Roman empire is taken out of the way, then shall he come. For as long as there is fear of the empire, no one will willingly exalt himself. But when that is dissolved, he will attack the anarchy, and endeavour to seize upon the sovereignty both of man and of God.”[5] 

     It follows that the early Christians, far from believing that political power and the fabric of Roman civilization was superfluous, were highly motivated to preserve it in being. For when that fabric collapsed, the Antichrist would come… So, while it was true that the Christians placed no ultimate, permanent value on Roman civilization, they were by no means its enemies.

     Fr. Georges Florovsky has described this antimony well. “The Early Christians,” he writes, “were often suspected and accused of civic indifference, and even of morbid ‘misanthropy’, odium generis humani, - which should probably be contrasted with the alleged ‘philanthropy’ of the Roman Empire. The charge was not without substance. In his famous reply to Celsus, Origen was ready to admit the charge. Yet, what else could Christians have done, he asked. In every city, he explained, ‘we have another system of allegiance’, allo systema tes patridos (Contra Celsum, VIII.75). Along with the civil community there was in every city another community, the local Church. And she was for Christians their true home, or their ‘fatherland’, and not their actual ‘native city’. The anonymous writer of the admirable ‘Letter to Diognetus’, written probably in the early years of the second century, elaborated this point with an elegant precision. Christians do not dwell in cities of their own, nor do they differ from the rest of men in speech and customs. ‘Yet, while they dwell in the cities of Greeks and Barbarians, as the lot of each is cast, the structure of their own polity is peculiar and paradoxical… Every foreign land is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is a foreign land… Their conversation is on the earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.’ There was no passion in this attitude, no hostility, and no actual retirement from daily life. But there was a strong note of spiritual estrangement: ‘and every fatherland is a foreign land.’ It was coupled, however, with an acute sense of responsibility. Christians were confined in the world, ‘kept’ there as in a prison; but they also ‘kept the world together,’ just as the soul holds the body together. Moreover, this was precisely the task allotted to Christians by God, ‘which it is unlawful to decline’ (Ad Diognetum, 5, 6). Christians might stay in their native cities, and faithfully perform their daily duties. But they were unable to give their full allegiance to any polity of this world, because their true commitment was elsewhere….”[6]


     Constantine not only renewed the empire from within: he transformed the very ideology of empire, and the relationship of Rome to other kingdoms and empires.

     The pagan Roman empire was founded on the familiar fallen passions of love of glory and love of power. Excuses were found for invading neighbouring territories; many innocent “barbarians” were killed, and their lands and property plundered. Nations that resisted Roman power, such as the Carthaginians and the Jews, were treated with vengeful cruelty. Julius Caesar’s extraordinarily bloody conquest of Gaul may serve as an example of how the Roman empire was typically expanded.

     Constantine tried to change this bloody tradition. Although an experienced and highly successful soldier himself, who did not flinch from extreme measures when he considered them necessary, he glorified peace rather than war, Christ rather than himself or Rome, and while defending the boundaries of the empire, undertook no offensive campaigns beyond them. The one apparent exception to this rule only goes to prove that the imperial ideology really had changed 

     The apparent exception was Persia, the age-old rival of Rome in the East, which had deeply humiliated Rome by defeating and capturing the Emperor Valerius in 260, and against which Constantine was preparing an expedition when he died in 337. 

     “Constantine’s abortive Persian conquest,” writes Edward Leithart, “looks like another Roman adventure driven by sacrificial frenzy, vengeance and a desire to keep enemies in their subordinate place. Yet there are hints that between 306 and the 330s something had changed. Sometime before, Constantine had written a ‘tactful, allusive, and indirect’ letter in his own hand to Shapur. Addressing the Persian king as a ‘brother’, he summarized the ‘most holy religion’ that had given him ‘deeper acquaintance with the most holy God’. Finding common ground with nonsacrificial Persian Zoroastrian practice, Constantine emphasized that the ‘God I invoke with bended knees’ is horrified by ‘the blood of sacrifices’ and recoils from ‘their foul and detestable odors.’ The sacrifice he craves is ‘purity of mind and an undefiled spirit’ that manifests itself in ‘works of moderation and gentleness’. ‘He loves the meek,’ Constantine continued, ‘and hates the turbulent spirit…. While the arrogant and haughty are utterly overthrown, he requites the humble and forgiving with deserved rewards.’

     “The purpose of the letter was to advise Shapur about how to deal with the sizable Christian community in his own realm. Constantine was an eyewitness of ‘the end of those who lately harassed the worshippers of God by their impious edicts,’ and he warned Shapur not to follow their example. Everything is ‘best and safest’ when men follow God’s laws and recognize that God is at work through the church, endeavouring to ‘gather all men to himself’. He expressed his joy at hearing that Persia was full of Christians, and he closed the letter with a prayer that ‘you and they may enjoy abundant prosperity, and that your blessings and theirs may be in equal measure,’ so that ‘you will experience the mercy and favor of that God who is the Lord and Father of all.’

     “Constantine’s letter has been called a ‘veiled warning’ and has been interpreted as a provocation, a threat and a sign of his belief that as Roman emperor he had responsibility for all Christians. Constantine’s Persian policies certainly backfired. He initiated his final campaign when a delegation from Armenia visited Constantinople in 336 to ask him for assistance against a Persian coup. Since the conversion of the Armenian king Trdat (Tiridates) in 314, Armenia had been officially Christian, more explicitly so than was the Roman Empire under Constantine. In the 330s, Persians under Shapur II had invaded, captured and blinded the Armenian King Tirhan, and placed Shapur’s brother Narseh on the Armenian throne. Constantine responded swiftly. He designated his nephew Hannibalianus as ‘king of kings’ and gave him authority over Armenia and Pontus. Like his letter, his preparations for war with Persia were intended, among other things, to defend a Christian people. When Constantine died before the campaign could be launched, Shapur, apparently suspicious that the Christians of Persia were allied with Rome, initiated a violent persecution. Persian Christians, in response, kept themselves aloof from the dominant orthodoxy of the West.

     “Yet I cannot agree that the letter to Shapur was intended as a provocation. Constantine warned Shapur, but he warned him of divine judgement, not that he would personally take vengeance if Shapur were to attack Christians. In the closing section Constantine issued an altar call, inviting Shapur to protect Christians and to join him in worship of the high God, the God of the Christians. Hermann Dorries summarizes the message of the letter as an invitation to share in the blessing of Christianization: ‘what the true faith had done for the Roman Empire,’ Constantine urged, ‘it would do also for the Persian.’ It was an unprecedented diplomatic move – a Roman emperor who ‘attributed his success to heavenly assistance… invited his only formidable enemy to share in this aid.’ More broadly, the letter reveals how far Constantine had moved from tetrarchic political theology. For Diocletian ‘religion and nation meant the same thing,’ but for Constantine there was a potential unity, even between East and West, even between Persia and Rome, that transcended boundaries and national interests…”[7]

     This is an insightful and true remark, and if anything underestimates the revolutionary character of Constantine’s new imperial ideology. Pagan religion and politics were irredeemably particularist. The pagan gods protected particular men and cities or states against other men, cities and states that were protected by other gods. And if pagan Rome had a policy of including as many local gods as possible into its “pantheon” (which means “all gods”), this did not alter the fundamentally particularist nature of its religion. Christianity was difficult to absorb within this structure not only because the Christians refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods, but also because their God was of a totally different kind – universal, completely all-encompassing, and infinitely above everything that can be called “god”, “far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come” (Ephesians 1.21). Moreover, this God claimed dominion over the whole world

     When Constantine came to power, being a sincere, determined and deeply thoughtful Christian, he sought to adapt the Roman political theology to its new God, making it truly universalist. Scornfully rejecting all divine honours for himself, he sought to subdue himself and all his subjects to the true King of kings. But this also transformed his relationship with other kings, such as Shapur of Persia. For Shapur, too, had been given his dominion by God, making him and Constantine no longer rivals, but “brothers”, as Constantine himself put it – if not in Christ, at any rate in kingship, as political rulers established by God. But this had the further consequence that extension of the empire by the former rapacious methods was no longer acceptable. Only if Shapur maltreated his Christian subjects or other Christians, such as the Armenians, could Constantine intervene to defend his brothers in Christ on the assumption that Shapur had now ceased to be his brother in kingship, having “disestablished” himself from God.


     But where did this leave the Roman Empire? No longer unique, but just one kingdom among many?

     Not quite. If all legitimate political authorities have been established as such by God, and there is no genuine authority that has not been thus established (Romans 13.1), this would appear to place all authorities essentially on the same level. But the Roman Empire remained unique in that Christ had been born in it and God had chosen the empire also to be the birthplace and seed-plot of His Church. This gave it a certain uniqueness, seniority and prestige in the eyes of all Christians, even those who lived in other polities and therefore owed obedience to other authorities, thereby making it in this sense the universal empire. But this did not mean that the empire was destined to become the universal ruler of all nations, as some later Byzantines tended to think: it meant that the Roman Empire would be, as long as it lasted, the “first among equals” among Christian states, and therefore the object of universal veneration by the Christians of all nations.

     Another consequence of this theology was that the Roman Empire had a special obligation to spread the Gospel to other kingdoms and nations, to be missionary. And Constantine, as always, was fully alive to this consequence. As Leithart writes, he “had a deep sense of historical destiny, and as a result his foreign policy was guided in part by the desire to extend the church’s reach. He envisioned a universal empire united in confession of the Nicene Creed, an empire that would have a symbolic center in the Church on Golgotha in Jerusalem and that would stretch to India and Ethiopia and someday include even Persia. But Constantine did not necessarily regard annexation into the Roman empire as an essential element of that vision. He seems instead to have envisioned a Christian commonwealth. Perhaps the empire would have remained dominant, but in Constantine’s cosmopolitan mind it would not have been coextensive with ‘Christ’s dominion’.

     “Though he probably did not impose Christianity on conquered Goths, his triumphs among the Goths assisted the spread of Christianity. After his victory in 332, Bishop Ulfila was consecrated and sent as a missionary in Gothic territory. Churches were also established in the ‘Mountain Arena’, the Arab territories that served as a buffer between the empire and Persia. Eusebius mentions Arab Christian communities, and there was an Arab bishop at the council of Nicaea. Further east in Iberia (Georgia) [where St. Nina evangelized] there were Christians, and to the south Ethiopia (Aksum) also became Christian under Ezana. As already noted, Armenia became officially Christian shortly after Constantine defeated Maxentius. By the time he died, Constantine had left behind a ‘universal Christian commonwealth embracing Armenians, Iberians, Arabs, and Aksumites’ that continued to take form under his Byzantine successors. This was not, it should be noted, an extension of Roman governance; it is rather that Roman imperial order had been reshaped, to some degree, by the demands of Christian mission…”[8]

     Although Constantine never received a visible anointing to the kingdom, the Church has always believed that he received the invisible anointing of the Holy Spirit: “Thou wast the image of a new David, receiving the horn of royal anointing over thy head; for with the oil of the Spirit hath the transcendent Word and Lord anointed thee, O glorious one. Wherefore, thou hast also received a royal sceptre, O all-wise one, asking great mercy for us.”[9]

     St. Constantine died at midday on Pentecost, 337 shortly after receiving Holy Baptism, and was buried in the church of the Holy Apostles amidst the sepulchres of the twelve apostles. For in his person the Church had indeed found an “equal to the apostles”; Rome and much of what the Romans called “the inhabited world” had been baptized through him (at his death about 40% of the empire was Christian, as opposed to 5-10% in 306), receiving true renewal of spirit in the Holy Spirit. In his reign the process of converting the world that began at Pentecost reached its first climax…

     Why did he leave his baptism so late? Was it because ruling the empire involved committing so much violence that he had to put off baptism until as late as possible? Possibly.[10]

     However, Constantine’s actions at the very end can be seen as a kind of final sermon and testament on statehood in symbolical language. Thus after his baptism he put off the imperial purple, never to put it on again – for the kingdoms of this world pass away, never to return. But then he put on the shining white baptismal robe, never to take it off again – for the Kingdom of God, which is not of this world, abides forever…


May 21 / June 3, 2018.

Holy Equals-to-the-Apostles Constantine and Helena.


[1] Wilson, After the Victorians, London: Hutchinson, 2005, p. 461.

[2] Tertullian, Apologeticum, 32.1.

[3] Sordi, The Christians and the Roman Empire, London: Routledge, 1994, p. 173.  Tertullian also writes: “The Christian is hostile to nobody, least of all to the emperor, whom… he wishes well, with the whole Roman empire, so long as the world shall last, for so long as it shall last (Ad Scapulum 2). Again Lactantius writes: “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?… The Sibyls openly speak of Rome being destined to perish. Hystaspes also, who was a very ancient king of the Medes,… predicted long before that the empire and name of Rome should be effaced from the globe… But how this shall come to pass I shall explain… In the first place, the empire shall be parceled out, and the supreme authority being dissipated and broken up shall be lessened,… until ten kings exist all together;… these… shall squander everything and impair and consume… The very fact proclaims the fall and destruction to be near, except that so long as Rome is safe it seems that nothing of this need be feared. But when indeed that head of the world shall fall and the assault begin that the Sibyls speak of coming to pass, who can doubt that the end has already come?… That is the city that has hitherto upheld all things, and we should pray and beseech the God of heaven, if indeed his decrees and mandates can be postponed, that that detested tyrant may not come sooner than we think” (Institutes VII, 15, 16, 25). And pseudo-Ephraim writes: “When the kingdom of the Romans shall begin to be consumed by the sword, then the advent of the evil one is at hand…  And already is the kingdom of the Romans swept away, and the empire of the Christians is delivered unto God and the Father, and when the kingdom of the Romans shall begin to be consumed then shall come the consummation” (1, 5). See W. Bousset, The Antichrist Legend, Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1999, pp. 124-125. St. Ambrose of Milan also believed that the fall of Rome would bring in the Antichrist.

[4] For he could have been accused of preparing the fall of Rome, aeterna et invicta, which would have given them an excuse for persecuting the Christians on the same basis as they persecuted the Jews – as political revolutionaries. (V.M.). Cf. Patriarch Nikon of Moscow: “It is necessary to investigate: who is he who restrains, and why does Paul speak about him unclearly? What hinders his appearance? Some say – the grace of the Holy Spirit, others – Roman power. I agree with the latter. For if Paul had meant the Holy Spirit, then he would have said so clearly. But he [the antichrist] was bound to come when the gifts of the Holy Spirit should become scarce, they have already become scarce a long time ago. But if he is speaking of Roman power, then he had a reason for concealment, for he did not want to draw from the Empire persecution on the Christians as if they were people living and working for the destruction of the Empire. That is why he does not speak so clearly, although he definitely indicates that he will be revealed at the fitting time. For ‘the mystery of iniquity is already at work’, he says. By this he understands Nero, as an image of the antichrist, for he wanted people to worship him as god. …  When he who restrains now will be taken away, that is, when Roman power will be destroyed, he will come, that is, as long as there is fear of this power nobody will introduce anarchy and will want to seize for himself all power, both human and Divine. For, just as earlier the Median power was destroyed by the Babylonian, and the Babylonian by the Persian, and the Persian by the Macedonian, and the Macedonian by the Roman, so this last will be destroyed by the antichrist, and he by Christ...” (in Zyzykin, Patriarkh Nikon, Warsaw, 1931,, part 2, pp. 48-49).

[5] St. Chrysostom, Homily 4 on II Thessalonians.

[6] Florovsky, “Antinomies of Christian History: Empire and Desert”, Christianity and Culture, Belmont, Mass.: Nordland, 1974, pp. 68- 69.

[7] Leithart, Defending Constantine, Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2010, pp. 246-247.

[8] Leithart, op. cit., p. 288.

[9]Menaion, May 21, Mattins for the feast of St. Constantine, sedalen.

[10]Florovsky writes that one of the reasons why he delayed his baptism “was precisely his dim feeling that it was inconvenient to be ‘Christian’ and ‘Caesar’ at the same time. Constantine’s personal conversion constituted no problem. But as Emperor he was committed. He had to carry the burden of his exalted position in the Empire. He was still a ‘Divine Caesar’. As Emperor, he was heavily involved in the traditions of the Empire, as much as he actually endeavoured to disentangle himself. The transfer of the Imperial residence to a new City, away from the memories of the old pagan Rome, was a spectacular symbol of this noble effort” (op. cit., p. 73).

     It must be remembered, however, that the Eusbeius of Caesarea’s ascription of Constantine’s baptism to Eusebius of Nicomedia (who was, after all, an Arian, albeit a secret one) was disputed from early times. Thus the Chronicle of St. Theophanes dismisses the claims of Eusebius of Caesarea as Arian lies. John Malalas says he was baptized by St. Sylvester, Pope of Rome, in the 500s. And the Life of St. Sylvester of Rome written in the early 400s says that St. Sylvester baptized St. Constantine. This theory can also be found in the liturgical texts for St. Constantine’s feast in the Menaion (Hieromonk Enoch).

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