Constantine the Great (Introduction to Western Civilization 5.10)

As Christianity continued to grow, the Roman government continued to persecute Christians. The last and worst of the persecutions of Christians in the Roman Empire came in the third century. The Roman Empire suffered a series of military defeats by barbarians. There were also internal conflicts between powerful people who wanted to become emperor. In addition, a terrible plague had swept through parts of the empire and killed many people. Many Romans blamed the Christians for the wars, civil wars, diseases, and money problems of the empire. They believed that because the Christians refused to worship the Roman gods the gods had become angry with the empire and were punishing them.

As a result, the Roman emperors Decius and Diocletian each tried to wipe out Christianity entirely. In 250, Decius issued a law that said every Roman citizen must appear before a local government official and offer a sacrifice to the gods. Once a person did this, they would be given a certificate to carry with them. If they were stopped by the police and did not have this certificate they could be arrested and even put to death. After Decius’s death, Diocletian continued the persecution of Christians by ordering every Christian church in the empire destroyed and by burning copies of the Christians’ holy books.

There were other men in powerful positions, however, who were more kind to the Christians. One of these was Constantine, who was one of a group of men who were fighting each other to become emperor. While the others persecuted Christians, Constantine was more tolerant of them. In fact, his own mother, Helena, was a Christian. Although Constantine treated the Christians kindly, he did not decide to become one until a remarkable event the night before an important battle.

Constantine had been battling against a man named Maxentius for control of the Italian peninsula. Finally, the two men marched their armies out for one great final battle near the Tiber River, at a placed called the Milvian Bridge. The night before the battle, Constantine later told others, he looked into the sky and saw the shape of a cross. He then heard a voice say to him from the sky, “In hoc signo vinces,” which in Latin means, “By this sign, you will conquer.” Constantine immediately ordered his soldiers to paint the symbol of Christianity on their shields and on the banners they carried into battle. The next day, October 28, 312 AD, Constantine marched into battle against Maxentius and was victorious. Maxientius himself fell from the bridge during the battle and drowned in the Tiber River.

The next day, Constantine entered Rome and was greeted by cheering crowds. It was tradition for a conquering emperor to parade through the city to the temple of Jupiter. There, the conquering emperor was expected to dismount from his chariot and go into the temple to offer sacrifices to thank the king of the Roman gods for victory. Constantine shocked the people of Rome, however, by riding past the temple of Jupiter without even so much as looking toward it. Constantine was now emperor of the Roman Empire and had decided to become a Christian. He would be the first Christian Roman emperor.

The following year, in 313 AD, Constantine issued a new law called the Edict of Milan. This new law not only ended the persecution of Christians everywhere in the Roman Empire, it ordered that any churches that had been burned had to be rebuilt using the money of the Roman government and any property taken from the Christians had to be given back to them.

While Constantine did not outlaw the worship of the Roman gods, he did pass laws that showed favoritism to Christians. Now that Constantine was in charge, a person had to be a Christian to be promoted to the highest positions in government. Many who had formerly hated Christianity decided to become Christians.

Constantine also passed laws that made the empire more Christian in other ways. He outlawed practices that Christians did not like, such as using crucifixion to execute Christians. He also passed laws that made life easier for poor people, slaves, and women. In 324, Constantine even moved the capital of the Roman Empire away from the city of Rome to a new city named after himself, Constantinople. While Rome was a city filled with temples to the Roman gods, Constantinople was a city filled with Christian churches. Constantine was trying to remake the Roman Empire as a Christian empire.

After Constantine’s death in 336, there would only be one more emperor who was not a Christian. Julian, who was Constantine’s nephew, reigned as emperor for only two years. He was raised as a Christian but returned to worshipping the old Roman gods. Julian tried to bring back to old Roman religious beliefs, but it did not work. By the end of the fourth century, almost everyone in the Roman Empire had become a Christian. At the beginning of the fourth century, only about 1 in every 10 people in the Roman Empire was a Christian. At the beginning of the fifth century just 100 years later, only about 1 in every 10 people was not a Christian.

 

Review Questions

  1. Who was the first Christian Roman emperor?
  1. What did Constantine say he saw and heard the night before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge?
  1. What was the name of the law Constantine passed which ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire?
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