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The Conversion of Constantine

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Following the resignation of the emperors Diocletian and Maximian, there was chaos in the Roman government, with three competing emperors reigning at once in both the east and the west. Because he had been named by his father as the next emperor, Constantine was proclaimed emperor by soldiers based in York. He quickly became the most prominent of the three, finally defeating Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge on 27th October 312. After his victory he became emperor of the west.

Before the battle, he was aware that Maxentius was relying on pagan magic, so felt the need of a more powerful force to counter him with. Constantine began to pray to the God of his father, Constantius. As he was praying, a vision of a cross appeared in the sky above the noon-day sun, with an inscription saying, ‘Conquer by this’. That night, he also had a dream, in which he was told to put the same sign on his standard and on the shields of his soldiers. This became known as the ‘labarum’, a cross with the chi-rho sign. Because he was victorious, he became convinced that Christianity was the true religion and the Christian God was the most powerful God. He refused to perform the regular sacrifices to pagan gods after the battle.

There continues to be great debate in the church over the genuineness of his conversion to Christianity, and even over the truth of his vision. It is not clear whether he had a personal faith in Christ, and it is almost certain that he did not have a true biblical understanding of the Christian Gospel. It is possible that, at least initially, he confused his previous pagan worship of the sun with the worship of the Christian God. For several years his coins continued to feature images of the Unconquered Sun. When he made the first day of the week a public holiday, he called it the day of the Sun, ‘Sunday’. He also retained the emperor’s pagan title, ‘Pontifex Maximus’, meaning ‘High Priest’.

However, after his conversion the attitude to the church from the Roman government was completely reversed, from persecution, first to a policy of religious tolerance, and later to the adoption of Christianity as the state religion. In 313, Constantine and Licinus, the Emperor of the East, together published what is known as the ‘Edict of Milan’, giving freedom of worship to all, both pagan and Christian. They also agreed that all confiscated Christian property should be restored to its owners, whether individuals or communities. However, there is no historical record of this edict.

It is certain that Constantine was a changed man following his conversion, particularly in his actions, becoming far more humane then previous emperors. This was particularly shown in his legislation. In this, he favoured the church and introduced many laws to protect slaves, children and animals.

In 323, Constantine defeated his co-emperor Licinius, and became the sole emperor of the whole Roman Empire. He moved his capital city to Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople. While there were two emperors, the religious policy gave equal treatment to both Christianity and paganism. However, after Constantine became sole emperor, he gave ever-increasing preference to the church. Constantine’s greatest anxiety was for peace and unity in the church. This was probably because he wanted to use the church as a social and moral force to hold his fragmenting empire together. It was with this motivation that he called the Council of Nicaea as an attempt to heal the division in the church caused by Arianism, even though he probably did not really understand the theological issues being debated.

Several laws were introduced to limit the influence of paganism, such as laws forbidding black magic and private soothsaying. Christians were no longer required to attend the pagan feast of Quinquennalia. Other laws were passed to give Christianity the same rights and privileges as paganism. The clergy were also given the same immunity from municipal duty as was already given to pagan priests. In 315 land owned by Christian clergy was made exempt from taxation. The church was also allowed to received legacies, in the same way as pagan temples. One of the most significant laws was passed in 321, when Sunday was ordered to be kept as a holiday and a day of rest. Later, laws were passed to abolish official sacrifices to pagan gods. This made it easier for Christians to take up positions as civil magistrates, without compromising their faith. Taxes on celibacy were also removed, which assisted the rise of monasticism.

Constantine’s social and moral legislation was strongly influenced by Christian principles, by being far more humane than legislation under previous emperors. A more merciful approach was adopted in the treatment of criminals. A law passed in 314, stated that capital punishment could only be used if the accusers gave a unanimous testimony against the criminal. In recognition of men being made in the image of God, the branding of criminals on the face was outlawed, and scourging of debtors was stopped.

Laws were also passed to insist on a more benevolent treatment of slaves. From 315, the crucifixion of slaves was forbidden. From 316, the conditions were relaxed for granting liberty to slaves, especially in the church. Also, the families of slaves were to be kept intact if they were sold, or if their owner died.

One of the horrors in the Roman Empire was the barbaric treatment of children. Under Constantine, measures were introduced to give children a degree of state protection. As an attempt to limit the practice of abandoning or selling unwanted children, the state took some responsibility to bear the expense of rearing them. In 322, heavy penalties were introduced against the kidnapping of children. Even the treatment of animals was improved. For example, the drivers in the postal service were commanded to be more merciful to their animals.