Constantine The Great

c.274/280-337. First Christian emperor of Rome. Son of Constantius Chlorus, the future Western emperor, Constantine spent the years 293-305 as an apprentice-cum- hostage under the Eastern emperors Diocletian and Galerius, the instigators of the Great Persecution, but at York in 306 was proclaimed emperor (Augustus) by his father's troops on his death. From the contest for supremacy in the West he emerged triumphant by defeating Maxentius in 312 at the Milvian Bridge, north of Rome. According to Eusebius and Lactantius,* before the battle he adopted the emblem of the labarum in obedience to a vision and dream assuring him of victory from the Christians' God, whose worship he may have confused with his family's monotheistic reverence for the Unconquered Sun or Apollo.

In 313 he and Licinius, soon to control the Eastern empire, decreed full legal toleration for Christianity (Edict of Milan*), and the church enjoyed increasing favor-restitution of confiscated property, financial aid for Catholics, clerical exemption from hereditary offices, civil jurisdiction for bishops. The Donatists* protested against exclusion from his benefactions, and his determination to let churchmen resolve the dispute foundered on repeated Donatist appeals until in frustration he adjudicated personally in 316. His abortive coercion of the schismatics in 321 set another precedent. As sole emperor after conquering Licinius in 324, Constantine tackled the Arian* conflict. After a fruitless mission by Ossius, bishop of Cordoba, his adviser since about 312, he summoned the Council of Nicea (325), presided, at least at first, and influenced the inclusion of homoousios in its creed. The unity thus achieved soon disintegrated. Constantine, pursuing harmony without theological insight, and guided increasingly by the Arianizing Eusebiuses of Caesarea and Nicomedia, exiled obstructionist orthodox bishops like Athanasius.* Civil sanctions now regularly enforced ecclesiastical censures.

Constantine in 330 inaugurated his new foundation of Constantinople, located for strategic and Christian reasons far from old Rome, symbol of the pagan past and citadel of paganism's continuing vigor. Constantine spurned Rome, but his career magnified the Western Church's appreciation of its bishop's function as arbiter. He was baptized shortly before he died, and was buried amid the apostles in the basilica he founded in their honor in Constantinople. Constantine and his mother Helena* were keen patrons of church building, especially in the Holy Land, thus promoting the revived importance of Jerusalem.

The genuineness of Constantine's adoption of Christianity has been hotly debated, especially since Jacob Burckhardt's portrayal of the megalomaniac motivated solely by political expediency (The Age of Constantine the Great, 1853; ET 1949). The authenticity of Eusebius's panegyric Life of Constantine is now almost universally accepted. If Constantine often appears to stand outside the church, it is because he bore a heavenly commission to ensure its welfare and unity in the interests of imperial peace and prosperity which are divine blessings. He conceived of himself as “the servant of God,” alongside or above the bishops, the pontifex maximus in Christianized dress. His religious ideas were dominated by an almighty Supreme Divinity who assigns responsibilities and distributes temporal and eternal rewards and punishments. Worship, the observance of the religious law, must be correct and united. Lactantian influence here is discernible.

The ambiguity of much of Constantine's public life hinges on the circumstance that, though a Christian, he was an absolutist monarch ruling an empire still largely pagan. His elevation of Christianity into virtually the imperial religion, though fraught with baleful consequences in the short and long term, was inevitable once an emperor became Christian, for the secular or religiously neutral state was unknown in antiquity.

N.H. Baynes, Constantine the Great and the Christian Church (1931; new ed. with full bibliography, 1972); N.H. Baynes in CAH XII (1939); A. Alföldi, The Conversion of Constantine and Pagan Rome (1948); A.H.M. Jones, Constantine and the Conversion of Europe (1948); J. Stevenson, A New Eusebius (1957); R. MacMullen, Constantine (1970).