If your education was anything like mine, you may have been taught about how great were the efforts and success of Constantine to bring Christianity into the world picture during his lifetime. The more I have read about this person during my research the less I see that statement as having much truth to it. Let’s study what I have learned about this guy by looking at a bit of Roman history.
The Roman emperor Diocletian divided the Roman Empire into two regions, East and West. Constantine had risen through the ranks and became the sole emperor of the West in 312 AD not long after his military victory at Milvian Bridge. Just prior to that battle Constantine supposedly had a dream where he was commanded to paint the sign of Christ on the shields of his soldiers. Because of that event he was portrayed as the protector of the Christian faith. From then on Constantine portrayed himself as the first Christian emperor. Constantine was a master of propaganda in the true Roman tradition! In 324 AD, upon his defeat of the Eastern emperor, Licinius, Constantine consolidated the empire which was filled with religious dissension. To put an end to this dissention, in 325 AD Constantine called a general Council meeting to bring an end to these disputes which he had no authority to do as that was strictly the purview of the “religious leaders” of the time.
Many historians label Constantine as a “murderous egoist,” who murdered his own son, Crispus, his wife, Fausta, his nephew and a number of friends as well as Licinius who was originally emperor of the Eastern half of the Roman Empire who was married to Constantine’s sister.
Symbol Used by Constantine
Most historians state that Constantine was motivated by political gain to embrace Christianity. The period of 323 to 327 was very destructive to Christianity. During that era Constantine founded and built the city of Constantinople (Istanbul), a gigantic capital which he called New Rome. In it he commissioned the building of pagan temples, and something he called “buildings for Christians to meet in” which were like government civic auditoriums. Prior to this time Christians had gathered when they desired in homes not in buildings of this kind. This resulted in a wave of pagans following their emperor into Christianity in these new buildings. To accommodate this influx the believers introduced rituals, chanting and pageantry, which pagans were familiar with. Before this time tax money had been funneled into the pagan temples, but now the new Christian buildings became financial recipients of these funds and such buildings sprung up everywhere! All of the following come from the efforts of Constantine: buildings, pews, sermons, choirs, rituals, a costume for the clergy, etc.
Some historians argue that Constantine’s initial intention was freedom of worship for all. An Edict of Milan, issued in 313 with Emperor Licinius read that, “Since we saw that freedom of worship ought not to be denied, to each man’s judgment and will the right should be given to care for sacred things according to each man’s free choice.”
Eusebius (263-339) bishop of Caesarea reported a rescript of the Edict of Milan sent to a provincial governor bearing these words.
“For a long time past we have made it our aim that freedom of worship should not be denied, but that every man, according to his own inclination and wish, should be given permission to practice his religion as he chose. Every man may have permission to choose and practice whatever religion he wishes” (Eusebius, The History of the Church, Book 10, paragraph 5).
As much of history records, that is NOT the way things turned out. In the same year Constantine issued the Edict of Milan proclaimed the following. “I consider it absolutely contrary to the divine law that we should overlook such quarrels and contentions, whereby the Highest Divinity may perhaps be moved to wrath, not only against the human race, but also against me myself, to whose care He has, by His celestial will, committed the government of all earthly things. For I shall really and fully be able to feel secure and always to hope for prosperity and happiness from the ready kindness of the most mighty God, only when I see all venerating the most holy God in the proper cult of the Catholic Religion with harmonious brotherhood of worship.” Constantine did not establish Christianity as the only lawful religion of the Empire, he established the Catholic Church as the only lawful church in the Empire!
The Council of Nicea (325 AD), replaced the Passover with Easter, which at that time was a popular holiday rooted in ancient springtime fertility celebrations. Constantine endorsed this change and stated, “It appeared an unworthy thing that in the celebration of this most holy feast (speaking of Easter) we should follow the practice of the Jews, who have impiously defiled their hands with enormous sin, and are, therefore, deservedly afflicted with blindness of soul….Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd” (Eusbeius, Life of Constantine 3, 18-19, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1979, second series, Vol. 1, pp. 524-525).
As a final note on this man of history I offer the following which is known as the Donation of Constantine. Latin Rite Catholics considered it inappropriate that Constantine was baptized only on his death bed and by an unorthodox bishop, as it undermined the authority of the Papacy. Hence, by the early fourth century, a legend had emerged that Pope Sylvester I (314-335) had cured the pagan emperor from leprosy. According to this legend, Constantine was soon baptized, and began construction of a church in the Lateran Palace. In the eighth century, most likely during the pontificate of Stephen II (752-757), a document called the Donation of Constantine first appeared, in which the freshly converted Constantine hands the temporal rule over “the city of Rome and all the provinces, districts, and cities of Italy and Western regions” to Sylvester and his successors. In the Middle High Ages, this document was used and accepted as the basis for the Pope’s temporal power, though it was denounced as a forgery by Emperor Otto III and lamented as the root of papal worldliness by the Poet Dante Alighieri. The 15th century philologist Lorenzo Valla proved the document was indeed a forgery.
From the narrative I have written you should be able to take with you a mindset that when you read about this “famous Christian warrior” it might be helpful to seek out the source of the so-called historical origins of the document. If there be any connections whatsoever to the Roman Catholic Church you might expect it to be positive toward this man. Other authors may not have quite as much praise for the motivations and actions of this historical character!