Was Constantine Really the First Christian Emperor?
The controversial issue of Constantine’s supposed conversion to Christianity has bedevilled serious students of his age, ever since the time of Gibbon (1737 – 1794). This historian, with the typical scepticism of the eighteenth century rationalist, first confronted the traditional view of Constantine, portrayed as champion of the church and first Christian emperor. This traditional, over-simplified and idealised picture of the emperor had its origins in the writings of certain early church historians, who left accounts contained references to miraculous “visions” and “celestial signs”. clearly these types of events lie outside the authentic vicinity of secular historiography. In any event it is quite impossible to ascertain with any real degree of certainty that the purported religious conviction of anyone at all is truly genuine. Essentially this is always a private matter between each individual and his own god. However we may legitimately accept that a hypothesis for any motive or conviction, credited to a historical figure, is proven historiographically, if all the established facts of that person’s deeds and behaviour, in addition as his surviving harmonies and reported utterances, are consistent with this deduction, always provided that the integrity of the supplies for this information can be verified with a high degree of certainty.
The direct results of the events surrounding this particular alleged conversion (whether true or pretended) were absolutely pivotal for setting out the future course for both the Roman Empire and for the Christian Church, the joint foundation stones of Western Civilisation, as we know it today. An examination of the motives that likely influenced Constantine in his rise to strength and guided his later acts is consequently basic, in order to begin to understand his epoch, which brought about such basic changes to the philosophical concept of the state and particularly in its relationship to the religious life of its people.
A basic examination of the integrity of the major literary supplies for Constantine’s reign is consequently of cardinal importance. By far the most important supplies, for this period and especially for the subject of his apparent conversion, are the current Christian historians, Eusebius of Caesarea (AD 260 – 340) and Lactantius (AD 250 – 320), who was a native of the province of Africa. If we can satisfy ourselves, from an examination of these two dominant supplies, that their record of Constantine’s behaviour is consistent and plausible and additionally is compatible with the surviving documentary, numismatic, archaeological and other evidence, then on a strict balance of probabilities we may legitimately accept (or reject) the proposition that he was an authentic transform. However should the literary record prove to be flawed, containing sections that are significantly unfair as a consequence of bias, or to some degree inconsistent with established facts, due to errors, untruths, illogical statements or unsubstantiated deductions, then the faulty material must be rejected. This may leave insufficient tested material remaining to give any certainty for resolving the issue. In that event, we must keep content with the unsatisfactory conclusion that the issue is not decidable, or at best, one point of view may be accepted, with qualifications, as a working hypothesis, for seeming the more probable of the two options. The yardstick for assessing the validity of these supplies will consequently be the degree to which they can sustain a definitive answer to our proposition.
Eusebius, church historian and Christian theologian, was a renowned scholar and prolific writer. He was, inter alia, the author of “Ecclesiastical History (HE)” written in 315 and revised ten years later. He is also believed to be the author of “The life of Constantine (VC)”, which is a biography, containing highly useful transcripts of important official letters and documents, relating to Constantine’s reign (written c340 – if the authorship is allowed). He was also known as Eusebius Pamphili, in commemoration of his martyred friend, colleague and literary collaborator, Pamphilus of Caesaraea. After Pamphilus’ death he moved to Tyre, but fled to Egypt during the persecution initiated by the emperor Galerius in 304. Following the retraction of the persecution by the “Edict of Toleration”, promulgated by Galerius at Nicomedia on 30 April 311 (ref: Ecclesiastical History VIII. XVII. 6-10), he was able to return to Palestine, becoming bishop of Caesarea in 314. He was the confidant and adviser of Constantine from about 324 and tried to obtain a moderate outcome from the Council of Nicaea, in which he gave the opening address. His writing was in Greek.
Lactantius was converted to Christianity late in life and he lost his position as professor of rhetoric, as a consequence of it. He became an staunch defender of the church at the time of the persecutions and forever remained basic of paganism. His major work, “On the Deaths of the Persecutors” (DMP), was published in 318. He was the tutor of Constantine’s eldest son Crispus. He wrote in elegant Latin and included valuable direct transcripts of official documents in the DMP, such as the “Edict of Toleration” before mentioned (ref DMP xxxiv) and the “Edict of Milan” (ref DMP xlviii)
Knowing something of the background of the two writers, we are closest faced with a dilemma, if using them as our dominant supplies. Firstly, neither author was truly attempting to produce a work of pure historiography and consequently was not placed under the discipline that this form of writing implies. In effect both were writing to celebrate the triumph of their faith over the pagan persecutors in the form of “providential histories”. In this genre, although historical facts may be recorded with a fair degree of accuracy, however all events are analysed in terms of the preordained will of God and the direct intervention by the deity is not only considered permissible, but is central to the theme. Secondly both authors were committed Christians, who had suffered personal loss in the recent persecutions and consequently cannot reasonably be expected to be clear of pro-Christian and anti-pagan bias. additionally by the time the final editions of their work were published, both men were firmly in Constantine’s camp, Eusebius, becoming his trusted friend and advisor and Lactantius the tutor to the emperor’s son. It was certainly in their interests, both in their personal capacities and also as representatives of their faith to portray Constantine as a “man of Providence”. Norman Banes in his Raleigh Lecture of 1929, continues with this point, quoting an appropriate extract, “It would be strange”, Constantine proceeds, “if the glory of the confessors should not be raised to greater splendour and blessedness under the rule of the servant of God…” (VC 2.28 – 29). However Henri Gregoire (Conversion of Constantine) goes further and moots the discarding of the VC completely, as “a romanticised panegyric”, which is at odds with the earlier HE.
Having taken cognisance of the possible danger that some of the content, presented by our supplies, may well suffer from distortions, arising from an excess of zeal, we must now examine the supplies and see how their record truly stands up to the yardstick hypothesizedv in the preamble to this essay. For this we shall concentrate on the meaningful elements relating to Constantine’s rise to become only ruler of the Roman world and his apparent relationship with the Christian faith.
There is little controversy regarding the Constantine’s pagan background before his quarrel with his fellow Augustus Maxentius, and his later invasion of Italy in 312 and apparent conversion to Christianity. From about 310 it is generally taken that Constantine was an adherent of the monotheistic worship of Sol Invicta – the Unconquered Sun. This cult had long associations with his family, although there had been an politically motivated association with Hercules in the interim. The religion of Sol Invicta was a syncretic solar cult, which enabled the various attributes of polytheistic paganism to be assimilated into one universal deity. According to Jaques Moreau this syncretism was useful as a unifying medium for different cults of the empire and “was in no way offensive to Christians”, with whom it shared some shared symbolism. Numismatic evidence strongly supports the conclusion that Constantine was an adherent of Sol and the symbolism remains on the coins of Constantine until the 320s. He was also reported to have had a dream of meeting the Sun God at a grove of Sol-Apollo in Gaul. There is no allegation of actual Christian sympathies before his victory at the Malvinian Bridge, but Constantine appears to have followed his father, Constantius Chlorus, in desisting from persecuting the sect in the areas under his jurisdiction. Let us now examine what the supplies truly say regarding his conversion.
Eusebius’ “Ecclesiastical History” (HE) was originally written in 315 and revised ten years later. It was the earliest literary account of Constantine”s conversion. According to him Constantine called “already on Jesus Christ the Saviour of all, as his ally”, at the battle of Milvian Bridge and thereafter had a statue of himself made with a Christian symbol in his hand. There is evidence that this statue truly did exist but it is uncertain whether the symbol was the “Chi-Rho” monogram of Christ’s name or the cross of his passion.
Lanctantius in his book “On the Deaths of the Persecutors” – XLIV (DMP) (c318) was the earliest reference we have to Constantine’s vision at the Milvian Bridge, whereby Constantine was told in a dream to written [the sign of] Christ on the shields of his soldiers. Lactantius , who’s language was Latin, states that the Greek letters were “Chi” intercepted by a crooked form of “Ipsilon” which is similar, but not identical to the “Chi-Rho” monogram of Christ. This has caused important argument afterward, amongst scholars who have derived extremely different and tenuous theories from this discrepancy. Some have tried strenuously to disprove the Christian symbolism. eg Henri Gregoire’s theory of the X of the “Vota”. None of these arguments are convincing and the discrepancy remains unexplained. It may just have been a simple error arising from Lactantius’ unfamiliarity with the Greek symbol, which was familiar in the East but not in the Latin West, or equally plausibly, for those more cynical, an attempt by Constantine to unite his army under an ambiguous symbol, permissible to both pagan and Christian.
Eusebius later work “Life of Constantine” (Vita Constantinus – VC) is believed to have been written around 340, long after the alleged conversion, but there is some argument as to whether it was in fact written by Eusebius and not by some later writers. As this is a matter that only experts can decide, the current acceptance of Eusebius as being the author, and also regarding the authenticity of the documentary transcripts included therein, is assumed to be correct for the purposes of this essay. This work (VC) goes further than the past two books (HE & DMP) regarding the revelations that were given to Constantine, virtually assigning him to the position of an Old Testament prophet and is reminiscent of the epiphany on the road to Damascus. Whilst on his way to Italy (from Gaul) according to Eusebius the Emperor stretched out his arms and prayed to his father’s god (Sol) he asked him to show who he was and to assist him in his present enterprise. He then saw a vision of “the trophy of a cross of light, in the heavens above the sun” bearing the inscription “In this Conquer”. His whole army was also supposed to have seen this sign. Later he was commanded by Christ in a dream to make the likeness of this vision into a standard for his troops (Laburnum) with the “Chi-Rho” monogram. Eusebius maintains that all this was revealed to the writer privately, much later, under oath. He also states that the emperor wore this same monogram on his helmet later, numismatic evidence proves this. Constantine then took instruction by certain Christians about the mysteries he had observed and thereafter led his soldiers to victory. He famous this victory by erecting a statue of himself with the salutary sign of a spear with a cross member as symbol of the revelation given to him.
The critics of a sudden (or miraculous) conversion of the emperor are quick to point out the huge difference between the brightly painted later story of Eusebius (VC) and that of the earlier versions told both by himself (HE) and Lactantius (DMP). Surely such momentous happenings as the celestial vision and Constantine’s later actions would not have escaped the earlier accounts, especially if witnessed by a whole army? Why did Constantine wait all those years to declare his vision, and then only do it privately, long after he had openly embraced Christianity in his public acts? The logic is not credible. Lactantius further in the DMP also reports on the miraculous intervention of a angel who gave assistance to Constantine’s colleague Licinius in the battle of Campus Ergenus (313 against the persecutor Maximin Daia). Jaques Moreau points out that Licinius is given equal weight with Constantine, as a champion of the Christians by Lactantius, who was writing in c318. Lactantius died in about 320 and Licinius was afterward shown by his acts clearly to be an unrepentant pagan at the time of his death in 324. This definitely casts doubt on both his supposed revelation and by association also on that of Constantine, as reported by Lactantius.
One of the strongest arguments against a sudden “miraculous” conversion for Constantine to the Christian faith, as mooted by Eusebius and Lactantius is that for some important time after the victory at Milvian bridge Constantine continues to use the symbol of the sun in tandem with the use of Christian signs (eg on his victory arch in Rome and also on coins and medallions). He declared Sunday (the day of the sun) to be a day of rest in such an ambiguous manner that both Christian or pagan could participate with clear conscience. In all his early harmonies there is no mention of Christ, but only of God [un-named]. There is a strong argument (put up by A.Piganiol) that Constantine originally believed that Christianity could be assimilated with his solar religion in some sort of co-existence, not realising how exclusive was the “jealous god” of the Christians. If this was the case, Constantine evolved from this position slowly over the following decade and in the hands of his Christian advisers became steadily more orthodox in his faith. By the mid twenties he was actively participating in church affairs and his harmonies shows that he no longer had sympathy for the pagans, although he scornfully permits them to persist in their error. His late baptism in his final illness proves his Christianity and the delay is understandable for a head of State who could neither provide the usual onerous three year apprenticeship of a proselyte, nor wished to close the books until he was sure that his days of sinning were over. His Christianity was certainly not of the meek kind, as his sins intensified and his reign became more bloody in later years (viz the murder of his son Crispus)
Whether his actual conversion to Christianity was sudden or gradual, the fact remains that, closest after the battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine’s behaviour towards the sect took a jump forwards. That he was sympathetic towards the church is beyond argument. There is documentary evidence of written instructions to the Proconsul of Africa Anullinus (313) and a letter to Cacaellian, Bishop of Carthage, at the same time, which serve to reverse the effects of the past persecutions. The so-called “Edict of Milan” in 313 is further evidence of this trend, which continued until he had clearly and openly shown that he considered himself a Christian by the time of the council at Nicaea in 325.
The evidence of Eusebius and Lactantius, is insufficiently strong to sustain a clear finding that Constantine suddenly became a Christian, just prior to the battle of Milvian Bridge. That there was the use of Christian signs by individuals amongst his troops during the campaign seems most probable and Constantine in all likelihood probably did attribute his success to assistance from the Christian god (or to the Christians). This would not be inconsistent in a superstitious age, especially for one who had belief in a syncretic religion, in which the sun was only a demi-urge or the rule aspect of the Creator, who could manifest himself in many forms. The heavenly revelations, as reported by the two churchmen are not convincing and were probably the results of an excess in zeal on their part. Eusebius account in VC has all the hallmarks of a fabrication and should be discarded. Lactantius also is speculate, when we consider his Christianization of the pagan Licinius. Ultimately Constantine appears to have been converted in a less spectacular, but equally effective way, which was facilitated by his syncretic solar religion and in all probability his faith evolved over time into orthodox Christianity. In fact the emperor’s background in the cult of Sol Invicta and philosophical paganism clearly influenced the outcome of Nicene Council and hence the Christian Creed as we know it today. The concept of the trinity with the central tenet of Homoousios (Christ being of the same essence as the father-creator) seems to be consistent with the belief structure of the more complex or intellectual pagans. The synod of Antioch were uncomfortable with this concept because it had originated in pagan Greek philosophy
We must conclude that the two Christian supplies are permissible as a valuable record of the actual events or happenings, but cannot stand up basic examination where they touch on Constantine’s motives or beliefs. The inconsistencies between the three accounts, with the remotest in time (VC) having the most detail and requiring the greater faith in the writer’s bona fides, is suspicious and rule us to reject the hypothesis of the emperor’s sudden conversion. This conclusion is consistent by the record of the evolution of Constantine’s official acts towards the Christians, which seem to begin merely with a desire to redress past injustices after Milvian bridge and finally culminate in active participation, if not actual control of the Church’s affairs, by the emperor.