Jump to content
UNRV Ancient Roman Empire Forums
  • Time Travel Rome

Viggen

What Difference Did Constantine Make?

Recommended Posts

fascinating article!

 

In hindsight, Constantine’s victory does look like a watershed. One year later, 313 A.D., with a Christian now living in Caesar’s palace, Christianity would be granted legal status (the so-called Edict of Milan). According to the standard interpretation, Constantine’s vocal support for his new faith virtually ensured pagan Rome would morph into a Christian empire. Over the next half century, sacrifice would be outlawed, temples locked. Christian demographics would swell, as Romans — perhaps more than 50% of the empire by the mid 4th century, according to Rodney Stark — abandoned their tired traditions. (For context, the number of Christians during Constantine’s day is estimated at 10 percent).

 

Unfortunately, there is a lot missing from this picture. Christian visibility did increase everywhere after Constantine’s victory, from Jerusalem to Spain. The fourth century A.D. was also a time of church councils, at Arles, Nicaea, and Serdica, meetings attended by opinionated bishops. Indeed, because of the sheer amount of this surviving Christian evidence, it really can look — for scholars interested in early Christianity — as if the whole Roman world had changed with one man’s conversion. Yet new evidence suggests Romans did not leave their traditions behind as quickly as once thought.

 

The archaeological record from some of the most well-documented cities, like Ostia outside Rome, shows that traditional religion remained a vibrant part of urban and domestic life during this time. The most recent study of the religious identity of Roman senators also suggests that, when it came to embracing Christianity, the majority of that august body remained committed to “paganism” for most of the fourth century. Even with Constantine’s conversion — and the remarkable fact that a Christian was now serving openly as the head of state — Christians remained a minority religion for much longer than people suspected.

 

full article at Medium.com

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Sadly, the 'new' interpretations and analysis of Christianity and Rome is not known by many readers - largely due to the exorbitant price of many of the 'specialist' books in which new appraisals can be found.  As a result the concept that by the time of Theodosius Christianity had won and any 'non-Nicenes' were sidelined still holds in some peoples' minds.

 

I wish that 'Specialist' publishers would follow in the footsteps of Peter Brown's publishers and lower their prices, even if only a little bit.

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that State acceptance of Christianity (rather than the personal conversion of the emperor) was decisive.  The Roman state provided the new church with patronage in the form of land and money, as well as recognizing the status and sanctioning the actions of bishops;  and pushed efforts to define orthodoxy at the various councils.

Of course the State WAS the emperor.

  • Like 1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Salut, Viggen,

 

I am glad this was brought up. There is much dissimulation over the early Christian church and how Constantine is either vilified or sainted, neither of which I feel he warrants. Looking back in history tells me that Constantine was no better or worse than any of our modern politicians! Tell people what they want to hear, consolidate your power, find those you believe would be good political assets and exploit them...same is always same!

 

Most of my knowledge of the time(s) stems from reading the works of the early Christian church fathers. If interested, here is a link address for them: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/index.html 

 

It seems to me that Constantine's ear was heavily pulled by the Gnostic heretical sect to make the edicts he did. Constantine was a sun-worshiper which is why the Sabbath was changed by order of men (and from God) from Saturday, the last day of the week, to Sunday, the first day of the week. Other heathen practices were added to the neo-orthodoxy of Constantine's time. Christianity was slowly being eroded in its Gospel message due to Roman pagan practices that were part of the cultural times.

 

If you have more information on Constantine, I'd love to learn more since my opinion is not based on exhaustive research. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I have reviewed a book about him not so long ago which stresses his military career. Personally I've always considered Constantine something of a con artist (what politician isn't?) but it does seem his association with christianity rather obscures many of his other achievements. Despite my misgivings, a leader is not called ;'The Great' for nothing.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I have reviewed a book about him not so long ago which stresses his military career. Personally I've always considered Constantine something of a con artist (what politician isn't?) but it does seem his association with christianity rather obscures many of his other achievements. Despite my misgivings, a leader is not called ;'The Great' for nothing.

A leader is called 'The Great' by being on the winning side and having his followers write 'hagiographies' about them.  Constantine's legacy was that he accepted Christianity and his sons followed in his footsteps.  The result was a pro-Christian emperor from 306/312/327 (take your pick) until 371.  The further result was that Christians were given preference both for army and civilian posts, so converting to Christianity was an easy way to preferment. The short period under Julian the Apostate did not give enough time for the pendulum to swing the other way, so on Julian's death the individuals in position to assume control remained Christian.

 

Consequently, Constantine's position as the 'First Christian Emperor' was assured and so the works of his followers such as Eusebius became the standard histories of the period.  Their portrayal of Constantine as a 'saint' meant that he was always going to be 'semi-sanctified' - hence the appelation 'The Great'.

 

Whether his actions and the reality of his rule justify this is a completely different question.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Actually I disagree. Being on the winning side will make popular or unpopular as a leader according to circumstance, and a simple victory rarely accords anyone such status - witness Winston Churchill losing the first election after the allied WW2 victory. No-one called him "The Great" and still don't. During his lifetime he deeply distrusted after his adventures in WW1 and failures as a politician afterward.

 

Constantines legacy wasn't entirely christian -I've made that mistake before and so will others again. Remember that Constantine did not convert the empiire. He simply patronised that religion and adopted it only on his deathbed, and for that matter, his reasons for patronage had almost nothing to do with belief or behaviour (he was a very militaristic man, he had his wife and son executed for... suspicion of naughty things). It was almost entirely a politic ruse to find something that would glue together his crumbling empire, suffering from the downturn of the time and a civil war. It is entirely plausiable he could have chosen a different religion for that purpose, especially since Christianity was hardly united and even under his aegis would never quite manage unification, and was a religion that was not well liked by a large proportion of his citizens. He might well have taken another course entirely.

 

Of course the christian cults responded to the opportunity. Ammianus Marcellinus tells us that the "roads were filled with galloping bishops", who had their own fortunes to build rather than act as a moral arm of government as Constantine intended. Mutual interest than than some magical emergence as christianity prefers to see it.

 

Howver, in the wake of Diocletians Tetrarchy, which itself was not a successful system due to paranoia of the four leaders that one of them was going to be conquered by the others sooner or later, that had seen men under arms inflate in numbers to extraordinary and hugely expensive levels, that the eventual breakdown of order and ensuing civil war needed a victor to bring peace and stability. Constantine did that. There were other christian Caesars - but none were given a statue as large as the ruined one now visible in Istanbul. To the Roman world he was indeed a political and military giant. It's only later, from the opinions of the pious middle ages, that we see his christian patronage as the major event of his life.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I didn't say he was Christian:  I said he was 'pro-Christianity'.  Whether his stance was religious or political makes no difference.  He was not known as 'the Great' during his lifetime, only afterwards.  And it was afterwards that he was seen as being the first Christian Emperor.  His success in war, his alleged adoption of Christianity, the halting of the persecutions etc all combined in order that later generations could see him as 'the Great'.

 

As for the large statue, that was originally made in Rome, possibly under the eye of the emperor himself.  It may be more a sign of his megalomania and the terror he inspired in the Roman citizens after his advance from Britain rather than being a sign of their 'respect'.  Who knows?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Who knows? The ROmans. That's why they caled him 'The Great'. Such titles are rare and do not generally apply to conquerors. Even trajan, an old fashioned conqueror if ever there was, a well popular Caesar with the invasion of Dacia and free public games to celebrate lasting four months to his credit, was never called 'The Great'. What appears to matter is the relationship with the populace and the improvements in safety and prosperity. Augustus for instance may have been 'The Revered', but that title was somewhat a matter of spin and his initiatives to improve the Roman world were rather less to do with helping the public lead better lives than impressing them with his benificence. In other words, it was civic bribery on a grand scale, and a policy that evebntualy got him into trouble when he sent the greedy Varus to collect taxes from occupied Germania (which wasn't even a province at that time).

 

Now I can accept that the monument to Constantine has something of a media/propaganda purpose. nero did the same, building a huge icon to himself. The difference here of course is that Nero's statue did not survive his downfall, and even his palace grounds were redeveloped.

 

Of course there is always going to be an element of eulogising the successful in later generations (so that in the case of Churchill I mentioned earlier, his success in WW2 is everything whereas his failures in WW1 and peace time politics are largely ignored). This is an avenuie of study in itself. For instance, to name an obvious example, we have a dark age hero, who despite enormous amounts of research and speculation - even from me - may not have been a single real person but a hero invented to suit the sensibilities of a rather changeable and dangerous era which has since been enlarged by the - wait for it - the mindset of the middle ages. It's almost the equivalent of a contemporary action movie star. Imagine people looking back in a thousand years and believing that Arnie was busting through the caves of Afghanistan with awesome hi-tech weaponry, impervious to harm, bits of of his robotic body showing through the ragged exterior of his form. It's the same concept.

 

Nonethless, the connection with christianity was not as important to the average Roman as it may seem now. Constantine had won the civil wars and needed something to weld it all back together again. He couldn't do that alone - the empire was too big and fragmented. So he employed a religion that had the advantage of social order as part of its remit. Pagan worship was no good - that was too personal and individualistic. You have only to read the sermons of late empire bishops to understand what they were trying to achieve (beyond getting powerful and wealthy of course). That was exactly what Constantine supported them for. His own leanings were less contientious. He was, technically, a pagan until his baptism shortly before he died, and even that was a mater of spiritual gambling (hoping that a last minurte conversion would stand him in good stead, just in case christianity really was correct and that a man would pay for his sins, of which Constantine was only too aware of his own).

 

To expand on what I said earlier, when it came to the middle ages, for whom christianity was a powerful reality in their own minds, to look back and ask what made Constantine 'Great' was obvious. He had patronised christianity,. Job done. And that has coloured opinions ever since. His other aspects were largely ignored because they were not deemed relevant to the desired aura. Does this begin to sound familiar?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Now you're following my line of reasoning - which I admit wasn't very clear! :whistling:  It was the middle ages that cemented the idea of Constantine being 'the Great'.  Obviously those living in the 'city of Constantine' would look upon him as a founding father.  But when was he first called 'the Great'?  Was it during Roman times or was it later?

 

I agree that Constantine's reputation has been greatly inflated by later generations, but was he called 'Great' at the time?  And if so, was it an epithet along the lines of Augustus' title of 'The Revered'?  And whether it is or not, why isn't it also the result of 'spin'?  :huh:

 

I have always been uncertain as to Constantine's credentials:  was he the superb military commander that he is supposed to have been?  What was his attitude to Christianity?  The first is open to question and an in-depth analysis may give the answers.  The second is not so much open to question, but open to furious debate given personal alliances the Christian Church and the individual's opinion of Constantine's place within that history.  No definitive answers can be given due to the complexity of both the limited evidence and his ensuing legacy.

 

Interesting debate!

Edited by sonic

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Not so, merely that the Middle Ages did not question the life of constantine any further than his christian connection. For them, as I said, the reason for greatness had always been his support for their faith. Eseubius however was alive in late Roman times and wrote a pro-christian eulogy of the man, so I guess we have to forgive the Middle Ages for their folly, but then they always did adjust history to suit their own perspective, thus for instance Jesus is pierced with a lance rather than the pilus a legionary would be equipped with, and to compound the error, the besieged crusaders in Antioch during the First Crusade are told where to find the 'Holy Lance', the location received in a vision by one of their host. Ahem. The truth is that the ancient sources vary in their description of Constantine - the Medieval commentators chose which text they thought applicable to their message. That said, the ancient sources paint, among the various attitudes, a picture of a man who was not just concerned with religion. The Panegyrics for instance praise his victory over maxentius. It isn't that Constantine was suddenly considered 'Great' in later periods, it's that his reputation and legend was quietly censored to suit the mood of the time.

Edited by caldrail

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Hi All,

 

I'm a bit late to the party here, but this is an interesting topic. Here's my tuppence on the Christian matter:

 

When we consider Constantine's 'agenda' regarding Christianity, people tend to fall into one of two camps:

A. He was a devout and kind Christian at heart

or

B. He was a cynical, power-hungry megalomaniac who harnessed Christianty to achieve his goals

 

Like most matters, I believe we have to look for a certain shade of grey. Certainly, Christianity broke that glass ceiling of acceptance around the time of Constantine's rise to power, though whether there is causation or mere correlation between the two, we cannot say for sure (Constantine certainly helped Christianity along, but I'd argue that it had gathered such momentum that it would have risen to be the prominent faith even without him). What I have found from my investigations into his life and times (of which little is recorded) are a few details which paint a picture of a man who knew what he wanted and how to get it, but not without due respect and adherence to (possibly worship of) the Christian faith:

 

1) As most will know, his mother, Helena, was a devout Christian. Constantine was utterly devoted to her. Would such a loyal son be capable of a cynical power-grab, exploiting his mother's faith to help achieve control of the empire? Well, perhaps, the world is full of nasty people, but it did make me doubt the cynic theory, especially when you understand the depths of Constantine's love for his mother.

2) Constantine's father, Constantius, was a Mars-worshipper but Christian-tolerant. In fact he never allowed the Persecutions to take hold in the West during his reign there.

3) Constantine was tutored by Lactantius (about as devout a Christian as you'll get), so most probably had a full understanding of the faith. Thus, when he patronised the faith, it is unlikely that he did so in an unconsidered fashion or without a degree of deep reasoning.

4) This is the most telling one for me: Before Constantine forced himself into the Tetrarchy, he was offered the hand of Valeria, the daughter of Galerius' (at that time Caesar of the East). Now this would have seated him comfortably by Galerius' side and surely in the line of succession. But Constantine refused the offer and instead chose to wed Minervina, a relatively low-born Syrian Christian. By doing so, he not only rejected the chance of a huge step up in station, but also risked the wrath of Galerius and Diocletian - the Great Christian Persecutors.

Edited by Gordopolis

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I definitely fall into the 'B' category I'm afraid. bnefore Constantines patronage, christianity was a series of small unconnected cults of varying credibility. With his victory in the civil war and accession to domination of the empire, he needed something to put his crumbling nation back together again, and since Christianity had a social function that was more authoritarian than pagan worship, his patronage had a useful civic function - exactly as he intended.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I'm not 'A'.  I'm partly 'B', but partly 'C':  he had Christian leanings but was a power-hungry individual with all of the negative traits associated with those who will do anything to achieve power.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I'd echo Sonic's take on it. It's almost impossible for anyone in a high station to be as morally flawless as the Christian panegyrics/A would suggest, but B and nothing but B ignores the person underneath the power (unless he was a first order sociopath, he'd have a conscience like anyone else). How would you rationalise the points I made (particularly the 4th one) in favour of B, Caldrail?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

  • Map of the Roman Empire

×