If you were a Christian at this time and saw the Roman Emperor embracing Christianity, you would think the world was turning upside down.
In A.D. 300, Rome looked like this.
It had become a tetrarchy (“four rulers”) because of the increasing difficultly of governing an empire that stretched from England to Egypt. There were continual battles between the four Caesars for dominance. It was in this setting that Christianity experienced its most extreme and widespread persecution under Diocletian. He led the Eastern-most quadrant and was the supreme leader of the empire. If you were a Christian living in the Roman Empire at this time, things seemed bleak. Then the strangest thing happened. The tetrarch who controlled the western-most quadrant marched on Rome to take control of the adjacent quadrant. His name? Constantine.
Attacking a fellow emperor in the Roman Empire, in and of itself, was not strange. But the night before he attacked the city, he had a vision. He claims to have seen in the sky a Chi Rho (Xp), the first two letters in the Greek name for Christ – an already existing symbol for Christianity. He also claims that he heard a voice utter the phrase, “In this you shall conquer.” Whether or not that happened, Constantine acted like it did. He had all of his soldiers paint the Chi Rho on their shields and had it embroidered on his battle flags.
The next day Constantine attacked his fellow tetrarch Maxentius and soundly won the Battle of Milvian Bridge. By the end of the day Constantine controlled the Western half of the empire. But he wasn’t willing to stop there. By A.D. 324 Constantine had successfully returned the tetrarchy to a monarchy.
Constantine had an ambitious goal: to build a “New Rome.” It would be a continuation of the Roman Empire, but with two radically new tactics. First, instead of turning to the old gods and traditions, he believed the return of Rome’s glory was best accomplished by embracing Christianity. Second, he moved the capital of the Empire from Rome to Byzantium and renamed it Constantinople, after himself.
Whatever the state of Constantine’s heart, his profound effect on Christianity and the world is undeniable, so much so that historians refer to the era from A.D. 313 to the Present as the “Constantine Era.”
In A.D. 313 Constantine signed the Edict of Milan, which officially ended the persecution of Christians throughout the Roman Empire. By this time Rome had been persecuting Christians, off and on, for almost 250 years – a long-standing tradition of brutalizing the church. And now the new emperor was conquering in the sign of Jesus and enacting laws benefiting Christians. If you were a believer at this time it would have felt as if the empire was inverting right in front of your eyes.
With the Emperor’s endorsement, Christianity went from a relatively small, underground movement to an overwhelmingly popular one. Prior to Constantine’s rise to power, Christians were required to wait three years before receiving baptism to ensure they received adequate instruction in the faith and that their lives displayed the fruit of the Holy Spirit. After his rise, people had to be turned away because of the multitudes awaiting baptism. (As an interesting side note, Christianity was embraced first in the cities. The rural parts were initially resistant to it, preferring paganism.)
Christian worship went from simple to elaborate. Churches went from meeting in houses to large, elaborate cathedrals (like St. John’s Church) and started embracing elements of emperor worship like choirs, incense and religious garments. Gone were the days when Christianity was attractive only to those who were ready to embrace martyrdom. Now, it was a socially acceptable thing to be. Christianity had become popular, but some argued, had lost its purity. The church was facing an identity crisis.
Part of this identity crisis was caused by Constantine himself. He definitely fit the part of the decadent Caesar. He loved luxury and pomp and self-aggrandizement. He lived in an ornate palace. He loved holding blood sport shows in the circus, where it is said, the crowds became bored because beasts grew tired of killing.
For many years he continued worshiping The Unconquered Sun – a Roman deity – while he remained the High Priest of paganism. And although he conquered in the sign of Christianity, he refused baptism until his deathbed.
But on the other hand, Constantine seemed to make authentic statements in support of the Christian faith. He said, “The eternal, holy and unfathomable goodness of God does not allow us to wander in darkness, but shows us the way of salvation. . . . This I have seen in others as well as in myself.” So, was he a true convert, or just a shrewd politician who knew the political winds were about to change? The question is actually beside the point.
Whatever the state of Constantine’s heart, his profound effect on Christianity and the world is undeniable, so much so that historians refer to the era from A.D. 313 to the Present as the “Constantine Era.” This refers to it being socially acceptable to be a Christian. We now take this for granted, but before Constantine came onto the world stage, this idea would have been absurd. This ranks as one of the most seismic shifts in the entire history of the church. Christians went from persecuted underdogs to culture-shaping victors – a far cry from crucified, Jewish carpenter.
Though Christians enjoy the benefits of the Constantine Era today, some believe it could soon be fading – and perhaps already is in the West. What the future holds in this regard, no one knows. Constantine also left one other important legacy behind in the form of Ecumenical Councils, which we’ll take up in the next episode.