People like to idealise, and it is hard not to, especially if the person is a saint and an emperor. Among the multitude of princes and emperors glorified by our Church, there is one who stands out. His name is Constantine the Great, Emperor of Rome, commemorated on 3 June.
In this article about Saint Constantine, we do not narrate his life. Instead, we consider the fundamental changes in the position of the Church during his reign. As a student, I heard some highly critical assessments of Emperor Constantine’s role and many apologetic views bordering on flattery. These extreme opinions did not come from my fellow students – we were too young to think seriously about these things. They originated from historians, publicists and members of the laity.
At the beginning of my service at the Church, I shared a rather idealistic opinion of Constantine the Great. I almost imagined him as the embodiment of a “Symphonia” between the church and state, a popular idea among Christian political thinkers. In the limited space of this article, it would be impossible to do justice to the role of Emperor Constantine in the history of the Church. However, the emperor’s personality and the developments he put in motion are so complex that no extreme view would be a fair description.
To many Christians, the Edict of Milan in 313 was a positive event. To some, even the First Ecumenical was less significant in comparison. Yet the edict was more than a change in the Church-State relationship or the external context for the Church. It represented a tectonic shift in the thinking of the Christians.
The three preceding centuries were the age of the martyrs when Christians – who were “not of this world” – were in opposition to the worldly powers. To a Christian, Baptism was the rite of admission to the citizenship of the Kingdom of God. Christians would recognise the authority of the secular state only as long as it did not come into conflict with the Kingdom of God. Yet, even when with no direct opposition, the members of the Church shared a strong sense of autonomy from the things of this world.
With Constantine’s ascent to the throne, the State ceased to be an enemy. Far from constituting a framework for its subjects’ material life, the state claimed the role of an ally of the Christians and sought to present to its subjects the image of the world to come.
Protopresbyter John Meyendorf writes: “Medieval Byzantine viewed its Christian culture as the highest point in its history. It was believed that Constantine’s new Roman Empire on the Bosphorus realised God’s plan to follow up on His incarnation by planting the roots of the Kingdom of God on Earth.”
This position, of course, has its obvious weaknesses. Throughout history, man’s attempts to bring this plan into action have failed. The idea of a church-state “Symphonia” has undergone some very trying times, challenged by many internal conflicts. Not coincidentally, the first half of the fourth century saw the flourishing of monasticism, a Christian movement that sought to keep the autonomy of believers in Christ from the state and the secular world. Still, Eastern Christians remember Constantine as the founder of the Christian world and his reign as the succession of the era of martyrs. Conversely, for Western Christians, his policies subjugated the Church to the State and deprived the faithful of the freedoms of the early Church. Ironically, the search for this freedom was driving many Christians into the wilderness.
To begin to understand the context of Constantine’s era, let us consider the psychology of his rule, and specifically, his understanding of political power.
At the dawn of the fourth century, the Roman Empire had moved far enough from the primordial variants of Paganism. Hellenism brought to the mainstream the idea that the world had a single beginning and foundation and gave rise to the idea of theocratic power. In the mid-third century, Emperor Aurelian introduced the cult of the Invincible Sun and proclaimed the Emperor as its viceroy on earth. Imperial power acquired divine authority, and the Emperor began to impersonate all things of heaven and earth. Emperor Constantine – receptive to these mystical ideas – grew up in this tradition of pious veneration of the Roman emperor.
When Diocletian abdicated the Roman throne, a power struggle followed. Constantine had only one contender, Maxentius. He besieged Rome in 312, but he could not proceed to assault the city and destroy Maxentius because doing so would constitute an act of sacrilege, given his attitude to imperial power. He had to find a different sacral basis to overcome this obstacle.
In classical hagiography, we read about Constantine’s vision of the Holy Cross and the voice from heaven declaring that it would bring him victory. He won the battle by the will of the Christian God. The Christian God also sanctified his power and brought his empire under the protection of the Cross.
Historians of his time do not confirm the hagiographic narrative, but they do mention the insight from Constantin’s dream about engraving a new image on his battle weapon, most probably, the Cross. Constantine won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge and began to name himself a Christian afterwards.
Incidentally, he only took baptism towards the end of his life, two decades after this battle. Yet we all know that we convert to Christ only through the sacrament of Baptism. Does it mean then, that Constantine acquired the faith just before his final ascent to the Roman throne, without joining the Church? This unusual conversion gave rise to all the paradoxes of Bysantism that followed. Saint Constantine, Equal-to-the-Apostles, did many good things for the Church, but also made multiple costly errors. Still, his role in church history was immense.
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The debate on the figure of Constantine the Great is ongoing, but one thing is certain: he has always been drawn to God. As Father Alexander Schmemann writes, “He lived by the desire for the absolute; he wished to affirm the image of His Divine Truth and Beauty on this earth. With his name, the Church associated some of its grandest worldly hopes and its vision of Christ’s triumph in the world. The love and appreciation of the Church are more meaningful than the harsh judgement of historians that are subject to change and are often superficial».
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds