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morfrain_encilgar
Tuesday, May 24th, 2005, 06:13 PM
The Emperor's state of grace

(Charles Freeman)

The story of Constantine and Christianity is often simply told. It is AD 312. Constantine, the Augustus or senior emperor of the western Roman empire, confronts the usurper Maxentius who holds Rome and the African provinces. Alerted by a vision that the Christian God is on his side, Constantine decorates the shields of his men with a cross and goes into battle at the Milvian Bridge just north of Rome. The result is a stunning victory, all the western empire falls into Constantine's hands and a conversion of Constantine to Christianity follows. Then with the emperor of the east, Licinius, Constantine issues the Edict of Milan which declares toleration for Christianity throughout the empire and underlines this with massive commitments to the Christian communities. Within twelve years, and now sole emperor, Constantine is presiding at the first empire-wide council of bishops, which produces the earliest version of the Nicene creed and soon to be the badge of Christian orthodoxy.

Many studies of this extraordinary turnaround in Christian affairs (there has been brutal persecutions of Christians under Diocletian only a few years before) make the assumption that Constantine accepted Christianity on its own terms. However, the evidence suggests instead that Constantine treated the God of Christianity as if he were similar to the pagan gods, such as Apollo, to which he had already given allegiance. As he began to grasp the distinctive nature of Christianity, he acted to bring the Church directly under his control, giving himself special roles as a bishop outside the Church and later as `the thirteenth apostle' in order to maintain his distance from, and dominance over, it.

An early clue to Constantine's beliefs can be found in the Edict of Toleration itself. In it Constantine and Licinius `grant both to Christians and to all men unrestricted right to follow the form of worship each desired, to the end that whatever divinity there may be on the heavenly seat may be favourably disposed and propitious to us and all those placed under our authority'. So this was genuinely an Edict of Toleration and a true Christian brought up in the tradition that the polytheistic world was evil could hardly have supported it. One reason for such a wide-ranging decree was that Constantine had to
maintain the support of Licinius but it seems clear that he had not appreciated that Christians energetically rejected all other gods.

There is another important theme here: Constantine is suggesting that by giving appropriate honour to the `divinity on the heavenly seat', he will get that divinity's support. This need remained paramount in the years that followed. But what drew Constantine to Christianity in the first place? A simple answer would be the vision before the Milvian Bridge. Yet the accounts of this vision date from years later and are contradictory. In the earliest account (c.415) Lactantius, himself a convert to Christianity, reported that Constantine had had a dream the night before the battle in which he was commanded to place the `heavenly sign of god', the Chi-Rho sign, on his soldiers' shields and he did so. Many years later Constantine told his
biographer Eusebius -- and under oath Eusebius tells us -- a somewhat
different version of the story. At some moment before the battle a cross of light appeared in the skies above the sun. It was inscribed, `By this, conquer,' and this command was confirmed in a dream when Christ himself appeared to Constantine and asked him to inscribe a cross on his standards as a safeguard against his enemies.

Yet in Eusebius's Life of Constantine another story is developed and it links Constantine's adherence to Christianity directly to his father, Constantius. His father was enormously important to Constantine's legitimacy. When Constantius had been appointed Caesar or junior emperor (in the Tetrarchy set up by Diocletian, there were four emperors: two senior, known as Augusti, and two junior, known as Caesars) in the west in 293, his son Constantine, then about twenty, had remained in the east and cut his teeth on campaigns against the frontier tribes along the Danube. Constantine only rejoined his father some years later, in York where the latter was dying. On
Constantius's death in 306, Constantine was immediately proclaimed Augustus in his place by his men, although this elevation was only accepted three or four years later by Galerius, Augustus in the east. Meanwhile the Tetrarchy was disintegrating and the politically astute Constantine set out to establish his legitimacy independently of it. Panegyrics to Constantine which survive from the years immediately after Constantius's death assume the latter is in heaven and Constantine, `similar to you [Constantius] in appearance, in spirit
and in the power of empire,' holds power on earth as a symbol of his father's immortality.

Next Constantine stretched Constantius's own legitimacy back to an early third-century emperor, Claudius Gothicus (r. AD 268-270), whose victory over the Goths at Naissus (coincidentally Constantine's birthplace, present-day Nish in Yugoslavia) in 269 blunted their strength for over a century. With a line of descent from an earlier emperor and divine support assumed through his father, Constantine now claimed to rule the western empire in his own right. Yet there is another vital ingredient. Constantine came to believe that his father was Christian. The evidence on which he based his belief, as reported by Eusebius, was circumstantial. Constantius had refrained from
enforcing the edicts of persecution, he was known to talk of a single God, and his very survival (in comparison to the fates of other emperors in these troubled years) confirmed that he enjoyed his God's favour. The apparent visions before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, followed by the great victory, were enough to confirm for Constantine that it was the God of the Christians who was on his side.

Yet for Constantine this did not mean a rejection of other gods. The triumphal arch in 315, erected by the senate of Rome in Constantine's honour three years after his `conversion', makes the point well. The arch is traditional in form and is notable for its use of reliefs from monuments to earlier emperors, Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. There are reliefs of Mars, Jupiter and Hercules and Constantine's victory at the Milvian Bridge is associated with the power of the sun and the goddess Victory, but there is no hint of any Christian symbol and no mention of Christ. (Alistair Kee, in his
Constantine versus Christ, goes so far as to argue that `Christ played no part in the religion of Constantine'.) An inscription on the arch credits Constantine's victory to the `instigation of the Divinity', but the `Divinity', like the `Supreme Deity', is a vague term used by pagans and Christians alike. In 313 Licinius had used it in a prayer before his troops when it appears that he was referring to Jupiter. Constantine clearly had no inhibitions about using this phrase alongside traditional pagan symbols.

Whatever Constantine believed the `Divinity' might be, he desperately needed its support and feared that any form of disunity among Christians might threaten it. Toleration was followed by the granting of special favours to the clergy, in particular exemption from the heavy burden of holding civic office, so that, in Constantine's words, the clergy `shall not be drawn away by any deviation and sacrifice from the worship that is due to the divinity, but shall devote themselves without interference to their own law ... for it
seems that, rendering the greatest possible service to the deity, they most benefit the state.' (My italics). When, for instance the Donatist dispute broke out over whether a bishop who had surrendered the scriptures at a time of persecution was legitimate, Constantine supported those who said he was, but in a letter to an official he expressed his real concerns, particularly his fear that his own position as the ruler favoured by God would be jeopardised by internal squabbles. `I consider it absolutely contrary to the divine law that we should overlook such quarrels and contentions,' he wrote, `whereby the Supreme Divinity may perhaps be roused not only against the human race but also against myself, to whose care he has by his celestial will committed the government of all earthly things.'

By 324 Constantine had defeated Licinius and was sole ruler of the empire. In view of his concern that the Christian churches should be unified he must have been shocked by what he found. The Greek speaking east had always been a hotbed of lively debate, theological controversy and rivalry between the great bishoprics. Constantine's victories would have made him more convinced that the god of the Christians was on his side, yet this relationship was threatened by the endemic political and theological disunity of the east.

Almost immediately he was confronted by a major dispute between a bishop, Alexander of the important see of Alexandria, and a presbyter in the diocese, one Arius. It concerned a central problem of Christian doctrine, the relationship between God the Father, and Jesus Christ the Son. Arius claimed that Jesus, though fully divine, was a subsequent creation of God the Father and hence subordinate to him. An alternative, monotheistic, view was to suggest that Jesus had been part of the Godhead since the beginning of time. The dispute erupted when Arius, who had a well-developed sense of drama, loudly interrupted one of Alexander's sermons and Alexander, with the
backing of other bishops, excommunicated him. Constantine was irritated by the dispute and wrote to Alexander and Arius urging them to stop their idle and trivial speculations. By this time, however, the controversy had spread as other bishops had associated themselves with one side or the other and Constantine realised that only by summoning a council of bishops could he hope to enforce a solution. The bishops were to assemble at Nicaea in Asia Minor, where there was an imperial palace with an audience hall. Constantine would pay their travel expenses and preside himself.

By now the Emperor's aura and reputation were overwhelming. When he arrived at the Council he was described by Eusebius as `like some heavenly messenger of God, clothed in a shining raiment, which flashed as if with glittering rays of light ... and adorned with the lustrous brilliance of gold and precious stones'. Those who beheld him were `stunned and amazed at the sight -- like children who have seen a frightening apparition'. Later Byzantine mosaics and frescos (as in the refectory of the Great Lavra on Mount Athos) show Constantine as the central figure of the council, larger than the bishops assembled around him.

It is impossible to know what went on at Nicaea because the accounts are so fragmentary. The assumption has to be that the determination of Constantine to resolve the issue, his dominating presence, and the growing dependency of the Church on him for patronage combined to give him an overwhelming position. Eusebius describes him working assiduously to get an agreement. The Creed which emerged declared that Christ `is of the substance [ousia] of the Father, ... true God of true God, ... consubstantial [homoousios] with the Father ...' . Then, at the end, it conained a number of anathemas condemning
specific Arian beliefs, notably that there was a time that Jesus had never existed or that Jesus was of a different substance from the Father. What had happened in effect was that Christ had been brought into the Godhead, and was no longer subordinate to it as in previous Church tradition. It was, as Hanson in his The Search for the Origins of Christian Doctrine puts it; `a startling innovation' but a united Godhead, of one substance, provided a more effective theological backing for an autocratic political order than one whose powers were divided between God and Jesus as a lesser divine figure.

Constantine enforced the creed by excommunicating those attending the Council who refused to sign it. `Thus,' wrote Eusebius, `the Faith prevailed in a unanimous form ...' and he concludes `... When these things were finished, the Emperor said that this was the second victory he had won over the enemy of the Church, and held a victory-feast to God.' Constantine later came to realise that he had created a false unity, and he accepted Arius back into the Church, and received his own baptism at the hands of an Arian bishop, before his death.

Constantine's allegiance to his God was backed by massive patronage. Emperors had always honoured their favoured gods with benefactions and buildings. Constantine's patronage was so lavish that he had to strip resources from temples to fund it. One of his early foundations in Rome was the church of St John Lateran, whose apse was to be coated in gold. Around 500 pounds weight of it were needed at a cost of some 36,000 solidi. This sum, which might be translated into approximately 60 [pounds sterling] million today, could have fed about 12,000 poor for a year (according to calculations from Dominic Janes' God and Gold in Late Antiquity). Another 22,200 solidi worth of silver (3,700 lbs was required for light fittings and another 400 pounds of gold for fifty gold vessels. The costs of lighting were to
be met by estates specifically granted for the purpose which brought in 4,390 solidi a year. Everything in these new churches had to be of the highest quality. While early Christian decoration, in the catacombs or house churches, for instance, had been painted walls, now nothing less than mosaic was appropriate. In order to make the effect more brilliant the mosaics were made of gold, silver or precious stones set within glass. It was an enormously delicate and costly business. Studies of the original floor mosaics at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, one of Constantine's foundations in the Holy Land, reveal the care and cost lavished on decoration. While the normal pattern of high-quality mosaics in Palestine is 150 tesserae per 10cm square, the ratio in the nave is 200 and in the Octagon at the end of the nave, some 400. In their size and opulent decoration, the basilicas echoed the great audience halls of the emperors. The transformation in a religion whose founder had been so committed to the poor was shocking to many. `Parchments are dyed purple, gold is melted into lettering, manuscripts are dressed up in jewels, while Christ lies at the door naked and dying,' wrote the horrified Jerome. But by the end of the century the Church had accepted its buildings and the scriptures had been reinterpreted to justify the fortunes
spent on them.

There were, of course, tensions with the pagan senatorial aristocracy over these transformations, particularly in Rome (where Constantine's two major churches, St John Lateran and St Peter's on the Vatican Hill, were built outside the city centre). There was also deep shock in the city over the mysterious execution of Constantine's son Crispus and Crispus's stepmother, Constantine's second wife Fausta, in 326, on suspicion of treason. The pagan writer Zosimus even suggested that the pilgrimage of the Emperor's mother Helena to the Holy Land had been ordered as a Christian penance for her part in allegedly drowning Fausta in a bath.

Such opprobrium, and a desire to celebrate his own glory, must have been one reason why Constantine was so determined to create a city where he could be personally supreme. He chose an ancient Greek foundation, Byzantium, which occupied a stunning and well defended site overlooking the southern end of the Bosphorus and which was well placed on the main routes between east and west. As its name suggests Constantinople was Constantine's city. Eusebius, in his attempt to assert the Christian commitment of Constantine, went so far as to claim, misleadingly, that Constantinople was always a wholly Christian city without a single pagan temple. For its founder, however, this was the city of Constantine, not of Christ.

Many elements of the foundation were traditional. Constantine traced the line of the future walls of the city with a spear just as a Greek founder would have done. Statues and classical monuments were brought from all over the world to grace the public spaces. The protecting goddesses Rhea, the mother of the Olympian gods, and Tyche, the personification of good fortune, were honoured with new temples. Constantine's most ambitious plans, however, were to create a central complex of forum, hippodrome and imperial palace as a setting for his own majesty. In the circular forum, on one of the highest hills of the city, Constantine erected a great porphyry column twenty-five
metres high, topped with a gold statue of himself.

All this was dedicated on a great day of celebration in May 330 and it was as much a celebration of Constantine as of his city. A gold coin was struck to mark the occasion showing Constantine gazing upwards in a pose made famous by Alexander the Great, his head crowned by an opulent diadem. The ceremonies began in the presence of the Emperor with the lifting of the great gold statue onto its column. Dressed in magnificent robes and wearing a diadem encrusted with jewels (another spiritual allegiance of Constantine's, to the sun, a symbol of Apollo, first known from 310 was expressed through
rays coming from the diadem), Constantine processed to the imperial box. Among the events that followed one stood out: the arrival in the hippodrome of a golden chariot carrying a gilded statue of the emperor. In his hands was a smaller statue of Tyche. For the next two hundred years the ritual drawing of the statue and chariot through the hippodrome was to be re-enacted on the anniversary of the dedication.

Where did Christianity fit into all this? In the original celebrations hardly at all. Space was put aside for churches in the centre of the city but their titles, Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom, Hagia Eirene, Holy Peace and Hagia Dynamis, Holy Power, suggest that Constantine was still using epithets which were as comprehensible to the pagan world as to the Christian. The only saints honoured with churches were local martyrs. The pagan elements of the city were not erased until later in the century, under Theodosius I, when Rhea and
Tyche were absorbed into the cult of the Virgin Mary, the new protectress of the city.

In April 337 Constantine realised he was dying. Then, and only then, did he allow himself to be baptised. In the last weeks of his life (he died on May 22nd) he discarded the imperial purple and dressed himself in the white of the newly baptised Christian. He had already built his final resting place within Constantinople and it provided a fitting testimonial to how he saw himself in relation to God and Christ. It was a circular mausoleum with a tomb left for the emperor under the central dome. Placed around the tomb were twelve
sepulchres -- each a symbolic burial place of one of the original apostles. Constantine was to be the thirteenth apostle. To orthodox Christians this might seem blasphemous but it made sense in terms of Constantine's own perception of himself in relation to the god who had given him such support.

After his death his sons issued a coin to commemorate their own consecratio (being made sacred as emperors). On one side it bore Constantine's veiled head and an inscription, `The deified Constantine, father of the Augusti', on the other Constantine is seen ascending to heaven in a chariot with God's hand reaching Out to welcome him. The evidence suggests that Constantine was using the Christian god as an adjunct to his own power, much as earlier Roman emperors had done with their gods. Every victory was simply a
confirmation that the relationship was intact and that the emperor was justified in maintaining his power and magnificence. Constantine kept himself at arm's length from the institutional structure of the Church He once told the bishops, `You are bishops of those within the Church, but I am perhaps a bishop appointed by God over those outside.' For Constantine his policy was justified by his continuing victories:

"While God was close at hand to make him Lord and Despot, the only Conqueror among the Emperors of all time to remain Irresistible and Unconquered, Ever-conquering and always brilliant with triumphs over enemies, so great an Emperor ... so God beloved and Thrice blessed, ... that with utter ease he governed more nations than those before him, and kept his dominion unimpaired to the very end."

When the papacy and the Roman Catholic Church came under sustained attack in the Reformation, the Medici Pope Leo X (r. 1513-21) ordered a great room to be built in the Vatican. Known as the Sala di Constantino, it had unashamedly propagandist aims. Its frescoes, planned by Raphael, show the early popes, from Peter onwards, and then, in four great scenes, the achievement of Constantine. One fresco shows the vision of the Cross, another the battle of the Milvian Bridge itself. Leo associated himself with the victory. The palle from the Medici coat of arms are on Constantine's tent and
lions, a reference to Leo's name, are also found on the tent with another on a standard. At a moment of crisis and confrontation, this was the event the pope chose to highlight. It was more than toleration that Constantine gave to Christianity, it was transformation. By tying in his victories to the support of the Christian God, and associating his allegiance with massive patronage,
Constantine had shifted the nature of Christianity itself.