Political Masterclass: Constantine and Christianity, II

by northernbeholder

To most Roman officials, the early Christian cult fell under the category of ‘godless’. Its adherents paid no respect to traditional temples or images, including the Imperial cult, a tradition that started with Augustus I’s deification of his adoptive father Caesar and which was used as a political tool to encourage the loyalty of imperial citizens.  While the same issues prevailed with the Jews of Palestine, they were begrudgingly tolerated based on their faith’s ancient roots, a claim the new Christian adherents could not match. Combined with a penchant for meeting in secret and exclusive gatherings, this led to a rather negative image for the relatively new cult.  Despite this, or perhaps because of it, there had been notions since the third century C.E. that the Christian deity, in the person of Jesus, should be absorbed into the larger polytheistic pantheon of gods that the rest of the Empire worshipped, an idea the Christians themselves opposed due to the strictly monotheistic nature of their faith. Their claims of an exclusive revelation ruled out the possibility of coexistence with, or recognition of, other religions.

It was in this confrontational atmosphere between the faiths that Constantine appeared. Originally he was raised in the same cult as his father, that of the Sun God (most commonly known by the Greek name Apollo). As the worshippers of Apollo elevated their deity above the others, this cult allowed for an easier transition into the similarly, though more strictly, monotheistic Christian cult than a more liberally polytheistic faith would have. It also helped in the symbolism of his later conversion, which centered on a solar phenomenon.

The turning point in his conversion was his victory over Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD. Maxentius was Constantine’s major rival for rule of the Western Roman Empire, following a convoluted series of coups, successions and rebellions. The sign in question is likely, from the description given, to be a phenomenon known as a ‘solar halo’, which occurs when refracted sunlight strikes ice crystals in the upper atmosphere, causing the sun to appear from a particular angle on the earth’s surface to have a semi-circular halo hovering about it anchored on either side by intense crosses of light. These solar halos were not an unknown occurrence in the Roman world, and the semi-circular halo in particular was typically taken as a sign of victory from the gods. Constantine’s solar halo is believed to have been observed at least two years prior to the battle itself, with the earliest mention of this victory sign being in a panegyric of Constantine (essentially a poem or other literary work meant to praise the subject) from 310 AD. With the impending battle against Maxentius close at hand, the sign was re-interpreted in a Christian context: the crosses of light became the cross of Christ, and the message from the ‘victory sign’ of the semicircular halo was thought to mean that victory would be granted under the sign of Christ – “By this, conquer” – a convenient reinterpretation right at the time when support from the growing Christian minority could prove crucial to Constantine’s success.

After Constantine’s victory, he – along with Licinius, emperor of the eastern half of the empire – proclaimed the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, which for the first time officially extended religious tolerance within the Empire to those of the Christian faith. Christians no longer had to operate in secrecy for fear of their own safety and well-being. However, their new protection under the law led the more extreme members of the Christian cult to begin plotting payback against pagan temples and worshippers – ‘heathens’ – in reprisal for the oft-bloody persecutions inflicted upon the Christians in the previous centuries. This raised enough chaos on its own, but the extremists and fanatics were not content with attacking only the heathens of the pagan faiths. Infighting and violence within the Christian faith broke out into the open as ‘heretics’ were persecuted within the cult’s own ranks, often with even greater fervour than was directed at the ‘heathens’. It took Constantine quite some time to understand the significance behind the schisms in ranks the Christian cult – growing into religion now – and his first reaction to the Arian controversy (a dispute between high-ranking members of the clergy over whether Jesus was an inseparable part of God, or a distinct being created by God) was to dismiss the crux of the argument between the two factions as “Truly insignificant” and “A trifling and foolish verbal difference.” Prior to the Arian schism, Constantine attempted to mediate in the Donatist controversy (a dispute between the larger church and some Christian communities in North Africa, who had refused to surrender their sacraments during earlier persecutions and now considered themselves the only true Christians for doing so); he called together an ecumenical council of bishops in the Western empire at Arles sometime in 314 or 315 AD, setting precedent for the later, larger council at Nicea, although he abandoned his attempts to mediate the Donatist dispute by 321 AD with little progress.

Despite these setbacks, Constantine recognized the advantage of manoeuvring the increasingly powerful Christian religion into a position where it would support the government. Unity of faith and culture was a basic underlying principle of classical society, and marrying the Christian church to the Roman state would be a continuation of this model. This desire for a religion complementary to the state, as well as the continuing religious turmoil, led at last to Constantine – after defeating Licinius in a war stylized as Christian freedom against pagan oppression and proclaiming himself sole Emperor – calling the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, there to, it was hoped, finally settle the differences between the Arians and the orthodox clergy who opposed their views.