Episode 2.2: Constantine and the Christianization of Rome
After noting the contradictory ways Constantine is remembered in Roman art and architecture, we turn to the main policies of this first Christian Emperor.
As noted in our last episode, today is the birthday of Ancient Pagan Rome, for tradition has it that on April 21, 753 BC, Romulus marked out the borders of a new city to which he gave his name. Those, like Mussolini, who admired the ostensible successes of Ancient Rome have celebrated this anniversary in a big way, but in other ages it has passed unnoticed. Thorough historical records on the celebration of Rome’s birthday are lacking, but there have certainly been many who have denied that Romulus or a city like Ancient Rome deserves to be honored on its birthday or at any other time.
Saint Augustine was the first great critic of Ancient Pagan Rome, and his masterpiece, the City of God, included sustained attacks on Romulus and the city he founded, for both committed repulsively vicious actions. When Augustine quotes the Roman historian Sallust in his praises of the Romans for their “equity and virtue,” he seems to do so only to give himself an occasion to mock this judgment. In a series of invectives, he then underscores the crimes and other sins the Roman committed in pursuit of worldly glory.
Rape of the Sabine Women, Pietro da Cortona, Capitoline Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Augustine thus reminds his readers that Romulus killed his brother just so he could be the first king of Rome, and then he had his men seize women from surrounding towns, a premeditated act of deceit and sexual violence. This infamous deed, the Rape of the Sabine women, is still remembered in Rome’s Capitoline Museums, once in fresco and once on a large canvas, but for Augustine it was emblematic of the vile unworthiness of Ancient Rome.
This brings us to the main theme of this entire podcast series, that the Romans and their opinions changed dramatically from one age to another, and that it is these changes and their associated disagreements that have made Rome so fascinating and so central for understanding the West in general. Augustine’s attacks on Rome bring us also to our topic for today, Constantine and the Christianization of Rome, which I have chosen in order to call attention to one of Rome’s most transformative changes. Saint Augustine could never have launched his attack on the old Rome had it not been for the growing acceptance of Christianity in the century that preceded his writing, and—as it seems to me at least—Christianity would not have spread as it did if Constantine had not first legalized and then promoted it. In what I call “the Century of Constantine,” the fourth century, it became as natural to blame ancient Rome for its paganism as it previously had been to praise it for its power. An old culture was cancelled, old statues torn down, and a new way of viewing the world received official sanction. Rome’s birthday as a pagan city would at this point have been forgotten or ridiculed, as Christian feast days replaced pagan festivals.
I would love to know exactly how the vast Roman Empire became Christian, but the subject is too big for me. Given enough time, we could first consider Augustine’s point of view and then work our way through the various theories of such scholars as Gibbon, Burkhardt, Alfoldi, Veyne, and MacMullen. We would even need to consider the ultimate causes of historical change: Is history merely the record of “the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind,” as Gibbon puts it, or should we see rather the hand of God and the working out of some grand design, a kind of outlook which is considered not only by ardent defenders of Christianity but even by the philosopher Hegel.
But if he is not the whole story, Constantine is an important part of it, and keeping an eye on him can help to hold a visit to Rome together. Like Augustus, the very first Roman Emperor, Constantine turns up often in Rome, but only if you keep an eye out for him. Just take a look in the index of a good guidebook, like the one by Georgina Masson. If you don’t see 15 or 20 listings, you are not looking in a good guidebook! So, with the understanding that Constantine is just the controversial tip of a mysterious iceberg, let me introduce this man. At least I’ll introduce his reputations: it’s harder to say who is the shadowy figure who stands behind them.
Arch of Constantine as seen from the Colosseum (Blake Photo)
Evidence that Constantine is controversial is visible in Rome: he is remembered very differently in the arch that was dedicated to him soon after he won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge than he is in the famous frescoes, painted a thousand years later, that depict him before and during this famous battle. On the arch, which is positioned as a gateway from the south to the Colosseum and Forum, he is represented in the traditional ways prior emperors had always been represented, such as leading troops in battle, sacrificing animals to the pagan gods, speaking to the public, and handing out generous donations after victory has been won. In fact, much of the sculpture on the arch was lifted from previous monuments to the emperors Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius, with Constantine’s likeness then being sculpted in place of those of his great predecessors. If they were represented as traditional pagans, so was Constantine.
Giulio Romano, Battle of Milvian Bridge (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
On the other hand, the two frescoes of the battle, which decorate the Sala di Costantino in the Raphael Rooms of the Vatican Museums, show Constantine and his army smitten by the miraculous appearance of a cross in the sky and then conquering in battle with the assistance of sword-wielding angels. The two other main frescoes in the hall both show Constantine on his knees, humbly submitting himself before the pope of the day. In short, one of Rome’s most-visited monuments shows Constantine as a traditional pagan ruler, while several of its most esteemed frescoes show him as a Christian convert, a leader of a holy war against pagans, and a humble subject of a still greater authority, the pope. For further discussion of these sharp differences, revisit Episode 21, on the Arch of Constantine, and Episodes 26-27 on the Sala di Costantino.
Having acknowledged this disagreement between two of Rome’s best-known works of art and architecture, let me summarize Constantine’s career without yet hazarding a judgment about his motives or his possible fidelity to Christianity. To start with the least controversial point, he was a conqueror. He found the Roman Empire divided into rival parts, with at least four men vying against one another for larger pieces of the vast pie. As evidence of the instability of the times, consider that in a period of sixty years soon before Constantine began his rise to power, there had been thirty-three emperors, each ruling on average for less than two years. Thirty of these thirty-three were assassinated. Although his father had been one of the two highest ranking rulers in the Empire, leadership positions were not then hereditary, and Constantine himself lacked a legitimate claim to rule. Still, in practice if not in theory, might sometimes gets itself transformed into right, and over the course of two decades of civil war, Constantine made himself the uncontested ruler of an empire that stretched from Scotland to the Holy Lands, and from Northern Africa to today’s Bulgaria.
He did this always moving from West to East. First came six years of war in what is now France and Spain. Then, in 312, he fought his way down the Italian peninsula and defeated Maxentius in the Battle of Milvian Bridge, just a little north of Rome’s Piazza del Popolo. After a four-year pause, he turned on his then ally Licinius, and finally defeated him in 324, after eight years of war, at Chrysopolis (just east of today’s Istanbul).
I cannot say for sure that divine support was not an important reason for Constantine’s victories, but he did the sorts of things conquerors do. He made alliances as needed, and broke them when convenient; and, as was then typical, he used marriage as a way of strengthening alliances and then paid little attention to family ties when his alliances had served their purpose. Thus, for example, as he was consolidating his power in Gaul, he married the daughter of Maximian, a former Emperor and useful ally, but this did not stop him from later having his father-in-law killed, though he allowed him to choose the manner of his death. (Maximian chose to be strangled: I’m not sure why.)
It turns out that Maxentius, then ruling in Rome, was the son of Maximian, so Constantine was responsible for his death as well, for he drowned at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. A few years later, Constantine seemed to think a certain Bassanius might make a good successor, and he married him to his sister to strengthen ties, but he later suspected him in a plot, and had him killed. He married another sister to Licinius to help win his support against Maxentius, but he later went to war against him. After his victory, he first promised his sister that he would not kill her husband; then he changed his mind and had him killed.
To complete this sketch of the kind of actions Constantine took to gain and maintain his power over the entire Roman empire, consider that he also had Fausta killed. She was his second wife and sister of Maxentius. He had his first-born son, Crispus, killed at the same time; and so too with his nephew Licinius II. I conclude that Constantine was supremely interested in seeking and holding onto power, and he was prepared to do anything for its sake. Ramsay MacMullan, a specialist in these matters, says the following: “The empire had never had on the throne a man given to such bloodthirsty violence as Constantine.” I’ve never compared Constantine’s violent deeds with those committed by Nero, Caligula, Domitian, or other contenders for this title, so I can’t defend MacMullan’s claim, but it still helps one wonder whether Raphael’s beautiful frescos in the Sala di Costantino tell the whole story. Although Constantine is a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church has withheld this distinction. As noted earlier, there are statues of him in the porticos of St. Peter’s and St. John Lateran, but not inside the churches proper. I can see reasons for this reserve.
Bernini’s Statue of Constantine, startled by the sign of a cross in the sky, in the Portico of St. Peter’s (Vatican Photo)
I introduced St. Augustine earlier because his strong attacks on Romulus’s violent policies illustrate the new standards by which a good Christian criticized pagan Rome, so we might now wonder what Augustine says about Constantine and his violent path to power. His only discussion of the first Christian emperor in his City of God is in Book V, chapter 25, a mere two pages out of over a thousand. He explains and justifies the favor God showed to Constantine, but he does not comment on the unsavory actions that helped bring Constantine to power.
So, in trying to understand the man behind several monuments in Rome, the first non-controversial point about Constantine is that he was a conqueror and did the sorts of things conquerors do. A second such point is that he first caused Christianity to be tolerated and then actively supported it. Pagan Emperors caused Christians to be persecuted, on and off, for period of two and a half centuries, and the unusually severe persecutions under Diocletian were in full swing as Constantine began his military career. Constantine helped to reverse this violent practice and put Christianity on a secure legal foundation. I say “helped” because the rulers Galerius and Licinius did the same in the parts of the empire they controlled.
After first legalizing Christianity, Constantine then went on to support it. He did this, for example, by allowing the Church to inherit money, by providing it with state-provided material support, by building Churches, and by incorporating bishops and other ecclesiastical officials into his civil service.
It is hard to say who built the first churches in Rome, for not all sources are reliable. But Constantine is often thought to have built the first versions of these important Roman churches, all stemming, of course, from the first century of legalized Christianity: St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Santa Costanza, Santa Susanna, and San Marco. He is also credited with building the first papal palace, which helped to establish the papacy as an institution to be reckoned with. He also built churches elsewhere in his vast empire, including the Holy Lands and Constantinople above all.
Lauretti, “The Triumph of Christianity,” with a smashed statue of the pagan god Hermes, on the ceiling of the Sala di Costantino (Charlie Photo)
Although I find the details a little cloudy, Constantine also launched attacks on paganism. These included the prohibition of pagan practices, including sacrifices and the destruction of an occasional temple. But it is perhaps safer to say that he paved the way for such attacks, which his successors took up in greater earnest. When MacMullen concludes that Christian mobs destroyed “more of the architectural and artistic treasure of their world than any passing barbarians after,” he refers not to Constantine’s heyday but especially to the latter part of the fourth century, in the time of Theodosius.
The Christianization of the Roman Empire must have had several major causes, not just one, but it is noteworthy that Constantine seems to have been a sort of pivot point for this massive shift in world views. He ruled as Emperor for thirty-one years, second only to Augustus’s forty. There had never been a Christian emperor before him, and there would be only one non-Christian emperor after him. That was Julian, and he ruled for only two years. Rome thus had a thousand years of pagan rulers before Constantine and a thousand years of Christian rulers after him. That’s quite a pivot.
Another non-controversial point about this controversial ruler is that he intervened directly in Church affairs, as if he were a leader of the Church. His most striking intervention was his presiding over the Council of Nicaea, which resulted in the Nicene Creed, which continues to be recited in Roman Catholic churches and many others. The Bishop of Rome, later to be called the Pope, was not present, whereas Constantine was a powerful presence: clearly the lines between Church and State were not clearly drawn, or did not exist at all. The hot question on the floor concerned the relationship between God and Christ, and the Council tried to settle it by affirming that Christ is “true God from true God; begotten not made, one in being with the Father.” It was a hot question because a Christian leader named Arius had been arguing that Christ was not the same being or substance as God, and this subtle question had led to bloodshed. In fact, several other such thorny questions provoked violence within the newly legalized Christian community, and Constantine tried to settle several of them. The positions favored by the church earn the label “orthodox,” whose literal meaning in Greek is “correct opinion,” and the others are called “heresies,” which came to mean “unorthodox religious sect or doctrine.”
As with his career as a whole, what motivated Constantine to intervene in the contests between orthodoxy and heresies is where things get interesting. Were his various policies toward Christianity motivated by sincere belief or for such political reasons as establishing civil peace both between pagans and Christians and among Christians themselves?
To stick for now with a short list of non-controversial points about Constantine, he also moved the capital of the Roman Empire almost 800 miles to the east. He took an old city, Byzantium, named it after himself, and made it the new capital of the Roman Empire. He then poured wealth into his new city to make it a worthy rival to Rome. Rome continued to exist, but it was no longer an imperial capital; its distinguished history was not immediately forgotten, but its wealth and grain shipments now went to Constantinople, and even important families left the old capital in favor of the new. So, before Constantine, emperors were pagan and most ruled from Rome, the empire’s capital city. Beginning with Constantine, all emperors were Christian, except Julian, and all ruled from Constantinople, the empire’s new capital city. This move east did not stop Constantine’s subjects from speaking as if they were still citizens of the Roman Empire, but they said it in Greek, not Latin. Historians now call it the Byzantine Empire, even though Byzantium had come to be called Constantinople. This empire lasted another thousand years, until 1453, when the Ottoman Turks finally overthrew what was left of it, and renamed the city Istanbul.
Also on this point, there is less dispute about what Constantine did than there is about why he did it and what the effects of his action were. Did he move the capital to escape the many pagan structures and associations of Ancient Rome, so he could build a more thoroughly Christian city, or was he thinking about the strategic advantages of a city in the East, where Europe meets Asia?
And what about the effects of the move? This relocation of the Roman capital took place around 330, and Rome was invaded three times by Germanic tribes in the next century. Could it be that this dramatic shift in the resources of the Empire, from West to East, prepared for “the Fall of Rome,” when Goths, Vandals, and other Germanic tribes sacked Rome and only the Eastern half of the empire remained intact.
I would love to be more certain about what drove Constantine to do what he did and what the lasting effects of his policies were, but it makes sense to begin with a few clear and undisputed points. He was a conqueror on a grand scale. He legalized persecuted Christian practices and then promoted them. He ended Rome’s long run as the capital city of a vast empire. But did he help to bring about the fall of the Western Empire, as Gibbon and Montesquieu suggest, did he witness a celestial miracle and receive divine support as Eusebius maintains, or was he a sincere convert to Christianity? These are excellent questions to keep in mind when thinking further about the still bigger question concerning the monumental transformation of the Roman Empire from pagan to Christian.
I’ll be back with another episode two weeks from today. Hope to see you then. In the meantime, happy birthday to the city Romulus founded.