The Romanization of Christianity
‘By This Conquer ...’
Early in the second decade of the fourth century AD, the Roman emperor Constantine was deeply embroiled in his own game of thrones. In the previous political generation, imperial power had been shared between four generals, two in the western half of the Empire and two in the east. Diocletian had come to sole power in ad 285, but by 293 had made himself head of an imperial college: the Tetrarchy (‘rule of four’), comprising two senior Augusti (himself and Maximian) and two Caesars (Constantius Chlorus and Galerius). In 305, the two Augusti retired, the existing Caesars were promoted in their place, and two new junior colleagues (Severus in the west, Maximinus Daia in the east) appointed. It was supposed to be a better mechanism for handing over imperial power than dynastic succession, but quickly broke down into multiple civil wars. Constantius Chlorus died the year after his promotion, at which point his son Constantine declared himself the western Augustus in his father’s place. Maximian’s son Maxentius threw his hat into the imperial ring as well, and, to add to the confusion, Maximian himself came out of retirement. By 312, Severus and Maximian had been eliminated, and the struggle for power in the west came down to a straight shoot–out between Constantine, who controlled Britain, Gaul and Spain, and Maxentius, ruler of Italy and North Africa. Vast as it was, the western Empire was never going to be big enough for both of them. Over the summer, Constantine gathered his armies and, Hannibal-style, forced his way over the Alps. Then God intervened. What happened next detonated the first of three massive revolutions which would, between them, turn a small, Near Eastern mystery cult into the dominant religious structure of the European landmass, from where it subsequently spread worldwide in the era of European imperialism.
The story was told, just after the emperor’s death, by Constantine’s biographer Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, who heard it from the man himself:
About the time of the midday sun, when day was just turning, he [Constantine] said he saw with his own eyes, up in the sky and resting over the sun, a cross–shaped trophy formed from light, and a text attached to it which said ‘By this conquer.’ Amazement at the spectacle seized both him and the whole company of soldiers which was then accompanying him on a campaign he was conducting somewhere, and witnessed the miracle. He was, he said, wondering to himself what the manifestation might mean; then, while he meditated and thought long and hard, night overtook him. Thereupon, as he slept, the Christ of God appeared to him with the sign which had appeared in the sky, and urged him to make himself a copy of the sign, and to use this as protection against the attacks of the enemy.
The sign was the Chi–Rho labarum, which the emperor employed on his military standards, and Constantine duly scored a stunning victory over Maxentius on 28 October 312 at the battle of the Milvian Bridge on the outskirts of Rome. A triumphant, thankful Constantine repaid his debt with rich gifts to the capital’s Christian communities, and turned the barracks of Maxentius’ elite cavalry corps into a huge church: St John’s Lateran, the first headquarters of the medieval papacy.
But this was only the beginning. Victory in the west was the precursor of still greater glory. By the end of 312, a parallel struggle for post–Tetrarchic imperial power in the eastern half of the Empire had produced its own winner: Licinius (initially an appointee of Galerius, one of the original Tetrarchs). The two reigning Augusti—Constantine in the west and Licinius in the east—immediately declared undying love, alliance and endless co-operation, but there was only ever going to be one outcome. It took over a decade but, after several separate rounds of conflict, Constantine finally eliminated his eastern rival in 324. Thanks to the vision that God had afforded him, the Christian Constantine remade the complexion of imperial politics, reuniting the entire Roman world under a single, unchallenged emperor for the first time since the mid–third century.
Eusebius’ account of the crucial visionary experience has been repeated and—exquisitely (Plate 1)—illustrated countless times, but it’s deeply problematic. And I don’t just mean the fact that Constantine saw a vision in the sky. I’ve never experienced one myself, but many people, across the entirety of human history, have, and at least the subjective ‘reality’ of supernatural religious experience – however you might wish to explain it—is not something to be discounted a priori. But Constantine’s story also poses problems of a much more mundane kind, because the emperor appears to have had several different supernatural experiences, not all of which were Christian, at more or less the same time, and to have told different people different things about them. Apart from the combined vision/dream story told by Eusebius, three other variants survive. Writing about twenty years before Eusebius, the rhetor Lactantius—a distinguished university–level teacher of the Latin language and literature, in which elite children of the western half of the Empire were all customarily educated (their eastern counterparts received an identical training in Greek)—who knew the emperor, and was tutor to his eldest son, Crispus, in the early 310s, reports that Constantine had a dream on the eve of the Milvian Bridge, in which he was told to ‘mark the heavenly sign of God’ on his soldiers’ shields.3 The timing of the divine intervention is different in Lactantius’ account, and there is no vision in the sky. Our second witness is another rhetor, this time from Gaul, who gave a formal speech on a ceremonial occasion to Constantine and his assembled court in 310, two years before Maxentius’ defeat. In a passage, which must have had prior imperial approval, this speaker described another heavenly vision. Having turned off the main road to visit ‘the most beautiful temple in the world ... You saw, I believe, Constantine, your Apollo, accompanied by Victory, offering you laurel crowns, which brought an omen of thirty years [of life, or rule].
This time we have a vision, but of a different God (Apollo as the Sun God), and no dream. Last, but not least, in 321 a third rhetor, in another official—and hence imperially endorsed—oration, referred back to Constantine’s victory over Maxentius. This speech mentions neither Divine visitation, nor any kind of cross in the sky. Instead, in the midst of battle, all of Constantine’s troops are said to have been buoyed up by a vision of a heavenly army, led by the emperor’s deified father, Constantius Chlorus, coming to his son’s assistance.
There have been many attempts to rationalize Constantine’s multiple reported religious experiences. Most influential among recent efforts, Peter Weiss argued in 1993 that the visions of Apollo reported in 310 and Eusebius’ cross in the sky referred to one and the same event, differently interpreted. Given that Apollo was, by this date, overwhelmingly represented as the Sun God, Weiss argued that what Constantine actually saw was a solar halo, which can take a kind of cross form, and that the emperor eventually came to understand this natural phenomenon as a message from the Christian God. This is obviously a possible way forward, and Lactantius’ dream could then be reconciled with Eusebius’ account—so long as you posit a delay of two years between initial vision and explanatory dream, whereas Eusebius clearly supposed that the dream occurred the following night. To my mind, however, all these reports need to be handled with a great deal more suspicion.
It was standard practice for ancient rulers, who claimed to be appointed by Divine Power (as all Roman emperors, and Constantine in particular, did), to report suitable omens as confirmation of their special destiny to rule. The future emperor Claudius reportedly had the—no doubt unnerving —experience of an eagle landing on his shoulder when he first entered the forum as consul, while some mysterious force ejected anyone else who tried to sleep in the nursery of the first Roman emperor, Augustus. No historian worth his or her salt (not even Constantine) would dream of taking these earlier stories literally, and both the convenience and variety of the stories the first Christian emperor told about his personal encounter with the God of the New Testament suggest that we’re again some way from factual reportage. The received image of a vision-powered Constantine—forced, like Paul on the road to Damascus, into a complete and sudden Christian conversion by a direct personal experience of the Almighty—becomes still more problematic when set alongside how the emperor presented his evolving religious allegiance to the Empire’s population at large, over the course of his long and brutally successful reign.
The official religious self-presentation of Constantine’s regime went through four distinct phases. In his first years, Constantine styled himself a loyal adherent of the religious ideologies of Diocletian’s imperial college, the Tetrarchy, to which his father had belonged. While all Roman emperors claimed to be appointed and supported by Divine power, the specific divinity in question could change, or at least be presented in different forms. Many third-century emperors had portrayed their divine support as coming from the Sun God (Helios in Greek, Sol in Latin, or, more specifically, Apollo), understanding the pictorial image of the Sun as a manifestation of the supreme Divine principle which sustained the entire universe and all its intermediate spiritual powers. The Tetrarchs, however, reverted to a more traditionally Roman religious symbolism, presenting Jove (Jupiter) and Hercules as the divine supports of their—largely victorious—rule. Diocletian and Galerius added ‘Jovius’—‘protected by Jove’—to their list of epithets, while Maximian and Constantius Chlorus adopted ‘Herculius’: ‘protected by Hercules’. In his first years in power, Constantine issued coins which simply repeated his father’s affiliation, styling himself ‘Herculius’.7 This changed suddenly in 310. Just as the Gallic rhetor announced Constantine’s vision of Apollo, the emperor broke with Tetrarchic religious ideologies. ‘Herculius’ disappeared from his coinage, which was now emblazoned with sol invictus : ‘the unconquered sun.’
The third phase began in 312. It was in this period that Lactantius wrote about the emperor’s dream of the Christian God. Constantine also showered favours on the Christian communities under his control, distributing cash and inaugurating some substantial church-building programmes. In surviving letters to North African Churchmen (in modern Tunisia, Libya and Algeria), he also stated that he and they shared the same religious affiliation, while a small number of early inscriptions and special coin medallions carried the Chi–Rho monogram. The latter were very few, however, and were vastly outnumbered by coin types that continued to celebrate sol invictus. This studied avoidance of the obviously Christian in most public contexts is equally marked in the triumphal arch that Constantine erected in Rome to celebrate his victory over Maxentius (it still stands, next to the Colosseum). This is striking for its highly traditional portrayals of the emperor and of the divine power which had brought him victory, carrying not the slightest hint of any Christian affiliation whatsoever. The same ambiguity also jumps out from a new law passed by Constantine in this same phase, making Sunday a day of rest. This sounds like a Christian move, celebrating the day of the week on which Christ rose from the dead, but the law studiously refers to it only as ‘the day of the Sun’. The first official spokesmen to celebrate the emperor’s great victory over Maxentius in public, likewise, maintained the ambiguity, referring only to the support that Constantine had received from an unspecified ‘highest divinity’. This term had gradually come into use in some non–Christian circles over the third century as another designation for the same underlying divine principle as sol invictus.
Only from 324, in its fourth and final phase, did Constantine’s regime declare itself unambiguously Christian. Sol invictus coins continued, but the Christian cross also became a common motif on his coinage, and, by this date, Christians had already themselves been making an iconographic equation between Christ and the Sun God, understanding the sun, like third-century pagan emperors, as the symbol of supreme, divine power: this time the God of the Old and New Testaments. In a whole series of public statements, likewise, Constantine now made his Christianity known to anyone who cared to listen. And to coincide with the twentieth-anniversary celebrations of his original accession to the purple, he called a summit meeting of representatives of every Christian community that then existed—both inside the Empire and beyond—which met at Nicaea (Iznik in modern Turkey) in 325, the year after his final victory over Licinius. There, Constantine publicly confirmed the strength of his Christian loyalties, not only by the care and attention he lavished upon the many bishops who came but by attending some of the sessions in person.11 But if there can be not the slightest doubt of the former Tetrarch and solar monotheist’s Christian allegiance by the mid–320s, how exactly should we understand the personal religious journey that had brought him to this point, given all the different things he had been saying about it in the intervening twenty years since he first came to power?
The Road to Nicaea
Many different psychological readings of the emperor’s evolving religious loyalties have been offered over the years. They began in antiquity. A hostile pagan tradition claimed that Constantine turned to Christianity because it was the only religion which would forgive him for the execution of his eldest son, Crispus, and second wife Fausta. This satisfactorily vitriolic denigration of Constantine’s motives also tied in with long–standing pagan critiques that Christianity’s willingness to forgive sins removed necessary moral imperative from human action. But the timing is wrong. The emperor’s Christianity had been aired unambiguously two years before Crispus’ and Fausta’s deaths in 326.12 More modern attempts have ranged from the patronizing—Constantine was a ‘rough soldier’ who failed to grasp that it wasn’t possible for him simultaneously to profess Christian and non–Christian solar monotheist affiliations—to the more sophisticated. Some have argued that he was really a non–Christian solar monotheist all the way through the 310s, although recent discoveries of early uses of the Chi–Rho symbol show this to be incorrect; others that, like some modern religious converts, what was at the time a slow process of conversion was later understood by the emperor as a sudden ‘event’.13 Any of these might be correct, but they all share the assumption that the emperor’s personal religious beliefs ran in tandem with the evolving public religious stance of his regime. In my view, however, this assumption is methodologically unsustainable, because it ignores one key piece of the Constantinian jigsaw. The start of each new religious phase of Constantine’s regime coincided with one of the emperor’s major military successes. Once this fact, and its deeper significance, has been properly recognized, it requires us to rewrite all existing accounts of Constantine’s personal religious history.
Copyright © 2023 by Peter Heather. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.