There is no other dramatic turn in the Christian literature and history far greater than when the Roman Emperor, Constantine, converted to Christianity. Cohen (p. 1) described Constantine as a successful general. His father was a successful general as well and he was trained for military leadership. He led the army at the West. He inched his way to the Roman Empire by his leadership and military might.
Constantine claimed to have had a vision of a Chi Ro (p. 1). This is a symbol of Christ, shining above the sun. Recognizing it as a divine sign, Constantine made his soldiers paint it on their shields. Then, they were able to defeat the larger and stronger army of Maxentius at the Battle at the Milvian Bridge in October AD 312 (“The Decline Chronology,” p. 1). Because of his vision, which the Church Bishop interpreted, Constantine turned to Christianity. He ended up technically converted to Christianity as he became a patron of a specific branch of the church. This branch was canonized by both the Old Testament and the New Testament. This is where he got the grand idea about the historical Israel. Israel has a very redemptive history; it has a whole language for interpreting the ideal relationship between the state and religion (p. 1). Constantine knew all about this when he asked the Bishop to interpret the vision he saw.
This paper shall not explore the motives and agenda behind the great leader’s three hundred sixty degree turn to the religion that he despised in the beginning.1 Instead, this paper shall delve into the reasons and the contexts of Constantine’s conversion in the ligth of the greater historical events and settings during the said period. The most significant theme of this conversion is that the Christian persecution has ceased and it started into the blossoming of the Christian faith throughout the whole western world.
As a backgrounder, Constantine issued the "Edict of Milan," in 313 (“Christianity,” p. 1). This law commanded formal toleration of religions, including Christianity. Constantine also ruled that Sunday be both a pagan and a Christian feast since he also recognized the Christian martyrs. Constantine also prohibited the savage gladiator shows and the stoning to deaths of Jews who turned to the Christian faith. Before that, Constantine started his rule by persecuting Christians. He specifically targeted the Gnostic Christians and other dualists Christians (Cohen, p. 1). He tried to renew Rome by purging these Christians.
As he turned to Christianity and its vision for him, Constantine became the “embodiment of the righteous king” (p. 1). He was likened to King Solomon, the wise king of the Old Testament. By this, he was able to consolidate his power through the conquest of West and even the Greek East, which had many Christian constituents. This implied that his conversion to Christianity had some political motives. For one, there were many more Christians living in the cities. This is a social power over the other rulers since he had a religious affinity with them. “Constantine was in an amazing position of having a theology of government that he can use to consolidate his own secular power” (Ibid.).
This was useful to Constantine in several ways. He had the Christian bishops as his ambassadors to these constituents by his support of their ecclesiastical projects. Constantine simultaneously developed the Christian cities wherein he built beautiful basilicas and architecturally ambitious projects (Brown, p. 12). He also relocated the cultural spots of the cities where he highlighted the places significant to the life and death of Jesus Christ. Hence, with the great new temples he built, he has given Jerusalem a rebirth. This resulted in his name being revered by both Christians and non Christians because he was acclaimed as a great architecture and leader similar to Solomon and David (in the more Christian sense). Thus, these made Constantine a “non-apocalyptic Messiah for the church” (p. 13).
He has consolidated his authority with the help of the bishops. This is because there was patronage on the part of the bishops since Constantine funded their causes and programs (Cohen, p. 1). The bishops were very reverent and grateful to him. Hence, the Christian link allowed Constantine to become an absolutely source of social and political authority.2 On the other end, the Christian bishops also took advantage of their imperial powers to advance the causes of Christianity. They used Constantine funds to publish and distribute more bibles (Ibid.). They relished on the structures of the public Christian architecture and grand basilicas. Hence, a mutually advantageous relationship between Constantine and the Christian church blossomed and this defined the cultural powerhouse of Europe and the West (Ibid.).
Constantine paganized Christianity and used it as a political machinery to consolidate his empire (Herbermann & Grupp, p. 1). At that point, Rome was no longer able to manage the whole empire with its peculiar civilizations. At Constantine’s time, there were new national directions taking place and he was forced to choose between keeping up the old Roman tradition and philosophies or to keep up with the tides of change. He had seen how the old Roman emperors failed in their leadership principles and he knew then that the old Rome cannot take its lead.
Consequently, the Roman Empire had to surge with the progressive movements in the society. Hence, Constantine tamed down the persecution and gave in through tolerance of various religions. The only way for Constantine to take hold of the emerging empire was to convert himself into the Christian faith. Constantine may have contemplated on this way back. He also conceded to his vision as a way of confirming his political plans and strategies.
Historians also pointed to the influence of human conscience which led to Constantine’s conversion (p. 1). They have persecuted a lot of Christians before and perhaps this was one realization which urged him to change his views in favor of Christianity. Sources do not formalize which ones were the more logical reasons for this conversion but I am in a strong view that the political agenda was far greater than the conscience and guilty motives which eventually led to his historic turn to Christianity.
Contrary to popular belief, Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion of the empire (“Christianity,” p. 1). This was made possible by the next emperor, Emperor Theodosius in 380. Constantine's political ploy was more of a process of social and political toleration as he continued to support both Christianity and paganism during his reign. The cross appeared on Constantine's coins in 314. Albeit, the images of the Sol Invictus and Mars Convervator were also present. The Great Emperor raised his children as Christians but he also retained the title pontifex maximus until he died (Ibid.).
The overturn of events during Constantine’s time was very significant especially in the context of the triumph of Christianity. This was a very interesting historical phenomenon. Then on, Christianity moved over to rule the Roman Empire as it became one of the most cherished and revered religion of all times. If we have to interpret it in a religious manner, we will have to say that this is a making of the Jesus Christ. However, in a more historical perspective, we can conclude that the conversion of Constantine to Christianity is both a matter of political survival and wit on the part of the great leader.
On the part of Constantine’s leadership, his conversion also redounded to his fame and political favor. By it, he was able to make a new capital out of a degrading empire. This was Constantinople. He was also able to set up other city states such as the Treviri (Trier), Arelate (Arles), Mediolanum (Milan), Ticinum, Sirmium and Serdica (Sofia) (Ibid.).
Hence, for both Rome and Constantine, remarkable achievements were produced in two fronts – Christianity and political leadership. These developments progressed through the course of three centuries. The personality of Constantine and the significant turn to the Christian faith have altogether given our civilization an upliftment in terms of the above mentioned aspects.
Brown, Peter. Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity: Towards a Christian Empire. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.
"Christianity." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004.
Cohen, Shave I.D. “Legitimization Under Constantine From persecuted minority to official imperial religion - what caused this extraordinary reversal for Christianity?” Frontline Website, April 1998. Web. 12 October 2011.
Herbermann, Charles, and Georg Grupp. "Constantine the Great." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. Web. 12 October 2011.
Lunn-Rockliffe, Dr. Sophie. “BBC History: Christianity and the Roman Empire.” BBC Website, 2011. Web. October 12, 2011.
“The Decline Chronology.” 'Constantine the Great.' Web, n.d. 12 October 2011.