NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 17.2
Today we reach one of the defining moments of Christian history in Tom Lee's manuscript — the conversion and endorsement of Emperor Constantine. The Church becomes an alley of the State with mutual benefits to both but with Christianity being the eventual winner as it outlived the Roman Empire. In our present phase of history are we seeing the final demise of Christianity as it shrinks to remnant status — or will there be a revival when it recaptures the original Spirit of what the founder, Jesus, was on about?
The Conversion of Constantine – Part 17.2
An anti-Pope and persecution subsides...
Bishop Marcellus of Rome, the stable slave, died of illness and mistreatment in January 309. There was almost a year and half hiatus before a successor, Eusebius, a Greek former physician, was elected in April of 310. He lasted only four months before being sent into exile in Sicily, while a group of recalcitrant apostates was powerful enough to set up an anti-pope, Heraclus.
Maximian, in 310, restless and hungry for power once more, while his son-in-law Constantine was busy repelling invaders on the Rhine, rose against him and seized Marseilles, hoping to use it as a base for a sea invasion of Italy. He was quickly overwhelmed and forced to commit suicide. Following this easy victory, Constantine, with no foundation in truth, declared himself a descendant of the Emperor Claudius II and thus rightful ruler of the whole empire, rejecting the principles of Diocletian aimed at rewarding merit and ability rather than heredity.
Constantine's main obstacle was Maxentius, firmly ensconced in Rome, where he was quite popular with the Christians. He had annulled the decrees of Diocletian and Galerius and thus ended the persecution in both Italy and North Africa. When the papacy was disputed he treated the matter as an internal problem for the church and did not interfere.
Official repression of Christianity failed to destroy it and the ghastly massacres had elicited almost universal revulsion. Galerius, dying painfully, possibly of cancer, in April 311, issued an edict of toleration and is said to have contritely begged forgiveness from the Christians and requested their prayers.
Two months later the Christian clergy of Rome elected the African-born Miltiades as Pope, and Maxentius returned to him the churches and cemeteries that had been seized on Diocletian's orders. Persecution however was not yet at an end. In 312 pagan petitions bombarded Maximinus in the East requesting him to suppress the novelty of the disloyal Christians. But Maximinus was distracted by fierce enmity brewing between him and Licinius over the latter's engagement to Constantine's half-sister Constantia.
The conversion of Constantine...
Constantine, the rawly physical and engagingly arrogant forty-year-old Caesar with flowing blond hair, a handsome profile, despite a broken nose, and an attractively cleft chin, enjoyed a reputation for thoroughness. He crossed the Alps in 312 and fought his way down the Italian peninsula with a celerity that outpaced his rivals' expectations, while preventing his troops from looting the captured or surrendered towns along the way. He was accompanied by Bishop Ossius of Cordova who instructed him in the Catholic faith.
A worshiper of Apollo, god of light and of the Sun, sometimes identified with Mithras, Constantine is said to have seen a vision that he could not at first understand. He looked up into the sky and saw a cross of light over the sun. He is supposed also to have had a dream in which he saw the Chi-Rho sign and heard a voice telling him "With this sign conquer".
Constantine crushed Maxentius at the very gates of Rome; his soldiers entering the city with the emblem of the Chi-Rho sign, borrowed from Mithraism, displayed on their shields. The monogram of the C and R stood for the Greek word chreston meaning good. Men who were writing or reading scrolls used the sign to mark a valuable or useful passage. The use of it was a clever piece of PR. For Christians it represented the first two letters of Christ. But its use could not upset the Mithraic and sunworshipping troops.
The supposed miracles associated with this victory are now believed to be a later invention of Christian historians, more intent on bolstering their faith, than in telling the truth. The Emperor was prone to exaggeration and hyperbole and may in time have actually come to believe his opportunistic stories. But the fact is that the story was soon generally believed and became a part of history.
In fact the so-called vision is also linked to an earlier battle against the Franks near Autun in 311; a contemporary pagan orator mentions a vision of the Sun god to Constantine on the eve of. his victory on this occasion. Probably Constantine was not aware of any mutual exclusiveness between Christianity and his faith in the Unconquered Sun.
In Old Testament prophecy Christ was titled the "sun of righteousness". Clement of Alexandria had spoken of Christ driving his chariot across the sky like the Sun god. A fourth-century tomb mosaic in Rome depicts Christ as the Sun god mounting the heavens in his chariot. Tertullian said that many pagans imagined the Christians worshipped the sun because they met on Sundays and prayed towards the east.
Miltiades (sometimes listed as Melchiades), the sixty-two year old bishop of Rome, who had spent all his adult years in mortal danger, must have been somewhat bemused, and not a little apprehensive, when the victorious emperor, the most powerful man in the world, arrived on his humble doorstep. The frail brown man, with his street Latin and North African Greek, was probably dependent on his better-educated priest assistant, Sylvester, to interpret for him.
According to legend, Constantine, accompanied by his wife Fausta and mother Helena, desired to view the supposed nails of Jesus' cross, two of which Constantine appropriated; one to incorporate in his crown, the other, curiously, to make a new bit for his horse. Further he wished to visit the sites where Peter and Paul had been martyred. He announced his resolve to build Christian basilicas at both sites, and another next to the palace of the Laterani, Fausta's family home, which he also presented to the stunned and bewildered bishop. It was part of Fausta's dowry as daughter of the Emperor Maximian. It became the official residence of the Popes of Rome for many centuries and is still a papal possession.
In the east the enmity between Licinius and Maximinus accelerated and they fought a decisive battle in Thrace. Maximinus was killed and Licinius proceeded to ruthlessly eliminate all former supporters, officers and relatives of his foe. A joint edict of the victorious duo, Constantine and his brother-in-law Licinius, issued in February 313 from Milan, agreed on a policy of religious freedom for all, and on the restoration of all property, personal or corporate, confiscated from Christians during the period of persecution "that whatever heavenly divinity exists may be propitious to us and to all who live under our government".
Delivered from physical danger at the hands of the State, the Church was soon torn by theological dissension within; the almost inevitable outcome of its changed character. Having assimilated Hellenic philosophy and ethics and social forms, the Church also assumed a new frame of mind that shifted the emphasis from conduct to belief. The total contrast can be seen by comparing the Sermon on the Mount, which came at the beginning, and the Nicene Creed, which finalized the initial stage of the theological process of elaboration. The former is a sermon on ethics; the latter is a dogmatic, metaphysical credo, unrelated to conduct, in which contentious ideas and surmises with no provenance in Jesus' teaching became improbable dogmas.
The incorporation of unprovable theology in the Creed, which the faithful were required to believe before they could be accepted as Christians, merely pointed up and sharpened the differences of opinion that now became an intractable matter of life and death between contending factions. It is difficult for us now to understand how dogmas spawned in vitriolic argument and violence were ever accepted by holy men. Christian philosophers perverted the academic world from its role of teaching students how to think, to a dogmatic teaching of what to think. Having succeeded in winning the right to live, they lost the right to reason and speculate. Sadly, a doctrinal test is not a guarantee of ethical behavior.
Constantine, in a shrewd political gamble, threw his weight behind Christianity, realizing that the old religions were no longer capable of unifying the empire. Persecution had failed to suppress the Christian sect and its adherents had infiltrated the Roman civil service in alarming numbers.
The Emperor's conversion may well have been an opportunistic gamble, or it could have been the action of a man under stress, weary of the isolation of divinity, yearning to acknowledge something — someone — more divine than himself. From his public pronouncements and letters, and the memoirs and histories written by his contemporaries, Constantine's conversion seems genuine enough, if clouded by a layman's faulty understanding of the theological subtleties being expounded by contentious bishops. The winged figure of Victory became a Christian angel.
In the beginning of the fourth century, the church underwent a momentous shift from an "illegitimate" oppressed group of scattered communities to a protected "legitimate" religion, and before the end of that century, as a result of the religious revolution that began in 313 under Constantine, it became the all-powerful, only legitimate state religion of the Empire.
Among those drawn to Christianity by dissatisfaction with cosmopolitan materialism, there had been a continual influx of alert minds that brought the Church to the forefront of the intellectual activity of the age; and after two generations of military anarchy, Constantine needed some institution to take into partnership for the restoration of order and the preservation of civilization. He thought he had found it in the Church. But first he had to impose unity upon it.
NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part 17.2
IMAGE CREDITS: The image of St Anthony the Great used in the footer quote, part of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch was sourced from Wikipedia. The headline image was sourced from a wonderful website of mosaics: www.classicalmosaics.com/ Clicking on the images in the body of the article will take you to the original source.
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