|« Prev||Constantine The Great. a.d. 306-337||Next »|
§ 2. Constantine The Great. a.d. 306–337.
1. Contemporary Sources: Lactantius († 330): De mortibus persecutorum, cap. 18 sqq. Eusebius: Hist. Eccl. l. Ix. et x.; also his panegyric and very partial Vita Constantini, in 4 books (Εἰς τόν βίον τοῦ μακαρίου Κωνσταντίνου τοῦ βασιλέως) and his Panegyricus or De laudibus Constantini; in the editions of the hist. works of Euseb. by Valesius, Par. 1659–1673, Amstel. 1695, Cantabr. 1720; Zimmermann, Frcf. 1822; Heinichen, Lips. 1827–30; Burton, Oxon. 1838. Comp. the imperial documents in the Codex Theodos.l. xvi. also the Letters and Treatises of Athanasius († 373), and on the heathen side the Panegyric of Nazarius at Rome (321) and the Caesars of Julian († 363).
2. Later sources: Socrates: Hist. Eccl. l. i. Sozomenus: H. E. l. i et ii. Zosimus (a heathen historian and court-officer, comes et advocatus fisci, under Theodosius II.): ̔ιστορία νέα, l. ii. ed. Bekker, Bonn. 1837. Eusebius and Zosimus present the extremes of partiality for and against Constantine. A just estimate of his character must be formed from the facts admitted by both, and from the effect of his secular and ecclesiastical policy.
3. Modern authorities. Mosheim: De reb. Christ. ante Const. M. etc., last section (p. 958 sqq. In Murdock’s Engl. transl., vol. ii. p. 454–481). Nath. Lardner, in the second part of his great work on the Credibility of the Gospel History, see Works ed. by Kippis, Lond. 1838, vol. iv. p. 3–55. Abbé de Voisin: Dissertation critique sur la vision de Constantin. Par. 1774. Gibbon: l.c. chs. xiv. and xvii.–xxi. Fr. Gusta: Vita di Constantino il Grande. Foligno, 1786. Manso: Das Leben Constantins des Gr. Bresl. 1817. Hug (R.C.): Denkschrift zur Ehrenrettung Constant. Frieb. 1829. Heinichen: Excurs. in Eus. Vitam Const. 1830. Arendt (R.C.): Const. u. sein Verb. zum Christenthum. Tüb. (Quartalschrift) 1834. Milman: Hist. of Christianity, etc., 1840, book iii. ch. 1–4. Jacob Burckhardt: Die Zeit Const. des Gr. Bas. 1853. Albert de Broglie: L’église et l’empire romain au IVme siècle. Par. 1856 (vols. i. and ii.). A. P. Stanley: Lectures on the Hist. of the Eastern Church, 1862, Lect. vi. p. 281 sqq. (Am. Ed.). Theod. Keim: Der Uebertritt Constantins des Gr. zum Christenthum. Zürich, 1862 (an apology for Constantine’s character against Burckhardt’s view).
The last great imperial persecution of the Christians under Diocletian and Galerius, which was aimed at the entire uprooting of the new religion, ended with the edict of toleration of 311 and the tragical ruin of the persecutors.22 Comp. vol. i. § 57. Galerius died soon after of a disgusting and terrible disease (morbus pedicularis), described with great minuteness by Eusebius, H. E. viii. 16, and Lactantius, De mort. persec. c. 33.“His body,” says Gibbon, ch. xiv. “swelled by an intemperate course of life to an unwieldy corpulence, was covered with ulcers and devoured by innumerable swarms of those insects which have given their name to a most loathsome disease.” Diocletian had withdrawn from the throne in 305, and in 313 put an end to his embittered life by suicide. In his retirement he found more pleasure in raising cabbage than he had found in ruling the empire; a confession we may readily believe. (President Lincoln of the United States, during the dark days of the civil war in Dec. 1862, declared that he would gladly exchange his position with any common soldier in the tented field.) Maximin, who kept up the persecution in the East, even after the toleration edict, as long as he could, died likewise a violent death by poison, in 313. In this tragical end of their last three imperial persecutors the Christians saw a palpable judgment of God. The edict of toleration was an involuntary and irresistible concession of the incurable impotence of heathenism and the indestructible power of Christianity. It left but a step to the downfall of the one and the supremacy of the other in the empire of the Caesars.
This great epoch is marked by the reign of Constantine I.33 His full name in Latin is Caius Flavius Valerius Aurelius Claudius Constantinus Magnus. He understood the signs of the times and acted accordingly. He was the man for the times, as the times were prepared for him by that Providence which controls both and fits them for each other. He placed himself at the head of true progress, while his nephew, Julian the Apostate, opposed it and was left behind. He was the chief instrument for raising the church from the low estate of oppression and persecution to well deserved honor and power. For this service a thankful posterity has given him the surname of the Great, to which he was entitled, though not by his moral character, yet doubtless by his military and administrative ability, his judicious policy, his appreciation and protection of Christianity, and the far-reaching consequences of his reign. His greatness was not indeed of the first, but of the second order, and is to be measured more by what he did than by what he was. To the Greek church, which honors him even as a canonized saint, he has the same significance as Charlemagne to the Latin.
Constantine, the first Christian Caesar, the founder of Constantinople and the Byzantine empire, and one of the most gifted, energetic, and successful of the Roman emperors, was the first representative of the imposing idea of a Christian theocracy, or of that system of policy which assumes all subjects to be Christians, connects civil and religious rights, and regards church and state as the two arms of one and the same divine government on earth. This idea was more fully developed by his successors, it animated the whole middle age, and is yet working under various forms in these latest times; though it has never been fully realized, whether in the Byzantine, the German, or the Russian empire, the Roman church-state, the Calvinistic republic of Geneva, or the early Puritanic colonies of New England. At the same time, however, Constantine stands also as the type of an undiscriminating and harmful conjunction of Christianity with politics, of the holy symbol of peace with the horrors of war, of the spiritual interests of the kingdom of heaven with the earthly interests of the state.
In judging of this remarkable man and his reign, we must by all means keep to the great historical principle, that all representative characters act, consciously or unconsciously, as the free and responsible organs of the spirit of their age, which moulds them first before they can mould it in turn, and that the spirit of the age itself, whether good or bad or mixed, is but an instrument in the hands of divine Providence, which rules and overrules all the actions and motives of men.
Through a history of three centuries Christianity had already inwardly overcome the world, and thus rendered such an outward revolution, as has attached itself to the name of this prince, both possible and unavoidable. It were extremely superficial to refer so thorough and momentous a change to the personal motives of an individual, be they motives of policy, of piety, or of superstition. But unquestionably every age produces and shapes its own organs, as its own purposes require. So in the case of Constantine. He was distinguished by that genuine political wisdom, which, putting itself at the head of the age, clearly saw that idolatry had outlived itself in the Roman empire, and that Christianity alone could breathe new vigor into it and furnish its moral support. Especially on the point of the external Catholic unity his monarchical politics accorded with the hierarchical episcopacy of the church. Hence from the year 313 he placed himself in close connection with the bishops, made peace and harmony his first object in the Donatist and Arian controversies and applied the predicate “catholic” to the church in all official documents. And as his predecessors were supreme pontiffs of the heathen religion of the empire, so he desired to be looked upon as a sort of bishop, as universal bishop of the external affairs of the church.44 Ἐπίσκοπος τῶν ἐκτος [πραγμάτων], viz.: τῆς ἐκκλησίας, in distinction from the proper bishops, the ἐπίσκοποι τῶν εἴσω τῆς ἐκκλησίας. Vid. Eus.: Vit Const. iv. 24. Comp. § 24. All this by no means from mere self-interest, but for the good of the empire, which, now shaken to its foundations and threatened by barbarians on every side, could only by some new bond of unity be consolidated and upheld until at least the seeds of Christianity and civilization should be planted among the barbarians themselves, the representatives of the future. His personal policy thus coincided with the interests of the state. Christianity appeared to him, as it proved in fact, the only efficient power for a political reformation of the empire, from which the ancient spirit of Rome was fast departing, while internal, civil, and religious dissensions and the outward pressure of the barbarians threatened a gradual dissolution of society.
But with the political he united also a religious motive, not clear and deep, indeed, yet honest, and strongly infused with the superstitious disposition to judge of a religion by its outward success and to ascribe a magical virtue to signs and ceremonies. His whole family was swayed by religious sentiment, which manifested itself in very different forms, in the devout pilgrimages of Helena, the fanatical Arianism of Constantia, and Constantius, and the fanatical paganism of Julian. Constantine adopted Christianity first as a superstition, and put it by the side of his heathen superstition, till finally in his conviction the Christian vanquished the pagan, though without itself developing into a pure and enlightened faith.55 A similar view is substantially expressed by the great historian Niebuhr, Vorträge über Röm. Geschichte, 1848. iii. 302. Mosheim, in his work on the First Three Centuries, p. 965 sqq. (Murdock’s Transl. ii. 460 sqq.) labors to prove at length that Constantinewas no hypocrite, but sincerely believed, during the greater part of his life, that the Christian religion was the only true religion. Burckhardt, the most recent biographer of Constantine, represents him as a great politician of decided genius, but destitute of moral principle and religious interest. So also Dr. Baur.
At first Constantine, like his father, in the spirit of the Neo-Platonic syncretism of dying heathendom, reverenced all the gods as mysterious powers; especially Apollo, the god of the sun, to whom in the year 308 he presented munificent gifts. Nay, so late as the year 321 he enjoined regular consultation of the soothsayers66 The haruspices, or interpreters of sacrifices, who foretold future events from the entrails of victims. in public misfortunes, according to ancient heathen usage; even later, he placed his new residence, Byzantium, under the protection of the God of the Martyrs and the heathen goddess of Fortune;77 According to Eusebius (Vit. Const. l. iii. c. 48) he dedicated Constantinople to “the God of the martyrs,” but, according to Zosimus (Hist. ii. c. 31), to two female deities, probably Mary and Fortuna. Subsequently the city stood under the special protection of the Virgin Mary. and down to the end of his life he retained the title and the dignity of a Pontifex Maximus, or high-priest of the heathen hierarchy.88 His successors also did the same, down to Gratian, 375, who renounced the title, then become quite empty. His coins bore on the one side the letters of the name of Christ, on the other the figure of the Sun-god, and the inscription “Sol invictus.” Of course these inconsistencies may be referred also to policy and accommodation to the toleration edict of 313. Nor is it difficult to adduce parallels of persons who, in passing from Judaism to Christianity, or from Romanism to Protestantism, have so wavered between their old and their new position that they might be claimed by both. With his every victory, over his pagan rivals, Galerius, Maxentius, and Licinius, his personal leaning to Christianity and his confidence in the magic power of the sign of the cross increased; yet he did not formally renounce heathenism, and did not receive baptism until, in 337, he was laid upon the bed of death.
He had an imposing and winning person, and was compared by flatterers with Apollo. He was tall, broad-shouldered, handsome, and of a remarkably vigorous and healthy constitution, but given to excessive vanity in his dress and outward demeanor, always wearing an oriental diadem, a helmet studded with jewels, and a purple mantle of silk richly embroidered with pearls and flowers worked in gold,99 Euseb. Laud. Const. c. 5. His mind was not highly cultivated, but naturally clear, strong, and shrewd, and seldom thrown off its guard. He is said to have combined a cynical contempt of mankind with an inordinate love of praise. He possessed a good knowledge of human nature and administrative energy and tact.
His moral character was not without noble traits, among which a chastity rare for the time,1010 All Christian accounts speak of his continence, but Julian insinuates the contrary, and charges him with the old Roman vice of voracious gluttony (Caes. 329, 335). and a liberality and beneficence bordering on wastefulness were prominent. Many of his laws and regulations breathed the spirit of Christian justice and humanity, promoted the elevation of the female sex, improved the condition of slaves and of unfortunates, and gave free play to the efficiency of the church throughout the whole empire. Altogether he was one of the best, the most fortunate, and the most influential of the Roman emperors, Christian and pagan.
Yet he had great faults. He was far from being so pure and so venerable as Eusebius, blinded by his favor to the church, depicts him, in his bombastic and almost dishonestly eulogistic biography, with the evident intention of setting him up as a model for all future Christian princes. It must, with all regret, be conceded, that his progress in the knowledge of Christianity was not a progress in the practice of its virtues. His love of display and his prodigality, his suspiciousness and his despotism, increased with his power.
The very brightest period of his reign is stained with gross crimes, which even the spirit of the age and the policy of an absolute monarch cannot excuse. After having reached, upon the bloody path of war, the goal of his ambition, the sole possession of the empire, yea, in the very year in which he summoned the great council of Nicaea, he ordered the execution of his conquered rival and brother-in-law, Licinius, in breach of a solemn promise of mercy (324).1111 Eusebius justifies this procedure towards an enemy of the Christians by the laws of war. But what becomes of the breach of a solemn pledge? The murder of Crispus and Fausta he passes over in prudent silence, in violation of the highest duty of the historian to relate the truth and the whole truth. Not satisfied with this, he caused soon afterwards, from political suspicion, the death of the young Licinius, his nephew, a boy of hardly eleven years. But the worst of all is the murder of his eldest son, Crispus, in 326, who had incurred suspicion of political conspiracy, and of adulterous and incestuous purposes towards his step-mother Fausta, but is generally regarded as innocent. This domestic and political tragedy emerged from a vortex of mutual suspicion and rivalry, and calls to mind the conduct of Philip II. towards Don Carlos, of Peter the Great towards his son Alexis, and of Soliman the Great towards his son Mustapha. Later authors assert, though gratuitously, that the emperor, like David, bitterly repented of this sin. He has been frequently charged besides, though it would seem altogether unjustly, with the death of his second wife Fausta (326?), who, after twenty years, of happy wedlock, is said to have been convicted of slandering her stepson Crispus, and of adultery with a slave or one of the imperial guards, and then to have been suffocated in the vapor of an over-heated bath. But the accounts of the cause and manner of her death are so late and discordant as to make Constantine’s part in it at least very doubtful.1212 Zosimus, certainly in heathen prejudice and slanderous extravagance, ascribes to Constantine under the instigation of his mother Helena, who was furious at the loss of her favorite grandson, the death of two women, the innocent Fausta and an adulteress, the supposed mother of his three successors; Philostorgius, on the contrary, declares Fausta guilty (H. E. ii. 4; only fragmentary). Then again, older witnesses indirectly contradict this whole view; two orations, namely, of the next following reign, which imply, that Fausta survived the death of her son, the younger Constantine, who outlived his father by three years. Comp. Julian. Orat. i., and Monod. in Const. Jun. c. 4, ad Calcem Eutrop., cited by Gibbon, ch. xviii., notes 25 and 26. Evagrius denies both the murder of Crispus and of Fausta, though only on account of the silence of Eusebius, whose extreme partiality for his imperial friend seriously impairs the value of his narrative. Gibbon and still more decidedly Niebuhr (Vorträge über Röm. Geschichte, iii. 302) are inclined to acquit Constantine of all guilt in the death of Fausta. The latest biographer, Burckhardt (l.c. p. 375) charges him with it rather hastily, without even mentioning the critical difficulties in the way. So also Stanley (l.c. p. 300).
At all events Christianity did not produce in Constantine a thorough moral transformation. He was concerned more to advance the outward social position of the Christian religion, than to further its inward mission. He was praised and censured in turn by the Christians and Pagans, the Orthodox and the Arians, as they successively experienced his favor or dislike. He bears some resemblance to Peter the Great both in his public acts and his private character, by combining great virtues and merits with monstrous crimes, and he probably died with the same consolation as Peter, whose last words were: “I trust that in respect of the good I have striven to do my people (the church), God will pardon my sins.” It is quite characteristic of his piety that he turned the sacred nails of the Saviour’s cross which Helena brought from Jerusalem, the one into the bit of his war-horse, the other into an ornament of his helmet. Not a decided, pure, and consistent character, he stands on the line of transition between two ages and two religions; and his life bears plain marks of both. When at last on his death bed he submitted to baptism, with the remark, “Now let us cast away all duplicity,” he honestly admitted the conflict of two antagonistic principles which swayed his private character and public life.1313 The heathen historians extol the earlier part of his reign, and depreciate the later. Thus Eutropius, x. 6: “In primo imperii tempore optimis principibus, ultimo mediis comparandus.” With this judgment Gibbon agrees (ch. xviii.), presenting in Constantinean inverted Augustus: “In the life of Augustus we behold the tyrant of the republic, converted, almost by imperceptible degrees, into the father of his country and of human kind. In that of Constantine, we may contemplate a hero, who had so long inspired his subjects with love, and his enemies with terror, degenerating into a cruel and dissolute monarch, corrupted by his fortune, or raised by conquest above the necessity of dissimulation.” But this theory of progressive degeneracy, adopted also by F. C. Schlosser in his Weltgeschichte, by Stanley, l.c. p. 297, and many others, is as untenable as the opposite view of a progressive improvement, held by Eusebius, Mosheim, and other ecclesiastical historians. For, on the one hand, the earlier life of Constantinehas such features of cruelty as the surrender of the conquered barbarian kings to the wild beasts in the ampitheatre at Treves in 310 or 311, for which he was lauded by a heathen orator; the ungenerous conduct toward Herculius, his father-in-law; the murder of the infant son of Maxentius; and the triumphal exhibition of the head of Maxentius on his entrance into Rome in 312. On the other hand his most humane laws, such as the abolition of the gladiatorial shows and of licentious and cruel rites, date from his later reign.
From these general remarks we turn to the leading features of Constantine’s life and reign, so far as they bear upon the history of the church. We shall consider in order his youth and training, the vision of the Cross, the edict of toleration, his legislation in favor of Christianity, his baptism and death.
Constantine, son of the co-emperor Constantius Chlorus, who reigned over Gaul, Spain, and Britain till his death in 306, was born probably in the year 272, either in Britain or at Naissus (now called Nissa), a town of Dardania, in Illyricum.1414 According to Baronius (Ann. 306, n. 16) and others he was born in Britain, because an ancient panegyric of 307 says that Constantine ennobled Britain by his birth (tu Britannias nobiles oriendo fecisti); but this may be understood of his royal as well as of his natural birth, since he was there proclaimed Caesar by the soldiers. The other opinion rests also on ancient testimonies, and is held by Pagi, Tillemont, and most of the recent historians. His mother was Helena, daughter of an innkeeper,1515 Ambrose(De obitu Theodos.) calls her stabulariam, when Constantius made her acquaintance. the first wife of Constantius, afterwards divorced, when Constantius, for political reasons, married a daughter of Maximian.1616 This is the more probable view, and rests on good authority. Zosimus and even the Paschal Chronicle call Helena the concubine of Constantius, and Constantine illegitimate. But in this case it would be difficult to understand that he was so well treated at the court of Diocletian and elected Caesar without opposition, since Constantius had three sons and three daughters by a legal wife, Theodora. It is possible, however, that Helena was first a concubine and afterwards legally married. Constantine, when emperor, took good care of her position and bestowed upon her the title of Augusta and empress with appropriate honors. She is described by Christian writers as a discreet and devout woman, and has been honored with a place in the catalogue of saints. Her name is identified with the discovery of the cross and the pious superstitions of the holy places. She lived to a very advanced age and died in the year 326 or 327, in or near the city of Rome. Rising by her beauty and good fortune from obscurity to the splendor of the court, then meeting the fate of Josephine, but restored to imperial dignity by her son, and ending as a saint of the Catholic church: Helena would form an interesting subject for a historical novel illustrating the leading events of the Nicene age and the triumph of Christianity in the Roman empire.
Constantine first distinguished himself in the service of Diocletian in the Egyptian and Persian wars; went afterwards to Gaul and Britain, and in the Praetorium at York was proclaimed emperor by his dying father and by the Roman troops. His father before him held a favorable opinion of the Christians as peaceable and honorable citizens, and protected them in the West during the Diocletian persecution in the East. This respectful tolerant regard descended to Constantine, and the good effects of it, compared with the evil results of the opposite course of his antagonist Galerius, could but encourage him to pursue it. He reasoned, as Eusebius reports from his own mouth, in the following manner: “My father revered the Christian God and uniformly prospered, while the emperors who worshipped the heathen gods, died a miserable death; therefore, that I may enjoy a happy life and reign, I will imitate the example of my father and join myself to the cause of the Christians, who are growing daily, while the heathen are diminishing.” This low utilitarian consideration weighed heavily in the mind of an ambitious captain, who looked forward to the highest seat of power within the gift of his age. Whether his mother, whom he always revered, and who made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in her eightieth year (a.d. 325), planted the germ of the Christian faith in her son, as Theodoret supposes, or herself became a Christian through his influence, as Eusebius asserts, must remain undecided. According to the heathen Zosimus, whose statement is unquestionably false and malicious, an Egyptian, who came out of Spain (probably the bishop Hosius of Cordova, a native of Egypt, is intended), persuaded him, after the murder of Crispus (which did not occur before 326), that by converting to Christianity he might obtain forgiveness of his sins.
The first public evidence of a positive leaning towards the Christian religion he gave in his contest with the pagan Maxentius, who had usurped the government of Italy and Africa, and is universally represented as a cruel, dissolute tyrant, hated by heathens and Christians alike,1717 Even Zosimus gives the most unfavorable account of him. called by the Roman people to their aid, Constantine marched from Gaul across the Alps with an army of ninety-eight thousand soldiers of every nationality, and defeated Maxentius in three battles; the last in October, 312, at the Milvian bridge, near Rome, where Maxentius found a disgraceful death in the waters of the Tiber.
Here belongs the familiar story of the miraculous cross. The precise day and place cannot be fixed, but the event must have occurred shortly before the final victory over Maxentius in the neighborhood of Rome. As this vision is one of the most noted miracles in church history, and has a representative significance, it deserves a closer examination. It marks for us on the one hand the victory of Christianity over paganism in the Roman empire, and on the other the ominous admixture of foreign, political, and military interests with it.1818 “It was,” says Milman (Hist. of Christianity, p. 288, N. York ed.), “the first advance to the military Christianity of the Middle Ages; a modification of the pure religion of the Gospel, if directly opposed to its genuine principles, still apparently indispensable to the social progress of man; through which the Roman empire and the barbarous nations, which were blended together in the vast European and Christian system, must necessarily have passed before they could arrive at a higher civilization and a purer Christianity.” We need not be surprised that in the Nicene age so great a revolution and transition should have been clothed with a supernatural character.
The occurrence is variously described and is not without serious difficulties. Lactantius, the earliest witness, some three years after the battle, speaks only of a dream by night, in which the emperor was directed (it is not stated by whom, whether by Christ, or by an angel) to stamp on the shields of his soldiers “the heavenly sign of God,” that is, the cross with the name of Christ, and thus to go forth against his enemy.1919 De mortibus persecutorum, c. 44 (ed. Lips. II. 278 sq.): “Commonitus est in quiete Constantinus, ut coeleste signum Dei notaret in scutis, atque ita proelium committeret. Fecit ut jussus est, et transverse X litera, summo capite circumflexo Christum in scutis notat [i.e., he ordered the name of Christ or the two first letters X and P to be put on the shields of his soldiers]. Quo signo armatus exercitus capit ferrum.”—This work is indeed by Burckhardt and others denied to Lactantius, but was at all events composed soon after the event, about 314 or 315, while Constantine was as yet on good terms with Licinius, to whom the author, c. 46, ascribes a similar vision of an angel, who is said to have taught him a form of prayer on his expedition against the heathen tyrant Maximin. Eusebius, on the contrary, gives a more minute account on the authority of a subsequent private communication of the aged Constantine himself under oath—not, however, till the year 338, a year after the death of the emperor, his only witness, and twenty-six years after the event.2020 In his Vita Constant. i. 27-30, composed about 338, a work more panegyrical than historical, and abounding in vague declamation and circumlocution. But in his Church History, written before 326, though he has good occasion (l. ix. c. 8, 9), Eusebius says nothing of the occurrence, whether through oversight or ignorance, or of purpose, it is hard to decide. In any case the silence casts suspicion on the details of his subsequent story, and has been urged against it not only by Gibbon, but also by Lardner and others. On his march from Gaul to Italy (the spot and date are not specified), the emperor, whilst earnestly praying to the true God for light and help at this critical time, saw, together with his army,2121 This is probably a mistake or an exaggeration. For if a whole army consisting of many thousand soldiers of every nation had seen the vision of the cross, Eusebius might have cited a number of living witnesses, and Constantine might have dispensed with a solemn oath. But on the other hand the two heathen witnesses (see below) extend the vision likewise to the soldiers. in clear daylight towards evening, a shining cross in the heavens above the sun) with the inscription: “By this conquer,”2222 τούτῳ [τῷ σημείῳ] νίκα; Hac, or Hoc [sc. signo] vince, or vinces. Eusebius leaves the impression that the inscription was in Greek. But Nicephorus and Zonaras say that it was in Latin. and in the following night Christ himself appeared to him while he slept, and directed him to have a standard prepared in the form of this sign of the cross, and with that to proceed against Maxentius and all other enemies. This account of Eusebius, or rather of Constantine himself, adds to the night dream of Lactantius the preceding vision of the day, and the direction concerning the standard, while Lactantius speaks of the inscription of the initial letters of Christ’s name on the shields of the soldiers. According to Rufinus,2323 Hist. Eccl. ix, 9. Comp. the similar account of Sozomenus, H. E. i. 3. a later historian, who elsewhere depends entirely on Eusebius and can therefore not be regarded as a proper witness in the case, the sign of the cross appeared to Constantine in a dream (which agrees with the account of Lactantius), and upon his awaking in terror, an angel (not Christ) exclaimed to him: “Hoc vince.” Lactantius, Eusebius, and Rufinus are the only Christian writers of the fourth century, who mention the apparition. But we have besides one or two heathen testimonies, which, though vague and obscure, still serve to strengthen the evidence in favor of some actual occurrence. The contemporaneous orator Nazarius, in a panegyric upon the emperor, pronounced March 1, 321, apparently at Rome, speaks of an army of divine warriors and a divine assistance which Constantine received in the engagement with Maxentius, but he converts it to the service of heathenism by recurring to old prodigies, such as the appearance of Castor and Pollux.2424 Nazar. Paneg. in Const. c. 14: “In ore denique est omnium Galliarum [this would seem to indicate a pretty general rumor of some supernatural assistance], exercitus visos, qui se divinitus missos prae se ferebant,” etc. Comp. Baronius, Annal. ad ann. 312, n. 11. This historian adduces also (n. 14) another and still older pagan testimony from an anonymous panegyrical orator, who, in 313, speaks of a certain undefined omen which filled the soldiers of Constantinewith misgivings and fears, while it emboldened him to the combat. Baronius and J. H. Newman (in his “Essay on Miracles”) plausibly suppose this omen to have been the cross.
This famous tradition may be explained either as a real miracle implying a personal appearance of Christ,2525 This is the view of the older historians, Protestant as well as Catholic. Among more modern writers on the subject it has hardly any advocates of note, except Döllinger (R.C.), J. H.Newman (in his “Essay on Miracles,” published in 1842, before his transition to Romanism, and prefixed to the first volume of his translation of Fleury), and Guericke (Lutheran). Comp. also De Broglie, i. 219 and 442. or as a pious fraud,2626 So more or less distinctly Hoornebeck (of Leyden), Thomasius, Arnold, Lardner, Gibbon, and Waddington. The last writer (Hist. of the Church, vol. i. 171) disposes of it too summarily by the remark that “this flattering fable may very safely be consigned to contempt and oblivion.” Burckhardt, the most recent biographer of Constantine, is of the same opinion. He considers the story as a joint fabrication of Eusebius and the emperor, and of no historical value whatever (Die Zeit Constantins des Gr. 1853, pp. 394 and 395). Lardner saddles the lie exclusively upon the emperor (although he admits him otherwise to have been a sincere Christian), and tries to prove that Eusebius himself hardly believed it. or as a natural phenomenon in the clouds and an optical illusion,2727 This is substantially the theory of J. A. Fabricius (in a special dissertation), Schröckh (vol. v. 83), Manso, Heinichen (in the first Excursus to his ed. of Euseb), Gieseler, Neander, Milman, Robertson, and Stanley. Gieseler (vol. i. § 56, note 29) mentions similar cross-like clouds which appeared in Germany, Dec. 1517 and 1552, and were mistaken by contemporary Lutherans for supernatural signs. Stanley (Lectures on the Eastern Church, p. 288) refers to the natural phenomenon known by the name of “parhelion,” which in an afternoon sky not unfrequently assumes almost the form of the cross. He also brings in, as a new illustration, the Aurora Borealis which appeared in November, 1848, and was variously interpreted, in France as forming the letters L. N., in view of the approaching election of Louis Napoleon, in Rome as the blood of the murdered Rossi crying for vengeance from heaven against his assassins. Mosheim, after a lengthy discussion of the subject in his large work on the ante-Nicene age, comes to no definite conclusion, but favors the hypothesis of a mere dream or a psychological illusion. Neander and Robertson connect with the supposition of a natural phenomenon in the skies a dream of Constantine which reflected the optical vision of the day. Keim, the latest writer on the subject, l.c. p. 89, admits the dream, but denies the cross in the clouds. So Mosheim. or finally as a prophetic dream.
The propriety of a miracle, parallel to the signs in heaven which preceded the destruction of Jerusalem, might be justified by the significance of the victory as marking a great epoch in history, namely, the downfall of paganism and the establishment of Christianity in the empire. But even if we waive the purely critical objections to the Eusebian narrative, the assumed connection, in this case, of the gentle Prince of peace with the god of battle, and the subserviency of the sacred symbol of redemption to military ambition, is repugnant to the genius of the gospel and to sound Christian feeling, unless we stretch the theory of divine accommodation to the spirit of the age and the passions and interests of individuals beyond the ordinary limits. We should suppose, moreover, that Christ, if he had really appeared to Constantine either in person (according to Eusebius) or through angels (as Rufinus and Sozomen modify it), would have exhorted him to repent and be baptized rather than to construct a military ensign for a bloody battle.2828 Dr. Murdock (notes to his translation of Mosheim) raises the additional objection, which has some force from his Puritan standpoint: “If the miracle of the luminous cross was a reality, has not God himself sanctioned the use of the cross as the appointed symbol of our religion? so that there is no superstition in the use of it, but the Catholics are correct and the Protestants in an error on this subject?” In no case can we ascribe to this occurrence, with Eusebius, Theodoret, and older writers, the character of a sudden and genuine conversion, as to Paul’s vision of Christ on the way to Damascus;2929 Theodoret says that Constantinewas called not of men or by men (οὐκ ἀπ ̓ ἀνθρώπου, οὐδὲ δι ̓ ἀνθρώπου, Gal. i. 1), but from heaven, as the divine apostle Paul was (οὐρανόθεν κατὰ τὸν θεῖον ἀπόστολον). Hist. Eccl. l. i. c. 2. for, on the one hand, Constantine was never hostile to Christianity, but most probably friendly to it from his early youth, according to the example of his father; and, on the other, he put off his baptism quite five and twenty years, almost to the hour of his death.
The opposite hypothesis of a mere military stratagem or intentional fraud is still more objectionable, and would compel us either to impute to the first Christian emperor at a venerable age the double crime of falsehood and perjury, or, if Eusebius invented the story, to deny to the “father of church history” all claim to credibility and common respectability. Besides it should be remembered that the older testimony of Lactantius, or whoever was the author of the work on the Deaths of Persecutors, is quite independent of that of Eusebius, and derives additional force from the vague heathen rumors of the time. Finally the Hoc vince which has passed into proverbial significance as a most appropriate motto of the invincible religion of the cross, is too good to be traced to sheer falsehood. Some actual fact, therefore, must be supposed to underlie the tradition, and the question only is this, whether it was an external visible phenomenon or an internal experience.
The hypothesis of a natural formation of the clouds, which Constantine by an optical illusion mistook for a supernatural sign of the cross, besides smacking of the exploded rationalistic explanation of the New Testament miracles, and deriving an important event from a mere accident, leaves the figure of Christ and the Greek or Latin inscription: By this sign thou shalt conquer! altogether unexplained.
We are shut up therefore to the theory of a dream or vision, and an experience within the mind of Constantine. This is supported by the oldest testimony of Lactantius, as well as by the report of Rufinus and Sozomen, and we do not hesitate to regard the Eusebian cross in the skies as originally a part of the dream,3030 So Sozomenus, H. E. lib. i. cap. 3, expressly represents it: ὅναρ εἶδε τὸ τοῦ σταυροῦ σημεῖον σελαγίζονetc. Afterwards he gives, it is true, the fuller report of Eusebius in his own words. Comp. Rufin. ix. 9; Euseb. Vit. Const. i. 29; Lact. De mort. persec. 44, and the allusions of the heathen panegyrists. which only subsequently assumed the character of an outward objective apparition either in the imagination of Constantine, or by a mistake of the memory of the historian, but in either case without intentional fraud. That the vision was traced to supernatural origin, especially after the happy success, is quite natural and in perfect keeping with the prevailing ideas of the age.3131 Licinius before the battle with Maximin had a vision of an angel who taught him a prayer for victory (Lactant. De mort. persec. c. 46). Julianthe Apostate was even more superstitious in this respect than his Christian uncle, and fully addicted to the whole train of omens, presages, prodigies, spectres, dreams, visions, auguries, and oracles (Comp. below, § 4). On his expedition against the Persians he was supposed by Libanius to have been surrounded by a whole army of gods, which, however, in the view of Gregory of Nazianzen, was a host of demons. See Ullmann, Gregory of Naz., p. 100. Tertullian and other ante-Nicene and Nicene fathers attributed many conversions to nocturnal dreams and visions. Constantine and his friends referred the most important facts of his life, as the knowledge of the approach of hostile armies, the discovery of the holy sepulchre, the founding of Constantinople, to divine revelation through visions and dreams. Nor are we disposed in the least to deny the connection of the vision of the cross with the agency of divine Providence, which controlled this remarkable turning point of history. We may go farther and admit a special providence, or what the old divines call a providentia specialissima; but this does not necessarily imply a violation of the order of nature or an actual miracle in the shape of an objective personal appearance of the Saviour. We may refer to a somewhat similar, though far less important, vision in the life of the pious English Colonel James Gardiner.3232 According to the account of his friend, Dr. Philip Doddridge, who learned the facts from Gardiner, as Eusebius from Constantine. When engaged in serious meditation on a Sabbath night in July, 1719, Gardiner “suddenly thought he saw an unusual blaze of light fall on the book while he was reading, which he at first imagined might have happened by some accident in the candle. But lifting up his eyes, he apprehended, to his extreme amazement, that there was before him, as it were suspended in the air, a visible representation of the Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross, surrounded with a glory; and was impressed as if a voice, or something equivalent to a voice, had come to him, to this effect: ’O sinner, did I suffer this for thee, and are these the returns?’ ” After this event he changed from a dissolute worldling to an earnest and godly man. But the whole apparition was probably, after all, merely an inward one. For the report adds as to the voice: “Whether this were an audible voice, or only a strong impression on his mind, equally striking, he did not seem confident, though he judged it to be the former. He thought he was awake. But everybody knows how easy it is towards midnight to fall into a doze over a dull or even a good book. It is very probable then that this apparition resolves itself into a significant dream which marked an epoch in his life. No reflecting person will on that account doubt the seriousness of Gardiner’s conversion, which was amply proved by his whole subsequent life, even far more than Constantine’s was. The Bible itself sanctions the general theory of providential or prophetic dreams and nocturnal visions through which divine revelations and admonitions are communicated to men.3333 Numbers xii. 6: “I the Lord will make myself known in a vision, and will speak in a dream.” Job xxxiii. 15, 16: “In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falleth upon men, in slumberings upon the bed, then he openeth the ears of men and sealeth their instruction.” For actual facts see Gen. xxxi. 10, 24; xxxvii. 5; 1 Kings iii. 5; Dan. ii. 4, 36; vii. 1; Matt. i. 20; ii. 12, 13, 19, 22; Acts x. 17; xxii. 17, 18.
The facts, therefore, may have been these. Before the battle Constantine, leaning already towards Christianity as probably the best and most hopeful of the various religions, seriously sought in prayer, as he related to Eusebius, the assistance of the God of the Christians, while his heathen antagonist Maxentius, according to Zosimus,3434 Histor. ii. 16. was consulting the sibylline books and offering sacrifice to the idols. Filled with mingled fears and hopes about the issue of the conflict, he fell asleep and saw in a dream the sign of the cross of Christ with a significant inscription and promise of victory. Being already familiar with the general use of this sign among the numerous Christians of the empire, many of whom no doubt were in his own army, he constructed the labarum,3535 Λάβωρον, also λάβουρον; derived not from labor, nor from λάφυρον, i.e. praeda, nor from λαβεῖν, but probably from a barbarian root, otherwise unknown, and introduced into the Roman terminology, long before Constantine, by the Celtic or Germanic recruits. Comp. Du Cange, Glossar., and Suicer, Thesaur. s. h. v. The labarum, as described by Eusebius, who saw it himself (Vita Const. i. 30), consisted of a long spear overlaid with gold, and a crosspiece of wood, from which hung a square flag of purple cloth embroidered and covered with precious stones. On the of top of the shaft was a crown composed of gold and precious stones, and containing the monogram of Christ (see next note), and just under this crown was a likeness the emperor and his sons in gold. The emperor told Eusebius (I. ii. c. 7) some incredible things about this labarum, e.g. that none of its bearers was ever hurt by the darts of the enemy. or rather he changed the heathen labarum into a standard of the Christian cross with the Greek monogram of Christ,3636 X and P, the first two letters of the name of Christ, so written upon one another as to make the form of the cross: P with x (Rho with Chi on the lower part) or Pwith—(Rho with a dash on the lower part to make a cross), or αPω(i.e. Christos—Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end with a chi on the stem to make the cross), and similar forms, of which Münter (Sinnbilder der alten Christen, p. 36 sqq.) has collected from ancient coins, vessels, and tombstones more than twenty. The monogram, as well as the sign of the cross, was in use among the Christians Iong before Constantine, probably as early as the Antonines and Hadrian. Yea, the standards and trophies of victory generally had the appearance of a cross, as Minucius Felix, Tertullian, Justin, and other apologists of the second century told the heathens. According to Killen (Ancient Church, p. 317, note), who quotes Aringhus, Roma subterranea, ii. p. 567, as his authority, the famous monogram (of course in a different sense) is found even before Christ on coins of the Ptolemies. The only thing new, therefore, was the union of this symbol, in its Christian sense and application, with the Roman military standard. which he had also put upon the shields of the soldiers. To this cross-standard, which now took the place of the Roman eagles, he attributed the decisive victory over the heathen Maxentius.
Accordingly, after his triumphal entrance into Rome, he had his statue erected upon the forum with the labarum in his right hand, and the inscription beneath: “By this saving sign, the true token of bravery, I have delivered your city from the yoke of the tyrant.”3737 Eus., H. E. ix. 9: Τούτῳ τῷ σωτηριώδει (salutari, not singulari, as Rufinus has it) σημείῳ, τῶ ἀληθινῷ ἐλέγχῳ τῶς ἀνδρίας , τήν πόλιν ὑμῶν ἀπὸ ζυγοῦ τοῦ τυράννου διασωθεῖσαν ἐλευθέρωσα, κ. τ. λ. Gibbon, however thinks it more probable, that at least the labarum and the inscription date only from the second or third visit of Constantineto Rome. Three years afterwards the senate erected to him a triumphal arch of marble, which to this day, within sight of the sublime ruins of the pagan Colosseum, indicates at once the decay of ancient art, and the downfall of heathenism; as the neighboring arch of Titus commemorates the downfall of Judaism and the destruction of the temple. The inscription on this arch of Constantine, however, ascribes his victory over the hated tyrant, not only to his master mind, but indefinitely also to the impulse of Deity;3838 “Instinctu Divinitatis et mentis magnitudine.” Divinitas may be taken as an ambiguous word like Providence, “which veils Constantine’s passage from Paganism to Christianity.” by which a Christian would naturally understand the true God, while a heathen, like the orator Nazarius, in his eulogy on Constantine, might take it for the celestial guardian power of the “urbs aeterna.”
At all events the victory of Constantine over Maxentius was a military and political victory of Christianity over heathenism; the intellectual and moral victory having been already accomplished by the literature and life of the church in the preceding period. The emblem of ignominy and oppression3939 Cicero says, pro Raberio, c. 5: “Nomen ipsum crucis absit non modo a corpore civium Romanorum, sed etiam a cogitatione, oculis, auribus.” With other ancient heathens, however, the Egyptians, the Buddhists, and even the aborigines of Mexico, the cross seems to have been in use as a religious symbol. Socrates relates (H. E. v. 17) that at the destruction of the temple of Serapis, among the hieroglyphic inscriptions forms of crosses were found, which pagans and Christians alike referred to their respective religions. Some of the heathen converts conversant with hieroglyphic characters interpreted the form of the cross to mean the Life to come. According to Prescott (Conquest of Mexico, iii. 338-340) the Spaniards found the cross among the objects of worship in the idol temples of Anahnac. became thenceforward the badge of honor and dominion, and was invested in the emperor’s view, according to the spirit of the church of his day, with a magic virtue.4040 Even church teachers long before Constantine, Justin, Tertullian, Minucius Felix, in downright opposition to this pagan antipathy, had found the sign of the cross everywhere on the face of nature and of human life; in the military banners and trophies of victory, in the ship with swelling sails and extended oars, in the plow in the flying bird, in man swimming or praying, in the features of the face and the form of the body with outstretched arms. Hence the daily use of the of the cross by the early Christians. Comp. vol. ii. § 77 (p. 269 sqq.). It now took the place of the eagle and other field-badges, under which the heathen Romans had conquered the world. It was stamped on the imperial coin, and on the standards, helmets, and shields of the soldiers. Above all military representations of the cross the original imperial labarum shone in the richest decorations of gold and gems; was intrusted to the truest and bravest fifty of the body guard; filled the Christians with the spirit of victory, and spread fear and terror among their enemies; until, under the weak successors of Theodosius II., it fell out of use, and was lodged as a venerable relic in the imperial palace at Constantinople.
After this victory at Rome (which occurred October 27, 312), Constantine, in conjunction with his eastern colleague, Licinius, published in January, 313, from Milan, an edict of religious toleration, which goes a step beyond the edict of the still anti-Christian Galerius in 311, and grants, in the spirit of religious eclecticism, full freedom to all existing forms of worship, with special reference to the Christian.4141 This in the second edict of toleration, not the third, as was formerly supposed. An edict of 312 does not exist and rests on a mistake. See vol. ii. § 25, p. 72. The edict of 313 not only recognized Christianity within existing limits, but allowed every subject of the Roman empire to choose whatever religion he preferred.4242 “Haec ordinanda esse credidimus ... ut daremus et Christianis et omnibus liberam potestatem sequendi religionem, quamquisque voluisset ... ut nulli omnino facultatem obnegandam putaremus, qui vel observationi Christianorum, vel ei religioni mentem suam dederet, quam ipse sibi aptissimam esse sentiret ... ut, amotis omnibus ominino conditionibus [by which are meant, no doubt, the restrictions of toleration in the edict of 311], nunc libere ac simpliciter unusquisque eorum qui eandem observandae religioni Christianorum gerunt voluntatem, citra ullam inquietudinem et molestiam sui id ipsum observare contendant.” Lact., De mort, persec. c. 48 (ii. p. 282, ed. Fritzsche). Eusebius gives the edict in a stiff and obscure Greek translation, with some variations, H. E. x. 5. Comp. Niceph. H. E. vii. 41. Also a special essay on the edicts of toleration, by Theod. Keim in the Tübinger Theolog. Jahrbücher for 1852, and Mason, persecution of Diocletian, pp. 299 and 326. At the same time the church buildings and property confiscated in the Diocletian persecution were ordered to be restored, and private property-owners to be indemnified from the imperial treasury.
In this notable edict, however, we should look in vain for the modern Protestant and Anglo-American theory of religious liberty as one of the universal and inalienable rights of man. Sundry voices, it is true, in the Christian church itself, at that time, as before and after, declared against all compulsion in religion.4343 Compare the remarkable passages of Tertullian, cited in vol. ii. § 13, p. 35. Lactantius likewise, in the beginning of the fourth century, says, Instit. div. l. v. c. 19 (i. p. 267 sq. ed. Lips.): “Non est opus vi et injuria, quia religio cogi non potest; verbis potius, quam verberibus res agenda est, ut sit voluntas .... Defendenda religio est, non occidendo, sed moriendo; non saevitia, sed patientia; non scelere, sed fide .... Nam si sanguine, si tormentis, si malo religionem defendere velis, jam non defendetur illa, sed polluetur atque violabitur. Nihil est enim tam voluntarium, quam religio, in qua si animus sacrificantis aversus est, jam sublata, jam nulla est.” Comp. c. 20. But the spirit of the Roman empire was too absolutistic to abandon the prerogative of a supervision of public worship. The Constantinian toleration was a temporary measure of state policy, which, as indeed the edict expressly states the motive, promised the greatest security to the public peace and the protection of all divine and heavenly powers, for emperor and empire. It was, as the result teaches, but the necessary transition step to a new order of things. It opened the door to the elevation of Christianity, and specifically of Catholic hierarchical Christianity, with its exclusiveness towards heretical and schismatic sects, to be the religion of the state. For, once put on equal footing with heathenism, it must soon, in spite of numerical minority, bear away the victory from a religion which had already inwardly outlived itself.
From this time Constantine decidedly favored the church, though without persecuting or forbidding the pagan religions. He always mentions the Christian church with reverence in his imperial edicts, and uniformly applies to it, as we have already observed, the predicate of catholic. For only as a catholic, thoroughly organized, firmly compacted, and conservative institution did it meet his rigid monarchical interest, and afford the splendid state and court dress he wished for his empire. So early as the year 313 we find the bishop Hosius of Cordova among his counsellors, and heathen writers ascribe to the bishop even a magical influence over the emperor. Lactantius, also, and Eusebius of Caesarea belonged to his confidential circle. He exempted the Christian clergy from military and municipal duty (March, 313); abolished various customs and ordinances offensive to the Christians (315); facilitated the emancipation of Christian slaves (before 316); legalized bequests to catholic churches (321); enjoined the civil observance of Sunday, though not as dies Domini, but as dies Solis, in conformity to his worship of Apollo, and in company with an ordinance for the regular consulting of the haruspex (321); contributed liberally to the building of churches and the support of the clergy; erased the heathen symbols of Jupiter and Apollo, Mars and Hercules from the imperial coins (323); and gave his sons a Christian education.
This mighty example was followed, as might be expected, by a general transition of those subjects, who were more influenced in their conduct by outward circumstances, than by inward conviction and principle. The story, that in one year (324) twelve thousand men, with women and children in proportion, were baptized in Rome, and that the emperor had promised to each convert a white garment and twenty pieces of gold, is at least in accordance with the spirit of that reign, though the fact itself, in all probability, is greatly exaggerated.4444 For the Acta St. Silvestri and the H. Eccl. of Nicephorus Callist. vii. 34 (in Baronius, ad ann. 324) are of course not reliable authority on this point.
Constantine came out with still greater decision, when, by his victory over his Eastern colleague and brother-in-law, Licinius, he became sole head of the whole Roman empire. To strengthen his position, Licinius had gradually placed himself at the head of the heathen party, still very numerous, and had vexed the Christians first with wanton ridicule4545 He commanded the Christians, for example, to hold their large assemblies in open fields instead of in the churches, because the fresh air was more wholesome for them than the close atmosphere in a building! then with exclusion from civil and military office, with banishment, and in some instances perhaps even with bloody persecution. This gave the political strife for the monarchy between himself and Constantine the character also of a war of religions; and the defeat of Licinius in the battle of Adrianople in July, 324, and at Chalcedon in September, was a new triumph of the standard of the cross over the sacrifices of the gods; save that Constantine dishonored himself and his cause by the execution of Licinius and his son.
The emperor now issued a general exhortation to his subjects to embrace the Christian religion, still leaving them, however, to their own free conviction. In the year 325, as patron of the church, he summoned the council of Nice, and himself attended it; banished the Arians, though he afterwards recalled them; and, in his monarchical spirit of uniformity, showed great zeal for the settlement of all theological disputes, while he was blind to their deep significance. He first introduced the practice of subscription to the articles of a written creed and of the infliction of civil punishments for non-conformity. In the years 325–329, in connection with his mother, Helena, he erected magnificent churches on the sacred spots in Jerusalem.
As heathenism had still the preponderance in Rome, where it was hallowed by its great traditions, Constantine, by divine command as he supposed,4646 “Jubente Deo,” says he in one of his laws. Cod. Theodos. l. xiii. tit. v. leg. 7. Later writers ascribe the founding of Constantinople to a nocturnal vision of the emperor, and an injunction of the Virgin Mary, who was revered as patroness, one might almost suppose as goddess, of the city. in the year 330, transferred the seat of his government to Byzantium, and thus fixed the policy, already initiated by Domitian, of orientalizing and dividing the empire. In the selection of the unrivalled locality he showed more taste and genius than the founders of Madrid, Vienna, Berlin, St. Petersburg, or Washington. With incredible rapidity, and by all the means within reach of an absolute monarch, he turned this nobly situated town, connecting two seas and two continents, into a splendid residence and a new Christian Rome, “for which now,” as Gregory of Nazianzen expresses it, “sea and land emulate each other, to load it with their treasures, and crown it queen of cities.”4747 The Turks still call it emphatically the city. For Stambul is a corruption of Istambul, which means: εἰς τὴν πόλιν. Here, instead of idol temples and altars, churches and crucifixes rose; though among them the statues of patron deities from all over Greece, mutilated by all sorts of tasteless adaptations, were also gathered in the new metropolis.4848 The most offensive of these is the colossal bronze statue of Apollo, pretended to be the work of Phidias, which Constantine set up in the middle of the Forum on a pillar of porphyry, a hundred and twenty feet high, and which, at least according to later interpretations, served to represent the emperor himself with the attributes of Christ and the god of the sun! So says the author of Antiquit. Constant. in Banduri, and J. v. Hammer: Constantinopolis u. der Bosphorus, i. 162 (cited in Milman’s notes to Gibbon). Nothing now remains of the pillar but a mutilated piece. The main hall in the palace was adorned with representations of the crucifixion and other biblical scenes. The gladiatorial shows, so popular in Rome, were forbidden here, though theatres, amphitheatres, and hippodromes kept their place. It could nowhere be mistaken, that the new imperial residence was as to all outward appearance a Christian city. The smoke of heathen sacrifices never rose from the seven hills of New Rome except during the short reign of Julian the Apostate. It became the residence of a bishop who not only claimed the authority of the apostolic see of neighboring Ephesus, but soon outshone the patriarchate of Alexandria and rivalled for centuries the papal power in ancient Rome.
The emperor diligently attended divine worship, and is portrayed upon medals in the posture of prayer. He kept the Easter vigils with great devotion. He would stand during the longest sermons of his bishops, who always surrounded him, and unfortunately flattered him only too much. And he even himself composed and delivered discourses to his court, in the Latin language, from which they were translated into Greek by interpreters appointed for the purpose.4949 Euseb. V. C. iv. 29-33. Burckhardt, l.c. p. 400, gives little credit to this whole account of Eusebius, and thus intimates the charge of deliberate falsehood. General invitations were issued, and the citizens flocked in great crowds to the palace to hear the imperial preacher, who would in vain try to prevent their loud applause by pointing to heaven as the source of his wisdom. He dwelt mainly on the truth of Christianity, the folly of idolatry, the unity and providence of God, the coming of Christ, and the judgment. At times he would severely rebuke the avarice and rapacity of his courtiers, who would loudly applaud him with their mouths, and belie his exhortation by their works.5050 Euseb. Vit. Const. iv. 29 ad finem. One of these productions is still extant,5151 Const. Oratio ad Sanctorum coetum, was preserved in Greek translation by Eusebius as an appendix to his biography of the emperor. in which he recommends Christianity in a characteristic strain, and in proof of its divine origin cites especially the fulfilment of prophecy, including the Sibylline books and the Fourth Eclogue of Virgil, with the contrast between his own happy and brilliant reign and the tragical fate of his persecuting predecessors and colleagues.
Nevertheless he continued in his later years true upon the whole to the toleration principles of the edict of 313, protected the pagan priests and temples in their privileges, and wisely abstained from all violent measures against heathenism, in the persuasion that it would in time die out. He retained many heathens at court and in public office, although he loved to promote Christians to honorable positions. In several cases, however, he prohibited idolatry, where it sanctioned scandalous immorality, as in the obscene worship of Venus in Phenicia; or in places which were specially sacred to the Christians, as the sepulchre of Christ and the grove of Mamre; and he caused a number of deserted temples and images to be destroyed or turned into Christian churches. Eusebius relates several such instances with evident approbation, and praises also his later edicts against various heretics and schismatics, but without mentioning the Arians. In his later years he seems, indeed, to have issued a general prohibition of idolatrous sacrifice; Eusebius speaks of it, and his sons in 341 refer to an edict to that effect; but the repetition of it by his successors proves, that, if issued, it was not carried into general execution under his reign.
With this shrewd, cautious, and moderate policy of Constantine, which contrasts well with the violent fanaticism of his sons, accords the postponement of his own baptism to his last sickness.5252 The pretended baptism of Constantine by the Roman bishop Sylvester in 324, and his bestowment of lands on the pope in connection with it, is a mediaeval fiction, still unblushingly defended indeed by Baronius (ad ann. 324, No. 43-49), but long since given up by other Roman Catholic historians, such as Noris, Tillemont, and Valesius. It is sufficiently refuted by the contemporary testimony of Eusebius alone (Vit. Const. iv. 61, 62), who places the baptism of Constantineat the end of his life, and minutely describes it; and Socrates, Sozomen, Ambrose, and Jerome coincide with him. For this he had the further motives of a superstitious desire, which he himself expresses, to be baptized in the Jordan, whose waters had been sanctified by the Saviour’s baptism, and no doubt also a fear, that he might by relapse forfeit the sacramental remission of sins. He wished to secure all the benefit of baptism as a complete expiation of past sins, with as little risk as possible, and thus to make the best of both worlds. Deathbed baptisms then were to half Christians of that age what deathbed conversions and deathbed communions are now. Yet he presumed to preach the gospel, he called himself the bishop of bishops, he convened the first general council, and made Christianity the religion of the empire, long before his baptism! Strange as this inconsistency appears to us, what shall we think of the court bishops who, from false prudence, relaxed in his favor the otherwise strict discipline of the church, and admitted him, at least tacitly, to the enjoyment of nearly all the privileges of believers, before he had taken upon himself even a single obligation of a catechumen!
When, after a life of almost uninterrupted health, he felt the approach of death, he was received into the number of catechumens by laying on of hands, and then formally admitted by baptism into the full communion of the church in the year 337, the sixty-fifth year of his age, by the Arian (or properly Semi-Arian) bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, whom he had shortly before recalled from exile together with Arius.5353 Hence Jerome says, Constantine was baptized into Arianism. And Dr. Newman, the ex-Tractarian, remarks, that in conferring his benefaction on the church he burdened it with the bequest of an heresy, which outlived his age by many centuries, and still exists in its effects in the divisions of the East (The Arians of the 4th Century, 1854, p. 138). But Eusebius (not the church historian) was probably the nearest bishop, and acted here not as a party leader. Constantine, too, in spite of the influence which the Arians had over him in his later years, considered himself constantly a true adherent of the Nicene faith, and he is reported by Theodoret (H. E. I. 32) to have ordered the recall of Athanasius from exile on his deathbed, in spite of the opposition of the Arian Eusebius. He was in these matters frequently misled by misrepresentations, and cared more for peace than for truth. The deeper significance of the dogmatic controversy was entirely beyond his sphere. Gibbon is right in this matter: “The credulous monarch, unskilled in the stratagems of theological warfare, might be deceived by the modest and specious professions of the heretics, whose sentiments he never perfectly understood; and while he protected Arius, and persecuted Athanasius, he still considered the council of Nice as the bulwark of the Christian faith, and the peculiar glory of his own reign.” Ch. xxi. His dying testimony then was, as to form, in favor of heretical rather than orthodox Christianity, but merely from accident, not from intention. He meant the Christian as against the heathen religion, and whatever of Arianism may have polluted his baptism, was for the Greek church fully wiped out by the orthodox canonization. After the solemn ceremony he promised to live thenceforth worthily of a disciple of Jesus; refused to wear again the imperial mantle of cunningly woven silk richly ornamented with gold; retained the white baptismal robe; and died a few days after, on Pentecost, May 22, 337, trusting in the mercy of God, and leaving a long, a fortunate, and a brilliant reign, such as none but Augustus, of all his predecessors, had enjoyed. “So passed away the first Christian Emperor, the first Defender of the Faith, the first Imperial patron of the Papal see, and of the whole Eastern Church, the first founder of the Holy Places, Pagan and Christian, orthodox and heretical, liberal and fanatical, not to be imitated or admired, but much to be remembered, and deeply to be studied.”5454 Stanley, l.c. p. 320.
His remains were removed in a golden coffin by a procession of distinguished civilians and the whole army, from Nicomedia to Constantinople, and deposited, with the highest Christian honors, in the church of the Apostles,5555 This church became the burial place of the Byzantine emperors, till in the fourth crusade the coffins were rifled and the bodies cast out. Mahomet II. destroyed the church and built in its place the magnificent mosque which bears his name. See von Hammer, i. 390. while the Roman senate, after its ancient custom, proudly ignoring the great religious revolution of the age, enrolled him among the gods of the heathen Olympus. Soon after his death, Eusebius set him above the greatest princes of all times; from the fifth century he began to be recognized in the East as a saint; and the Greek and Russian church to this day celebrates his memory under the extravagant title of “Isapostolos,” the “Equal of the apostles.”5656 Comp the Acta Sact. ad 21 Maii, p. 13 sq. Niebuhr justly remarks: “When certain oriental writers call Constantine“ equal to the Apostles,’ they do not know what they are saying; and to speak of him as a ’saint’ is a profanation of the word.” The Latin church, on the contrary, with truer tact, has never placed him among the saints, but has been content with naming him “the Great,” in just and grateful remembrance of his services to the cause of Christianity and civilization.
|« Prev||Constantine The Great. a.d. 306-337||Next »|