“Just as God, who is gracious to the oppressed, raised up Moses as a leader for his people, so too He has raised up Constantine, to liberate God’s Church from her oppressors.”
The transformation of Christianity from an illegal cult to a specially-favored religion occurred during the lifetime of Eusebius Pamphilus, Bishop of Caesarea (c. 260 – 340.) He was a theologian and historian who combined Greek, Roman, and Hebraic ideas about history to create a new synthesis called Imperial Theology. It was, he argued, God’s will to unite Roman imperial power with the redeeming message of Christ. It was therefore no accident that Christ had been born during the reign of Augustus, for just as Augustus had restored peace to the material world, so Christ did in the spiritual. The former was an agent of God no less than the latter, and so too was Constantine, both an Emperor and a Saint, for he had united the power of the former with the redemption of the latter, and thereby established the first genuine empire of righteousness.
As Eusebius tells it in the Life of Constantine, he was made Emperor by his pious father, Constantius Chlorus, who died in 306. Wicked usurpers in the East, however – deceived, like Pharaoh, by demons and surrounded by sorcerers (i.e. the old gods and their priests) – refused to accept him, and cruelly persecuted the Church. Constantine, the New Moses, therefor determined to campaign against them.
He was not yet a Christian, but he thought seriously about spiritual matters. Reflecting, during the campaign against Maxentius in Italy, that the persecutors of Christians had often come to a bad end, but that his father, a Christian, had succeeded in everything, Constantine decided to call on the God of his father. Shortly before the battle of the Milvian Bridge (312), he and the entire army saw the sign of the cross in the sky, and written on it the words CONQUER BY THIS. That night Christ appeared to him in a dream, and commanded him to make a battle standard bearing the Labarum, which he did. This would prove a powerful totem throughout the rest of his career, for wherever it was placed during battle, Constantine’s soldiers invariably prevailed. Needless to say, with such powerful supports Maxentius didn’t have a chance. He and his army were drowned (like Pharaoh and his army) when the bridge collapsed under them during the battle. Constantine was afterwards a confirmed Christian.
Maximinus (not to be confused with Maxentius, Maximus, or any other number of people named Max-something at this particular time in Roman history) and Licinius, hearing of this victory, foolishly doubled down on the old gods. “It may well be said of them,” Eusebius said, “as it was of Pharaoh, that God hardened their hearts.” They persecuted the Christians with even greater cruelty, and were punished with an edifying series of disasters. Maximinus developed a worm-infested ulcer “in the secret parts of his person,” was defeated in battle, and had to flee disguised as a slave. Worse, his eyeballs fell out – just recompense for blinding so many martyrs. Licinius, despite losing repeatedly to Constantine in battle, and enjoying his clemency just as often, continually schemed against him. At last even Constantine’s superhuman patience was worn out, and he had him hanged.
After unifying the Roman world, Constantine had to deal with the Arian controversy. This was a theological dispute between an Alexandrian priest and his Bishop, the details of which need not detain us, but which quickly engulfed the entire Church in acrimony. Eusebius was sympathetic to the Arians, but he agreed with Constantine that the dispute was basically over nonsense. Constantine sent a letter to both parties, berating them for the absurdity of their quarrel, and politely but firmly instructing them to get along. When his had no effect he summoned a general council (Nicaea, 325), which restored the peace of the Church. In this way Constantine showed that he did not regard himself as any merely secular ruler. “You are the bishops whose jurisdiction is within the Church,” he said. “I also am a bishop, ordained by God to overlook whatever is external to the Church.” This conception of the imperial office necessarily included the suppression of heresy and idolatry – for just as the Bishops were entrusted with the care of souls within the Church, so too was he of souls outside of it. God had certainly rewarded these activities in the past, and He might reasonably be counted on to do so again in the future. Constantine therefor sent soldiers to North Africa to stamp out the Donatist and other heresies, withdrew state funding for gladiatorial contests, outlawed public sacrifice to the old gods, and discouraged veneration of their shrines by confiscating the idols within.
He also constructed dozens of magnificent churches across the Empire, including one on the ruins of the Temple Mount, where the Emperor Hadrian had built a shrine to Jupiter two centuries earlier. The new buildings were necessary, for Christianity had recently become quite fashionable. Constantine also of course built a new capital on the Bosporus – for centuries the richest, strongest, and most populous city in the Mediterranean world. At the end of these labors he was in his sixties, but still vigorous. He undertook further campaigns against the Barbarians, and put the Persians on notice that he considered himself the protector of the Christians within their empire. When the King of Kings invaded Christian Armenia anyway, Constantine prepared for war. However, before the campaign could get under way he fell ill. Realizing that his final days were near, he had himself baptized. Then, after reigning longer and better than even Alexander, he went peacefully to his reward.
“No one,” Eusebius said, “whether Greek or Barbarian, nay of the ancient Romans themselves, has ever been … worthy of comparison with him.” He had, indeed, enjoyed every worldly success. Eusebius makes it quite clear that this was not a consequence of his personal prowess, his wealth, the size of his armies, or even of luck, but of the special favor of God, on whom he always relied. Christianity was not, then, a mere set of opinions about the unseen – it was an effective battlefield technology. Indeed, it was the indispensable technology, for who can prevail without God’s help, or hope to defeat those who have it?
Eusebius, like many of his Christian contemporaries, looked on Constantine as literally a God-send. Not only had he restored the order of the Roman world after generations of chaos (i.e. “the crisis of the third century, beginning in 235), but he had also reversed the persecutions of Diocletian and his eastern successors, and elevated the clergy to a position of honor, perhaps next only to that of the army. This was no merely-theological blessing. Eusebius had lost friends, including his personal mentor, to the persecution, and had stood in real danger of being caught up in it himself. Naturally he showered Constantine with praise, and took care to emphasize the contributions of the clergy to his success.
The Roman Empire had always prevailed over its enemies in the past, for it had been, from the beginning, an agent of God’s power on earth. Now that it was also a bearer of His redeeming message, an even-more glorious future surely lay ahead.
Life of Eusebius: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05617b.htm
Text of the Life of Constantine: http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/vita-constantine.asp
Part of a Series on Philosophy of History (VIII of XXXV) https://www.facebook.com/pages/Modern-Intellectual-History/986713261343222?fref=nf