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The Age of Constantine: The Conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity during the Roman Constantinian Era(306-337AD)
Christianity has been one of the most popular religions since the 1st century AD. According to the Pew Research Center, Christianity remained the largest religious group worldwide in 2015, making up nearly a third of Earth’s 7.3 billion people. After the death of Jesus Christ, it had quickly spread throughout the Roman Empire. During the Age of Exploration, Christianity expanded worldwide under many significant religious movements. But has Christianity always been widely accepted and well-received? In fact, Christianity was once viewed as a subcultured religious cult before the Constantinian era due to ideological conflict between the Romans and Christians. Since the Roman civilization and politics were built on a cluster of pagan gods, where religion was seen as a spiritual need of the state instead of a personal spiritual need, Christianity was considered as a thread for the development of the state. Thus, Christians were being horribly targeted and had been heavily persecuted. In this paper, I will determine whether Constantine was the key contributor for the expansion of Christianity in the Roman Empire by exploring the Roman emperor’s views on Christianity before the Constantinian era; finding out the reasons for Constantine wanting to change the country’s religion to Christianity; and explaining in what ways Constantine allowed Christianity to spread and become popular in the Roman Empire.
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Rome has a long history of Roman emperors opposing Christianity due to their religious belief in Paganism, which is the old polytheistic Roman religion, a religion associated with the worship of Jupiter, Juno, Mars, etc. The Roman emperors wanted Paganism to be the national religion. This is because the Romans were fascinated by the divinity in the world (Wasson). Divinity, to Romans, were the manifestations of things that operate in pure function and act. For instance, human activities such as giving birth to children or in nonhuman phenomena such as the movements of the clouds. Due to the divinity, Romans were conscious about how everything is contributory to the rule and direction of the Pagan gods (Grant).
Roman emperors viewed Christianity as a threat to Paganism. During the early third century, Rome was experiencing religious invasions mainly from Rome’s perennial enemy – Persia, Christians had integrated into different positions of the imperial society. This had led to the porosity of the political boundaries of the Roman Empire. Thus, the emperors felt the need to reassert traditional Roman religious standards and viewed Christianity, which was a popular religion in Persia, as a threat. Christianity was then conceived as an illegal religion in the Roman state. The period from 250 to 313 AD, which was the time of the major persecutions of Christianity by the Roman state, started with the intolerance under Nero and twenty years of toleration under Diocletian, succeeded by the longest and most violent of persecutions (Knipfing). Christians were horribly targeted for persecution as a group by the emperor Nero Claudius Caesar. In 64 AD, a colossal fire that was started by Nero broke out in Rome and destroyed almost three-quarters of the city. Nero had a desire to see Rome destroyed in order to compare present trials with the past trials of the city of Troy (Frazer). However, so as to divert the attention from the accusations that Nero started the fire, he ordered that Christians should be rounded up and killed after placing the blame on them. Nero persecuted the Christians in a bloody and brutal way by ordering that Christians should be rounded up and killed. Christians were tortured into confessing the “crime”; some of them were burned alive and hung up as human torches to light his gardens at night, others were torn to pieces by dogs (Rockliffe). Over the next hundred years, Christians were sporadically persecuted. It was not until the mid-third century that emperors initiated intensive persecutions. At that time, it seemed that the Roman Empire was inevitably doomed to dissolution and that it was rapidly tottering to its fall.
After the military anarchy and administrative chaos in the early third century, the only encouraging gleam of light to break the ever-deepening gloom was the administration of the rude soldier Diocletian, who was strongly against Christianity. Diocletian was an ardent worshiper of the pagan gods, since he saw Christianity as a mortal threat to his effort to hold the Empire together in a religious cult of the Divine Emperor, he started the Great Christian Persecution. The goal was to wipe out the Christians and convert them back to Paganism. (Stankovic) He hunted down Christians and their scriptures. He would set them free if they gave a sacrifice to the Roman gods or the emperor. Because of the Great Persecution, thousands of innocent Christians died in that campaign. Still dissatisfied with this approach to the problem, Diocletian consulted military commanders and officials, including Hierocles, governor of Bithynia. This ardent Hellenist supported a violent action against all the Christians. Diocletian’s support of Rome’s traditional gods led to conflict with Christianity. The outcome, according to Diocletian and the Roman Recovery, by Stephen Williams, was “unrestricted war to the finish between the gods of Rome and the god of the Christians.” Christianity was suppressed by the imperial persecutions and Christianity forced underground, causing many Christians to turn away from their faith (Williams).
Christianity started to raise its status in the Roman society when Constantine was acclaimed as emperor, Augustus of the West, by the army at Eboracum after his father’s death (Shcall). Constantine took over the political power from other Roman emperors and became the sole emperor under the strong belief of Christianity. Constantine had fully embraced Christianity after the victory in the Battle of Milvian Bridge. In 312, Constantine defeated his principal rival Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge and took over the Western Roman Empire. Before the battle, Constantine felt the need for supernatural assistance against the substantial armed forces and the superstitious religious rites supporting his enemy (Odahl). Noting that the previous generation of emperors who had followed the traditional pagan cults and persecuted the Christian Church had come to an unhappy end, he invoked the “Highest God” of the universe in prayer for aid and power in his time of trial (Odahl). Constantine became sole ruler within the West of Rome as the result of receiving a vision from God when a sign, Chi Rho, which is the first two letters in the Greek spelling of the name Christos, appeared above the rising sun. He ordered the Chi Rho symbol to be painted on his soldiers’ shields. Beneath this emblem, Constantine was successful in battle and entered Rome, securing his victory. Constantine placed the power and wealth of the Roman Empire at the service of Christianity since Christ gave him the throne. After that victory, Constantine became the principal patron of Christianity (Farber). This is the beginning of Constantine’s religious conversion.
Some argue that Constantine did not have any Christian influences before the Battle of Milvian Bridge, where Constantine received a vision from the Christian god. He indeed had Christian influences during his early life. As a child, Constantine was greatly impacted by his father, Constantius Chlorus, who played a major role in Constantine’s view toward Christians. Constantine was raised to respect Christianity since his father Constantinus refused to put Christians to death in the land that he governed (Malik). This was at a time of the tetrarchy, also called the ruler of four divisions, which is a form of government in which power is divided between four individuals. In ancient Rome, a system of government instituted by Diocletian that split power between two rulers in the east, and two rulers in the west (Waldron). Christians were persecuted throughout the Roman Empire by the emperors Diocletian and his co-rulers Maximian Galerius in the East, and the emperor Maximian Hercules in the West. The influence under Constantius Chlorus had underlyed Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity.
During Constantine’s ruling, he had made many contributions to help spread Christianity and made it popular in the Roman Empire. After the victory of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312AD, The Arch of Constantine was built to commemorate Constantine’s victory over Maxentius, which allowed Constantine to take full power of the western empire. Constantine used The Arch of Constantine as propaganda, by placing it between the Colosseum and the Temple of Venus and Roma, to show the significance of his leadership power. He also showed himself as a kind, charismatic ruler, rather than a divine dictator. The inscription on the arch refers to Maxentius as the tyrant and portrays Constantine as the rightful ruler of the Western Empire. The inscription also attributes the victory to Constantine’s “great mind” and the inspiration of a singular divinity. The mention of divine inspiration has been interpreted by some scholars as a coded reference to Constantine’s developing interest in Christian monotheism (Findley). With the use of spolia, which is pieces of art taken from monuments and status of the past and reused on a new piece, Constantine combined the older monuments dating back to the 2nd century CE of the rulers Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius. Placing the monuments with his own sculptures, he was able to make a connection between the era of Constantine and the prosperous times in the past (Vizzutti). Most of the reliefs feature the emperors participating in codified activities that demonstrate the ruler’s authority and piety by addressing troops, defeating enemies, distributing largesse, and offering sacrifices. He hoped to gain the citizens’ loyalty which would compel them to follow him into a new golden age by choice, rather than because of oppression. Constantine’s conquest was viewed as an act of God. His victory marked the final obstacle Christians had to overcome in order to practice their religion freely within the Roman Empire (Findley). The inscription wraps up all that has been seen across the entire piece, telling of Constantine’s great power and wisdom and his powerful armies which have allowed the Empire to escape oppression. The phrase of most importance in this inscription is “through divine inspiration,” which is believed to be a reference to the cross of light Constantine had seen across the sun (Vizzutti).
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Furthermore, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313 CE, which is a proclamation that permanently established religious toleration for Christianity within the Roman Empire. It was the outcome of a political agreement concluded in Milan between the Roman emperors Constantine and Licinius in February 313. The main intentions behind the edict was to abolish practices that persecuted the Christians and to begin accepting their religion in Rome: “no man whatever should be refused complete toleration, who has given up his mind either to the cult of the Christians, or to the religion which he personally feels best suited to himself.” (Chow) Thus, it granted all people’s freedom to worship whatever deity they pleased. This freed Christians from having to worry about persecution by the government and assured them legal rights such as the right to organize churches, and directed the prompt return to Christians of confiscated property (Edict of Milan). Although Christianity would not become the official religion of Rome until the end of the fourth century, Constantine’s imperial sanction of Christianity transformed its status and nature. Neither imperial Rome nor Christianity would be the same after this moment. Rome would become Christian, and Christianity would take on the aura of imperial Rome (Farber).
Although Constantine dedicated most of his life on shifting the
Some scholars challenge the motivation and timing of Constantine’s conversion. For example, Smither, the author of Rethinking Constantine, explains that Constantine’s conversion to Christianity is different from the regular Christian conversion process. The regular conversion process can be divided into three parts: a spiritual and mental “turning away” from other gods and exclusive attachment to the creator God and his incarnate son Jesus Christ as the one true God; formal instruction in the new faith; and public confession of faith and baptism. Hence, Smither raised questions about Constantine’s religious preferences and political motives (Smither).
In conclusion, Constantine was indeed a key contributor for expanding Christianity in the Roman Empire. His open-mindedness towards Christians was influenced by his father Constantius Chlorus, one of the emperors in the Roman tetrarchy, and his unwillingness to persecute Christians, unlike the other emperors at the time. Constantine witnessed previous emperors rule through oppression, but wanted to gain the citizens loyalty by choice. These things, along with the divine experience he had during his triumphant battle, gave him the desire to expand Christianity throughout his empire. With this desire and the Edict of Milan set in place, the door was finally opened for the growth of Christianity. Under Constantine, churches and religious buildings were given back to Christians and new churches were built all around Europe. Even after his death, the religion continued to grow through the Middle Ages and beyond, making Christianity the most widely practiced religion across Europe even today.
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