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29-05-2015, 02:29

Constantine and Christianity

In histories of the Roman empire it has been traditional to make a chapter break between Diocletian and Constantine so that the latter could be welcomed as the first Christian emperor. It is certain that without imperial support Christianity would never have been more than the religion of a minority and to this extent the toleration and active support of Christians by Constantine does mark an important turning point in the history of the western world. Yet there was also much continuity. Politically, Constantine and Licinius were following Diocletian’s initiatives. It is in this period that Diocletian’s new system of provinces is recorded as working effectively for the first time and it is with Constantine and Licinius that we find each Augustus making legislation for his own sphere of territory and accepting that the other had similar rights. Diocletian’s reforms were sustained and consolidated by Constantine, especially in the years 324 to 337 when he was sole emperor.

It may also be misleading to talk of Constantine as a converted Christian in the conventional sense of the word, even though this is the picture painted in the main source for his life, Eusebius’ Life (338-9). Constantine was not baptized until shortly before he died (although this was a common practice, with baptism delayed in the hope that the purified soul would be untouched by sin before death) and most of his advisers were not Christians. There is remarkably little mention of Christ in his recorded speeches (the Oration to the Saints of 324 or 325 is now accepted as an authentic exception) or decrees or awareness of Christian doctrine. There is no sign of any pagan opposition to his initiatives and this suggests that they were not seen as unduly provocative.

So one might see Constantine’s attitude to Christianity as essentially pragmatic, the deliberate use of his victory at the Milvian Bridge as a platform from which to dismantle the structure of persecution and integrate the cohesive Christian communities in the service of the state. Alternatively his commitment may have been personal but he was reluctant to advertise it. He was certainly unwilling to follow those Christians who openly rejected paganism. No committed Christian could have supported the degree of toleration given to such cults by the Edict of Milan, and Constantine himself did not even abandon traditional worship. Towards the end of his reign he sanctioned the building of a large temple to his family on the Flaminian Way and it was to be endowed with theatrical shows and gladiatorial fights. Most remarkable of all, Constantine continued to portray himself on coins and in the statues of himself used at the dedication of Constantinople as a sun god.

Moreover Constantine was never to allow the church to interfere in the way he exercised his rule. Tellingly Constantine once informed a group of bishops: ‘You are bishops of those within the church, but I am perhaps a bishop appointed by God over those outside' Many of his decrees were ‘written in terms of a neutral monotheism which would be acceptable to Christians and pagans alike' (J. W Liebes-chuetz). (A recent description of Constantine as primarily a Roman, rather than Christian, emperor can be found in Raymond Van Dam, The Roman Revolution of Constantine, Cambridge, 2007.)

Whatever his motives Constantine’s support for Christianity was crucial in establishing the religion’s respectability and ensuring its continued spread. Not only could Christians now operate freely but in numerous ways Constantine gave them effective help. The clergy were relieved of any obligation to serve on city councils (a move which led to a mass of ordinations so onerous had these posts now become) and taxation. There was financial help for the building of churches and as bishops were now able to receive bequests some congregations became extremely wealthy. In Rome and Palestine the emperor and his family funded the first great Christian buildings. Constantine donated land from the old imperial palace of the Lateran to provide a cathedral for Rome, now St John Lateran, while on the Vatican hill a basilica (the traditional all-purpose hall of Roman public life now adapted to hold Christian congregations) was built over the supposed resting place of the apostle Peter. The first St Peter’s, like St John Lateran, no longer survives but Rome still has two fine fifth-century examples of basilicas, those of Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Sabina. The former is adorned by magnificent mosaics while the latter boasts a finely carved set of cypress-wood doors with panels showing the links between the Old and the New Testament, and one of the earliest known scenes of the crucifixion. Christ stands with his arms outstretched between the two thieves but there is no cross behind him. There were still inhibitions about proclaiming his degradation.

The martyrs were now given great prominence, their feast days dominated the church calendar, and their shrines became centres of pilgrimage. ‘Where once long rest had hidden them from our gaze, they now blaze with light on a fitting pedestal and their gathered crown now blooms with joy. . . from all around the Christian people, young and old, flow in to see them, happy to tread the holy threshold, singing their praises and hailing with outstretched arms the Christian faith,’ exulted Alexander, bishop of Theveste in north Africa. Meanwhile Helena, the mother of the emperor, visited Palestine in 326 and set in hand the building of appropriate memorials to the life of Jesus at Bethlehem and on the Mount of Olives. Constantine himself was responsible for the great Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem over the supposed burial place of Jesus. As early as 333 pilgrims (the so-called Bordeaux Pilgrim is the earliest recorded) were visiting these sacred places. Parts of the diary of a well-born Spanish nun, Egeria, survive from her visit of 384 and show that, with official help, even remote sites in Judaea, Egypt, and Galilee could be visited by those determined enough to do so.

In her diary Egeria left a description of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. ‘The decorations really are too marvellous for words. All you can see is gold and jewels and silk. . . You simply cannot imagine the number and sheer weight of the candles, tapers, lamps and everything they use for services. . . They are beyond description, and so is the magnificent building itself. . . . ’ There is ‘gold, mosaic and precious marble, as much as his [Constantine’s] empire can provide’. These great new buildings, with their fantastic decoration and aura of sanctity around the shrines of the martyrs, brought ‘a Christianization of space’ (in the words of the late Robert Markus). In theory God might be everywhere. In practice he now seemed especially close once a worshipper entered a church.

Until recently few books on church architecture have noted the radical reappraisal required to justify the glittering mosaics, the gold lamps, and the extravagant domes by a community which in earlier times had been described as ‘a crowd lurking in corners shunning the light’. In his fine study God and Gold in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 1998), Dominic Janes has explored how the adaptation was made. Relevant texts were dug out from the Old Testament and, if further theological justification was needed, churches could be seen as pale imitations of what might be expected in heaven. (Here again the influence of Platonism was strong.) Most (but not all) bishops acquiesced in the wealth which came their way and some, like Ambrose of Milan, revelled in the opportunity to create their own vast buildings. The abrupt shift to opulence, however, left its tensions. Well might the ascetic scholar Jerome complain of how ‘parchments are dyed purple, gold is melted into lettering, manuscripts are dressed up as jewels, while Christ lies at the door naked and dying’.

Few churches, of course, enjoyed the magnificence of the basilicas of the capitals of the empire. The three rooms found at the villa at Livingstone in Britain must have been more typical. Christians were still in a minority in every part of the empire even though the support of the emperor had led, in the words of Eusebius, ‘to the hypocrisy of people who crept into the church’ to win his favour. Moreover individual churches still enjoyed a large degree of independence and there was no effective way of settling doctrinal and other disputes between them. To this extent Christianity was still not a coherent force in Roman society. This was to change as successive emperors took the lead in consolidating a unified church. (The great scholar of late antiquity, Peter Brown, cautions that the use of the word ‘Church’ is misguided as it overlooks the independence of each church from each other and the diversity of Christianity even centuries after the fall of Rome. Perhaps it can only be used when the medieval Roman Catholic Church is in place.)