Constantine – A Questionably Christian Emperor
Quote: “Conquer by this.”
Emperor Constantine (c. 272 – 327) was the first Christian emperor. Or was he? Whether he was a sincere believer or only used religion as a talisman or as a way to unite his empire has been debated for centuries. The historian Eusebius records the story of Constantine’s vision of a cross in the noon-day sky, one of the most well-known conversion accounts in Christian literature—if it is indeed a conversion account.
The date is October 28, 312. The setting is the ancient stone Milvian Bridge that spans the Tiber River near the gate of Rome. Constantine is nervous. His troops are outnumbered by the army of Maxentius stationed behind the walls of Rome with enough provisions to withstand a long siege. The prospects of winning are not good for the pagan general. Then at noon he sees a cross above the sun with the words “Conquer by this.”
Why Maxentius came out of town to do open battle with his adversary is a mystery to military experts. In the end, due to his poor strategy or to the intervention of God, the victory belongs to Constantine, paving the way for him to become the sole emperor of both East and West.
As a Christian emperor, Constantine gets high marks for the Edict of Milan in 313 that secures toleration of Christianity and ends the persecution that began with Nero. But while ending persecution from pagans he disregards the Christian pacifist tradition and inaugurates a long history of Christian fratricide. He sends troops to North Africa to attack the Donatists, a breakaway sect of Christian purists.
Constantine’s sins also include murder—and not merely murder of his distant enemies. He arranges the murder even of his son and one of his wives. His Christian credentials are found wanting in other matters as well. Before he professed to follow the Christian God, he was partial to the sun god, a god who continued to be in good standing with him long after his cross-above-the-sun vision. His coins featured the sun god on one side and the name of Christ on the other. Thus Sunday, so-called by Constantine, was on his orders set aside as the day of worship.
Constantine’s delayed baptism also throws a damper on any claim to his saintliness. Apparently fearing the sacrament would not take because of his wicked ways, he postpones it until he is on his deathbed in 337. Then he contacts Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia to officiate. Setting aside his imperial purple garb, he dresses in white and rests on a white sofa to symbolize his new spiritual status. That Eusebius is an Arian is one final snub by the emperor to Athanasius and orthodoxy in the Western church. In an effort to rectify the matter, however, an apocryphal account was later circulated that falsely claims that Constantine was baptized in Rome by Pope Sylvester. The end for Constantine comes, according to Eusebius, at “about the time of the midday sun,” reminiscent of the vision a quarter-century earlier—symbolism fitting an emperor.
Constantine’s life illustrates the malevolence and messiness of this era—an era that set the stage for orthodox faith for the ensuing centuries. Saintly heroes were in short supply. Sin and shame had free reign, then as now.