A debate on October 27th to remember Constantine and the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312.
On the evening of 27th October 312 Constantine and his army were camped just north of Rome. They had come all the way from Britain, and their purpose was to attack and defeat the unpopular Emperor of Rome, Maxentius. There are at least two versions of what happened that evening. In one, Constantine had a dream in which he was told to put a “heavenly symbol” on the shields of his soldiers for the battle. In another version, he and his soldiers had had a vision some time before of a cross in the sun, with the words “in this sign conquer”. But at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, Constantine’s army defeated Maxentius with a sign of Christ on their shields, and Maxentius’ soldiers met their deaths with that sign in their eyes. This was the “Chi-Rho” sign, formed from the first two letters (in Greek) of “Christos”.
It’s worth looking back a few years to see how this situation had come about. Thirty years before Diocletian had become the Roman Emperor at a time when everybody knew the Empire was in deep trouble. There were economic problems of inflation, a massive decline in piety, in respect for and trust in the government, and constant wars with Persia to the east, and the threat of barbarian invasions from the north. For better administration and defence Diocletian divided the Empire into four sections, appointing Constantius, Constantine’s father, as Caesar in the West- Britain Gaul (present-day France) and possibly Hispania (present-day Spain). But none of this solved the problems. Who was to blame? Obviously the Christians, who by this time probably represented ten percent of the Empire’s people, mainly in the East. They did not worship the old gods, they had no real loyalty to the ideals and genius of the Empire- if the Empire was to be restored the Christians had to go. So Diocletian unleashed a persecution which lasted for eight years, even after he abdicated the throne.
In the West there were few Christians, so the idea that they were a threat was somewhat implausible. In any case Constantius’ wife, Helena, was a Christian. So Constantius did as little as he could without disobeying orders. When he died and his son Constantine succeeded him, the stage was set for the biggest change in its fortunes the Church had known so far. Constantine began to see that the Christian Church could be his biggest ally in reviving and restoring the Roman Empire. It’s not clear exactly what Constantine’s understanding of Christianity was- he remained a devotee of the “Invincible Sun” (which is where he had seen the sign of the Cross, according to one version of the story) and he was only baptised on his death-bed twenty-five years later. That was not uncommon in those days- many people feared that if you sinned after you had been baptised there could be no forgiveness for you.
Now that Maxentius was gone, Constantine moved on to the next stage of his grand plan. He came to an agreement with Licinius, the eastern Roman Emperor, that Christianity should be regarded as a tolerated religion of the Empire, alongside the ancient paganism, which Licinius believed in. This agreement was set down in the Edict of Milan. A few years later, however, Licinius began to persecute Christians again, and Constantine attacked and defeated him, becoming now the Emperor of the whole Empire. He wrote to his new subjects in the East: “Beginning at the remote ocean around Britain and those regions where, according to the laws of nature, the sun sinks below the horizon, through the aid of the divine power I banished and utterly rooted out every form of prevailing wickedness…. In the hope that the human race, enlightened by me, might be recalled to the fit observance of the holy laws of God.”
But he faced at least two big problems. The first was that the Christian Church, which he was now relying on to restore the unity of the Empire, was itself bitterly divided. They were arguing about the precise nature of Christ- was he God, or something less than God? Constantine took strong action- he called a council of the bishops of “the whole world”, the oecumene, to his palace at Nicaea- in fact only about 300 were able or willing to come. Constantine presided, and some records suggest that he even proposed the precise formula that settled the dispute (if that’s true he must have had plenty of advice)- Jesus was homo-ousios, of the same substance, with the Father.
This was confirmed fifty-five years later at the second Council at Constantinople, led by the new Emperor Theodosius. In the time since Constantine had died the Empire had wavered about its commitment to Christianity- one Emperor, Julian, had even tried to go back to the ancient paganism. Theodosius, however, decreed that from now on Christianity was to be the only faith practised in the Empire- paganism was banned, Jews discriminated against, and any heretics who did not agree with the official orthodoxy were liable to be banished.
If Constantine and Theodosius had hoped that God would reward them by preserving the Empire intact they were to be disappointed. The Western half of the Empire crumbled more and more- Rome itself was sacked by Alaric the Goth in 411. In response Augustine, a bishop in North Africa, wrote his classic “City of God”, arguing that God’s City is not the same as a Christian State, and if earthly Empire collapse that does not mean the end of God’s City.
The Councils also did not put an end to disputes within the Church. It was one thing to say that Christ is “of one substance” with the Father, but then how should you talk about the way divinity and humanity are united in one person? The Greeks tended to say that there are two “natures”, perfectly united in one person. To people whose language was Syrian or Aramaic this sounded as if they were saying that Jesus was almost schizophrenic- two competing personalities in one body. The Council of Chalcedon tried to resolve this, but decided in favour of the Greek formula- and so the Empire began to treat the Christians of Syria, Egypt and the Far East as heretics- with dire consequences later, as we shall see.
Constantine’s second big problem was Persia. There had been warfare between Rome and Persia for centuries, the classic East-West conflict in a way. But there were Christians living in both Empires, as there were Jews also. When Christianity was regarded with disfavour by Rome, the Persians were inclined to favour it. But now that Christianity was becoming the official faith of Rome, the Persians began to see the Christians as a kind of fifth-column. This view was rather strengthened by a letter that Constantine wrote to Shapur, the Persian Emperor, saying that God clearly was on the side of kings who worshipped him, and brought down kings who practised pagan worship (of the kind indulged in by Persia)- rejoicing in the presence of Christians in Persia and commending them to Shapur’s care. Soon a forty-year persecution of Persian Christians broke out. When heretics began to be banished from Rome, they often found refuge in Persia- so the Persian Christians began to be strongly influenced by what the Romans and Greeks would say was heresy. In this way the Christian Church lost any possibility of becoming a reconciling presence between the two warring and antagonistic super-powers.
And into the no-man’s land between the two warring empires there came a new power. Mohammed had been preaching a new understanding of God in Arabia, one that claimed to purify the corruptions of both the Jewish and the Christian faiths. Within twenty years of the death of Mohammed this faith had swept through the Middle East and North Africa and into Persia. The ancient Zoroastrian faith of Persia was reduced to an exiled remnant in India. On the whole the Monophysite Christians of Syria and Egypt welcomed Islamic rule as far more tolerant than the Greeks who had persecuted them for a couple of centuries. Fifty years later Islam was making its way into Western Europe via Spain, but was stopped by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours. And when the Roman Pope crowned his grandson Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor it seemed that Christian Europe was ready for a fight-back, one that came in the launching of the Crusades.
What are we to make of Constantine and his settlement with the Christian Church? There is no doubt that the alliance between Church and State gave Christianity a strength that enabled it to survive through history- in fact it is hard to find places where the Church has survived for long without some kind of State support.
But by becoming so identified with the Roman and European power base it perhaps lost its potential as a reconciling force between Rome and Persia. It certainly set it up for antagonism with Islam, not that the Crusades were much of a threat to Islam, but more recent colonisation and commercial power certainly has been. And by imposing a rigid orthodoxy within the Church it perhaps stifled good theological discussion.
But perhaps Constantine’s basic error was to misunderstand the sign. Whether we believe that he saw anything in the sun on that evening of 27th October is not the point. What does it mean to “conquer by the sign of Christ”? Constantine understood this as a means to military victory- and that is how Christendom has often interpreted it ever since. But the victory of the Cross of Christ is not a military victory- it is a victory of the power of love. And perhaps the worst legacy of Constantine is that we have not so far really worked out what that means in the world of history.