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Saint Constantine the Great
mosaic in Hagia Sophiamarker, Constantinoplemarker, c. 1000
Isapostolos, 13th Apostle
Born Feb 27, 272 in Naissus, Roman Empire (now Nišmarker, Serbiamarker)
Died May 22, 337 in Nicomediamarker, Roman Empire (now İzmitmarker, Turkeymarker)
Venerated in Eastern Orthodoxy
Major shrine Church of the Holy Apostlesmarker
Feast May 21
Attributes In hoc signo vinces, Labarum
Troparion From the Byzantine Menaion Your servant Constantine, O Lord and only Lover of Man, beheld the figure of the Cross in the Heavens; and like Paul (not having received his call from men, but as an Apostle among rulers set by Your hand over the royal city) he preserved lasting peace through the prayers of the Theotokos.

The Roman Emperor Constantine the Great converted to Christianity following his victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridgemarker in 312. Under his rule, Christianity rose to become the dominant religion in the Roman Empire, and for his example of a "Christian monarch" Constantine is revered as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church and Oriental Orthodox Church. Not only the details of his adoption of Christianity make the religious beliefs of Constantine I interesting; theologians and historians alike have argued about the question to which form of Christianity Constantine ultimately converted, with regard to the legitimation of religious persecution.

Though Emperor Constantine I had been exposed to Christianity by his mother, St. Helena, there is scholarly controversy as to whether he adopted his mother's Christianity in his youth, or whether he adopted it gradually over the course of his life. Whatever the case, Constantine's endorsement of the tradition was a turning point for Early Christianity. In 313, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, legalizing Christian worship, and the emperor would be a great patron of the Church and set a precedent for the position of the Christian Emperor within the Church and the notion of orthodoxy that would be followed for centuries. See also Christendom.

Christianity in the Roman Empire before Constantine

The first recorded significant persecution of Christians at the hands of the authorities of the Roman Empire was that of the year 64 A.D., when, as reported by the Roman historian Tacitus, the Emperor Nero blamed them for that year's great Fire of Rome. According to Church tradition, it was under Nero's persecution that Peter and Paul were each martyred in Romemarker. For 250 years Christians suffered from sporadic and localized persecutions for their refusal to worship the Roman emperor, considered treasonous and punishable by execution. The most widespread of these was the Great Persecution (303–11) of Diocletian. He ordered Christian buildings (and the homes of Christians) torn down, their sacred books collected and burned, and Christians themselves were denied the protection offered to other citizens by Roman law. Christians were arrested, tortured, mutilated, burned, starved, and forced to gladiatorial contests to amuse spectators. The Great Persecution officially ended in April of 311, when Galerius, then senior emperor of the Tetrarchy, issued an edict of toleration, which granted Christians the right to practice their religion, though it did not restore any property to them.


The Emperor Constantine I was exposed to Christianity by his mother, Helena. Constantine was over 40 when he finally declared himself a Christian. Writing to Christians, Constantine made clear that he owed his successes to the protection of that High God alone.

Battle of Milvian Bridge

Christian sources record that Constantine experienced a dramatic event in 312 at the Battle of Milvian Bridgemarker, after which Constantine would claim the emperorship in the West. According to these sources, Constantine looked up to the sun before the battle and saw a cross of light above it, and with it the Greek words " " ("by this, conquer!", often rendered in the Latin "in hoc signo vinces"); Constantine commanded his troops to adorn their shields with a Christian symbol (the Chi-Rho), and thereafter they were victorious.

Following the battle, Constantine ignored the altars to the gods prepared on the Capitoline to receive sacrifices appropriate for the celebration of his victorious entry into Rome, and the new emperor instead went straight to the imperial palace without performing any sacrifice. Most influential people in the empire, however, especially high military officials, were still pagan, and Constantine's rule exhibited at least a willingness to appease these factions. The Roman coins minted up to eight years after the battle still bore the images of Roman gods. Neither did the monuments he first commissioned, such as the Arch of Constantinemarker, contain a reference to Christianity.

Edict of Milan

In 313 Constantine I and Licinius announced that it was proper that the Christians and all others should have liberty to follow that mode of religion which to each of them appeared best , thereby granting tolerance to all religions, including Christianity. The agreement of Milan went a step further than the earlier edict of Galerius from 311, returning confiscated Church property.This edict made the Empire officially neutral with regard to religious worship; it neither made paganism illegal nor made Christianity the state religion.

Patronage of the Christian Church

The accession of Constantine was a turning point for the Christian Church, generally considered the beginning of Christendom. After his victory, Constantine took over the role of the patron for the Christian faith. He supported the Church financially, had an extraordinary number of basilicas built, granted privileges (e.g. exemption from certain taxes) to clergy, promoted Christians to high ranking offices, and returned property confiscated during the Great Persecution of Diocletian, and endowed the church with land and other wealth. Between 324 and 330, Constantine built, virtually from scratch, a new imperial capital at Byzantium on the Bosphorus (it came to be named for him: Constantinople) – the city employed overtly Christian architecture, contained churches within the city walls (unlike "old" Rome), and had no pagan temples.

In doing this, however, Constantine I required the Pagans "to foot the bill". Christian chroniclers tell that it appeared necessary to Constantine "to teach his subjects to give up their rites (...) and to accustom them to despise their temples and the images contained therein," This led to the closure of pagan temples due to a lack of support, their wealth flowing to the imperial treasure; Constantine I did not need to use force to implement this, although his subjects are said to simply have obeyed him out of fear. Only the chronicler Theophanes has added that temples "were annihilated", but this is considered "not true" by contemporary historians.

Public office

Many times imperial favor was granted to Christianity by the Edict, new avenues were opened to Christians, including the right to compete with pagan Romans in the traditional cursus honorum for high government positions, and greater acceptance into general civil society. Constantine respected cultivation, and his court was composed of older, respected, and honored men. Leading Roman families that refused Christianity were denied positions of power, yet pagans still received appointments, even up to the end of his life, and two-thirds of his top government was non-Christian. In 313 he issued the Edict of Milan, which allowed Christians to practice their religion in the Roman Empire.

Legal reforms

Constantine's laws enforced and reflected his Christian reforms. Crucifixion was abolished for reasons of Christian piety, but was replaced with hanging, to show there was Roman law and justice. On March 7, 321, Sunday was declared the official day of rest, on which markets were banned and public offices were closed (CJ 3.12.2) (except for the purpose of freeing slaves). However, there were no restrictions on farming work (which was the work of the great majority of the population). Some were even humane in the modern sense, possibly originating in his Christianity: a prisoner was no longer to be kept in total darkness, but must be given the outdoors and daylight, a condemned man was allowed to die in the arena, but he could not be branded on his "heavenly beautified" face, just on the feet (because God made man in his image), gladiatorial games were ordered to be eliminated in 325, although this had little real effect, and a slave master's rights were limited, but a slave could still be beaten to death.

Early Christian Bibles

In 331, Constantine commissioned Eusebius to deliver fifty Bibles for the Church of Constantinople. Athanasius (Apol. Const. 4) recorded Alexandrian scribes around 340 preparing Bibles for Constans. Little else is known, though there is plenty of speculation. For example, it is speculated that this may have provided motivation for canon lists, and that Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1209, Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus are examples of these Bibles. Together with the Peshitta, these are the earliest extant Christian Bibles.

Elevation of the Holy Cross

The Elevation of the Holy Cross (also known as the Exaltation of the Holy Cross) is one of the Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church, celebrated on September 14. It is one of the two feast days which is held as a strict fast. The other is the commemoration of the Beheading of John the Forerunner on August 29.

According to Orthodox Church teachings, Saint Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, discovered the Holy Cross on 14 September 325 AD in the vicinity of Golgotha, where it lay buried in the dust of the centuries. Whenever the waves of persecutions directed against Christians died down and the Christians emerged, tormented and bloodied, from the catacombs and caves into God’s light, signing themselves with an extensive sign of the cross, then it was Constantine the Great, who more than once had felt the power of the Cross, decided to find the same Tree to which the Body of Christ had been nailed.

Christian Emperorship

Enforcement of Church Policy

The reign of Constantine established a precedent for the position of the Christian Emperor in the Church. Emperors considered themselves responsible to God for the spiritual health of their subjects, and thus they had a duty to maintain orthodoxy. The emperor did not decide doctrine — that was the responsibility of the bishops —, rather his role was to enforce doctrine, root out heresy, and uphold ecclesiastical unity. The emperor ensured that God was properly worshiped in his empire; what proper worship (orthodoxy) and doctrine (dogma) consisted of was for the Church to determine.

In 316, Constantine acted as a judge in a North African dispute concerning the Donatist controversy. More significantly, in 325 he summoned the First Council of Nicaea, effectively the first Ecumenical Council (unless the Council of Jerusalem is so classified, Pre Ecumenical councils include the Council of Rome 155 AD, Second Council of Rome 193 AD, Council of Ephesus 193 AD, Council of Carthage 251 AD, Council of Iconiummarker 258 AD, Councils of Antioch, 264 AD, Council of Elvira 306 AD, Council of Carthage 311 AD, Council of Ancyra 314 AD, Council of Arles 314 AD and the Council of Neo-Caesarea 315 AD). Nicaea however was to deal mostly with the Arian controversy. Constantine himself was torn between both the Arian and Trinitarian camps. As Constantine, after the Nicene council and against its conclusions, eventually recalled Arius from exile and banished Athanasius of Alexandria to Triermarker. Constantine himself was baptised into Christianity just before his death in May 337 by his distant relative Arianian Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia. During Eusebius of Nicomedia's time in the Imperial court, the Eastern court and the major positions in the Eastern Church were held by Arians or Arian sympathizers. With the exception of a short period of eclipse, Eusebius enjoyed the complete confidence both of Constantine and Constantius II and was the tutor of the later Emperor Julian the Apostate. After Constantine's death one of his sons and Successors to the Emperial throne, Constantius II and later also Emperor Valens were Arian.


Constantine, though he made his allegiance clear, did not outlaw paganism; in the words of an early edict, he decreed that polytheists could "celebrate the rites of an outmoded illusion," so long as they did not force Christians to join them. In a letter to the King of Persia, Constantine wrote how he shunned the "abominable blood and hateful odors" of pagan sacrifices, and instead worshiped the High God "on bended knee", and in the new capital city he built, Constantine made sure that there were no pagan temples built. Sporadically, however, Constantine would prohibit public sacrifice and close pagan temples; very little pressure, however, was put on individual pagans, and there were no pagan martyrs.

Constantine dedicated Constantinople with two Neoplatonist and friends Sopater and Praetextuspresent at its dedication. A year and a half later after dedicating the City of Constantinople, on Monday 11 May 330, when the festival of Saint Mocius was celebrated, the city was finally dedicated. The goddess Tyche was invited to come and live in the city, and her statue was placed in the hand of the statue of the emperor that was on top of the Column of Constantinemarker, on the Forum with the same name. Although by now Constantine openly supported Christianity, the city still offered room to pagan cults: there were shrines for the Dioscuri and Tyche. The Acropolis, with its ancient pagan temples, was left as it was. As for worshipping the emperor, Constantine's mausoleum gave him a Christ-like status: his tomb was between two times six sarcophagi, each containing relics of one of the Apostles. Constantine had continued to engage in pagan rituals. The emperor still claimed to be a supernatural being, although the outward form of this personality cult had become Christian.

During the course of his life he progressively became more Christian and turned away from any syncretic tendencies he appeared to favor at times and thus demonstrating, according to his biographers, that "The God of the Christians was indeed a jealous God who tolerated no other gods beside him. The Church could never acknowledge that she stood on the same plane with other religious bodies, she conquered for herself one domain after another".

According to the historian Ramsay MacMullen Constantine desired to obliterate non-Christians but lacking the means he had to be content with robbing their temples towards the end of his reign.. He resorted to derogatory and contemptuous comments relating to the old religion; writing of the "true obstinacy" of the pagans, of their "misguided rites and ceremonial", and of their "temples of lying" contrasted with "the splendours of the home of truth".

Reactions and reflection

Persian reaction

Beyond the limes, east of the Euphrates, the Sassanid rulers of the Persian Empire had usually tolerated their Christians (see also Sassanid Church). A letter supposedly from Constantine to Shapur II (who was proclaimed king in 309 before he was born, and reigned till his death in 379), written in c. 324, urged him to protect the Christians in his realm. With the edicts of toleration in the Roman Empire, Christians in Persia would now be regarded as allies of Persia's ancient enemy, and were thus persecuted. Shapur II wrote to his generals:

The Sassanids were perennially at war with Rome (which incidentally raises further doubt on the authenticity of this letter). Christians were now suspected for potential treachery. The "Great Persecution" of the Persian Christian churches occurred in a later period, 340 to 363, after the Persian Wars that reopened upon Constantine's death. In 344 came the martyrdom of Catholicos Shimun bar Sabbae, with five bishops and 100 priests.


Constantine, together with his mother Helena, is celebrated as a major saint of Eastern Orthodoxy; their joint feast day is both 21 May. The emperor is not only considered an example of a "Christian monarch" and bestowed with the distinction of isapostolos or "equal to the Apostles", he is associated, albeit in retrospect, with the idea of a "Second Rome" – the Byzantine Empire. The Roman Catholic Church in its Eastern rites also venerates Constantine, but is not venerated universally in the Latin rite. He is not venerated by any Protestant community.


  • Ramsay MacMullen, "Christianizing The Roman Empire A.D. 100-400, Yale University Press, 1984, ISBN 0-300-03642-6


  1. R. Gerberding and J. H. Moran Cruz, Medieval Worlds (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004) p. 55.
  2. Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum ("On the Deaths of the Persecutors") ch. 35–34.
  3. Peter Brown, The Rise of Christendom 2nd edition (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2003) p. 61.
  4. Peter Brown, The Rise of Christendom 2nd edition (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2003) p. 60.
  5. Eusebius, Life of Constantine.
  6. J.R. Curran, Pagan City and Christian Capital. Rome in the Fourth Century (Oxford, 2000) pp. 70–90.
  7. Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum ("On the Deaths of the Persecutors") ch. 48.
  8. R. Gerberding and J. H. Moran Cruz, Medieval Worlds (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004) pp. 55-56
  9. MacMullan 1984:49.
  10. R. Gerberding and J. H. Moran Cruz, Medieval Worlds (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004) p. 56
  11. MacMullan 1984:49.
  12. quoted after MacMullan 1984:49.
  13. MacMullan 1984:50.
  14. MacMullan 1984:49.
  15. MacMullan 1984: 141, Note 35 to Chapter V; Theophanes, Chron. a. 322 (PG 108.117)
  16. MacMullen 1969,1984; New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1908.
  17. MacMullen 1969; New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1908; Theodosian Code.
  18. Norwich, John Julius, A Short History of Byzantium. Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, p. 8. ISBN 0679772693.
  19. Miles, Margaret Ruth, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought. Blackwell Publishing, 2004, p. 70, ISBN 1405108460.
  20. The Canon Debate, McDonald & Sanders editors, 2002, pages 414-415, for the entire paragraph
  21. Richards, Jeffrey. The Popes and the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages 476–752 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979) pp. 14–15.
  22. Richards, Jeffrey. The Popes and the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages 476–752 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979) p. 15.
  23. Richards, Jeffrey. The Popes and the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages 476–752 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979) p. 16.
  24. Drake, "Constantine and the Bishops", pp.395.
  25. Peter Brown, Rise of Christendom 2nd edition (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2003) p. 74.
  26. Codex Theodosianius 9.16.2.
  27. Eusebius, Life of Constantine 4.10.
  28. R. Gerberding and J. H. Moran Cruz, Medieval Worlds (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004) p. 28.
  29. Peter Brown, Rise of Christendom 2nd edition (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2003) p. 74.
  30. [1]
  31. MacMullan 1984:96.

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