On the Question of Constantine's Conversion to Christianity

Jack Percival, Dickson College 2008



Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus, or Constantine the first, was born c. 272 AD in a small town located in the region that is today known as Serbia. He was appointed joint Emperor of the Roman Empire in 306, and became the sole emperor from 324 until his death in 337. Being the first of the Christian Roman Emperors, Constantine is regarded by many modern historians as the leading figure in the development and spread of the Christian religion, and was responsible for the reversal of much of the persecution against the minority group within the Roman Empire at the time of his accession. However, there has been debate as to the reasons for his conversion to Christianity, and whether it was a true shift of beliefs, a grab for power and stability in a time of crisis, or both. This has in turn brought forth much dispute as to the reliability of the surviving sources depicting the Conversion of Constantine - as many of them portray Constantine as a holy Christian saviour - and whether it can be accurate to state that he converted to Christianity at all. Reasons for inaccuracies can be traced back to such things as Christian author bias, and his extended use of pagan symbolism. However, despite this uncertainty, it can be seen through examining ancient writings and archaeological evidence that he did indeed convert to Christianity.

The first direct references to Constantine’s conversion come from the surviving writings of Lactantius and Eusebius, both of them early Christian writers who lived during the time of Constantine. They both had close ties to the Emperor; Lactantius as his son’s tutor (Bradshaw, 2008), and Eusebius as an acquaintance (Eusebius, c. 4th Century AD). Despite their differences in recounting the events leading up to the battle of the Milvian Bridge – Eusebius tells of a divine encounter, in which Constantine and his entire army see a vision sent by the Christian god in the sky, an episode which is entirely absent from Lactantius’ previously written account – both sources agree essentially that Constantine converted as a direct result of a visit from the Christian God in his dreams. This is an excerpt from Lactantius describing that very : “Constantine was advised in a dream to place the celestial sign of God on his shields… Having been armed with this sign, the army took up its weapons…” (Lactantius, de Mortibus Persecutorum, Chap. XXXXIV).

Carr, a historian writing for children, says this on the conversion of Constantine: “He [iConstantine] had a vision which made him convert to Christianity. As soon as he won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine seems to have thought himself as a Christian.”(Carr, 2008) This has been the general and historical truth taken on by the Christian Church, and subsequently by many historians after the event, and it shows just how deeply Eusebius and Lactantius’ texts have engrained themselves into popular belief. This truth has not only been used by and for adult historians, but also, as can be seen through the quote above, for teaching children.

However, by examining different pieces archaeological evidence, some which are dated to up to five years after AD 312, it can be seen that Constantine still used pagan symbolism well after his reported dreams and visions. For example, on a bronze coin dated to AD 317, the image of Sol Invictus, the Ancient Roman Sun God, is clearly depicted on the inverse side, with the text: “Soli Invicto Comiti”, or “To the invincible Sun god, companion of the Emperor” (Goldsborough, 2008). This shows that, five years after Constantine’s conversion according to Eusebius and Lactantius, Constantine still worshipped, or praised, an ancient Roman pagan god. This would indicate, as Christians are allowed to believe only in the one God, that Constantine did not convert to Christianity straight after the battle of the Milvian Bridge. The assumption that Lactantius and Eusebius were correct in their reports of Constantine’s conversion, therefore can be questioned. It is instead more accurate to say that, although they do not give any substantial evidence to support the hypothesis that Constantine converted to Christianity, they show that it was during this time, around AD 312, that Constantine started to create a positive view of the Christian people and their faith within the eyes of the Roman people.

A year after the battle of the Milvian Bridge, in 313, Constantine, together with joint Emperor Licinius, ended all persecution against the Christians by issuing the Edict of Milan, also known as the Edict of Toleration. In this letter, the two Emperors declared Christianity entirely legal throughout the Empire, and also ordered all confiscated possessions of persecuted Christians and Churches to be returned.

… [the Edict of Milan] was a decisive step from hostile neutrality to friendly neutrality and protection… It ordered the full restoration of all confiscated church property to the Corpus Christianorum, at the expense of the imperial treasury, and directed the provincial magistrates to execute this order at once with all energy, so that peace may be fully established and the continuance of the Divine favor secured to the emperors and their subjects. (Schaff, Chap. 2)

This new edict was different to any Christian edict before it, because it not only acknowledged the religion, but also restored it from its previous persecution. The above excerpt from History of the Christian Church shows how, in the year 313, and by issuing a new law, Constantine starts to try and restore the Christian faith. This seems to be an indication that Constantine may have converted to the religion at this point, and is creating an Empire better suited to his faith. However, by further examining the text, it can be seen that Constantine is still, at this time, distancing himself from Christianity. "…They may again be Christians and they come together in assemblies, provided they do no upset good order… As a result of Our indulgence they ought to pray to their god for Our health and that of the State, so that [it]…is kept uninjured…” (Lactantius, de Mortibus Persecutorum, Chap. XXXIV) He advises the Christian population to pray to “their” god on behalf of the state. As can be seen here, Constantine may be favouring the Christian religion, but is still apart from their beliefs, as he refers to the Christian God as their god, not his own.

The first substantially Christian influenced actions taken by Constantine occurred during late in his reign. By AD 320, Constantine’s co-Emperor Licinius had begun to ignore his own statutes set forward through the Edict of Milan, and was persecuting Christians in the eastern half of the Empire. Constantine, who had, since the battle of the Milvian Bridge, been favouring the Christian faith over the state pagan religion, was against this persecution. Constantine therefore defeated Licinius and his army in the east in AD 324, and became sole Emperor of eastern and western Rome (Heaton, 2008). As a result of this new found power, and “likely feeling more secure in his position, began to advance the Christian cause more earnestly” (Heaton, 2008). He continued to build many new buildings for the Church, as well as publish holy texts. He also, despite what the Christian faith went through and what Constantine himself had to do to stop persecution against Christianity, began to treat the ancient pagan religion just as they had treated the Christians. “Pagan sacrifice was forbidden, and treasures of many temples were confiscated and given to Christian churches.” (Heaton, 2008)

As well as trying to prevent the worship of pagan gods, it can also be seen that he discontinued the use of Pagan symbolism on coins. Instead of placing references to Sol Invictus on Roman coins, he used Christian imagery, most frequently the Chi-Rho symbol that he supposedly saw in his dreams, which is the first two Greek letters of Christ fused together. One such example - and according to The Gentle Exit one of the earliest - is of a coin minted at Constantinople that illustrates the Chi-Rho on a Roman Standard, pierced through a serpent. This is supposed to represent Licinius, and his defeat (Anonymous, 2008). It is therefore, that around AD 324 onwards, the surviving sources and evidence of the era reveal Constantine as in the process of becoming a true Christian, especially in the monotheistic sense that there can be no acceptance of other gods.

Conforming to the evidence showing Constantine as a Christian is the account Eusebius gives of the days before Constantine’s death and his baptism. This is an excerpt from Eusebius’ Viti Constinati:

…convinced that his life was drawing to a close, he [Constantine] felt the time was come at which he should seek purification from sins of his past career, firmly believing that whatever errors he had committed as a mortal man, his soul would be purified from them through the efficacy of the mystical words and the salutary waters of baptism. (Eusebius, Viti Constinati, Chap. LXI)

It cannot be proved or disproved that Constantine felt this way, and that these were the actual reasons he gave for wanting to be baptised. However, if it can be assumed that Eusebius’s account is mostly correct, despite much bias towards Constantine in his writings, then it can be seen clearly that Constantine took the Christian rite of baptism. This gives evidence, that Constantine not only took favour in the Christian Church and tried to change the state religion, but was also administered into the Church through this Christian rite. In this way, he became in all technicalities a Christian, by outwardly showing he believed in only one god, and partaking in Christian baptism. He may not have genuinely believed in the Christian god, and may have, like many modern historians believe, only changed his faith for the power and stability that the Christian Church promised. However, it cannot be known what his motives were, and as he was baptised before his death in AD 337, he died a Christian.

The conversion of Constantine, from Paganism to Christianity, has had much debate over the course of history as to whether it actually happened. The reasons for this can be attributed to author bias, in which authors of surviving texts on Constantine and his life are mostly Christian writers writing for their own cause. Many historians have also doubted his conversion due to many ancient artefacts that were found during his reign that clearly show the use of pagan symbolism. However, these doubts can be attributed to the lack of power Constantine held during his duel Emperorship, as Christian symbolism appears on later artefacts found during the time of his unaccompanied Emperorship. It can then be seen through ancient contemporary sources that Constantine was baptised, proving that Constantine was technically a Christian, and although it can never be known what his motives were, he did convert to Christianity.



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