Saturday, April 30, 2011

Constantine: Roman Emperor, Christian Victor

By Paul Stephenson, 358 pages, Overlook Press.

Emperor Constantine (272-337) harnessed the energy of Christianity's exploding growth. The Edict of Milan in 313 gave Christians the right to freedom of conscience, but older religions lived on. The emperor himself during the years leading up to his own deathbed baptism never formally rejected the old beliefs.

Rather, author Paul Stephenson clearly shows that Constantine followed the tendency of the times, and fused the old religious ways with the new. His vision of Christ before the Battle of Milvian Bridge, when he defeated the other emperor and became sole ruler of the entire empire, was more an image of the old warrior god Apollo - Sol Invictus.

The new religion fit onto the template of the old. This was no mere superstition for Constantine, the author shows. The military would only fight and support the generals and emperor if the soldiers could be certain that the greatest god was on their side. Thus state and military religion was a matter of worshipping the highest god in the pantheon.

If Christ would be considered a state God, he would have to prove his military worth. The fighting men and generals would have to gain confidence in Christ as the highest God, able to grant them military victory. Constantine's conversion was thus risky to his survival in this century of nonstop civil wars and military uprisings.

Constantine thus changed the nature of Christianity, militarizing it as much as he Christianized the army ranks. If the army was to replace their mystery religions with Christian belief, Christ would have to become the God of warriors. Thus the need for a vision such as before the victory at Milvian Bridge.

While the emperor embraced Christianity, especially as time wore on, and meddled in the disputes of Christian bishops, he stiffly opposed Christian heretics, exiling false believers and even contemplating persecution against them, which is ironic given his status as the great freedom- granter.

Yet this demand for unity was consistent with the emperor's desire for a stable, sure military God who would protect him and the army. A fractured Christian community could not provide him or his army the kind of divine protection that was needed. Readers get a good sense of the interplay between culture, politics, religion, and the military. Stephenson shows that Constantine's Christian beliefs, as well as those of the army, were not about pure, innocent piety. These warriors were looking for a useful God.

His reign saw the continued expansion and improvement of the material and cultural status of Christians within the empire, as in 321, when Christians were permitted to leave estates to the Church, which became a common practice.

When Constantine made Byzantium into the imperial city Constantinople, he allowed for the construction of many pagan temples and statues, and wasn't particularly interested in building churches. The author notes that Constantinople was not necessarily a Christian city. This is consistent with Stephenson's observation that Constantine did not legislate Christianity as the state religion; the Edict of Milan legislated religious toleration, though towards the end of his reign the emperor clearly favored Christianity, such as by allowing soldiers time off on Sundays to attend church.

Despite the equivocations of the emperor, by the time he received his baptism, medieval Christendom and the Byzantine Empire had taken their first steps.

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