The Emperor Who “Prided Himself” on His Christianity

After one ruler of Rome wrapped himself in new beliefs “like a man wearing women’s clothes” (in Greek, ἐναβρύνομαι), the world would never be the same.

Douglas Boin
View of the St. Angelo Bridge over the Tiber River with the St. Peter’s Basilica in the background from the Umberto I Bridge, Rome, Italy, 2013. From Wikimedia Commons (Jebulon). Used here under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

It is night in Italy. Constantine and his army are encamped north of Rome, perhaps having pitched their tents somewhere near Malborghetto, in Latium, where an old farmhouse today preserves the shape of an arch erected as a Roman victory monument. Was it Constantine’s? The picture is no clearer now than it was in October 312 a.d. That day, no one could say which way the winds of war would blow, and war was upon the Roman Empire.

The embers of the fires must have been dying as the general’s weary troops sought rest. The past few weeks, they had marched across the Alps and across northern Italy. The years before Constantine came into power, the middle to late third century, had also been bumpy, roiled with political and military troubles; but Rome had weathered the storm. These had been trying times for the government. Emperors were being killed on the battlefield — one of them died at Fallujah, Iraq — fighting a rising superpower, a reborn Persian Empire. Rome’s new geopolitical neighbor would be ruled by a family called Sasanians, and under their leadership the word “Iran” would be chiseled into history for the first time. For Romans, the rise of the Sasanians would prove a steady source of diplomatic and military engagement for the next three hundred years. There would also be moments of quieter conversation.

The third century bishop of Carthage, Cyprian, may have framed this time in apocalyptic terms (“These things have all been predicted to happen at the end of the world!”); but the world actually never came to an end.

The mystery cult of the god Mithras is thought to have come from Persia although Romans had likely invented these origins to give the cult an exotic cachet. Initiates of Mithras would find their place in Caesar’s empire, too. In Rome, we can detect a healthy pulse among their communities throughout the fourth and early fifth century a.d. Even during times of significant political challenge, not everything about “Persia” was culturally threatening.

Traditionally, however, this period in history, prior to Constantine’s ascent, shoulders a substantial part of the explanation for why Christianity triumphed in the fourth century. Admittedly, rampant turnover in the palace, calculated at one new emperor every two years, does not look good on paper. What new research has shown is that this period of turbulence was limited to Rome’s upper atmosphere.

In cities throughout the Mediterranean, taxes continued to be collected. Town councils continued to deliberate about local concerns. Buildings, including temples and shrines, continued to be repaired and, in some cases, entirely built anew. The third century bishop of Carthage, Cyprian, may have framed this time in apocalyptic terms (“These things have all been predicted to happen at the end of the world!”); but the world actually never came to an end. By the early fourth century, Rome’s government had rebounded, and the mundane reality of life in many Roman cities went on through at least the sixth century a.d.

A reorganized constitution helped. In 283, Diocletian established a framework to ensure more institutional continuity in the event of crisis. Two men, each with the title Augustus, would work with two junior partners, each with the title Caesar, to ensure the steady management of the state, geographically. This creative exercise in power sharing between the eastern and western halves of the Mediterranean would remain in effect until a.d. 324, when the son of an imperial bodyguard, fresh off the defeat of his eastern co-ruler, put an end to it. For the first time in nearly forty years, the Roman Empire would be under the management of a single ruler: Constantine. At Malborghetto, however, those battles were still to come. In 312, Constantine’s eyes were focused on Rome.

Born in the Balkans, acclaimed Augustus at York, in England, by a.d. 312, Constantine was eager to acquire a larger swath of political territory. That fall, he marshaled his army. Together, they crossed the Alps, descended through Turin, blazed through Verona. Their destination? Rome. Their mission? To topple its ruler, Constantine’s brother-in-law, Maxentius. Constantine and his army would celebrate a resounding triumph, inspiring many to wonder how it could have happened.

“Constantine was moved in his sleep to put the heavenly sign of God on his soldiers’ shields and then to go into battle. And so he did as he was ordered. The next morning, turning a letter X on its side, with its top bent around, he branded ‘Christ’ [the Messiah] on all the shields.” — Lactantius

According to a later source, the Christian writer Lactantius, a tutor in Constantine’s palace, the emperor’s victory had been inspired by a miraculous vision. Lactantius tell us what happened that night inside the general’s tent — and what followed: “Constantine was moved in his sleep to put the heavenly sign of God on his soldiers’ shields and then to go into battle. And so he did as he was ordered. The next morning, turning a letter X on its side, with its top bent around, he branded ‘Christ’ [the Messiah] on all the shields. Equipped with this sign, the army took up their weapons.”

Maxentius marshaled an impressive defense. He did everything he could, in fact — followed every governmental recommendation — to stop Constantine’s attack on the city, even consulting the Sibyl’s prophecies. What had she and her priests foreseen? “An enemy of Rome would die that day.” At the now famous battle of the Milvian Bridge, it was Maxentius who drowned in the Tiber. Constantine seized the city. The next morning, the man whose army had elevated him to junior emperor in York, England, now controlled Roman Spain, Gaul, Italy, and parts of North Africa. Constantine had stumbled onto a territorial fortune, matched only by his rivals in the eastern empire.

One year later, a.d. 313. The co-ruler of Rome and his partner in the east, Licinius, would meet at Milan to settle a pressing social question: the status of Rome’s Christians. It was not the first time that Roman emperors had chosen to confront this perennially thorny issue. Just two years earlier, April 30, a.d. 311, Christians who had awoken in the city of Nicomedia (modern Izmit, Turkey) had heard from their emperor that they were now able to practice their faith legally. No longer branded followers of an illegal set of worship practices, Christians had finally won the hard-fought triumph they had been fighting for.

With one swift decision, the emperor of the time, Galerius, had rolled back almost of a decade of legalized discrimination. In the words of this edict, Christians were now permitted “to be openly Christian [Christiani] again.” Unfortunately, that law would be ignored on Galerius’ death.

Two years later, Christians and their allies were probably holding their breath as members of the government read Constantine’s language aloud in the town’s forum, in the law courts, and in the markets. As Constantine and his co-ruler Licinius explained, “When you see what we have granted to Christians, you are going to understand that the ability to practice one’s own way of worshipping (religio) openly and freely has been granted to others, too, for the peaceful well-being of our time, so that each person may have a free opportunity to worship whatever god he has chosen.” What it meant to be Roman had just gotten a little bit bigger, as it had been doing for centuries.

Constantine must have fascinated the Roman people. An emperor who was openly Christian, he was a living sign that, at least for this one minority group in Rome, things could and did get better. Constantine certainly fascinated his biographer. “Serving as an ambassador for the Messiah of God with all outspokenness,” Eusebius of Caesarea tells us, “Constantine persevered in all things. If any one accused him of being a ‘Christian,’ he did not take that name as a mark of shame but spoke about it solemnly and openly.” The emperor, Eusebius reports, was a man who “prided himself” on his Christianity.

Constantine must have struck quite a pose. The same Greek verb, “to pride oneself” (enabrunomai), had been used to describe men like Julius Caesar who made risky fashion choices, such as wearing loose-fitting, effeminate clothes.[1] Caesar prided himself on his look, but he was also derided as too effeminate by his conservative peers. Three centuries later, if language is any key, Constantine was acting with similar audacity. He had taken the stigma associated with the word “Christian” and had wrapped himself in it, proudly. Many Christians, maybe even their allies, must have been overjoyed at the emperor’s self-confidence.

Christian visibility soon increased everywhere — from the hill country of Jerusalem, where a church was built to commemorate the site of Jesus’ death to the Balkans, Greece, and North Africa. The early fourth century was also a time of church councils, at Arles and Nicaea, meetings that were attended by opinionated bishops who wrestled with theological ideas. No wonder many still want to characterize of this time as one of Christian cultural triumph as well. Seen from the inside of the movement, it really does begin to look as if the scales of the Roman world had begun to tip toward Christianity’s with this one’s man rise to the top. But they did not.

What it meant to be Roman had just gotten a little bit bigger, as it had been doing for centuries.

By a.d. 337, Constantine would be dead, interred alongside tombs for the holy apostles. And the roughly 90 percent of non-Christian Rome would go back to its usual routine — gods, temples, sacrifice. Those who had been looking for guidance about being Christian, however, would face an even more daunting task. They would have almost twenty-five years of the emperor’s public life, policy pronouncements, and personal experiences to pore over. It was a sizable but confusing legacy. It’s still being debated today.

This essay is an excerpt from “At the Threshold of the Palace,” taken from Chapter 6 of Coming Out Christian in the Roman World: How the Followers of Jesus Made a Place in Caesar’s Empire by Douglas Boin (New York: Bloomsbury Press) © 2015. It has been slightly modified. You can order a copy from Bloomsbury Press here and follow on Facebook for news and updates.

[1] Eusebius, Life of Constantine 3.2–3 (with the Greek participle from enabrunomai). For the verb used to describe men in effeminate dress, see Lucian, The Dance 2.6 and Cassius Dio, History 43.43.2 (the latter on Julius Caesar, specifically).

Douglas Boin

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