Front Page Titles (by Subject) 14.: CONSTANTINE AND CHRISTIANITY — ( C. XX .) - The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 3
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14.: CONSTANTINE AND CHRISTIANITY — ( C. XX .) - Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 3 
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ed. J.B. Bury with an Introduction by W.E.H. Lecky (New York: Fred de Fau and Co., 1906), in 12 vols. Vol. 3.
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CONSTANTINE AND CHRISTIANITY — (C. XX.)
The attitude of Constantine to the Christian religion has been the theme of many discussions, and historians are still far from having reached a general agreement. Burckhardt, in his attractive monograph, developed the view that Constantine was “ganz wesentlich unreligiös,” constitutionally indifferent to religion, because he was a “genialer Mensch,” dominated by ambition; and that in his later years he exhibited personal inclinations rather towards paganism than towards Christianity. H. Richter has some remarkable pages on Constantine’s system of parity between the two religions; and Brieger, in an excellent article in his Zeitschrift j. Kirchengesch. (iv., 1881, p. 163 sqq.), agrees with Gibbon that Constantine’s Christianity was due entirely to political considerations. Many of the data admit of different interpretations. Those who ascribe to him a policy of parity, or the idea of a state religion which might combine elements common to enlightened paganism and Christianity (so Schiller), appeal to the fact that the sacerdotales and flamines in Africa were granted privileges; but it is replied that they had ceased to carry on the ritual and simply, as a matter of equity, had the old rights secured to them, while they no longer performed the old duties. If the “cult” of Tyche at Constantinople is alleged, it is urged that she had no temple-service. The temples of Constantinople are explained away; and the “aedes Flaviae nostrae gentis” of the remarkable inscription of Hispellum (date between 326 and 337; Orelli, 5580) is asserted not to have been intended for the worship of the Emperors, but simply as a fine hall for public spectacles.1 (See V. Schultze, in Brieger’s Zeitschrift, vii. 352 sqq.) The indulgence to paganism was simply the toleration of a statesman who could not discreetly go too fast in the accomplishment of such a great reformation. And certainly on the hypothesis that Constantine had before his eyes, as the thing to be achieved, the ultimate establishment of Christianity as the exclusive state religion, his attitude to paganism would be, in general, the attitude we should expect from a really great statesman. Ranke’s remark hits the point (Weltgesch. iii. 1, 532): “Er konnte unmöglich zugeben dass an die Stelle der Unordnungen der Verfolgung die vielleicht noch grosseren einer gewaltsamen Reaction träten.”
It seems to me that Seeck, in holding that Constantine had really broken with the old religion and was frankly a Christian, is nearer the mark than Gibbon or Schiller. From the evidence which we have, I believe that Constantine adopted the Christian religion and intended that Christianity should be the State religion. As to a great many details, there may be uncertainty in regard to the facts themselves or their interpretation, but I would invite attention to the following general considerations.
(1) The theory that the motives of Constantine’s Christian policy were purely political, and that he was religiously indifferent, seems perilously like an anachronism, — ascribing to him modern ideas. There is no reason to suppose that he was above the superstitiousness of his age. (2) The theory that he was a Deist, that he desired to put Paganism and Christianity on an equality, emphasising some common features, and that circumstances led him to incline the balance towards Christianity in his later years, is not the view naturally suggested by the (a) Christian education he gave his children, and (b) the hostility of the pagan Emperor Julian to his memory. (3) The fact that he countenanced Paganism and did not completely abolish the customs of the old State religion proves nothing; the remark of Ranke quoted above is a sufficient answer. In fact, those who have dealt with the question have sometimes failed to distinguish between two different things. It is one thing to say that Constantine’s motives for establishing Christianity were purely secular. It is quite another to say that he was guided by secular considerations in the methods which he adopted to establish Christianity. The second thesis is true — Constantine would have been a bad statesman if he had not been so guided; — but its truth is quite consistent with the falsity of the first.
Schiller (iii. 301 sqq.) has conveniently summarised the chief facts, and his results may be arranged as follows: —
(1) Coins. In Constantine’s western mints coins appeared with Mars, with genius pop. Rom., and with Sol, but certainly not in the two first cases, perhaps not in the last case, after 315 Further, Constantinian coins with Juppiter were not struck in the west, but in the mints of Licinius. Thus we may say that between 315 and 323 pagan emblems were disappearing from Constantine’s coinage, and indifferent legends took their place, such as Beata tranquillitas.
We also find coins with [Editor: see p. 444 of the PDF for this image], as a sign of the mint; and at the end of Constantine’s reign a series of copper coins was issued in which two soldiers were represented on the reverse holding the labarum, that is a flag with the monogram [Editor: see p. 444 of the PDF for this image].
We see then two stages in Constantine’s policy. At first he removes from his coins symbols which might offend his Christian soldiers and subjects whom he wished to propitiate (this is Schiller’s interpretation); and finally he allows to appear on his money symbols which did not indeed commit him to Christianity, but were susceptible of a Christian meaning.
(2) Laws. After the great Edict of Milan, 312-3 (which, according to Seeck, was never issued), the following measures were taken by Constantine to put Christianity on a level with the old religion. (1) 313 , the Catholic clergy were freed from all state burdens. (2) 313 (or 315), the Church was freed from annona and tributum. (3) 316 (321), Manumissions in the Church were made valid. (4) 319, (1) was extended to the whole empire. (5) 320, exception to the laws against celibacy made in favour of the clergy, allowing them to inherit. (6) 321, wills in favour of the Catholic Church permitted. (7) 323, forcing of Christians to take part in pagan celebrations forbidden. On the other hand, a law of 321 (Cod. Theod. xvi. 10, 1) forbids private consultation of haruspices, but allows it in public. [Cp. further Seuffert, Constantins Gesetze und das Christenthum, 1891.]
(3) Eusebius describes in his Ecclesiastical History (bk. x. 1 sqq.) a number of acts of Constantine after his victory over Maxentius, which attest not only toleration but decided favour towards the Christians. He entertains Christian priests, heaps presents on the Church, takes an interest in ecclesiastical questions. There is no reason to doubt these statements; but Schiller urges us to remember (1) that Eusebius does not mention what favour Constantine bestowed on the pagans, and (2) that, when the final struggle with Licinius came and that Emperor resorted to persecution, policy clearly dictated to Constantine the expediency of specially favouring Christianity. In general, according to Schiller, from 313 to 323 Constantine not only maintained impartial toleration, but bestowed positive benefits on both the old and the new religion. The account of Eusebius is a misrepresentation through omission of the other side.
One or two points may be added. Eusebius states that after the victory over Maxentius Constantine erected a statue of himself with a cross in his right hand at Rome. This statement occurs in Hist. E. ix. c. 10, 11; Paneg. ix. 18; Vit. C. i. 40. Is this to be accepted as a fact? A statement in H. E. is more trustworthy than any statement in the Vit. C.; and Brieger thought that in this case the passage in H. E. is an interpolation from that in the Vit. C. (Ztsch. f. Kirchengesch. 1880, p. 45). But Schultze (ib. vii. 1885, 343 sqq.) has shown that Eusebius mentioned the statue in question, in his speech at Tyre in 314 , from H. E. x. 4, 16. This adds considerable weight to the evidence.
In regard to the monogram [Editor: see p. 444 of the PDF for this image], Rapp in his paper, Das Labarum und der Sonnenkultus (Jahrb. des Vereins von Altertumsfreunden im Rheinlande, 1866, p. 116 sqq.), showed that it appears on Greco-Bactrian coins of 2nd and 1st centuries It appears still earlier on Tarentine coins of the first half of the 3rd century. It is not clear that Constantine used it as an ambiguous symbol; nor yet is there a well-attested instance of its use as a Christian symbol before 323 (cp. Brieger in his Ztschr. iv. 1881, p. 201).
Several examples of the Labarum as described by Eusebius are preserved; I may refer especially to one on a Roman sarcophagus in the Lateran Museum.
For “Christian emblems on the coins of Constantine the Great, his family and his successors,” see Madden in the Numismatic Chronicle, 1877-8.
For the Tyche, to whom Constantine dedicated his new city, the most recent and instructive study is the brief paper of Strzygovski, in Analecta Græciensia (Graz, 1893).
As to the connection of Constantine with the Donatist controversy, attention may be drawn to the article of O. Seeck in Brieger’s Zeitsch. f. Kirchengeschichte, x. 505-568 (Quellen und Urkunden über die Anfange des Donatismus). He fixes the date of the Council of Arles to 316 (cp. Euseb. V. C. i. 44-45). The general result of his discussion is to discredit the authority of Optatus, whom he regards as a liar, drawing from a lying source. The only value of the work of Optatus is to be found, he concludes, in the parts which rest on the protocols of the Synods of Cirta and Rome, and the lost parts of the Acta of the process of Felix (viz., I., 13, 14, 23, 24, 27, and perhaps the story of the choice of Cæcilian, 16-18).
For Constantine in mediæval legend see the Incerti Auctoris de C. Magno eiusque matre Helena, edited by Heydenreich (1879); Extracts from a popular Chronicle (Greek) given by A. Kirpitschnikow, Byz. Ztsch. i. p. 308 sqq. (1892); Heydenreich, C. der Grosse in den Sagen des Mittelalters, Deutsche Ztsch. f. Geschichts-wissenschaft, 9, 1 sqq. (1893), and Griechische Berichte über die Jugend C. des G., in Gr. Stud. H. Lipsius zum Geburtstag dargebracht, p. 88 sqq. (1894). For his father Constantius in mediæval legend see Li contes dou roi Constant l’Emperor, ed. in the Bibl. Elzevir, by MM. Moland and d’Hericault, 1856. An English translation by Mr. Wm. Morris has appeared, 1896.
[1 ]Compare the words: ne aedis nostro nomini dedicata cuiusquam contagiosae superstitionis fraudibus polluatur, insisted on by Seeck, Untergang der antiken Welt, p. 439.