Some Reflections on the Constantine and Ashoka of History

Two of the most influential people in history, Constantine and Ashoka, are also the center of constant debate. Historians have to discern who they were, what they did, and what they truly believed.

While Constantine did not create Christianity, he certainly brought it to a place of prominence in the Roman Empire when he converted to it. And he increased its prestige when he gave bishops a level of authority which surprises many people to this day.[1] But he did much more. Perhaps the four things which he did that had the greatest impact on history are the proclamation of the Edit of Milan in 313, the calling of the Council of Nicea in 325, the creation of the Holy Sepulchre (a project begun around the time of Nicea), and the consecration of Constantinople in 330.

Ashoka, like Constantine, was a convert to a new faith, Buddhism. By his royal patronage, he gave it the kind of respect and resources it needed in order to become a major, world-spanning religion. Like Constantine, it appears Ashoka wanted the adherents of his new faith to come together and work out what it was they believed, and he did this by calling a Buddhist council. If any of the traditions associated with it has any validity (which is likely), this council was to impact the future shape of Buddhism in the way Nicea helped shape Christian history.[2] And like Constantine, Ashoka had a major impact on the land in which he lived: not only was he to have established one of the greatest kingdoms in India through his conquests (before his full conversion to Buddhism), once he became a Buddhist, the number, extent, and quality of the projects he created for the improvement of the lives of those within his kingdom was to become second to none in the ancient world. He became one of history’s greatest humanitarians.

While the legends associated with Constantine and Ashoka developed along similar lines, this could only have happened if there were similarities in their actual histories. Legends come out of real events and develop them, creating fanciful interpretations of what happened. They have to have been based upon something which really happened, for without those events, nothing would have been said. Thus, for both of them we find:

  • Even before they were converted, it appears both were actively seeking religious insight for their lives, helping to explain why they would latch on to a new faith once they believed it helped answer questions which had long confused them. They were both, in their own way, prepared for their conversion. Constantine was already monotheistic; he was trying to understand who the one Great Divinity actually was. Even his vision of the cross seems to have been initially misunderstood, and treated as if revealed to him by Apollo.[3] Ashoka, before his becoming Buddhist, was already in dialogue with Buddhist monks and was learning from them; and since Buddhism at this time was closer to Hinduism and was able to adapt Hindu cosmology for its new teaching, this made the transfer from one to the other much easier.[4]
  • Both of them had two stages of conversion. For Constantine, his acceptance of the Christian faith did not lead him to baptism until the end of his life; he was clearly interested in integrating his pre-Christian monotheistic faith with his Christianity, although the reason seems to have been for the sake of unity in the empire. Constantine wanted to use the concord between faiths, wherever it could be found, to keep the peace. Ashoka on the other hand had come to accept the tenets of Buddhism while he was actively involved in his conquest of India; it was only after experiencing the aftermath of a very bloody battle did he find the need to give himself entirely to the teachings of the Buddha and grieve over the slaughter he had caused. [5]
  • Both seem to have been influenced, in part, by the work of the women in their lives: Constantine’s mother, Helen, helped shape his pious activity. For Ashoka, history suggests that it was one of his queens, one who was from Vidisa and the mother of Mahinda and Sanghamitta, who lead him to Buddhism.[6]
  • For both, it was during war, and through the execution of that war, that they would slowly find themselves drawn into their new faith. For Constantine, the power and authority of the Christian God in the time of war affirmed his conversion. For Ashoka, it was the tragedy of war, and the suffering which came from its wake, that transformed him into a man of peace.[7]
  • Both had a sense of great guilt associated with them. Constantine certainly had some blame in the death and execution of his wife and son Fausta and Crispus;[8] for Ashoka, the tyranny it took to become emperor was place a lot of blood on his hands (including many in his own family).[9] Both seemed to satisfy that guilt in part through the creation and visitation of holy sites: Constantine with the Holy Sepulchre, Ashoka with various monuments concerning the life and relics of the Buddha (indeed, extending the relics far and wide so that many would have access to them).
  • Both saw their empires flourish during their reign. Constantine re-established a unity in Rome which had been lost the previous century. Ashoka created a great empire, bringing the greater part of India together for the first time in the process. But both of their successes was limited to the time of their life; as soon as they died, both empires would quickly be lost – Rome becoming divided, India being conquered.
  • Both had to find a way to balance their new faith with the administration of their kingdoms. Both wanted to establish peace in their lands, and this included the promotion of people in their administration without any necessary religious requirement.
  • Extremely important to both was how they should deal with schismatics in their new faith, since they did not want to use their patronage to help promote division, and yet they also saw any action on their part would be the cause of some sort of reaction. Constantine had a greater difficulty with this than Ashoka, though Ashoka is known to make examples of those who divided the Buddhist Sangha.[10]

The last two of these likely played a significant role in their respective administrations. Constantine had to deal with conflicts within the Church while trying to appease the non-Christian majority of Rome. The pagan majority would not follow Constantine if he did not provide a place for them. He tried to build a better Rome, and much of what he tried to do remains with us to this day. However, we must always realize he was not successful, and a major reason for this was the lack of unity among the Christians of his day. Their squabbling caused him no end of heartache. He wasn’t prepared for it, and thought they would just work together despite differences in belief. How was he to bring peace to Rome if the Christians, whom he backed, were the ones causing the greatest disturbances throughout the empire? His solution was pragmatic; he would take sides in disputes according to how well he thought a given side would work for peace; for those who were the cause of division and were unwilling to work with him for peace, he sent into exile (he would not send those disputants who, despite their schism with the majority of the Christians, were harmless and causing no problems to his administration of Rome). This can easily explain his seemingly contradictory actions, where he would one day support one group of Christians, the next, another group, sending and bringing back from exile the same people over and over again (like St. Athanasius). His treatment of non-Christians, for the most part (there were a few exceptions) was of toleration, and this is because they did not have the same kind of rivalries and divisions harming his rule as the Christians; indeed, they were still more in tune with the empire and wanted to work with him to preserve the integrity of the empire (and hoped he would reconvert back to the ancient pagan traditions).Ashoka, it seems, also had to deal with conflicts within Buddhism, and from the little evidence we have, he was just as displeased with it as Constantine was with Christian strife.

The solution to both was to encourage as much inclusion in their empire as possible; they really wanted the members of their new faith to feel the need to follow them with the creation of new political alliances, the kind which was inclusive in content. Their decrees demonstrate this: they were written in such a way as to be able to be read and accepted by as many people as was possible, using what was in common agreement to promote both political and religious harmony. Certainly, they both knew their position in power was both political and religious, and if they did not want to disenfranchise their empires, they had to do this. Historians, sometimes missing out on what it was they were doing, have used this sometimes to question their respective adherences. For some, Constantine was a manipulative politician who just saw the future in Christianity, but he did not hold any real Christian faith. For others, Ashoka never converted, he remained a Hindu all his life, and his conversion to Buddhism is a myth. But anyone who looks at the evidence offered sees that these historians only show a small selection of the possible texts – the most vague – and ignore the ones which were made for more particular use, the kind which show their true devotion. Both give ample evidence of their conversion, both in word and in deed, though both also knew it meant the governing of their empire required prudence and the ability to interact with and promote those aspects of their old faiths which best connected with their new one, such as the idea of the logos in ancient Rome, and the idea of dharma in ancient India.[11]

The paths Constantine and Ashoka took in their lives were rather unusual for their day. It was not that common for rulers to convert from one faith to another; when it happened, it was generally expected that their subjects would their lead and convert with them. One can see the kind of conflicts this brought in the ancient world when one looks at the history of Egypt. Constantine and Ashoka tried to get around that conflict. They made mistakes. What they did was not entirely perfect. And it seems it was too early for the fruit of their labor to be established. The Roman Empire after the death of Constantine would become a hotbed of religious conflict. Even St Vladimir of Rus, who wanted himself to be seen in the light of Constantine, did not follow through with Constantine’s example here: he made it quite clear that he wanted his people to be baptized like he had been, and he made sure this would happen through the use of his armed forces (he sent his soldiers out far and wide with priests to help administer the baptism, and to give out crosses those who had been baptized as a sign of their conversion). India would be conquered from one group after another, each sponsoring one religious tradition or another; when Islam took control of the continent, Buddhism and Hinduism was in conflict with one another, and Muslims took the side of Hinduism (for many political reasons), leading to the end of mainstream Indian Buddhism. But the example of Ashoka, which had once been lost, would be brought back into the forefront  in modern times, and Ashoka was to become praised as one of the great heroes of Indian history, and his example promoted in modern day India.

The modern separation of religion from the affairs of state was something which was to develop much later in history than the times of Constantine and Ashoka, through many trials and tribulations; but we must not forget what Constantine and Ashoka did to help make this possible. They were exemplars of toleration in the ancient world. Perhaps if we understood them better, and what they actually accomplished, we could find a better way to deal with the religious pluralism of today (for then we could understand their mistakes and avoid them). Indeed, they should be the shining stars of religious liberty. They both show us that toleration does not have to mean relativism, nor does the holding to one religious faith mean one has to totally denigrate and reject the good found in other traditions. They also show us that this idea has ancient religious foundations, and one does not have to fear it as if it comes from secular humanism trying to push aside the role of religion in the contemporary world.


[1] For example, the so-called Sirmondian Constitution gave bishops the authority to act as a court of appeals in secular courts. For an analysis of why this was done, and how long it lasted, see H.A. Drake, Constantine and the Bishops: The Politics of Intolerance (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2002), 325 – 336.

[2] While there is some debate as to the historicity of the council, it is more likely than not that something happened, and that the council was convened in part to elaborate on what could and could not be viewed as authentic Buddhist practice and teaching.  See Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies Volume II: Abhidharma Buddhism to 150 A.. Ed. Karl H. Potter (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1998), 29-30.

[3] A panegyric given to Constantine before his conversion to Christianity places his victory with a vision given to him by Apollo:

“For you did I believe, Constantine, see your patron Apollo, and Victory accompanying him, offering you crowns of laurel, each of which represents a foretelling of thirty years. That is of course the length of human generations, which are certainly due to take you beyond the old age of Nestor. And yet why do I say ‘I believe’? You did see him, and you recognized yourself in the image of the one to whom the sacred poems of bards prophesied that the kingdoms of the whole world were due by right. That has now I think at last come to pass, seeing that you are, Emperor, like him, young blessed, our saviour and a most handsome one!”

— “The anonymous panegyric on Constantine (310), Pan. Lat. VII (6)” in From Constantine to Julian: Pagan and Byzantine Views. Ed. Samuel N. C. Lieu and Dominic Montserrat (London: Routledge, 1996),90.

[4] See D.C. Ahir, Asoka the Great (Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation, 1995), 24.

[5] Thus, in Rock Edict 13, we read:

Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, conquered the Kalingas eight years after his coronation. One hundred and fifty thousand were deported, one hundred thousand were killed and many more died (from other causes). After the Kalingas had been conquered, Beloved-of-the-Gods came to feel a strong inclination towards the Dhamma, a love for the Dhamma and for instruction in Dhamma. Now Beloved-of-the-Gods feels deep remorse for having conquered the Kalingas.

Indeed, Beloved-of-the-Gods is deeply pained by the killing, dying and deportation that take place when an unconquered country is conquered. But Beloved-of-the-Gods is pained even more by this — that Brahmans, ascetics, and householders of different religions who live in those countries, and who are respectful to superiors, to mother and father, to elders, and who behave properly and have strong loyalty towards friends, acquaintances, companions, relatives, servants and employees — that they are injured, killed or separated from their loved ones. Even those who are not affected (by all this) suffer when they see friends, acquaintances, companions and relatives affected. These misfortunes befall all (as a result of war), and this pains Beloved-of-the-Gods.

There is no country, except among the Greeks, where these two groups, Brahmans and ascetics, are not found, and there is no country where people are not devoted to one or another religion. Therefore the killing, death or deportation of a hundredth, or even a thousandth part of those who died during the conquest of Kalinga now pains Beloved-of-the-Gods. Now Beloved-of-the-Gods thinks that even those who do wrong should be forgiven where forgiveness is possible.

Even the forest people, who live in Beloved-of-the-Gods’ domain, are entreated and reasoned with to act properly. They are told that despite his remorse Beloved-of-the-Gods has the power to punish them if necessary, so that they should be ashamed of their wrong and not be killed. Truly, Beloved-of-the-Gods desires non-injury, restraint and impartiality to all beings, even where wrong has been done.

Now it is conquest by Dhamma that Beloved-of-the-Gods considers to be the best conquest. And it (conquest by Dhamma) has been won here, on the borders, even six hundred yojanas away, where the Greek king Antiochos rules, beyond there where the four kings named Ptolemy, Antigonos, Magas and Alexander rule, likewise in the south among the Cholas, the Pandyas, and as far as Tamraparni. Here in the king’s domain among the Greeks, the Kambojas, the Nabhakas, the Nabhapamkits, the Bhojas, the Pitinikas, the Andhras and the Palidas, everywhere people are following Beloved-of-the-Gods’ instructions in Dhamma. Even where Beloved-of-the-Gods’ envoys have not been, these people too, having heard of the practice of Dhamma and the ordinances and instructions in Dhamma given by Beloved-of-the-Gods, are following it and will continue to do so. This conquest has been won everywhere, and it gives great joy — the joy which only conquest by Dhamma can give. But even this joy is of little consequence. Beloved-of-the-Gods considers the great fruit to be experienced in the next world to be more important.

I have had this Dhamma edict written so that my sons and great-grandsons may not consider making new conquests, or that if military conquests are made, that they be done with forbearance and light punishment, or better still, that they consider making conquest by Dhamma only, for that bears fruit in this world and the next. May all their intense devotion be given to this which has a result in this world and the next.

This and all subsequent translations from his edicts and pillars come from the translation by Ven. S. Dhammika ( I have used this translation because it is offered for free distribution via DharmaNet by arrangement with the publisher. DharmaNet International P.O. Box 4951, Berkeley CA 94704-4951.

[6] See D.C. Ahir, Asoka the Great, 23.

[7] This is not to say he did without the use of an army, but they were used for self-defense, enforcement of law and order, and to help in various humanitarian projects throughout India.

[8] We do not exactly know the circumstances of their death; we do know that pagan critics would use it to indicate not only the immorality of Constantine, but also his Christian advisors, who were said to entice him to Christianity as an easy way out of the consequences for his actions. We see this kind of argument being used to try to seduce a Christian to give up their faith in the works of John the Monk about the martyr Artemius

“For Constantine, as you yourself know, who was easily deceived by men and uneducated and proved to be stupid, introduced innovations in religion, and revoked the Roman laws and inclined towards Christianity. This was because he was in fear of his unholy deeds, and because the gods drove him from the flock as accused, and unworthy of their religion, being steeped in his family’s blood. For he killed his bothers who had done nothing out of place, and his wife Fausta, and his own son Priscus who was a good and worth man.”

-“Artemii passio” in From Constantine to Julian: Pagan and Byzantine Views, 240 -1.

[9] D.C. Ahir is right in suggesting there probably is some truth behind the legends which state Ashoka had to kill off family members to make his way to the throne. See D.C. Ahir, Asoka the Great, 18.

[10] “Beloved-of-the-Gods commands: The Mahamatras at Kosambi (are to be told: Whoever splits the Sangha) which is now united, is not to be admitted into the Sangha. Whoever, whether monk or nun, splits the Sangha is to be made to wear white clothes and to reside somewhere other than in a monastery,” Minor Pillar Edict 2.

[11] The obviously Christian Eusebius provides to us a vague picture of Constantine’s faith than Constantine himself did in his own speeches; it is through Eusebius we get a better picture of Constantine’s attempt to bridge the Christ as Logos with the pre-Christian philosophical tradition; Eusebius is the one who gives Constantine the title “friend of the Logos.” But as Drake points out, when Eusebius does this, it is in his own orations in praise of Constantine, given while Constantine was still alive, indicating that it was in part based upon what Constantine wanted to hear and want Constantine wanted to be heard throughout his empire; after Constantine’s death, Eusebius develops much further Constantine’s Christianity in his Life of Constantine. See Drake, Constantine and the Bishops, 378 -84.

For Ashoka, some of his edicts show us how he tried to establish a universal morality as the basis of his empire, and it was one which he thought could work to bring members of various religious traditions together, such as we find in Rock Edict 5:

“In the past there were no Dhamma Mahamatras but such officers were appointed by me thirteen years after my coronation. Now they work among all religions for the establishment of Dhamma, for the promotion of Dhamma, and for the welfare and happiness of all who are devoted to Dhamma. They work among the Greeks, the Kambojas, the Gandharas, the Rastrikas, the Pitinikas and other peoples on the western borders. They work among soldiers, chiefs, Brahmans, householders, the poor, the aged and those devoted to Dhamma — for their welfare and happiness — so that they may be free from harassment. They (Dhamma Mahamatras) work for the proper treatment of prisoners, towards their unfettering, and if the Mahamatras think, ;This one has a family to support,’ ‘That one has been bewitched,’ ‘This one is old,” then they work for the release of such prisoners. They work here, in outlying towns, in the women’s quarters belonging to my brothers and sisters, and among my other relatives. They are occupied everywhere. These Dhamma Mahamatras are occupied in my domain among people devoted to Dhamma to determine who is devoted to Dhamma, who is established in Dhamma, and who is generous.'”

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  • Liam

    It might help to know that edicts of toleration of Christians in areas of the Roman empire preceded that of AD 313, which itself was not the product of Constantine alone.

    • Henry Karlson


      True, there were earlier examples, but one of the big differences is that Constantine’s work was to give support to the Christians, and restitution for the persecutions. Earlier edicts only were for toleration. Constantine went further because of his work with the Christians, and it was the one which would eventually “stick” (despite Julian).

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  • Katherine

    You speak of the example of Ashoka being lost — would it be correct to infer, that Ashoka has not gotten the sort of almost demonization one sees with some treatments of Constantine?

    • Henry Karlson


      The situation after Ashoka’s death in India was quite different from Constantine’s in Rome; India was going through all kinds of transition (and conquests). The script Ashoka used for his pillars was one which fell out of use quite quickly, and so the texts on them quickly were forgotten, and with them, his own legacy. It was only in more recent times that he has emerged in India as a great exemplar of their history. But you will find some people blaming him for things, such as the Dalit situation, if you look around.