Defending Constantine— Part One

Defending Constantine— Part One May 3, 2011

In recent years Constantine has come in for some extremely heavy criticism.   On the one hand he has been accused on imposing Christianity on a reluctant and mostly pagan empire.  On the other hand he has been accused of polluting Christianity, and not even being a genuine Christian.    On the one hand he has been accused of simply being politically astute and backing the right horse (namely Christianity) without himself ever really becoming a Christian,  and on the other hand he has been accused of forming the Christian canon, helping to dictate the key terms in the Nicean creed, and other things.   On the one hand he has been accused of being morally rigoristic and something of prude as well.  On the other hand he has been accused of murdering his own wife and son, and marrying another woman thereafter. The frustrated student of history has a right to exclaim— ‘Will the real Constantine please stand up’.

Critics of Constantine, such as Craig Carter (see his The Politics of the Cross), John Howard Yoder (lots of books  see e.g.  The Priestly Kingdom), Jacob Burkhardt  (The Age of Constantine the Great) and Ramsay MacMullen ( Constantine, and see also Voting on God) have done their best to make Constantine look like one of the true bad guys when it comes to Christianity and its relationship to Empire.  Into this frey has come Peter Leithart, and as the title of this post suggests,  he takes a different viewpoint, to say the least.

Let me say from the outset that Defending Constantine, whether you buy what Leithart is selling or not,  is one of the most interesting and well written historical books I have read in a long time.  And one thing Leithart is very good at is showing the flaws in the arguments and the flies in the ointments that the aforementioned writers have been offering.  So you need to strap on your seatbelt when you read this book as it is quite the ride on the roller coaster.    In this post we must begin with a few basic contextual matters.

The Roman Empire in the era of Diocletian and thereafter was a very different place than the Roman Empire in the first century A.D.  Take for instance the issue of Roman citizenship.   Already in 212 A.D. Caracalla had promulgated an edict granting citizenship to all free residents in the Empire!   By the time we get to Constantine,  Roman citizenship was and had not been for a  century the privileged status of a few.    There was in theory only one city, Roma, one law, and one worship throughout the Empire which was expected of all citizens.  In this situation,  deviation from Roman religion by any citizen became not just bad form, or bad religion, but treason punishable by death (see Leithart, p. 35).  It is no accident that the first Empire wide persecution came under Decian in A.D. 249-50, which is to say after the law of 212 had taken effect, Empire wide.   What had happened was that instead of tolerance of local deviant religions as long as the Roman gods were also honored,  local cult was united to local government on the terms dictated from the top— the Emperor.  The Empire had become a politically and religiously monolithic entity.

But with this privilege of citizenship came responsibilities, including the worshipping of  the Emperor.  One of the major legal reasons for the major persecutions of Christians by Diocletian and others was because they were not playing by the rules that Roman citizens had to play by in that period of time.   Christianity was not a licit religion, unlike Judaism, the exception which proved the rule,  and anybody else, including Christians had to obey the laws incumbent on citizens.    What was seen as especially obnoxious and weird about Christians is that they didn’t offer sacrifices to any god, and this is one main reason they were called atheists—-  no sacrifice, no religion as far as most ancient Romans were concerned.

The second factor, rightly pointed out by Leithart is that modern Christians often don’t understand about the Roman Empire is that religion and politics were always necessarily intertwined, and involved the Emperor himself, even without taking into account the imperial cult.  By this I mean that Emperors, and Romans in general, all believed that the favor or blessing of the gods on Roma depended on the appeasement of the gods through proper  sacrifices and other religious rituals.  If the gods were not pleased and appeased, then things were not well in the body politic called the Roman Empire.

The Roman Empire stood or fell on the basis of the foundational virtue of pietas, piety, reverence for the gods, or so it was believed, and indeed it is clear enough that the Emperor Constantine also believed that the honoring of whatever God there was, was a non-negotiable job for the Emperor if he wanted to secure the stability, and the prosperity of the Empire.  This was job one, and the Emperor was in fact the pontifex maximus  (the high priest— a title later taken by the Pope).   Constantine, once he did become a Christian and became convinced about the truth of Jesus Christ believed that he had to,  as an Emperor, make sure that Christ and his worship was a central part of the religious life of the Roman Empire.    The essence of ancient religion was after all priests, temples, and sacrifices, and so it is no surprise that once Constantine had secured the throne as the sole Emperor, he quite understandably went on a building spree when it came to basilicas or churches all over the place, including in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

During the same time period,  A.D. 212- 312 (when the Edict of Milan was issued, on which see the next post),  Christianity was growing rapidly throughout the Empire.  Not only Decian,  but later Diocletian found it easy, when things went wrong in the Empire (say another loss of a war to Persia or Germanic tribes)  to scapegoat Christians— those anti-patriotic  anti-religious Christians.   What was an Emperor to do when a large and growing part of his citizens were acting in such ways?  The result was various crack downs and persecutions.  It is into this situation that Constantine came and stopped the persecution dead in its tracks,  helped issue an Edict of tolerance quite specifically to keep it that way, and swore allegiance to Christ and the cross.   One might think that Constantine would be applauded for stopping the persecutions and accepting Christianity as a legal religion.    But in fact, he has been vilified for what he did.   In the next post we will begin to explore his story.

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