Among Christianity’s critics from within — especially my own tribe of progressive Protestants — it’s fashionable to disparage empire at every turn. Empire, it seems, is responsible for everything that ails our faith.
Oh, and Constantine was an asshat.
As it turns out, that’s not exactly true.
The Roman Empire was, indeed, brutal. But it was also extraordinarily civil. Crucifixions? Yes. But also aqueducts. And public baths and voting and roads and regulated commerce.
The brilliance of the Roman Empire came in many forms, but none so much as its conquests. When Rome conquered a land, they would acquire slaves — slaves that could attain freedom — but more significantly, they made those who were conquered Roman citizens. And there was no more powerful a safeguard to one’s personhood in the ancient world than Roman citizenship (Paul probably lived a decade longer than he would have otherwise because he claimed Roman citizenship (scholars are split on whether he truly was a Roman citizen or not)).
A conquered people became Roman citizens, and they were able to keep their own religion, customs, and even governors, as long as they paid their taxes and didn’t revolt. And in return they got roads, potable water, and security.
Christians are familiar with the razing of the Jerusalem temple by the Roman general Titus in AD 70, but it is often forgotten that Titus was in Judea to put down a Jewish revolt against Rome. And that wasn’t the first time the Jews had tried to cast out the imperial forces. Each time they found out what an ill-fated strategy it was.
Christianity as we know it is very much the result of the Roman Empire, which itself was built on the backbone of what another brutal empire-builder, Alexander the Great, had accomplished centuries before. Alexander carved the roads and built the Western world. The Romans paved those roads.
It was on the back of Roman order and government that Christianity spread.
But how about the emperors?
The Roman Republic lasted only a short time, ultimately cut down by the murder of Julius Caesar. When his nephew-cum-adopted-s0n Octavian acceded to the head of the government and claimed the title, emperor, many in Rome feared that he would be a vicious dictator. He was anything but. Now known as Caesar Augustus, Octavian went on a massive building campaign, funded by massive — and massively successful — military campaign. He’d conquer a land, those people would pay taxes, and he would built another public building in Rome.
Along the way, there were some bad apples among the subsequent emperors (e.g., Nero), but there were also great rulers (e.g., Trajan) and even poet-philosophers (e.g., Marcus Aurelius). Constantine very much fashioned himself after Augustus, being both a great general and a builder. Constantine’s conversion to Christianity on the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge should be understood with some suspicion. And nota bene, Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion of the empire. In the Edict of Milan in 313, he merely legalized Christianity, bringing it into the Pax Romana.
It should also be remembered that by the time Constantine wore the imperial purple, the Roman Empire was in its denouement. Constantine himself saw the writing on the wall and spent most of his time in the East, establishing a new capital in Constantinople. The Roman Empire would fall only 139 years after Constantine’s death.
My point is this: The Roman Empire and the Roman emperors, like almost everything in history, have legacies of ambivalence. Yes, they were brutal and often violent, but they were also civil and appreciative of beauty and art and literature. In its time, the Roman Empire accomplished feats that moved civilization forward in giant steps. And Christianity spread largely as a result of these imperial advancements.
In fact, without the Roman Empire, there very likely would be no Christianity.
So, the next time you hear someone throwing Constantine under the bus or savaging the reputation of the Roman Empire, take a minute to consider whether the story might be a bit more nuanced than that.