Constantine the Great and Christianity By Vickie Chao Since the beginning of time, the ancient Romans worshipped hundreds of gods and goddesses. Many of those deities came from foreign lands that the Romans had conquered. As different faiths sprang up across the ever-expanding empire, they were more or less tolerated. Such open attitude, however, was not the case for Judaism and Christianity. Both religions pointedly refused to honor Roman gods and to idolize Roman emperors. As a result, the Jews and Christians endured centuries of hardship. One good example would be Emperor Nero. In 64 A.D., a big fire engulfed Rome and destroyed much of the city. Emperor Nero pinned the blame on the Christians. Through relentless persecution, he also allegedly killed two Christian apostles -- Saint John and Saint Peter. 1 At the onset of the 4th century, Constantine the Great (or Constantine I) ascended the throne. He held a different view toward Christianity and gave the religion a big break. Seven years after he seized power, in 313 A.D., he and Licinius (his brother-in-law and co-emperor in the east) issued the famous Edict of Milan. They declared that both the Eastern and Western Roman Empires would keep a neutral position on all faiths. Constantine the Great even commissioned the construction of several grand cathedrals. For the first time in ancient Rome, Christians could openly practice their religion without fear. 2 No doubt, Constantine the Great was the driving force behind the spread of Christianity. But who was Constantine the Great, and what were his other accomplishments? 3 Constantine the Great was born Flavius Valerius Constantius around 274 A.D. His father, Constantius, was an ambitious army officer. His mother, Helena, was probably the daughter of an innkeeper. When Constantine the Great was just a teenager, his father left him and Helena in order to marry Theodora. Theodora came from a very prominent family. Her stepfather -Emperor Maximian -- was, in fact, the most powerful man in the entire Western Roman Empire. Through this new marriage, Constantius was able to make a huge leap in his career. His father-in-law gave him the title of Caesar (junior emperor) in 293 A.D. 4 As Constantius worked hard on proving himself in the Western Roman Empire, Constantine the Great did the same in the Eastern Roman Empire. The young boy joined the military and served with distinction. 5 On May 1, 305 A.D., Maximian and Diocletian (the ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire) both decided to retire. They each had a junior emperor to whom they would pass the power. Maximian's successor was Constantius, and Diocletian's Galerius. After the transition, Constantius requested his son's presence from Galerius. Galerius agreed, so Constantine the Great moved to the Western Roman Empire to join his father on a military campaign in Britain. Sadly, the reunion between the father and the son turned out to be short-lived. On July 25, 306 A.D., Constantius got sick and died at Eboracum (modern day's York). Upon his death, his loyal soldiers hailed Constantine the Great as their new emperor, but not everybody in the Western Roman Empire accepted the decision. For the next six years, Constantine the Great engaged himself and his troops in a series of civil wars. At last, he managed to crush all his opponents to become the sole ruler of the Western Roman Empire. It was often said that the night before his deciding battle, the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, he had a dream. In it, he received the instruction of painting the first two Greek letters of the word "Christ" -- Chi (X) and Rho (P) -- on all his soldiers' shields. When he woke up, he did just that and went on to win the war. Since then, he had become a committed Christian and continued to have his armies bearing this unique symbol of Christ, known as labarum. 6 One year after Constantine the Great finally secured his power, he and his co-ruler from the Eastern Roman Empire, Licinius, issued the Edict of Milan together. Though both men pledged to tolerate all faiths in their respective kingdom, Licinius later strayed from his commitment and began the practice of persecuting the Christians once again. Furious, Constantine the Great waged wars against Licinius. After several years of fighting, Constantine the Great finally defeated Licinius. In 324 A.D., he united both the Eastern and Western Roman Empires. From that point on to his death, he had the throne all to himself. He no longer needed to share his power with somebody else as he had done so previously. 7 The following year, in 325 A.D., Constantine the Great organized the first ever council of the Christian church at Nicaea (today's Iznik, Turkey). The objective of the council was to resolve the disagreement over whether Jesus was a divine or a created being. With about 300 bishops attending the meeting, they eventually reached the conclusion that Jesus was of the same 8 or of similar substance as God the Father. They also agreed on the date for celebrating the Christian Passover or Easter. As Constantine the Great dedicated tremendous resources to promote Christianity, his personal life was a mess. He first killed Licinius, then Crispus (his eldest son and heir apparent), and finally Fausta (his second wife). All the slaughtering took place over a short period of two years, from 325 A.D. to 326 A.D. Around the same time as one family tragedy after another unfolded, Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, embarked on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem or the Holy Land. Constantine the Great did not join her. He stayed behind to plan for a new capital. He completely demolished the city of Byzantium (modern day's Istanbul, Turkey) and rebuilt a new one on site. The new capital was unveiled in 330 A.D. It was called Constantinople after himself. 9 Interestingly, though Constantine the Great did many things in favor of Christianity, he himself was not baptized until his final days. Shortly before he died on May 22, 337 A.D., he finally changed into a white robe so he could get baptized. 10 To the Christians, Constantine the Great was one of their staunchest supporters. Through his efforts, Christianity was able to spread to all corners of the Roman Empire and eventually become the kingdom's sole religion in 380 A.D.! 11 Copyright © 2007 edHelper Name _____________________________ Date ___________________ Constantine the Great and Christianity 1. Which of the following about Constantine the Great and Christianity is correct? Constantine the Great commissioned the construction of several grand cathedrals. Constantine the Great was baptized shortly after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Constantine the Great 2. Which of the following events took place last? Constantine the Great crushed all opponents and became the sole ruler of the Western Roman Empire. Constantine the Great joined his father on a military campaign in Britain. Constantine the Great drafted and issued the Edict of Milan alone. Constantine made Christianity the sole religion of the Roman Empire. 3. What was the Edict of Milan about? To pick a day for celebrating Easter To tolerate all religions To name Christianity the sole religion of the Roman Empire To determine whether Jesus was a divine or a created being organized the Council of Nicaea. Constantine issued the Edict of Milan. 4. For how many years did Constantine the Great rule the united Roman Empire? 49 years 13 years 63 years 31 years 5. When Constantine the Great died, 6. What symbol did the soldiers of where was his capital? Constantinople Milan Eboracum Nicaea Constantine the Great carry? Alpha and Omega Trefoil Rose Labarum Name _____________________________ Date ___________________ Constantine the Great and Christianity 7. Which two Greek letters did Constantine the Great order to be painted on all the shields of his soldiers? Chi (X) and Rho (P) Tau (T) and Beta (B) Zeta (Z) and Chi (X) Alpha (A) and Rho (P) 8. With whom and in what year did Constantine the Great issue the Edict of Milan? Constantius, 293 A.D. Licinius, 313 A.D. Galerius, 306 A.D. Crispus, 326 A.D.