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The real story behind Constantine’s conversion
A sculpture of the head of Roman Emperor Constantine. CNS/Paul Haring
Oct. 28 is the 1,700th anniversary of a truly pivotal moment in the story of Western civilization and in the story of Christ’s Church — an event so decisive, in fact, that it led to the convergence of these two previously colliding cultures.
On that autumn day in 312, two would-be emperors, Constantine and Maxentius, clashed outside the gates of Rome. They were vying for the throne once occupied by their fathers.
Constantine’s army overwhelmed Maxentius and his legions, pushing them back onto their makeshift bridge over the Tiber River and, after its collapse, into the waters below. To one Christian chronicler of the time, Eusebius of Caesarea, it was a defeat akin to Pharaoh and his troops drowning in the Red Sea.
We begin to see the momentous nature of this battle and the reason for Eusebius’ analogy when we note what did not take place in its immediate aftermath. Upon triumphantly entering Rome, Constantine refused to perform the customary sacrifices to the god Jupiter. Why? Because he did not attribute his victory to the chief deity of the Roman state. Shockingly, he credited a man executed for treason against Rome and worshipped as God incarnate by an illegal religion. Constantine believed that he had secured imperial power through the assistance of Jesus Christ.
A divine presence
The day before the battle, Constantine experienced something that he believed to be a divine communiqué assuring him of success if he fought under the patronage of the Christian God. The historical accounts about his experience are somewhat conflicting: He had a dream or saw a vision in the sky or perhaps both took place. Whatever its precise form, this message from God compelled Constantine to emblazon his shields and military standards with the overlapping Greek letters Chi and Rho — the first two letters of the title “Christ.”
The authenticity of Constantine’s commitment to Christianity has been much debated by modern scholars. What remains clear is that after 312, Constantine saw himself both as a Christian and as a divinely appointed protector of the Church.
This self-understanding is evident in his own words and especially in his political deeds: Constantine built scores of extravagant churches throughout his vast domain, assisted bishops in their efforts to resolve doctrinal conflicts, granted clergy exemptions from certain taxes and public duties, and promoted Christians within his administration and the military.
Contrary to widespread belief, Constantine did not, however, persecute pagans or compel any of his subjects to convert to Christianity. That’s right, he never marched his army down to the river to baptize them like so many of us have been told, nor did he make Christianity the official religion of the Empire, as we’ve all been told. He was pro-Christian without being anti-pagan.
Reconsidering the tale
Many Christians at the time enthusiastically welcomed Constantine’s policies. They had, after all, endured nearly 300 years of perpetual social disdain together with sporadic but violent persecution at the hands of civil authorities. Shortly after Constantine’s ascension to power, these same Christians found themselves under the patronage of the very highest of all civil authorities. No wonder Eusebius compared Constantine to Moses and his victory to the Exodus!
Other Christians at the time observed that the social-political recognition of Christianity that followed Constantine’s victory came with a cost all its own. It may have increased the Church’s growth rate, but to some it also decreased her collective purity. Indeed, catechumens were less likely to receive the intensive baptismal preparation of previous centuries, and they were more likely than before to convert for reasons other than devotion to Christ.
This apparent trade-off between quantity and quality or popularity and piety is nevertheless a far cry from the “fall of the Church” catastrophe imagined by some of our Protestant brethren. In fact, many Catholic beliefs and practices repudiated by these appropriately named Restorationist denominations had taken root in the Church centuries before Constantine, and thus would appear to have been planted by the Apostles and their spiritual successors rather than Constantine and his political heirs. Even a casual reading of the earliest Christian writings will confirm this.
Perhaps we would all do well to reconsider the historical record on Constantine and on the early Church as we mark the 1,700th anniversary of that autumn day when their respective stories first intersected.
Chad Gerber teaches historical theology at Walsh University in Ohio.