Denis Desert on Constantine the Great, whose authorization of Christianity changed the subsequent development of Western civilization

History, from time to time, produces people who make a radical change to the course of the world. The Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (280–337) was just such a person who, by authorizing Christianity, changed the subsequent development of the west.

Constantine’s father was the Caesar of Gaul, taking in France and Britain. Diocletian was the Emperor of the Western Empire who instigated some of the bitterest persecutions of Christians. Christianity was generally viewed as a force that could undermine the unity of the Empire by overthrowing the ancient religion based on polytheism. It so happened that the Emperor took the bright young Constantine on a tour of Egypt. Unknown to Diocletian, he met the Christian priest Eusebius, who later became the bishop of Caesarea and the biographer of Constantine.

Becoming Emperor

In 306 his father took his promising son on a tour of his domain ending in Eboracum (York) in Britain where his father died. The popular Constantine, now twenty-one, was declared his father’s successor by the military. He led his forces back through Gaul to Rome, meeting the Bishop of Cordova en route who influenced the young Caesar in the direction of Christianity.

Constantine was man of vision and ambition. He was not content just to fill his father’s shoes but saw himself as Emperor of the West. His objective led to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, the gateway to Rome. Before the battle in 312 he had his famous dream where he saw the Christian Chi Rho sign and heard the words, ‘In this sign conquer.’ He took Rome and, in the face of a disintegrated hierarchy, declared himself Emperor.

Unifying the Empire

At this period it is estimated that about ten per cent of the Empire had embraced Christianity. Constantine saw his new faith as a force to replace ancient polytheism and as the means to unify the Empire under Christ. But he faced a number of problems; the entrenched traditionalism of the Roman establishment; the deep divisions among Christians on the question of the nature of Christ; division of the Roman Empire with a separate Emperor governing the East; the vulnerability of the City of Rome to invasion by barbarian tribes.

He solved the problem of the division of the Empire by arranging for the Eastern Emperor to have an unfortunate accident and establishing himself as the Emperor of a united Empire. He dealt with the Christian divisions by calling the Council of Nicaea in 325 and directed the Bishops to come to a common mind. They did by formulating the Creed of Nicaea. He solved the problem of both the vulnerability of Rome to invasion and the conservatism of the Roman establishment by taking ov er the city of Byzantium to create a New Rome. Byzantium was an ancient seaport on the Bosphorus and ideally sited as a link between East and West. Constantine renamed the new city after himself, Constantinople. This redeveloped city built on classical Roman lines became, under Constantine, the major centre for the development of Christianity throughout the Empire.

Making atonement

It so happened that while the Emperor was busy establishing his New Rome, as it was known, on the Bosphorus his son was behaving improperly with his young stepmother. As a result Constantine arranged for both his son and the young wife to have fatal accidents. The Emperor’s mother, Helena, who doted on her grandchild, was furious at her son’s action. To atone for his sin she visited the Holy Land and caused Constantine to build splendid basilicas on the three major Christian sites – the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection in Jerusalem. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is substantially that of the period while the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is a Crusader construction but on the original site.

Bridging East and West

Constantinople enabled Roman culture, combined with that of Greece, to continue over the centuries. It became the bridge between East and West while Rome eventually became the centre of Western Christianity under the growing power of the Papacy. The city of Constantine was taken by the Muslim Ottomans in 1453 who renamed it Istanbul, a title that finds it origins in the Greek eis ton polin, meaning going into town.

Without the vision and inspiration of Constantine the Great, Christianity both in East and West would have taken on a very different character. It is unlikely that Western civilization would have had the strong Christian element that has made it such a force for good throughout the world. Eusebius considered Constantine’s reign as the fulfilment of divine providence and justifying the Emperor’s own view of himself that he was the thirteenth Apostle. ND