On Constantine and Christianity

A while ago I briefly joined OKCupid, because I was unhappily single and 30 and I don’t want to die alone. It didn’t last because the best thing about OKCupid is that it makes dying alone seem like a very attractive option in comparison to the string of misogynists, goobers and bibbles that will depress and insult you. Plus, I’m a belligerent and grumpy woman, so I endeavoured to make my profile as representative of that as possible, particularly by emphasising that I’m wildly overeducated, very impatient and talk about Romans too much.

What this lead to was lots of people messaging me to ask me questions about Romans, and rubbishers trying to impress me with their excellent knowledge about things they were wrong about. Easily in my top three of these was the woman (yes, I thought that too) who messaged me with a long, ill-informed paragraph about Christianity causing the end of the Roman empire (I assume she is a fan of Edward Gibbon) and ended with the question, reproduced here as I received it: “And did Christinaity become popular because of the mastif flag taken into battle ….. ?” (sic)

I am a grown up, so I will not question the typo on Christianity. “Mastif flag” however is some made up bollocks. What the cock this person thinks a “mastif flag” is I do not know. I even tried to Google it in case it was something I didn’t know about somehow. You know what happens when you Google “mastif flag”? It autocorrects to “mastiff” and shows you dog merchandise. Turns out you can buy a lot of flags with pictures of English Mastiffs on them. Make of that what you will. I ASSUME – because this woman required many assumptions – that she was talking about the Labarum flag that Constantine allegedly carried into battle at Milvian Bridge in 312AD. So that’s what I’m going to talk about for the next 1000 words or so.

Here’s what OKCupid lady was probably talking about: Constantine was engaged in a very long running civil war between many men claiming to be emperor. At one point the empire has at least 6 people claiming to be an Augustus. Eventually Constantine wins, and one of most decisive and important battles is at Milvian Bridge, (over the TIber) where he crushes Maxentius. Two Christian chroniclers of the wars claimed that this battle marked the beginning of Constantine’s deeply contentious conversion to Christianity, and a sort of composite of these accounts is what makes up the modern idea that Constantine saw a vision a Chi-Rho(1) in the sky before the battle, decided Christ was on his side, put the Chi-Rho on his flags as he went into battle and, as a result, won.

Obviously, this is deeply suspicious. For one, Latantius and Eusebius’s accounts of the incident don’t agree at all. Secondly, Eusebius’s two versions of the event have virtually nothing in common, he doesn’t even mention the flag in the first one. Thirdly, Lactantius later claims that Licinius (another of the emperors involved in the civil wars) was tormented by God with various grotesque diseases until he went mad and bashed his own head against a wall until his eyes fell out. Which definitely didn’t happen, so I think we can all agree that Lactantius’s apologetic work On How the Persecutors Died is perhaps not the most reliable of historical sources.(2)

The differences between the accounts of Lactantius and Eusebius are also pretty damn significant. In Lactantius’s – which is the earlier source – Constantine has a dream from God telling him to put a staurogram(3) on his soldier’s shields. In Eusebius’s second account, Constantine looks into the sun while marching and sees a glowing cross with the words “In this sign, conquer”. Constantine, being a bluff military man, is confused by this sign and only then does he receive a dream clarifying that he should display the labarum(4) as a flag in order to win the upcoming battle. These are differences that matter to me. If we’re talking about miracles, I want consistency about the earthly bits at the very least. Moreover, it’s important for our question: if Constantine didn’t even carry a flag into battle, it can’t have popularised Christianity. If the only people who talk about the incident are Christians, who are writing for a predominantly Christian readership, then it certainly didn’t help.

So, in order to fully answer the OKCupid question, I am going to reword it slightly and open up the scope: did Constantine make Christianity popular? And the answer to that is a tentative “ish”. What Constantine did was make Christianity legal with the Edict of Milan and made some minor steps towards conciliation with churches. He also legalised and patronised a number of other religious groups, like sun worship, which were also pretty popular. He didn’t make it a state religion, he didn’t become a Christian until his deathbed, and he didn’t promote Christianity. None of the stories about his experiences as Malvian Bridge come from Constantine, they come from Christian writers. He never went out of his way to popularise or encourage Christianity. But he DID legalise it. And that’s a huge step for the growth of Christianity that allowed it to become a genuine force in the world.

The other important thing Constantine did for Christianity was to sort of pick one group of christians over the rest by getting involved in the Council of Nicea, the council which produced the Nicene Creed. One of the central issues under debate there was the relationship between Christ the Son and God the Father, because this is the kind of thing that was super important at the time. On the one side was the Arians, arguing that Christ was subordinate to God, was created by God and was therefore not God. On the other was the Catholics arguing that the Father and Son and Holy Spirit were all equal, consubstantial (of the same substance) and “unbegotten”-they had all existed before time and none were created. Heady stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. If indeed you have been able to contain your excitement this far.

This kind of dry, Greek jargon heavy theological argument caused SERIOUS problems for early Christianity because it split the small amount of Christians there were, then made the whole religion look very confusing and intimidating from the outside. To the extent that interested converts might have benefited from a leaflet titled “I’m interested in Christ, but which one is best for me?” At Nicea, presided over by Constantine, the Arians lost and were declared heretics for their denial of the Trinity. This gave the Catholics the air of being the proper church and made everyone else look like splitters. So accidental though this likely was, it was useful for Christianity.

But here’s the big thing. Prior to Constantine, Christians are in a very difficult position. Specifically, they are being relentlessly persecuted.(5) And having members be tried, tortured and brutally murdered in public is not the kind of thing that tends to attract people to your group.(6) And those that it does attract have an awkward and embarrassing tendency to renounce their faith when presented with a sword, which causes all sorts of recruitment problems.(7) And for all the attractions of Christianity, this kind of thing limits how far a movement can grow and completely prevents it from being able to engage openly in public life. And the ancient world is 100% focussed on public life. When Constantine legalises Christianity, he allows people in public and political positions to be able to openly practice as Christians; he allows Christianity to be a genuine part of the power structures of the empire throughout the empire; and he makes being a Christian a much less dangerous proposition.

Being a Christian no longer has to be one’s entire identity, as it is for martyrs, priests and authors, it can simply be a part of one’s whole life. Which means that married people, older people, people with children, people who don’t want to die horribly can all join in. So in this way, yes, Constantine made Christianity more popular because he made it accessible. But no, carrying the sign of Christ (which ever it was) into battle did not.

And I answered that question without even considering the question of whether Constantine’s conversion was real. Because that’s a question for another day.


(1) This is a Chi Rho:


(2) It is, however, a fantastically entertaining work and one of my all time favourites. This is the account of Licinius’s death: “and in the anguish and dismay of his mind, he sought death as the only remedy of those calamities that God had heaped on him. But first he gorged himself with food, and large draughts of wine, as those are wont who believe that they eat and drink for the last time; and so he swallowed poison. However, the force of the poison, repelled by his full stomach, could not immediately operate, but it produced a grievous disease, resembling the pestilence; and his life was prolonged only that his sufferings might be more severe. And now the poison began to rage, and to burn up everything within him, so that he was driven to distraction with the intolerable pain; and during a fit of frenzy, which lasted four days, he gathered handfuls of earth, and greedily devoured it. Having undergone various and excruciating torments, he dashed his forehead against the wall, and his eyes started out of their sockets.” (De Mort 49) SO MUCH FUN! Read the whole thing on the wonderful Church Fathers site.

(3) This is a staurogram:


(4) This is a labarum. totally different:


(5) The reasons for the persecutions are varied, contentious and a specific legal basis for them has never been agreed on. Geoffrey De St Croix and Adrian Sherwin-White maintained an debate in the journal Past and Present throughout the 1960s on the legal basis for the Christian persecutions and never came to a decision.

(6) This isn’t strictly true. It does, it attracts plenty of people. But it does tend to limit the number and type of people who join in, and keeps Christianity a religion for the young, the unattached and the weird.

(7) Christianity is, as you’ve probably noticed, the kind of religion that likes to in-fight and split up. And what to do with people who were baptised as Christians and renounced their faith during a persecution only to request rebaptism when the persecution was over caused fights like you wouldn’t believe and accusations of heresy all over, that occasionally devolved so far that there would be two bishops of Rome: a pope and an anti-pope. A refusal to let people re-join the church also didn’t help with the numbers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *