Constantine’s Personal Faith
Doubts about Constantine’s faith
Constantine and Sol Invictus
The question about the sincerity of Roman Emperor Constantine’s faith matters for two reasons. First, during his reign at the beginning of the fourth century AD Christianity became a religio licita, after having been only a superstitio illicita before (Ramelli, 2013, p. 65). It was Constantine who really paved the way for a Christian empire, which has heavily influenced world history until now. The sincerity of his faith might explain his success. Second, this is a question about motive. If we can better understand the underlying motivations of Constantine, any other speculations about his life and his actions become more plausible. A Variety of sources are available to us, each one having strengths and limitations. Unfortunately, there are hardly any texts delivered by Constantine himself, which means that we can only speculate on the sincerity of his faith without ever being sure. Coins issued by Constantine are a reliable primary source, but being a very public item they might not tell us much on his private beliefs. The same holds for public documents issued by Constantine like the Edict of Milan. On the other side, we have two detailed accounts on his life by two of his contemporaries, Eusebius of Caesarea (“Life of Constantine”) and Lactantius (“On the deaths of the persecutors”). As both are Christians, we have to take into account the bias due to the incentive to portrait Constantine like a saint.
Constantine’s Personal Faith
Growing up, Constantine must have been somewhat familiar with Christianity, considering that his mother Helena was a Christian, and his father Constantius at least sympathized with the religion (Thompson, 2013). As far as we know, however, the relationship between Constantine and Christianity really begins with the story of his conversion, of which we have two accounts of his contemporaries. The most detailed one was written by Eusebius, according to which Constantine was searching for the right divine support for his attempt to free Rome of the Tyranny of Maxentius. During this search process Constantine and his army apparently saw “the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, CONQUER BY THIS" (Eusebius of Caesarea, Book 1, Chapter 28). At night, Jesus appeared in his dream telling him to use the sign ☧ (Chi-Rho, first two letters of “Christus”) against his enemies (1,29). Constantine then let himself be informed about the doctrines of this Christian god by priests before he made the decision to attack Rome with his army bearing signs of the cross (1,32). The other account available to us is by Lactantius. He only describes a dream of Constantine, in which he is directed to have the Chi-Rho delineated on the shields of his soldiers (Lactantius, Chapter 44).
Can we trust these accounts? We have to be careful because both writers are Christians and have an incentive for writing a story that makes Constantine seem like a saint. At the same time, they both were contemporaries of Constantine and knew him well. They could not have used completely different facts and dates than those in the real story, considering that the people who read these accounts at the time (especially high political circles) must have known about it. Therefore I think that both writers might have decorated their story with certain religious aspects, e.g. exaggerating the magnitude of the vision, rather than inventing completely new parts of the story. We know that Constantine conquered Rome in 312, and he probably was searching for a right god supporting him, as was the norm in the Roman Empire (Eusebius of Caesarea, 1,27). Especially in times of search he must have been open to signs and a religious experience. Furthermore, in the Roman Empire people were used to interpret signs with supernatural explanations (e.g. haruspices). A dream and a natural cross in the sky (e.g. a sundog or other natural phenomena) are definitely possible events that could have occurred to Constantine (see Leithart, 2010, p. 39; Nicholson, 2000, p. 311). For these reasons, I believe that Constantine did have a personal, religious experience. The question of whether this was caused by divine intervention or Constantine’s imagination should not matter here.
After only having looked at one specific event now, let us look at the remaining 25 years of Constantine’s rule. Many pieces of evidence suggest a sincerity of his faith, whereas some also raise doubt. Reliable sources prove that Constantine tried to integrate Christianity into the public Roman life. In the mid 310s the first coins displaying the Chi-Rho were issued and already six churches were under construction or planned around Rome (Odahl, 2010, p. 139).
Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten
Fig 1: Coin with Chi-Rho, 315, from: http://www.constantinethegreatcoins.com/symbols/
However, while this public side of Constantine’s religion is largely undisputed we want to focus now on his personal devotion to Christianity. Surely, the victory in the battle for Rome must have convinced Constantine to some extent that he had chosen the right god. In 313 already, Constantine released together with his Licinius the “Edict of Milan” which gave Christians a legal status in the empire, and spoke of a “Supreme Deity“. In 315, when Constantine returned to Rome for the decennalia, the senate had built an arch for him. Part of the inscription about Constantine says “instinctu divinitatis” (through the inspiration of the divinity) (Odahl, 2010, p. 124). These pieces of evidence suggest that Constantine was consolidating his faith in a monotheistic (Christian) religion. More significantly, Constantine studied with Catholic scholars and read the scriptures so that he really understood the Christian ideas and terminology, before his conversion (Eusebius of Caesarea, 1;32) and after (Odahl, 2010, p. 121). This makes Constantine seem personally interested in the religion inherently, rather than using Christianity as a means for other ends. We thus reject such theories that regard Constantine’s religion as purely instrumental, e.g. Burckhardt’s thesis that it was a political calculation (1983).
While in late antiquity infant baptism was not the norm, it is striking that Constantine only got baptized on his deathbed (Mitchell et al., 2006, p. 549). Some may claim that this is a proof that he was not a real Christian during his reign as Roman Emperor. However, in the late antique baptism was also regarded as cleansing a person only from past sins, not of future ones (Thompson, 2013, p. 14). As an emperor Constantine surely knew he had to take many decisions that made a sinless life impossible. If his use of Christianity had been instrumental to something else, an early baptism would have made sense. If he had been a sincere Christian, though, it would have been reasonable to wait until the end of his reign, in order to be cleansed of all his sins.
Doubts about Constantine’s faith
Constantine might not have understood the idea of Jesus as the prince of peace, but rather regarded him as his warlord. Odahl describes how Constantine looked at Jesus as a “great commander in the sky” having used the metaphor Deus Omnipotens in caeli specula residens (“the Almighty God residing in the watchtower of heaven”) (Odahl, 2010, p. 121). This suits the fact that Constantine’s reign was shaped by wars and conquests, as well as the executions of his first son and second wife (Holloway, 2004, p. 17). He probably did not regard Christianity primarily as a religion of peace and mercy. These ideas, however, were already present at the time, as can be seen on the sarcophagus in figure 2, where Jesus is depicted entering Jerusalem without any armor
 It is proved that coins in the Roman Empire were issued by the government (Alföldi, 1932, p. 15).
 From now on I will cite Eusebius’ text as (“Book”,”Chapter”)
 Lactantius spent his life in high political circles (Nicholson, 2000, p. 317) and Eusebius is addressed in a letter by Constantine as his “best beloved brother” (Eusebius of Caesarea, Book 2,46).
 Using Christianity instrumentally for political reasons is also unlikely, because the percentage of Christians in the Roman Empire was still not more than 10% in the time of Constantine (Trombley, 2006, p. 306).