First off, we can say without too much doubt that Constantine won the day because he was a superior general with a superior army. He had already fought victoriously all across the Empire, from Gaul to Iconium. He had already defeated two of Maxentius’s armies in the process of marching on Rome. It was actually expected by most that Maxentius would wait in Rome and force Constantine to engage in siege warfare, a successful ploy against both Severus and Galerius.
Maxentius marched out of the city and met Constantine on the Via Flaminia with the Tiber at his back. Really close to his back, from what we can piece together about the battle. Like, so close that Constantine’s forces were able to push Maxentius’s in to the Tiber and while that was happening Maxentius’s troops simply could not make the necessary space to regroup. Bad judgment of the terrain can be far more deadly than a hail of arrows.
Divine intervention was really unnecessary for Constantine to win. Still, there’s nothing inherently wrong with giving credit to the divine for such things. Especially when we’re talking about ancient societies that were totally god-crazy. So I’ll leave that aside for the moment.
We have very little evidence that Constantine directly attributed anything to the Christian God. This is the inscription from the Arch of Constantine, completely three years after the battle:
To the Emperor Caesar Flavius Constantinus, the greatest, pious, and blessed Augustus: because he, inspired by the divine, and by the greatness of his mind, has delivered the state from the tyrant and all of his followers at the same time, with his army and just force of arms, the Senate and People of Rome have dedicated this arch, decorated with triumphs.
That “inspired by the divine” is not exactly a ringing endorsement of Christianity.
John Julius Norwich seems to have taken the more direct translation and put the “instinctu divinitatis” as “instinct with divinity.” Still, he says that it “must have been deliberately chosen for its ambiguity.” I’m prone to agree with this, but not his further assertion that Constantine was “treading warily.” I suspect the inscription would have been intentionally chosen and intentionally vague, but not to cover any sort of Jesus-related shenanigans.
Constantine was standing at a moment of sea change in European history and all the evidence I see indicates he knew it. I could, in fact, make an argument that he actually helped bring it about. In fact, I think I will do exactly that.
Polytheism was drawing to a close in the Roman world. The ancient Roman pantheon, borrowed wholesale from the Greeks, was falling by the wayside. In its place had arisen the cult of Helios, better known as Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, associated alternatively with Apollo or Mithras (of whom Constantine had already had a convenient vision years before, precipitating a switch of patron from Mars to . Competing with the worshipers of Sol Invictus was another collection of monotheistic Son worshipers: the Christians.
Meanwhile, the idea of the divinity of the Emperor was probably in serious trouble. When Diocletian and Galerius started handing the title of Augustus out to anyone who happened to be in town they undoubtedly seriously de-valued the idea that there was a single, god-like Emperor. So the Cult of Emperor might have still been on the books, but I’m prone to believe it was in trouble.
One of the grand traditions of the ancient world involved new rulers telling their subjects, “Hey, I’m in charge, everyone worship this guy now.” Or, at the very least, they’d mint new coins that identified the god that was their specific patron. Then they’d dedicate a few temples, throw some games in honor of said god, kiss a few babies, and get on with the business of governing or going to war or going slowly insane or what have you.
When Constantine got to Rome he dedicated a few Christian churches. While the choice of religion might have been surprising, the action itself was not. He then proceeded to be extremely ambiguous about what he actually believed and continued having coins minted with dedications to Sol Invictus for at least the next several years. He also declared that there was to be no religious persecution in the Empire and ordered that any property confiscated from Christians was to be returned. Eventually, of course, he was to call the first Christian council at Nicaea, which would set the Nicene Creed and take the first steps in deciding once and for all about that whole divinity of Christ thing.
One thing that the Council of Nicaea did not do that everyone seems to think it did was settle the issue of the official Biblical canon. This is a key point to consider. The Council of Nicaea was three centuries removed from the life of Christ and two centuries removed from the completion of the final canonical Gospel. There was already a major controversy (Arianism) and a schism (the Meletian schism). Every city and church undoubtedly had its own version of Christianity, which shouldn’t be surprising given the situation today. But there’s an extremely good chance that it was actually worse, due to the whole lack of a set Bible thing.
Oh, and plenty of people were also busy integrating the Christ story in to their own prior pagan beliefs without really worrying too much about the whole monotheism thing. People make a big deal today about how the Jesus story looks a hell of a lot like the Mithras story (born of a virgin on December 25th, came to save the world, y’know…), then use this as an argument that Christianity absconded with the cult of Mithras.
I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a lot of people just got the two confused. Roman religious thought was already busy merging Apollo, Helios, and Mithras in to the cult of Sol Invictus. Why not Jesus? The average Roman citizen was probably not a sophisticated theological thinker and undoubtedly more than willing to pass on a good story. And if you’re planning on arguing the point, consider modern America. George Washington probably didn’t chop down a cherry tree or throw a coin across the Delaware River. I don’t place too much faith in stories of bigfoot or alien abductions, either. And don’t get me started on the credulous morons who actually believe Dan Brown was writing real history in the Da Vinci Code.
I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Constantine didn’t draw a particularly strong distinction between the two. He was a brilliant military commander and a damn good politician but there’s no evidence that he was a particularly bright theologian. There’s plenty of evidence that he was theologically ambivalent, in fact, and saw religion primarily as a means to an end.
So let’s consider, once again, Constantine’s stance on Christianity. I’d say it’s a strong possibility we can set aside any sort of divine appearance of Jesus at the Milvian Bridge. Further, let’s set aside for the moment the possibility of a genuine and complete conversion in the modern Christian sense, as we simply have no evidence of such a change in Constantine’s views on religion. I have three theories about what actually happened. I also have a fourth, bonus theory about the historical records.
The first possibility is that Constantine saw the cult of Sol Invictus and the cult of Christ as the two big powers moving forward in Roman religious thought. He decided to try to appease both. So he kept minting coins with Helios on them while ending the persecution of Christians and giving them official legitimacy in the eyes of the state. This possibility, however, is a bit too…passive for Constantine. So on to possibility two.
Constantine saw the demise of the Cult of the Emperor and the end of the old Roman pantheon, either as an actual ongoing thing or a rapidly approaching occurrence. So he decided that if he was going to rule over a changing Empire he needed to get out ahead of it. Thus, he conferred upon the Christian church a legitimacy it craved in exchange for Imperial control. He then called the Council of Nicaea to make sure that this new religious construct would provide the stability the Empire sorely needed following the chaos of the Tetrarchy. The Emperor would then step aside from the whole god on Earth thing and take the position of God’s Vice-Gerent on Earth. Of course this makes Constantine out as cynical and manipulative, so let’s give him an option with the benefit of the doubt.
The third possibility is that Constantine did make a genuine commitment to the whole Christianity thing, but told Jesus he was still going to see other deities. He was young, you know? He wanted to sow his wild oats, see what was out there. Besides, it was a different time. The uptight Third Century was over and it was the wild and crazy Fourth Century. Free love, man.
I’m prone to go with option two, perhaps with a bit of option three mixed in. Given the evidence we have, both of the character of Constantine and his actions post-Milvian Bridge it makes the most sense. In point of fact, we do know that Constantine was baptized in to the faith at the end of his life. The general thought on this is that it was widely believed at the time that baptism was more of an “after” thing than a “before” and that whole “remission of sins” bit was for all the sins that the baptized person had committed prior would be forgiven while any later ones were not covered. So the idea of a baptism late in life was a matter of practicality, especially for someone who regularly had to commit sins as part of his job (yeah, chew on that thought for a while…). Unfortunately, it doesn’t shed any light on when Constantine actually came to believe. But I think it lends credence to the idea that he did, as I can’t imagine him bothering to be baptized just for the sake of appearances while at death’s door. Also, he did dedicate an awful large number of churches…
As to Eusebius…well…let’s talk about that crazy vision in the sky for a moment
Let’s assume for the moment that Eusebius didn’t just make everything up whole-cloth about the vision before the Milvian Bridge. Further, let’s consider the fact that while in Gaul, Constantine claimed to have a vision of Apollo and Victory, which lead to his adoption of the Cult of Sol Invictus. The vision recorded by Eusebius that’s been passed forward is of the sign of the Cross under the sun, inscribed with the words “Conquer by This.” In another context that could be seen as a sign given by, oh, I don’t know…Apollo and Victory. Perhaps Constantine did tell Eusebius about his vision, but conveniently moved it forward in time. Or perhaps Eusebius knew that Constantine had claimed the earlier vision and tweaked it just a bit. Hell, maybe he had heard of the earlier vision and genuinely thought it referred to a moment before the Milvian Bridge.
Stranger things have happened, after all.
So that’s Constantine, in all his grand confusion and contradiction. Next time on the series that will probably never end: the Council of Nicaea.
Yeah, it’s from Wikipedia, bitches. It’s the easiest way to get access to the actual text of the arch. Also, the majority of the sources I’ve found seem to agree on the text, but Wiki is the most easily readable of the bunch.
One of the great things about the internets, meanwhile, is that if you do the right search you can find some crazy stuff. Like this brilliantly loopy site about how Constantine was the first Pope. And this other site with a whole bunch of convoluted quotes and replies to replies that is supposed to prove…um…something in response to this other site. I mean, seriously. Somebody who gets to the end, please tell me what you think is going on with this, especially since the last line on the page that’s a reply is, “Even those who consider themselves good Christians would be at odds with Britannica’s take on evolution.”
That reminds me: when I was in college I wrote a paper on the Maccabean Revolt. My last line was, “Even those who consider themselves true Klingons would disagree with Wikipedia’s article about the Model T Ford.” My professor suggested I take that out of the final version. True story…
John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: the Early Centuries (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), p 45
It’s actually entirely possible to make the argument that Zoroastrianism was the most important religion of the ancient European and Middle Eastern world. Mithra was a Zoroastrian deity who was mostly taken whole-cloth in to the whole Sol Invictus thing. Zoroastrianism also had a massive influence on the development of mystical Judaism and the whole balance of good and evil and spiritual forces thing seems to have made quite the impression on the early Christians.
Snort. Chuckle. Guffaw.
Snort. Chuckle. Guffaw.
”Vice-Gerent” is a specific title held by the Byzantine Emperors and used in Islam in certain cases. In the Byzantine sense it indicates that the Emperor is basically god’s representative on Earth and second only to the deity in the chain of command. All things considered, it’s not exactly a big step down from the Cult of Emperor thing.
Also, as a side note, when John Julius Norwich introduced me to the term I assumed it had a similar etymology to “regent,” as the meanings are extremely similar. Turns out that they come from different Latin roots, with “regent” indicating a ruler and “gerent” indicating a manager. Chances are they share a closer origin somewhere further in time, but they aren’t quite as closely related as I thought.