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Christianity becomes Dominant

Constantine supports Christianity | Constantine and the nature of Jesus Christ | Constantine's Harsh Rule | Prestige and Transformations | Bishop Historian: Eusebius | Emperors Julian (the Apostate) to Valentinian | Emperors against Pagans, Jews and Arian Christians

Constantine supports Christianity

In addition to having become an emperor, Constantine took office as Supreme Pontiff. And, as Supreme Pontiff, he gave recognition to the god that had been his father's favorite: Sol Invictus, the Syrian sun god that had been brought to Rome by the boy-emperor Elagabalus some sixty years before. Constantine's half of the empire was five or more percent Christian. His mother, Helena, was among the Christians. Constantine had become sympathetic with the god of the Christians, and perhaps he gave Jesus at least part of the credit for his military victory over his rival, Maxentius, making Jesus Christ in his view a god of war.

In the eastern half of the empire, Galerius, who had died in 311, had been succeeded by his choice, his drinking companion, Licinius (pronounced Lick-IN-ee-us). At Milan in 313, Constantine came to an understanding with Licinius. The two recognized each other's rule, and they agreed that Christianity was to have full equality with other religions and that the property taken from Christians during the persecutions was to be returned. This was their Edict of Toleration.

Constantine gave the Bishop of Rome imperial property where a new cathedral, the Lateran Basilica, would rise, and he provided for the building of other Christian churches across his part of the empire. He granted the Christian clergy special privileges and allowed people to will their property to the Church. He exempted the clergy from taxation, from military service and forced labor – as had been granted to the priests of other recognized religions. The tax exemptions for the Christian clergy were followed by a number of wealthy men rushing to join the clergy, and Constantine corrected this by making it illegal for rich pagans to claim tax exemptions as Christian priests.

The Christian church was experiencing numerous ideological conflicts, and the bishops sought help from Constantine in their effort to preserve what they called true Christianity. Constantine wanted Christianity to end its bickering, and he responded willingly to the bishops' requests. He saw it as his duty to suppress impiety, and the bishops accepted Constantine's authority.

Constantine's half of the empire remained from five to ten percent Christian, and the city of Rome remained largely pagan, especially the Senate, and so too did the high command of Constantine's army. Constantine had made no break with paganism. The arch dedicated to Constantine's victory over Maxentius, erected in 315 or 316, described that victory as an "instigation of divinity" and had not credited Jesus or the god of the Jews and Christians, Jehovah (Yahweh). Constantine appointed pagan aristocrats to high offices in Rome while tolerating from his army the greeting "Constantine, may the immortal gods preserve you for us!" Then, in 321, in a move to accommodate Christianity with prevailing pagan ways, Constantine made the day of Sol Invictus a holy day and a day of rest for the Christians – Sunday.

Constantine Takes Control of the Eastern Half of the Empire

In the east, Licinius grew fearful of the respect that Christians in his realm had for Constantine. He expelled Christians from his household and executed a few bishops. In 323, Constantine and his army entered Greece. Then he drove another wave of Goth invaders north and  back across the Danube River. Although Constantine was still in what was officially the western half of the empire he was close enough to the east to concern Licinius. Licinius attempted negotiations with Constantine, which failed, and war erupted between the two. In late 324, Constantine's forces defeated those under Licinius, and Constantine became emperor of the entire empire. He had publicly promised to spare the life of Licinius, but he changed his mind, and the following year he had Licinius executed by strangulation.

After defeating Licinius, Constantine founded a new capital city in the eastern half of the empire, at Byzantium. He called the city "New Rome." Later it would be called the City of Constantine, or Constantinople. Eventually it would be called Istanbul.

Constantine had not been baptized, but he appears to have become increasingly devoted to Christianity. He wrote of his successes as an indication of favor from Christianity's god. He attributed the failures of those recent emperors who had persecuted the Christians as an indication of the Christian god's power. Constantine granted more lands to the Church. He began a new series in the construction of Christian churches that were much grander than the Christians had before his time. And he gave Christian bishops the authority of judges – against whom there would be no appeal.

Constantine attempted to increase his appeal as a Christian by writing that his father, Constantius – a vice-emperor under Diocletian – had honored the "one supreme god," and that this god had given his father "manifestations and signs" of his assistance. It was a claim that overlooked that his father had worshiped Sol Invictus, had supported, however half-heartedly, Diocletian's persecutions of the Christians and had died a pagan.


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