Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus—commonly known as Constantine I—was emperor of Rome from 306 until his death in 337. The Orthodox Catholic Church recognizes Constantine as a saint, the Roman Catholic Church does not. While this reflects substantial differences in evaluation, both Eastern and Western Catholics have long esteemed the emperor’s contributions to the security, prosperity, and power of Christianity, and writers in both traditions routinely refer to him as “Constantine the Great.”
However in later, more skeptical centuries, many historians echoed the attack on Constantine made by the emperor Julian the Apostate (331–363) during his quixotic and brief effort to reestablish paganism: Julian denounced Constantine as an insincere and self-indulgent tyrant. Thus generations of scholars rejected the authenticity of Constantine’s conversion, dismissed his support of Christianity as cynical, and condemned the unity he attempted to impose on the church. A leading critic was Jacob Burckhardt (1818–1897), who wrote: “Attempts have been made to penetrate the religious consciousness of Constantine and to construct a hypothetical picture of the changes in his religious convictions. Such efforts are futile. In a genius driven without surcease by ambition and lust for power there can be no question of religiosity; such a man is essentially unreligious, even if he pictures himself standing in the midst of a churchly community.... [A]ll of his energies, spiritual as well as physical, are devoted to the great goal of domination.” Then Burckhardt summed up Constantine as “a calculating politician who shrewdly employed all available physical resources and spiritual powers to the end of maintaining himself and his rule.”
This chapter opens by noting the reasons why recent historians have returned to a more complimentary view of Constantine’s conversion and his commitment to Christianity. It then assesses the benefits Constantine heaped upon the church—his massive church-building program all across the empire, as well as the privileges and power he conferred upon the clergy. Then it will be seen that Constantine’s imposition of doctrinal unity on Christianity created a tradition of crushing dissent. Remarkably, all the while he led religious intolerance within Christianity, he extolled tolerance of paganism. Finally, Constantine’s embrace of Christianity was interpreted in Persia to mean that all local Christians were potential traitors during wars with the empire, thus initiating decades of bloody persecution.
* Rodney Stark,
The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World's Largest Religion
[Ο Θρίαμβος του Χριστιανισμού: Πώς το Κίνημα του Ιησού Έγινε η Μεγαλύτερη Θρησκεία του Κόσμου],
p./σ. 169, 170.