The cultural and religious crisis through which the Roman Empire was passing in the fourth century is one of the most significant events in the history of the world. The old pagan culture came into collision with Christianity, which received official recognition during the reign of Constantine at the beginning of the fourth century and was declared the dominant State religion by Theodosius the Great at the end of that same century. It might have seemed at first that these two clashing elements, representing two diametrically opposed points of view, would never find a basis for mutual agreement. But Christianity and pagan Hellenism did intermix gradually to form a Christian-Greco-Eastern culture subsequently known as Byzantine. Its center was the new capital of the Roman Empire, Constantinople.
The person who was chiefly responsible for the many changes in the empire was Constantine the Great. During his reign Christianity stepped for the first time on the firm ground of official recognition. From this time forward the old pagan empire gradually changed into a Christian empire.
The conversion of nations or states to Christianity has usually taken place during the early stage of their historical existence when the past has created no firmly established traditions, but merely some crude and primitive customs and forms of government. In such cases the conversion has caused no great crisis in the life of the people. But this was not characteristic of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. It already possessed an old world culture and had developed forms of government perfect for that time. It had a great past and an extensive body of ideas which had been assimilated by the population. This empire, changing in the fourth century into a Christian state, entered upon an era during which its past was contradicted, at times completely denied; this was bound to lead to an extremely acute and difficult crisis. Apparently the old pagan world, at least in the domain of religion, no longer satisfied national wants. New needs and new desires appeared, which only Christianity could satisfy.
When a moment of unusual importance is associated with some historical personage who happens to play a leading part in it, a whole literature about him is created which aims to evaluate his significance for the given period and attempts to penetrate into the innermost regions of his spiritual life. For the fourth century this important personage was Constantine the Great.
(…) The two main events of Constantine’s reign which were of paramount significance for the subsequent course of history were the official recognition of Christianity and the transfer of the capital from the shores of the Tiber to the shores of the Bosphorus, from ancient Rome to Constantinople, the “New Rome.”
(…) Constantine proposed to have the old and the new religions live peaceably side by side, at the same time favoring the latter. He understood which way the world was moving, and aided its movement without precipitating it. It is to the honor of this Emperor that he made good his claim to the tide assumed by him on his triumphal arch, quietis custos (custodian of peace).
(…) Granting Constantine’s leanings toward Christianity, his political schemes were nevertheless bound to have a dominating influence upon his attitude toward Christianity, which could be helpful to him in many ways. He understood that in the future Christianity would be the main unifying element among the races of the Empire. “He wanted to strengthen the unity of the Empire through a unity of the Church.”
(…) The Life of Constantine, was written about twenty-five years after the victory over Maxentius and is usually, though probably wrongly, attributed to Eusebius. This work relates that the emperor himself told and confirmed by oath the famous story of how during his march on Maxentius he saw above the setting sun a luminous cross, with the words “By This Conquer!” (τουτω νικα). He and his legions were awe-struck at this vision. The following night Christ came to Constantine in a dream, bearing the same sign, and bade him make a likeness of the cross and with it march against his enemies. As soon as dawn broke the Emperor communicated to his friends the marvelous dream and then, calling together artificers, he described to them the outlines of the vision he had seen and ordered them to execute the standard, which is known as thelabarum. The labarum was a long cross formed like a spear. From the transverse bar hung a silk cloth, embroidered in gold and adorned with precious stones, bearing the images of Constantine and his two sons; at the peak of the cross was a golden wreath surrounding the monogram of Christ. From the time of Constantine the labarum became the banner of the Byzantine Empire*.
During the reign of Constantine the Great, Christianity received official permission to exist and develop. The first decree favoring Christianity was issued in 311 by Galerius, who had been one of its most ferocious persecutors.
This decree gave pardon to the Christians for their former stubborn resistance to government orders aimed at turning them back to paganism, and announced their legal right to exist. It declared: “Christians may exist again, and may establish their meetings, yet so that they do nothing contrary to good order. Wherefore, in accordance with this indulgence of ours, they will be bound to pray their God for our good estate, that of the commonwealth, and their own.”
Two years later, after his victory over Maxentius and agreement with Licinius, Constantine met Licinius in Milan, where they issued the very interesting document incorrectly called the Edict of Milan.
(…) According to this document the Christians and people of other religions were given full freedom to follow whatever faith they chose. All measures directed against the Christians were declared null and void:
From now on every one of those who have a common wish to observe the Christian worship may freely and unconditionally endeavor to observe the same without any annoyance or disquiet. These things we thought good to signify in the fullest manner to your Carefulness [i.e., the praeses of Bithynia], that you might know that we have given freely and unreservedly to the said Christians authority to practice their worship. And when you perceive that we have made this grant to the said Christians, your Devotion understands that to others also freedom for their own worship and observance is likewise left open and freely granted, as befits the quiet of our times, that every man may have freedom in the practice of whatever worship he has chosen, for it is not our will that aught be diminished from the honor of any worship.
The document also ordered that private buildings and churches previously confiscated from Christians be restored to them freely and unreservedly.
(…) The great significance of his act is that he not only allowed Christianity to exist but actually placed it under the protection of the government. This was an extremely significant moment in the history of early Christianity.
(…) Constantine did more than merely grant equal rights to Christianity as a definite religious doctrine. The Christian clergy (clerici) were given all the privileges granted to the pagan priests. They were exempted from state taxation and duties as well as from the officeholding which might divert them from the performance of their religious obligations (the right of immunity). Any man could bequeath his property to the Church, which thereby acquired the right of inheritance. Thus, simultaneously with the declaration of religious freedom, the Christian communities were recognized as legal juridical entities; from a legal point of view, Christianity was placed in an entirely new position.
(…) The Church at the same time was growing in material wealth through gifts from state resources of landed property or money and grain. Christians could not be forced to participate in pagan festivals. At the same time Christian influence brought about some mitigation in the punishment of criminals.
In addition to all this, Constantine’s name is connected with the erection of many churches in all parts of his immense empire. The basilica of St. Peter and the basilica of the Lateran in Rome are ascribed to him. He was particularly interested in Palestine, where his mother, Helena, supposedly** found the true cross. In Jerusalem, in the place where Christ was buried, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was erected; on the Mount of Olives Constantine built the Church of the Ascension and at Bethlehem the Church of the Nativity. The new capital, Constantinople, and its suburbs were also adorned with many churches, the most prominent the Church of the Apostles and the Church of St. Irene; it is possible that Constantine laid the foundations of St. Sophia, which was completed by his successor, Constantius. Many churches were being constructed in other places during Constantine’s reign, at Antioch, Nicomedia, and North Africa.
After the reign of Constantine three important Christian centers developed: the early Christian Rome, in Italy, although pagan sympathy and tradition continued to exist there for some time; Christian Constantinople, which very soon became a second Rome in the eyes of the Christians of the East; and, finally, Christian Jerusalem. After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Emperor Titus in 70 A.D., and the formation in its place of the Roman colony, Aelia Capitolina, during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian in the second century A.D, old Jerusalem had lost its significance, although it was the mother church of Christendom and the center of the first apostolic preaching. Christian Jerusalem was called to new life in the period of Constantine. Politically, Caesarea, and not Aelia, was the capital of that province. The churches built during this period in the three centers stood as symbols of the triumph of the Christian church on earth. This church soon became the state church.
(…) The First Ecumenical Council was called together by imperial edicts in the Bithynian city, Nicaea. The exact number of people who came to this council is not known; the number of Nicaean Fathers is often estimated at 318. Most of them were eastern bishops. The aged bishop of Rome sent in his place two presbyters. Among the matters taken up by the council the most important was the Arian dispute. The Emperor presided at the council and sometimes even led the discussions.
(…) After Rome ceased to be a republic the emperors more than once wanted to transfer the capital from republican-minded Rome to the East. According to the Roman historian, Suetonius (I, 79), Julius Caesar intended to move from Rome to Alexandria or to Ilion (former Troy). In the first centuries of the Christian era the emperors often deserted Rome for long periods during their extensive military campaigns and journeys through the empire. At the end of the second century Byzantium received a heavy blow: Septimius Severus, upon defeating his rival, Pescennius Niger, who was supported by Byzantium, submitted the city to a terrible sack and almost complete destruction. Meanwhile the East continued to attract the emperors. Diocletian (284- 305) preferred to live in Asia Minor in the Bithynian city, Nicomedia, which he beautified with many magnificent new edifices.
When Constantine decided to create a new capital, he did not choose Byzantium at once. For a while, at least, he considered Naissus (Nish) where he was born, Sardica (Sofia), and Thessalonica. His attention turned particularly to Troy, the city of Aeneas, who according to tradition, had come to Latium in Italy and laid the foundations for the Roman state. The Emperor set out personally to the famous place, where he himself defined the limits of the future city. The gates had already been constructed when, as Sozomen, the Christian writer of the fifth century, related, one night God visited Constantine in a dream and induced him to look for a different site for his capital. After this Constantine’s choice fell definitely upon Byzantium. Even a century later travelers sailing near the shores of Troy could see the unfinished structures begun by Constantine.
Byzantium, which had not yet fully recovered from the severe destruction caused by Septimius Severus, was at that time a mere village and occupied only part of the cape extending to the Sea of Marmora. In 324 A.D. Constantine decided upon the foundation of the new capital and in 325 the construction of the main buildings was begun. Christian legend tells that the Emperor, with spear in his hand, was outlining the boundaries of the city when his courtiers, astonished by the wide dimensions planned for the capital, asked him, “How long, our Lord, will you keep going?” He answered, “I shall keep on until he who walks ahead of me will stop.” This was meant to indicate that some divine power was leading him. Laborers and materials for the construction work were gathered from everywhere. Pagan monuments of Rome, Athens, Alexandria, Ephesus, and Antioch were used in beautifying the new capital. Forty thousand Goth soldiers, the so-called “foederati,” participated in the construction of the new buildings. Many commercial and financial privileges were proclaimed for the new capital in order to attract a larger population. Toward the spring of 330 A.D. the work had progressed to such an extent that Constantine found it possible to dedicate the new capital officially. The dedication took place on May 11, 330 and was followed by celebrations and festivities which lasted for forty days.
(…) In later years ancient Byzantium became the capital of a world empire and it was called the “City of Constantine” or Constantinople. The capital adopted the municipal system of Rome and was subdivided into fourteen districts or regions, two of which were outside the city walls.
(…) Constantine, with the insight of genius, appraised all the advantages of the position of the city, political as well as economic and cultural. Politically, Constantinople, or, as it was often called, the “New Rome,” had exceptional advantages for resisting external enemies. It was inaccessible from the sea; on land it was protected by walls. Economically, Constantinople controlled the entire trade of the Black Sea with the Aegean and the Mediterranean seas and was thus destined to become the commercial intermediary between Europe and Asia. Finally, in the matter of culture, Constantinople had the great advantage of being situated close to the most important centers of Hellenistic culture, which under Christian influence resulted in a new Christian-Greco-Roman, or “Byzantine,” culture.
(…) by his timely transfer of the world-capital to Constantinople he saved the ancient culture and created a favorable setting for the spread of Christianity.
(Source: “History of the Byzantine empire“, by A.A. Vasiliev)
*No ‘Byzantine Empire’ ever existed in History; there was only the Roman Empire continuing its -in different terms, for sure- existence until the very end in 1453
**not at all ‘supposedly’ for us, Orthodox Christians, as countless miracles are recorded in connection to the True Cross over the centuries.
Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus