Constantine the Great (AD 280—337) was one of Rome’s most powerful and successful emperors and the first to self-identify as a Christian. He is known for his economic, political, and military achievements, as well as his religious reforms. Medieval writers praised him as the ideal ruler, against whom all kings were measured. Over time, his reign was viewed with waning enthusiasm. Historians also began to debate how committed Constantine was to Christianity or how devoutly he actually followed it. Constantine was influential in Christian history for his personal faith, religious politics, issuing the Edict of Milan, and calling the Council of Nicea.
Constantine was the son of a Roman official and his Christian concubine. This placed him in line to succeed the throne of the Western Roman Empire. At age 31, he prepared to attack his chief rival with an army outnumbered 4-to-1. Before the battle, Constantine claimed to have seen a vision of Jesus, with a specific symbol, telling him, “By this sign, conquer.” Constantine ordered his troops to mark their shields with this symbol, the Chi-Rho, then a symbol commonly representing Christianity. The Chi-Rho combines the first two letters in the Greek word for “Christ” and resembles a capital P with an X drawn through the spine. Constantine’s forces routed the enemy, and he became emperor. The Chi-Rho symbol would be part of Constantine’s personal signature for the rest of his life.
As emperor, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which declared Roman citizens free to worship whatever gods they chose. The Edict of Milan ended longstanding persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. At that time, Constantine did not (yet) claim to be a Christian himself, nor did he advocate for an official state religion. Based on his continued use of certain pagan symbols, scholars believe Constantine’s early religion was generally theistic, rather than specifically Christian. His boldness in using Christian language grew during his reign. After assuming control of the entire Roman Empire, he built lavish churches and came to openly espouse Christianity.
During Constantine’s reign, controversy arose over the teachings of Arius, who denied the full divinity of Jesus. Constantine called a meeting of Christian bishops, the Council of Nicea, to settle the dispute. Contrary to popular myth, this meeting did not discuss the canon of the Bible, nor was Constantine influential in the council’s decisions. Emperors saw themselves as responsible for promoting “correct” forms of worship; Constantine’s interest was not to declare orthodoxy but to let the bishops determine it so that he could enforce it. Further, Constantine was not known for his philosophical ability and found himself lost in deeper discussions of theology. Rather, he acted as the council’s mediator and host, roles at which he excelled.
Constantine’s Christian faith has frequently been critiqued, if not questioned outright. On one hand, he made great strides in securing political and social rights for Christians and initiating general humanitarian reforms. He poured time and money into building churches and publicly supporting Christianity. Particularly toward the end of his reign, Constantine vocally professed faith in Christ and credited his success to God. He was baptized shortly before his death, according to the common practice of his time.
On the other hand, Constantine continued many pagan practices, including veneration of the sun. His interest in Christian orthodoxy was motivated primarily by a desire to maintain social order. There are also reasons to suspect that Constantine was as ruthless toward rivals as prior emperors had been. One of his sons, a brother-in-law, and his second wife were executed for reasons still unknown. He freely blended pagan practices with Christian beliefs, leading scholars to suggest his public adoption of Christianity might have been a savvy political move, linking him to a rising social force in the Roman Empire.
Ultimately, whether Constantine was a committed Christian, a shrewd, Christian-friendly politician, or something in between is an open question. Without doubt, he ended centuries of persecution and greatly enhanced the social standing of Christianity. He committed resources to churches and Christian education, and his leadership helped to clarify important Christian doctrines. However, Constantine’s actions resulted in some negative complications. Free from persecution, the church naturally attracted more false converts. The melding of Christian themes with secular politics set a pattern that contributed to later disasters such as the Inquisition and the Crusades. Constantine’s blending of pagan, building-and-priest-centered worship with Christianity also contributed to the rise of Roman Catholicism.
Constantine’s legacy is complex and not wholly understood, but he stands as one of the dominant figures in Christian history. Without doubt, his influence helped transform Christianity from a persecuted minority into the eventual state religion of the Roman Empire and the most widespread faith in history.