The Imperial Church — Constantine, Part 1

Our History of Christianity Scripture verse today is James 1:17 which reads: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from Constantine. He said: “The eternal, holy and unfathomable goodness of God does not allow us to wander in darkness, but shows us the way of salvation…This I have seen in others as well as in myself.”

Last time, in the History of Christianity, we looked at “The Great Persecution and the Final Victory.”

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “The Imperial Church – Constantine” (Part 1) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

We left Constantine at the moment when, after defeating Maxentius at the Milvian bridge, he joined Licinius in ordering the end of persecution. Although we have already indicated that eventually he became sole ruler of the Roman Empire, it now remains to outline the process by which he achieved that goal. The question of the nature and sincerity of his conversion must also be discussed. But what is of paramount importance for the story of Christianity is not so much how sincere Constantine was, or how he understood the Christian faith, as the impact of his conversion and his rule both during his lifetime and thereafter. That impact was such that it has even been suggested that throughout most of its history the church has lived in its Constantinian era, and that even now, in the twenty-first century, we are going through crises connected with the end of that long era. Whether or not this is true is a question to be discussed when our narrative comes to the present day. In any case, Constantine’s religious policies had such enormous effect on the course of Christianity that this section may be seen as a series of reactions and adjustments in response to those policies.

From Rome to Constantinople

Long before the battle at the Milvian bridge, Constantine had been preparing to extend the territories under his rule. To that end, he took great care to develop a strong base of operations in Gaul and Great Britain. He spent over five years strengthening the borders along the Rhine, where the barbarians were a constant threat, and courting the favor of his subjects by his just and wise government. This did not make him an ideal ruler. His love of luxury and pomp was such that he built a grandiose and ornate palace in his capital city – Trier – while neglecting public works to such an extent that the drainage system of the nearby fields failed, and the vineyards that were the backbone of the local economy were flooded. Yet, he seems to have had that rare gift of rulers who know just how far they can tax their subjects without losing their loyalty. By securing the borders against barbarian incursions, Constantine won the gratitude of many in Gaul. Frequent and extravagant shows in the circus gained the support of those who preferred violence and blood – the barbarian captives thus sacrificed were so many that a chronicler of the times affirms that the shows lost some of their interest because the beasts grew tired of killing.

As astute statesman, Constantine challenged his rivals one at a time, always protecting his flanks before making his next move. Thus, although his campaign against Maxentius seemed sudden, he had been preparing for it, both militarily and politically, for many years. His military preparations were such that in his campaign against Maxentius he committed only one-fourth of his resources, thus making sure that during his absence there would not be a major barbarian invasions, or a revolt in his own territories. In the field of diplomacy, he had to make sure that Licinius, who was Maxentius’ neighbor to the east, would not take advantage of Constantine’s campaign to invade and lay claim to some of Maxentius’ territories. In order to preclude that possibility, Constantine offered his half-sister Constance in marriage to Licinius, and he may also have made a secret agreement with his future brother-in-law. This would seem to cover his flank. But even then, he waited until Licinius was involved in a conflict with Maximinus Daia before launching his own invasion of Italy.

The victory at the Milvian bridge gave Constantine control of the Western half of the empire, while the East was still partitioned, split between Licinius and Maximinus Daia. His meeting with Licinius in Milan seemed to strengthen their alliance, and forced Licinius to direct his efforts against their common rival, Maximinus Daia. Licinius moved rapidly. Maximinus was still near Byzantium – later Constantinople, and now Istanbul — when his enemy appeared before him with a smaller army and defeated him. Maximinus was forced to flee, and died shortly thereafter.

The empire was then divided between Licinius, who ruled over the entire area east of Italy, including Egypt, and Constantine, who controlled Italy as well as Western Europe and the western portion of North Africa. Since the two emperors were related by marriage, there was hope that the civil wars had come to an end. But the truth was that both Licinius and Constantine sought to rule the whole empire, which, in spite of its vastness, was too small for the two of them. For a while, each of the two rivals devoted himself to consolidate his power and to prepare for the inevitable conflict.

Finally, hostilities broke out. A conspiracy to murder Constantine was discovered, and the ensuing investigation implicated a relative of Licinius who had fled to his kinsman’s territories. Licinius refused to send his relative to Constantine to be executed, and eventually declared war on Constantine. Although Christian historians have usually laid all the blame for this conflict on Licinius, the truth is that Constantine wished to go to war with his brother-in-law, but was able to make his rival appear as the aggressor. Finding himself militarily outmaneuvered by Constantine, Licinius had to sue for peace. Once again, Constantine showed that he was an able statesman and a patient man, and was content with taking most of Licinius’ European territories.

A period of peace followed. Once again, Constantine used the time to consolidate his power in the newly conquered territories. Instead of residing in the West, he established his headquarters first in Sirmium and later in Sardica (now Sofia). Both cities were located in recently conquered territories, and thus Constantine was able to keep an eye on Licinius and to strengthen his rule over the area.

Next time, we will continue looking at The Imperial Church – Constantine.

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