The Imperial Church — Constantine, Part 2

The History of Christianity #81

Our History of Christianity Scripture verse today is Romans 13:1 which reads: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.”

Our History of Christianity quote today is from Eusebius. He said: “Constantine saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing this inscription: conquer by this. At the sight, he himself was struck with amazement and his whole army also.”

Last time, in the History of Christianity, we looked at “The Imperial Church – Constantine” (Part 1).

Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “The Imperial Church – Constantine” (Part 2) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

The truce lasted until 322 AD, although there was an ever-increasing tension between the two emperors. The main reason for conflict was still the ambition of both men, which found expression in the question of what titles and honors were to be given to their sons. But by the time war finally broke out, the question of religious policy had also become a bone of contention.

Licinius’ religious policy needs to be clarified, for after Constantine’s victory some Christian writers, in order to justify his actions against Licinius, made the latter appear in a bad light. For a number of years after the Edict of Milan, Licinius took no measures against Christians. Actually, a contemporary Christian writer, in telling the story of Licinius’ victory over Maximinus Daia, makes it sound very similar to Constantine’s victory over Maxentius – including a vision. But Christianity in Licinius’ territories was divided over a number of issues, and such divisions led to public disorders. When Licinius used his imperial powers to assure peace, there were groups of Christians that considered themselves wronged, and who began thinking of Constantine as the defender of the true faith, and as “the emperor whom God loved.” Licinius was not a Christian, but there are indications that he feared the power of the Christian God; and therefore, when he learned that his subjects were praying for his rival, he felt that this was high treason. It was then that he took measures against some Christians, and this in turn gave Constantine the opportunity to present himself as the defender of Christianity against Licinius, the persecutor.

In 322 AD, Constantine invaded Licinius’ territories, using the pretext that he was in pursuit of a band of barbarians who had crossed the Danube. Licinius interpreted this, rightly or wrongly, as an intentional provocation, and prepared for war by gathering his troops at Adrianople, where he awaited Constantine’s somewhat smaller armies.

Contemporary chroniclers affirm that Licinius feared the magical power of Constantine’s labarum, and that he ordered his soldiers to avoid looking at the Christian emblem, and not to direct a frontal attack against it. If this is true, it must have demoralized his troops. In any case, after a long and bloody battle, Constantine’s smaller army won the day and Licinius fled to Byzantium. His wife Constance — probably accompanied by Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, who will have an important role to play as our story unfolds — went in his name to her brother Constantine, who promised to spare Licinius’ life in exchange for his abdication. Shortly thereafter, Licinius was murdered. Constantine was now sole master of the empire.

Constantine would reign for the next thirteen years, until his death in 337 AD. Compared with the previous civil wars, this was a period of rebuilding and prosperity. But there was always political uneasiness, and quite a few people were condemned to death for real or supposed conspiracies against the emperor — among them his oldest son, Crispus, who had commanded his father’s fleet in the war against Licinius, and whom Constantine ordered executed.

Constantine had not sought absolute power for the mere pleasure of it. He also dreamed, like Decius and Diocletian before him, of restoring the ancient glory of the empire. The main difference was that, whereas Decius and Diocletian had sought that end through a restoration of paganism, Constantine believed that it could best be achieved on the basis of Christianity. Some of the staunchest opponents of this policy were in Rome, particularly in its Senate, where the members of the old aristocracy bemoaned the eclipse of their ancient gods and privileges. Several years before his final struggle with Licinius, Constantine had clashed with the interests of the Roman Senate. Now, as absolute master of the empire, he set out on a bold course: he would build a “New Rome,” an impregnable and monumental city, which would be called Constantinople – that is, “City of Constantine.”

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


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