Joe Hendren

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Sunday, July 17, 2005

Random Historical Interlude #2: Roman Emperor Constantine

Just watched an interesting documentary about Constantine the Roman Emperor, part of the BBC 'I, Caesar' series. I normally find I am not as interested in ancient as opposed to modern history, I suspect it came from the tendency of classics at school to emphasise 'storytelling' over historiography, and I have always had a preference for the later. But I did enjoy this episode of 'I, Caesar' :)

Constantine was the first Roman Emperor to take steps to remove the persecution of Christians in the Empire, effectively adopting Christianity as his imperial cult following the battle of Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312. The 'Edict of Milan' promoted religious freedom, whether it be Christian or Pagan, returned Church property and established Sunday as a day of worship (Sunday being a reference to the Sun God - so paganism was still a big influence). Christianity was very much a minority religion at this time, some of its unpopularity being due to its rejection of other peoples gods (has that changed?) and the clear preference of soldiers for paganism. It was estimated that only 2% to 10% of the population were Christian around this time.

The way Constantine went about his unofficial sponsorship of Christianity allowed him to achieve his political objectives, with his convoking of the Council of Nicaea in 325, a very deliberate mixer of Church and State. While those that continued to follow Paganism continued to gain appointments, right up to the end of Constantine's life, it was pretty clear that adopting Christianity could be a very shrewd political move for the elites surrounding the Emperor. Leading families who refused Christianity were denied positions of power. Yet most of the ordinary people/peasants kept to the old Pagan faith, some for a generation, some for a few more hundred years.

What struck me was the uncanny similarities to the European Reformation some 15 centuries later, where elites were the first to convert to Lutheranism (and then Calvinism), many for reasons of political expediency, some to ensure their head remained attached. Leading families who refused to 'recant their Catholism' were denied positions of power, while the peasants stayed with the Pope.

Near the end of his life Constantine went a bit paranoid, accused his eldest son Crispus and second wife Fausta of having an affair and had both of them killed (they were not mother and son so its not as Freudian as you might think). Constantine was baptised on his deathbed, thereby gaining absolution for his sins. There is something pretty cynical there (and a bit of Pascal's old wager). I guess Pope Urban’s promise of absolution for killing Muslims during the first crusade was another step worse.

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