The Administration of Constantine and His Sons


CONSTANTINE, a son of Constantius Chlorus, who was a Cæsar, and finally an Augustus, of the West, under the Diocletian régime was about thirty years old st his father's death in 306. He had already distinguished himself by military service under Diocletian, and was well qualified to accept the honor which the dying words of his father, in the pretorium of York, and the voice of the troops, imposed upon him, in calling him to assume the imperial purple. Having ruled over Britain, Gaul, and Spain for several years, Constantine finally, in 312, brought the whole of the West under his sceptre by the overthrow of his colleague and rival Maxentius, whose intended attack upon himself he anticipated with great energy and daring. As already stated, in January, 313, he published from Milan, in conjunction with his Eastern colleague Licinius, the famous edict of toleration.

The motives by which Constantine was actuated in siding with Christianity have been variously defined. Gibbon intimates his belief that he was moved at first almost entirely by considerations of policy, though at a later date his convictions were truly enlisted for the religion which claimed his outward support. "Personal interest," he says, "is often the standard of our belief as well as of our practice; and the same motives of temporal advantage which might influence the public conduct and professions of Constantine would insensibly dispose his mind to embrace a religion so propitious to his fame and fortunes." [Chap. xx.] A more probable conclusion is, that a good measure of conviction was from the first united with policy in determining his course. Even before his campaign against Maxentius, causes were at work that were well calculated to recommend the claims of the Christian faith. His father was no zealot for the common heathenism, and treated the Christians with clemency and consideration. Eusebius speaks of him as "acknowledging the Supreme God alone, and condemning the polytheism of the impious; [Vita Constantini, i. 17.] and the historian Socrates likewise states that Constantius "had renounced the idolatrous worship of the Greeks." [Hist. Eccl., i. 2.] Very likely these statements are overdrawn. The supposition which seems most credible is, that his faith was an eclectic system, which, while accepting the heathen deities (and possibly ranking Christ alongside of them), still acknowledged, much in the sense of Neo-Platonism, a supreme Deity above all these. In any case, Constantius was liberal toward Christianity, and his attitude would not be without its influence upon the mind of his son. A still further incentive in the same direction was supplied by the experience and observation of Constantine himself. As a resident at the court of Diocletian and of Galerius, he saw the outbreak of the great persecution. Its atrocities may have revolted his mind; in any case, its issue taught him that it was no easy task to conquer Christianity. The good fortune of his father, and the miserable end of the champions of heathenism, could hardly fail to incite him to the belief that a powerful Providence was on the side of the Christians. His mind was thus rendered receptive for any new and striking evidence that might appear. In the image of the cross which flamed out of the sky, and the ensuing victory over Maxentius, this evidence was supplied.

Eusebius is our chief voucher for the assumed miracle which published to Constantine and his army the divine truth of Christianity. Lactantius is the only Christian writer beside, among the contemporaries of Constantine, from whom we have a statement bearing upon the events and he remarks simply, that "Constantine was directed in a dream to cause the heavenly sign [That is, the initial letters of the Greek name of Christ, x and P, arranged thus, . ] to be delineated on the shields of his soldiers, and so to proceed to battle." [De Mortibus Persecutorum, xliv.] According to the account of Eusebius, the portent came in answer to the prayer of Constantine. Realizing the extreme hazard of his expedition, he was made deeply conscious of his need of the aid of some higher power, but was somewhat in doubt as to what power he should address. At length it occurred to him that he could most fitly make his appeal to the Supreme Deity, the God who had so prospered his father. "He therefore called on Him," says the historian, "with earnest prayer and supplications that He would reveal to him who He was, and stretch forth His right hand to help him in his present difficulties. And while he was thus praying with fervent entreaty, a most marvellous sign appeared to him from heaven, the account of which it might have been difficult to receive with credit, had it been related by any other person. But since the victorious Emperor himself long afterward declared it to the writer of this history, when he was honored with his acquaintance and society, and confirmed his statement by an oath, who could hesitate to accredit the relation, especially since the testimony of aftertime has established its truth? He said that about mid-day, when the sun was beginning to decline, he saw with his eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, By this conquer. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which happened to be following him on some expedition, and witnessed the miracle. He said, moreover, that he doubted within himself what the import of this apparition could be. And while he continued to ponder and reason on its meaning, night imperceptibly drew on; and in his sleep the Christ of God appeared to him with the same sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to procure a standard made in the likeness of that sign, and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies." [Vita Cons., i. 27-29. Compare Socrates, Hist. Eccl., i. 2. Sozomen supplies to the story a special embellishment; namely, an appearance of angels, who directed Constantine to conquer by the holy sign. (Hist. Eccl., i. 3.)] Constantine was careful to follow these directions. A spear, with a transverse piece from which a streamer of purple cloth was suspended, having been overlaid with gold, and surmounted by a crown containing the first two letters of the name of Christ, was, by his order, made the standard of the army; and his confidence was at the same time rewarded and strengthened by the complete victory which followed.

A degree of scepticism may well be entertained with reference to this interesting narrative. Eusebius betrays an exceedingly rhetorical vein in his "Life of Constantine," and may unconsciously have embellished the facts reported to him by the Emperor, and have given too lively a coloring to some items. Constantine himself also, without any intention to deceive, may have failed of strict accuracy. We may suppose, for example, that the "inscription" was originally a factor in the dream of the night, rather than in the open vision of the day. Still, there is no proper ground for denying all basis to the account. That Constantine appealed to the higher powers, that he observed some solar phenomenon which he took to be the cross symbol, that he had a dream in the night of corresponding significance, -- these are things against whose occurrence there is no occasion to urge any objection whatever. The facts are one thing; Constantine's interpretation of them is another thing. It is by no means certain that we have to deal here with a supernatural manifestation. Some of the items described as matter of divine communication are clearly out of harmony with the spirit and principles of Christianity. Who can imagine the Prince of peace commanding the emblem of His passion to be used as a standard of war, and carried at the head of legions devoted to the work of carnage and slaughter?

Constantine, from this time, was an adherent of Christianity, though by no means an adherent of the most intelligent and spiritual type.

[The account of the heathen historian Zosimus, Hist., ii. 29, that Constantine forsook heathenism because its ministers declared that it had no purification for his enormous crimes, and went over to Christianity as offering an easy purgation, needs no comment. The crimes which Zosimus specifies did not occur till long after Constantine had become the patron of Christianity.]

He employed, however, much prudence and caution in his relation to heathenism. A sudden and violent rupture was avoided. The pagan population of Rome was gratified by a restoration of their temples at the hands of the conqueror. The old pagan dignity of Pontifex Maximus was retained (and indeed was not declined by any of the Christian emperors before the accession of Gratian). Professed heathen were still found at court, and were allowed to occupy positions of trust. Still, Constantine did not delay to bestow tokens of his superior favor upon the Christian Church. In the years which preceded his rise to the position of sole ruler over the whole Empire, he issued decrees decidedly favorable to the Christian cause. The clergy were released from the burdensome and unwelcome obligation of serving as municipal magistrates. Full liberty was granted to the bestowing of property, by testament, upon the institutions of the Church. The manumission of slaves was allowed to take place in the churches. Secular business upon Sunday was prohibited in the cities (321); though a heathen rather than a Christian aspect was given to the decree, by styling the day the sacred day of the sun, instead of the Lord's day. The discrimination against the unmarried was removed. Large donations were made to the clergy in North Africa. A Christian education was provided for the Emperor's children; his eldest son, Crispus, was placed under the tuition of Lactantius.

In proportion as Constantine evinced his friendship toward Christianity, Licinius, who was governing the eastern section of the Empire, assumed an attitude of hostility; his feelings of political rivalry naturally alienating him from the party that was so closely associated with his imperial competitor. Persecution, after the violent type of the preceding age, does not appear to have entered into his plan. But he discriminated in a vexatious way against the Christians, withholding all high office from those who mould not sacrifice to the gods, prohibiting the bishops from assembling in synods, closing certain churches, and forbidding the congregations of Nicomedia, where he resided, to assemble within the walls, on the sarcastic plea that the fresh air of the open country would be healthier for their assemblies. [Euseb., Vita Cons., i. 50-54.]

This growing divergence, in respect of religious policy, prophesied war between the two Emperors, -- a war based on religious as well as on political issues. The outbreak came in the year 323. If Eusebius may be trusted, Licinius himself took pains to publish the religious cast of the conflict. After; reminding his soldiers of the obligations which they owed to the religion of their ancestors, and commenting on the wickedness and folly of his adversaries in going after a strange Deity, he stated the issue as follows: "The present occasion shall prove which of us is mistaken in his judgment, and shall decide between our gods and those whom our adversaries profess to honor. Suppose, then, this strange God, whom we now regard with contempt, should really prove victorious; them, indeed, we must acknowledge and give Him honor, and so bid a long farewell to those for whom we light our tapers in vain. But if our gods triumph (and of this there can be no real doubt), then, as soon as we have secured the present victory, let us prosecute the war without delay against these despisers of the gods." [Vita Cons, ii. 5.]

After such an inauguration of the war, the utter defeat of Licinius must have seemed to the heathen themselves a divine judgment against their cause. Multitudes flocked to the churches; the ranks of the catechumens were filled to overflowing. Constantine now felt authorized to assume a more decided position. Compulsion was indeed avoided, but the whole weight of his influence was thrown against heathenism. "Let no one," he wrote, "molest another in this matter, but let every one be free to follow the bias of his own mind. With regard to those who will hold themselves aloof from us, let them have, if they please, their temples of lies: we have the glorious edifice of Thy truth which Thou hast given us as our home. We pray, however, that they may receive the same blessing." [Ibid., ii. 56.] This sounds as if Constantine was resolved to trust wholly to personal influence in his attempts to limit heathenism. But he went beyond this, and applied the force of law to a certain extent. Officials were forbidden to offer sacrifices, such as had formerly been expected of those in their position. Certain temples dedicated to disgraceful rites, such as the temples of Venus at Aphaca and Heliopolis, were commanded to be destroyed. The impure and occult arts of divirirttion were proscribed. Whether Constantine issued any more radical decrees than these is a disputed question. Eusebius [Vita Cons., iv. 23.] and Sozomen [Hist. Eccl., i. 8.] would have us to believe that he finally sent forth a sweeping prohibition of all idolatrous sacrifices; and their statement is supported by the fact that Constantius assumed, in issuing an edict of this nature, that he was only repeating what had already been decreed by his father. On the other hand, the heathen rhetorician, Libanius, indicates that the temples were open for undisturbed worship during the whole reign of Constantine. [See Neander, Kirchengeschichte, vol. iii.] If, therefore, the edict was ever issued by the first Christian Emperor, it would seem that no earnest attempt was made for its execution. The limits of the crusade which he undertook in earnest against heathen sacrifices are, in all likelihood, correctly expressed by the following statement from Milman: "There were two kinds of sacrifices abolished by Constantine: (1) The private sacrifices, connected with unlawful acts of theurgy and magic; those midnight offerings to the powers of darkness, which in themselves were illegal, and led to scenes of unhallowed license. (2) Those which might be considered the State sacrifices, offered by the Emperor himself, or by his representative in his name, either in the cities or in the army." [History of Christianity to the Abolition of Paganism, Book III., chap. iv.]

At the same time Constantine gave continued exhibitions of a zealous patronage of Christianity. The work of building churches was energetically forwarded. The Emperor is said to have made large donations to this end from his personal resources. The unsanctified zeal, which in some instances plundered heathen temples for the materials, was left unpunished. [Gibbon thinks depredations of this kind were not extensive in the reign of Constantine, not noticeably in excess of similar spoliations at the hands of rapacious heathens of previous generations. (Chap. xxii., ad finem.)] Great respect was rendered to the leading representatives of the Church. Distinguished members of the clergy were made the travelling companions of the Emperor. "He added," writes Eusebius, "the sanction of his authority to the decisions of the bishops passed at their synods, and forbade the provincial governors to rescind any of their decrees; for he rated the priests of God at a higher value than any judge whatever." [Vita Cons., iv. 27.] Finally, in founding Constantinople, he provided a great capital dedicated to the Christian religion. Political motives were probably the chief incentive to this step, but his mind may not have been unmoved by the consideration that the ancient Roman capital showed so much of an inveterate preference for heathenism.

It is to be observed, however, that Constantine's favor toward the Church meant simply the befriending of the Catholic Church. The union of Christians seemed to him an important means of conserving the unity of the Empire. Hence, heretics and schismatics enjoyed very little favor at his hands; [In an edict to the Novatians, Valentinians, Marcionites, Paulians, and Cataphrygians, he addresses them as haters of truth, and forbids them to meet, not merely in public, but even in private houses. (EUSEB., Vita Cons., iii. 64.)] hence, also, the attempt to harmonize theological factions, through the great council of Nicæa, and the banishing of bishops who refused to sign the creed of the council, or appeared opposed to the peace measures of the Emperor.

Although openly assuming the position of a Christian emperor, Constantine did not receive baptism till just before hid death in 337. One reason for this long delay may, perhaps, be found in the following remark which he indulged as he was about to submit to the rite: "I had thought to do this in the waters of the Jordan, wherein our Saviour, for our example, is recorded to have been baptized." [Ibid., iv. 62.] But a more influential reason was probably a kind of superstitious estimate of baptism as a means of magical absolution, an absolution that might be received most safely near the end of life, when there was little margin left for defiling the soul with new sins. Eusebius speaks of him as "firmly believing, that, whatever sine he had committed as a mortal man, his soul would be purified from them through the efficacy of the mysterious words and the salutary waters of baptism." [Ibid., iv. 16.] The officiating bishop on the occasion was the Arian, or more properly the semi-Arian, Eusebius of Nicomedia, in the neighborhood of which city the Emperor was baptized. This looks as though Constantine was finally initiated into the Arian instead of the Catholic faith. Still, this conclusion is in no wise warranted. Constantine was never conscious of any defection from the creed of Nicæa. If he patronized some of the Arians during his later years, it was because they succeeded in making him believe that they were in harmony with the standard creed; if he persecuted some of the orthodox, it was not on account of their faith, but because he considered them guilty of mal-administration, or of an unreasonable obstinacy, to the detriment of the peace of the Church. "The credulous monarch," says Gibbon, "unskilled in the stratagems of theological warfare, might be deceived by the modest and specious professions of the heretics, whose sentiments he never perfectly understood; and while he protected Arius, and persecuted Athanasius, he still considered the council of Nicaea as the bulwark of the Christian faith, and the peculiar glory of his own reign." [Chap. xxi.] A similar verdict appears in the writings of historians of the fifth century. "Although this [the Nicene] doctrine," says Sozomen, "was not universally approved, no one, during the life of Constantine, had dared to reject it openly." [Hist. Eccl., iii. 1.] "It ought not," writes Theodoret, "to excite astonishment that Constantine was so far deceived as to send many great men into exile; for he believed the assertion of bishops, who skilfully concealed their malice under the appearance of illustrious qualities." [Hist. Eccl., i. 33.]

Were we to follow the estimate of contemporaries who enjoyed the favor of Constantine, we should be obliged to rank him among the very foremost of illustrious monarchs. The astonishing transition in their estate transported not a few Christians to the point of immoderate adulation. They found themselves the friends and guests of one of the most magnificent of rulers,--a monarch of imposing person, who clothed himself in all the splendor of a Solomon, always wearing in public a jewelled diadem, and a purple or scarlet robe of silk, embroidered with pearls and flowers of gold. The temptation to violate all sober judgment in the estimate of such a benefactor was not easily resisted. We read of a Christian minister, who, at the celebration of the third decennium of the Emperor's reign, pronounced "him blessed, as having been counted worthy to hold absolute and universal empire in this life, and as being destined to share the empire of the Son of God in the world to come." Even Constantine had the good taste to reject such unbounded flattery, "and forbade the speaker to hold such language, exhorting him rather to pray earnestly in his behalf, that whether in this life or that to come he might be found worthy to be a servant of God." [Euseb., Vita Cons., iv. 48.] The historian Eusebius, though he seems to have regarded the above specimen of adulation as being rather beyond the mark, did not fall much short of it himself. He speaks of Constantine as "at once a mighty luminary and a most distinct and powerful herald of genuine piety;" says that his "character shone with all the graces of religion;" and styles him such an emperor as all history records not. The less rhetorical Theodoret designates Constantine "a prince deserving of the highest praise, who, like the divine apostle, was not called by man or through man, but by God." [Hist. Eccl., i. 2.] The Greek Church, in the fifth century, began to reckon him among the saints; and still in the Greek and Russian Church he is honored with the title Isapostolos, the "Equal of the Apostles." From the heathenism also which he helped to conquer, he received high-sounding honors; and the Roman Senate, at his death, did not hesitate to follow custom and to enroll him among the gods.

How strange the contrast between these encomiums and titles, and those dark events whose guise of tyranny is but poorly hid by the obscurity in which history has left them! Licinius, the husband of Constantia, the sister of Constantine, was put to death, in violation of a solemn pledge that his life should be spared. To be sure, there was an accusation of treasonable designs on the part of Licinius; but unproved accusations cannot count for very much under the circumstances. A few years later, Crispus, the eldest son of Constantine, a youth of high promise, amiable, martial, and enterprising, was ordered to be executed by the jealous and suspicious father. At the same time, Licinius, the son of the emperor of the same name, was sacrificed, in spite of the tears and entreaties of his widowed mother. The innocence of both of these accomplished youths is commonly regarded as beyond question. According to very full and confident testimony, the Empress Fausta, the stepmother of the murdered Crispus, was another victim. As the story goes, her machinations, in order that she might advance her own sons, had served as a chief instigation to the execution of the innocent and slandered youths; and Constantine, coming finally to understand the case, was filled with fury, and ordered her to be suffocated in an overheated bath. But Gibbon finds something quite contradictory to this account in the references of two orations belonging to the following period. "The former celebrates the virtues, the beauty, and the fortune of the Empress Fausta, the daughter, wife, sister, and mother of so many princes. The latter asserts, in explicit terms, that the mother of the younger Constantine, who was slain three years after his father's death, survived to weep over the fate of her son. Notwithstanding the positive testimony of several writers of the pagan as well as of the Christian religion, there may still remain some reason to believe, or at least to suspect, that Fausta escaped the blind and suspicious cruelty of her husband." [Chap. xviii.] An astonishing list of deeds, certainly, for a saint and an Isapostolos! As a man, and a professed Christian, Constantine was not, indeed, without his merits. "From his earliest youth to a very advanced season of life, he preserved the vigor of his constitution by a strict adherence to the domestic virtues of chastity and temperance." [Ibid.] But certainly his history makes it plain, on the whole, that the first Christian emperor was quite remote from being a Christian of an enlightened and regenerate type. The stain of the purple is clearly apparent to eyes not blinded by its magnificence.

To Constantine as a general and an administrator, an eminent rank is no doubt to be assigned. "In the field," says Gibbon, "he infused his own intrepid spirit into the troops whom he conducted, with the talents of a consummate general; and to his abilities, rather than to his fortune, we may ascribe the signal victories which he obtained over the foreign and domestic foes of the republic." [Chap. xviii.] In his management of the State, there were, no doubt, defects. During his later years in particular, he was given to a prodigal liberality, which enriched in one direction, only to oppress in another. But, on the other hand, he gave numerous exhibitions of statesmanlike sagacity. Instances may be pointed out in which he cultivated an admirable and politic moderation. Judging him by what he accomplished, a high estimate must be placed upon his abilities; for he made himself the master of an empire in the face of formidable rivals, and carried through one of the most remarkable revolutions of history.

Upon the death of Constantine, the government of the Empire passed to his three sons, -- Constantius, Constantine the Younger, and Constans; the first ruling the eastern, and the last two sharing the western division. In 340 Constantine fell in a war with Constans. This left the latter sole ruler of the West, a position which he maintained till the year 350, when he was slain in a struggle with the usurper Magnentius. The overthrow of the usurper, in 353, made Constantius master of the whole Empire.

Although Eusebius speaks of the sons of Constantine as "a trinity of pious sons, like some new reflectors of his brightness, diffusing everywhere the lustre of their father's character," [So two of his statements read when combined. Vita Cons., i. 1, v. 40.] it is the common verdict of historians that the government suffered a marked deterioration under the successors of the great Emperor. With a moral standard no higher than his, they united less ability and discretion. The first days of the new administration were stained by a cruel massacre within the collateral branches of the Constantinian family; and, though the soldiery was the instrument, there was not a little of suspicion that Constantius had a guilty responsibility in the tragedy. A pretended testament, affirming Constantine's belief that he had been poisoned by his brothers, was the excuse that was pleaded for the bloodshed.

An increase of severity toward heathenism marked the administration of Constantine's sons. In 341 Constantius issued an edict forbidding, in general terms, all heathen sacrifices. Later edicts (in 346 and 356) ordered temples to be closed, and attached the death penalty to the crime of sacrificing to the gods. But of these laws there was certainly no rigorous and universal enforcement. The temples in the city of Rome, for example, were left unassailed; and it is recorded that the prefect of the city did not scruple to sacrifice publicly on occasion of certain calamities. Violence seems to have been expended mainly in the plundering of temples; and, even against this, protest was not wholly wanting from the Christian side. "With the gold of the State," said Hilary, in his criticism of Constantius, "you burden the sanctuary of God; and what is plundered from the temples, or won by confiscrttions, or extorted by punishments, you obtrude upon God." From the statements of the heathen historian Ammianus Marcellinus, it would appear that some of the spoil gained by this plunder and exaction did not find its way to the sanctuary; for we find him complaining that Constantius consumed the marrow of the provinces in the fattening of his favorites. [Lib. XVI.]

The adherence of the heathen to their own religion was marked by too little of courage and steadfastness to give rise to sanguinary persecution, even had the government been disposed to stop short of no severity requisite for the work of thorough repression. Constantius, therefore, was quite as conspicuous for persecuting Christians who dissented from his standard as for making war upon heathenism. Bishops refusing to conform to his semi-Arian scheme had nothing better to expect than deposition and exile.

The policy of Constantius was ill-adapted to advance Christianity to a genuine and complete triumph over the remnants of heathenism in the realm. Though many professed to forsake their idolatries, it was no hearty or enlightened espousal which they made of the Christian faith. External pressure may make hypocrites, but it cannot make believers. It only needed a reversal of policy, on the part of the government, to show the worthlessness of many of the recent conversions. With the death of Constantius in 361, and the accession of Julian, that reversal came.