Constantine defeats his rival Maxentius for control of Italy, leaving him with one final rival blocking the way to complete control of the Roman Empire. The battle of Chrysopolis decides the fate of the realm, establishing Constantine as sole ruler. Constantine thereafter cements his place in history by effectively shaping the course of Christianity through edicts, sanctions, and other policies, and by favoring the movement with many gifts.
Shalom, and welcome to our history podcast. This is a production of Kingdom Preppers.org. I’m your host, Kingdom Prepper, and you’re listening to: Churchianity: Two Thousand Years of Leaven. We continue with our history.
Part 6: Constantine
Constantine was declared emperor in Britain in 306, and he became the master of Gaul and Spain, but that was not enough. In 312, he assembled his forces in Gaul and started the march south, to wage war with his rival Maxentius for control of Italy and Africa as well. As the legend goes, during this momentous journey, Constantine saw a vision of some sort, of a cross superimposed on the sun with the words, “Conquer in this sign” written in Latin. Encouraged by this, he and his army made their way through the Alps, and then marched for Rome, Maxentius’s capital. Constantine ordered his troops to mark their shields with a new sign that was inspired by his supposed vision, though he continued to worship the “Unconquered Sun” long after these events.
Had he stayed within its walls, Maxentius might have held Rome, which was well-defended. Instead, he consulted his augurs—diviners of ancient Rome—who advised him to present battle, and that poor counsel changed the fate of the empire, and indeed the course of Christianity itself. Constantine’s attack caught Maxentius by surprise, and he failed to defend his stronghold, which was quickly overrun by Constantine’s troops. In her book, The History of the Medieval World, Susan Wise Bauer writes:
“On the morning of October 29, 312, the Roman soldier Constantine walked through the gates of Rome at the front of his army.
“He was forty years old, and for six years he had been struggling to claim the crown of the imperator. Less than twenty-four hours before, he had finally beaten the sitting emperor of Rome, twenty-nine-year-old Maxentius, at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Constantine’s men had fought their way forward across the bridge, toward the city of Rome, until the defenders broke and ran. Maxentius drowned, pulled down into the mud of the riverbed by the weight of his armor.” [. . .]
“Constantine settled into the imperial palace to take stock of his new empire. Dealing at once with Maxentius’s supporters, he ordered immediate but judicious executions: only Maxentius’s ‘nearest friends’ fell victim to the new regime. He dissolved the Praetorian Guard, the standing imperial bodyguard that had supported Maxentius’s claim to the throne. [. . .] Then he turned to deal with his co-emperors.”
Following the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine then traveled to Milan to meet with Licinius, to forge a new alliance. Persecution of Christians, they agreed, would cease, and their religious buildings, cemeteries, and other Christian property would be returned to them. This became known as the Edict of Milan, an edict that seconded the one Galerius issued concerning toleration. Licinius married Constantine’s half-sister, Constantia, as part of their agreement, and for his part, the sixty-year-old emperor set out to battle Maximinus Daia in 313 for control of the eastern territories. Marching under a Christian banner, Licinius had forty thousand less troops than his enemy, Maximinus, who fought for the Roman deity, Jupiter. Still, Licinius’s army conquered Maximinus Daia’s forces, and, seeing no way of escape, the defeated emperor swallowed poison.
With Licinius’s victory, Constantine decided to legalize Christianity as part of their new compact. Of this, Susan Wise Bauer writes:
“The two men met in Mediolanum (modern Milan) to celebrate Licinius’s marriage to Constantia and to issue an empire-wide proclamation that made Christianity legal. . . .
“In fact Christianity had been tolerated in all parts of the empire except the east for some years. But this proclamation, the Edict of Milan, now spread this protection into Maximinus Daia’s previous territories. ‘No one whatsoever should be denied the opportunity to give his heart to the observance of the Christian religion,’ the Edict announced. ‘Any one of these who wishes to observe Christian religion may do so freely and openly, without molestation.”
And here, Constantine’s edict tolerates all religions in the realm:
“. . . [We] have also conceded to other religions the right of open and free observance of their worship for the sake of the peace of our times, that each one may have the free opportunity to worship as he pleases.’ ”
This freedom of religion for all would change late in the fourth century, when the leading bishops would convince the emperors that Christianity was the one “true religion,” and all others were to be made illegal. Thereafter, Roman Catholicism would dominate the West and Greek Orthodoxy the East, ending freedom of religion and free expression of culture for all.
Constantine had now eliminated two of his three rivals. Licinius was all that remained between him and sole rule of the empire. But Licinius was getting up in age; he would only hold onto power for a little over a decade. In the year 324, Licinius presented Constantine with the perfect opportunity to wage a final war for control of the eastern portion of the realm. Licinius accused the Christians in his territory of spying for Constantine and he expelled them. While the accusations were probably true, Constantine charged Licinius with persecution, which was illegal per the Edict of Milan, and he led his army east to do battle. They squared off twice, with the second encounter leading to Licinius’s sound defeat. After surrendering, Constantine spared his life, momentarily, and exiled the former emperor to the city of Thessalonica. Constantine now controlled the entire Roman Empire, and he would do so for the next thirteen years, until his death in 337.
Constantine’s path to absolute power did not come haphazardly. On the contrary, he was a meticulous planner, who took on challengers one at a time after prolonged periods of strategizing. Long before he battled Maxentius’s forces on the Milvian bridge for control of Italy, Constantine had designs on expanding the empire. With this in mind, he focused on building strong bases of operation in Gaul and Great Britain, and strengthening the borders, particularly positions along the Rhine, which was still vulnerable to barbarian invasion. Though, like many emperors before him, Constantine was given to pomp and excess, and thus lavished himself by building an imposing, richly appointed palace in his capital city, Trier—this while neglecting important public projects. For instance, vineyards in nearby fields flooded due to lack of maintenance of the drainage systems, which disrupted the local economy.
Constantine, like emperors Decius and Diocletian before him, sought to recapture the former glories of the Roman Empire; but unlike them, he did not choose to do so in honor of the pagan deities. Constantine believed that Rome would prosper once more through Christianity. While he could not know it, Scripture prophecy had placed Christianity at the center of world power, which it would achieve in the form of the Papal Empire, and like Nebuchadnezzar and other kings of old, Yah would use Constantine to establish this leavened religion as the dominant force in the earth to bring about other important prophecies that were yet unfulfilled.
Opposition to Constantine’s grand vision for a resurgence of Rome’s glory came from many Romans, particularly members of the Senate, some of whom belonged to aristocratic families with long ties to the ancient practices. They decried policies that would diminish the importance of the Roman deities and the privileges that came with paganism. Prior to his victory over Licinius, Constantine conflicted with the Roman Senate, which was still an active check on his power. But as absolute master of the empire, he could direct his own course and see it through as he pleased. And what he saw as part of his grand vision for Rome’s revival, was a new capital, that was well away from the pagan center of Rome, which was steeped in ancient traditions and those beholden to them.
During Constantine’s second battle with Licinius in 324, known as the Battle of Chrysopolis, something promising struck Constantine’s eye. Professor Paul Freedman, who teaches medieval history at Yale University, says:
“This event, this Battle of Chrysopolis, showed Constantine the importance of the small fortress city of Byzantium, not far away.”
Of course, Byzantium would be renamed in honor of Constantine. And, like the old Rome, this new Rome would feature all the classic pagan elements of the ancient city it was meant to replace, including many statues of pagan deities. These would be removed from their ancient temples and placed in the new city’s public baths and squares, and even its famed hippodrome. Professor Freedman goes on to say:
“Constantinople, as this town was called, was planned to be a new Rome. Like Rome it would have a forum, it would have civic spaces, it would have races and sporting events, it would have imperial palaces and gardens, it would have victory columns, triumphal arches, aqueducts; the whole panoply of classical civilization.
“And this relocation of the capital to Constantinople, the relocation of the capital to the east, is significant because it shows us the permanent result of the tetrarchy. Diocletian’s experiment was a failure in the sense that the emperors and caesars would not cooperate. And such a scheme was never tried again. But the division of the empire between east and west would be something that would eventually become permanent. Its first traces are with Diocletian; it is also something that continues under Constantine without the addition of the caesars. Constantine ruled over the whole empire. He did not divide it himself, but he facilitated its conceptual and, eventually, real political division by creating a new Rome, a new capital in the former fortress of Byzantium.”
In his book, Mysteries of the Middle Ages, Thomas Cahill tells us why this was a lasting economic and political strategy:
“In addition to his lightly worn Christianity, Constantine would be remembered chiefly for his dramatic change of imperial residence. He didn’t care much for Rome, too huddled and pluriform for his tastes, so he established a New Rome in the small Greek city of Byzantium on the southwestern shore of the Bosphorus. It was an excellent choice, for the site commanded Europe and Asia on opposite shores, was virtually impregnable, yet stood wide open to trade. Though Western Europe began to fracture into a puzzle of barbarian kingdoms little more than a century after Constantine’s death, the Byzantine Empire would remain in the hands of Constantine’s successors for ten centuries more—till in 1453 Byzantium, now a golden capital called Constantinople, fell to the Turks, who called it Istanbul.”
Upon its founding, Constantinople was not a well-populated city. To draw citizens to the new capital, Constantine resorted to doling out all manner of privileges to those who chose to live there. These came in the form of exemptions from taxes and military service. Some citizens received free agricultural products: oil, wheat, or wine. On the strength of these and other acts, so many people flocked to the new capital that a century later, during the reign of Theodosius II, new city walls had to be erected to accommodate the swollen population.
We’ll be back with more exciting scriptural history . . . in a moment.
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Before Constantine came to power and bestowed broad freedoms on the church, Christianity was persecuted and outlawed. His intervention, vaulting it to the lofty status it enjoyed from his reign onward, in effect caused the church to re-envision its purpose and alter its overall image. A new age had dawned on the Christian movement, which was now free to develop and spread without imperial impediment. Constantine had made the religion completely legal, and he used legislation to create a new day of rest for Christians, Sunday, that did double duty honoring the Unconquered Sun (see our documentary: Understanding the Sabbath, for an in-depth study of this topic). Nothing seemed to be able to slow the progress of Christianity, as many streamed into the church, which was now favored by a powerful emperor. Of course, this meant that many pagans were drawn to the movement as well, bringing with them pluralistic, and even secular beliefs and practices that would further poison the Christian well.
To Constantine, this was a non-issue. While he could be viewed as a semi-practicing Christian up until his baptism toward the end of his life, his brand of Christianity, and his conversion experience, was not like that of the average convert. In his day, a new person entering the church would endure a lengthy process of education that focused on Christian discipline and doctrinal instruction. This would ensure that the convert both understood and was able to live the new faith he or she adopted. Following this was official baptism. Thereafter, the bishop of the convert’s particular church would act as their guide and shepherd in the course of their spiritual journey.
Constantine experienced none of this. After his professed acceptance of Christianity, he never subjected himself to the authority of Christian teachers or bishops. He did have Christians among his entourage—historians, bishops, and ecclesiastical leaders—but they were regarded as employees, in the capacity of tutors of his children, documenters, or otherwise liaisons. They did not dictate Constantine’s religious life. He determined that alone and in fact considered himself the “bishop of bishops.” Beyond that, Constantine continued to take part in pagan ceremonies, and he held onto the title Pontifex Maximus as head of the Roman religious cult, to which the leading bishops raised no objections.
Of course, Constantine had lavished the church with many gifts, church buildings among them; his policies greatly favored Christians; and he also spoke well of the being they served. More than this, he sat a powerful ruler who had conquered all challengers. But the bishops remained silent not for these reasons, but mainly because Constantine was not yet a baptized member of the church, and so was not viewed as a Christian in the fullest sense. In light of this, the bishops were in no position to direct the life of such a person. In the end, Constantine’s actions show that he had a superstitious fear of the Almighty, rather than a healthy reverence for him. And while that superstitious fear prompted him to shower gifts on Christians and treat them favorably, it did not preclude him from serving the other deities, which he did openly, even consulting the oracle of Apollo. He was Supreme Pontiff, or high priest of the Roman religion, after all—which was the prerogative of all Roman emperors.
Since he enjoyed both paganism and Christianity, Constantine was not about to suppress either. The old pagan deities were still favored by the aristocracy and rural citizens, as well as soldiers in the Roman army. The cities of Athens and Alexandria were still important centers for the study of ancient pagan philosophy and wisdom. Roman citizens among these various classes were not ready to abandon their pagan religion for Christianity, nor was Constantine going to force anyone to do so. That would come later, under a new system and other Roman rulers. As much as he did for the church, and though his empire was largely Christian, Constantine did not make Christianity the empire’s official religion. This too would come later, during the reign of Emperor Theodosius.
Now, while we use the term “paganism” in reference to the Roman religion and the general worship of other deities, like many ancient terms, the word “pagan” meant something else during late antiquity. In truth, the ancient Roman religion had no name; only the deities were named. By the early fourth century, the Roman religion was pushed mainly to the rural areas of the empire and was predominantly practiced by rural citizens. The word “pagan” has its root in the Latin paganus, which means “country dweller.” Thus, “pagan” was thereafter used in a derogatory sense by Christians to describe those who held to the old polytheistic Roman religion, and religions or beliefs akin to this. And so it is used today.
After Constantine, there were few pagans among his successors who tried to restore paganism to the realm, but failed. Christianity would take root, mainly through the many edicts that supported it. Aspects of some of these edicts are still with us to this day, such as church properties being tax exempt, as well as members being able to legally bequeath property to the church. After many centuries, these freedoms would make the church rich in land and other forms of wealth. In his book, Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity, James J. O’Donnell writes:
“With governmental approval, money and influence began to flow toward Christian communities, especially in the larger cities. The emperor gave gifts, so other dignitaries followed suit. Wealthy men offered support for building fine new buildings and left gifts in their wills. Gifts to the church of productive agricultural property were a kind of endowment, guaranteeing continuing income. Just as an old master painting, once it gets to a museum, is unlikely to move again, so as wealth flowed to the ancient or medieval church, it stayed there, undivided by descendants.”
So generous was Constantine toward the Christian movement that he even allowed the bishops use of the imperial posts, which meant that bishops traveling to synods or council meetings would have a supply of fresh horses along their journey, and the entire affair came at the expense of the Roman state. With his conversion, a few changes took place in the church as well. Syncretism set in, and pagan superstition could be seen among the laity. When people faced illnesses, they would rely on ancient magical practices. Others would be buried with both Christian and pagan religious symbols and artifacts. When the decree was passed, ordering the first day of the week to be observed, Christians given over to the old pagan ways simply honored the Unconquered Sun, since the day equally honored this deity. And while incense was mainly used as a sign of respect for the sitting emperor, it became a part of the Christian worship service as well. Ministers who officiated at those services, and who once dressed modestly, now wore extravagant and luxurious garments in keeping with the royal court. They also began to adopt the title “priest,” like their pagan counterparts—though the ancient Israelites were among the first to use the title to refer to the Levites who officiated in the temple.
Around the time of Constantine’s reign, another major issue arose, that of new Christian movements which proposed theories and doctrines that would divide the church. Perhaps the most divisive of these was Arianism. In his book, A History of the Middle Ages: 300 – 1500, John M. Riddle writes:
“Of all the Christian sects found in the empire and beyond its boundaries, none did more damage to the unity of the church than Arianism. Around 318, Arius, a Christian priest in Alexandria, challenged his bishop by preaching that [Yeshua], having been created by [Yah] the Father at a point in time, could not, as a created being, be co-eternal with [Yah]. Only [Yah] the Father was eternal and immutable, whereas the Son of [Yah] was subject to change, as the [Good News books] described him. Being lesser than [Yah] the Father, the Son of [Yah] could have only indirect knowledge of the Father. Athanasius, a conservative-minded deacon, defended his bishop by arguing that the Son of [Yah], incarnate in [Yeshua], had existed from eternity as a coequal member of the [Elohim]: Father, Son, and [Set Apart] Spirit. . . .
“These were not arcane theological points to Christians of the time. We are told that great numbers within the Christian communities, first in Alexandria, and then in cities in Palestine, Syria, and even Constantinople itself, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, engaged in vituperative debates that resulted in physical clashes when attempts at persuasion turned to violence. Constantine, who had hoped to strengthen the unity of his empire by recognizing and encouraging Christianity, could not ignore the problem and sent an envoy to Alexandria in a vain attempt to resolve this doctrinal dispute. The envoy reported that more than one person’s skull had been fractured in the street fighting over the nature of [Yeshua’s] relationship to the Father.
“In 325, Constantine called a Council at Nicaea (near Constantinople), and approximately 300 bishops, out of more than 1,800 in the empire, attended, some at the emperor’s expense. The council wrote a creed (from Credo, “I believe,” the word with which official creeds in Latin began), known as the Nicene Creed (still widely used in Christian churches), which endorsed the Athanasian position. It proclaimed ‘[the Messiah] . . . begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father,’ rejecting the Arian belief that the Son was of a different substance than the Father. Although this section of the Nicene Constantinopolitan Creed became, and remains, the orthodox position for both eastern and western churches, the threat to the peace and unity of the empire represented by Arianism was not ended. In 381, the creed was revised and incorporated the original version of 325, whose text is lost.”
The Arian dispute persisted into the reign of Emperor Theodosius, who ruled four decades after the death of Constantine. He too was forced to deal with its divisiveness. “Arguments about the Arian take on the nature of [Yeshua], as opposed to the Nicene understanding,” Susan Wise Bauer writes,
“. . . had spread to the lowest levels of society. ‘Everywhere throughout the city is full of such things,’ complained the bishop Gregory of Nyssa, in a sermon preached at Constantinople, the alleys, the squares, the thoroughfares, the residential quarters; among cloak salesmen, those in charge of the money-changing tables, those who sell us our food. For if you ask about change, they philosophize to you about the Begotten and the Unbegotten. And if you ask about the price of bread, the reply is, ‘The Father is greater, and the Son is subject to him.’ If you say, ‘Is the bath ready?’ they declare the Son has his being from the non-existent. I am not sure what this evil should be called—inflammation of the brain or madness or some sort of epidemic disease which contrives the derangement of reasoning.”
Despite the controversies that erupted during his reign; regardless of the immense bloodshed of which he was most guilty, which secured his throne; and despite the faithful attachment to his pagan roots, by the year 330, Constantine had managed to fully establish a single empire that would be controlled by one royal family, and be comprised of one church. He had also successfully unified that church temporarily at the Council of Nicaea through imperial sanction. All of this meant that his new Rome would indeed have a lasting impact and enjoy a long legacy. This did not bode well for old Rome, which had lost its status, being isolated as it was, in a region that was far less wealthy that its eastern counterpart centered at the new capital, Constantinople.
But in the centuries to come, Rome would find renewed strength and importance following the collapse of the western Roman Empire. The Roman church would eventually assume primacy over all churches in the western realm, under the direction of powerful popes, beginning with Pope Leo, who would be viewed as the Supreme Head of the western half of Christendom.
That wraps it up for this episode of Churchianity: Two Thousand Years of Leaven. A production of Kingdom Preppers.org, this episode was written, produced, and hosted by yours truly, Kingdom Prepper. All praise, honor, and glory are due to my boss, Yah Elohim, and to his right hand, Yahushua HaMashiach. You can access the transcript for this episode on our website. Yah willing, our history will continue in the next podcast. Shalom.
Keywords: Maxentius, Licinius, Constantine, imperator, Milvian bridge, Edict of Milan, paganus, Chrysopolis, Constantinople, Theodosius, papacy, Nicaea, churchianity, two thousand years of leaven, history of Christianity, church history, Hebrew history, kp, kingdom preppers