Constantine’s Seal of Approval


One significant development in the spread of Christianity was the adoption of the religion by a Roman Emperor. The Emperor in question was Constantine, son of a general named Constantius who worked his way up to an imperial throne under Diocletian, and a Christian woman named Helena. His full name was Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus, and the year of his birth is unknown, but it was sometime in the late third century. The state of the Roman Empire was somewhat complicated at this point, divided between two rulers with the title Augustus, each with a Caesar as co-regent. Something like that, anyway. Constantine became Augustus of the West after his father’s death, and eventually won dominion over the entire empire through a series of wars. He also established a new capital at Byzantium, which he humbly named after himself.

Constantinople was an imperial capital until 1453, when it was captured by the Ottoman Turks. It’s now called Istanbul, which just means “the city.” While that name had been in use for centuries, it didn’t become the official standard name until 1930. Why did Constantinople get the works? The rise of Turkish nationalism, and something to do with the post office.


Anyway, while Constantine is famous for embracing Christianity, he seems to have hedged his bets when it came to religion. He still paid homage to the Roman gods throughout much of his life, only referring to himself as primarily a Christian in his later years. He was baptized on his deathbed, which was apparently common back in those days. The legend of how he got into Jesus has it that, before a crucial battle with Maxentius, he saw the sign of the cross and had it emblazoned on his soldiers’ shields. When he won the battle, he became a Christian, or so says the story. In 313, the Edict of Milan granted religious freedom to Christians, and returned church property that had been confiscated. It did not establish Christianity as the official religion of the empire, just AN official religion. At the same time, however, he didn’t seem to support tolerance WITHIN Christianity, instead supporting the orthodox church against sects that were deemed heretical. The Emperor assisted in developing church policy, and was responsible for the building of some basilicas, including the original St. Peter’s in Rome. In the eighth century, a document called the Donation of Constantine, which gave the Pope control over Rome and other areas, was frequently cited by the papacy, but it turned out to be a forgery. Could you believe that the representatives of God on Earth would have lied like that in order to gain power? :P I also think it’s telling that Christianity only became an accepted imperial religion when the Emperor gained some level of control over it. Figures, doesn’t it? It’s a good example of a religion of the poor and downtrodden becoming a tool of the powerful. Constantine, with his ongoing quest for power by violent means, really doesn’t strike me as having been on the same page as that crazy hippie from Nazareth who started the religion.

This entry was posted in Christianity, Historical Personages, History, Religion, Roman Empire and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Constantine’s Seal of Approval

  1. vilajunkie says:

    Ha! You went through an entire post about Constantine without mentioning They Might Be Giants (and that particular song is like the one or two of theirs that EVERYONE knows, but doesn’t always know who performed it) or the shabby acting skills of Keanu Reeves as John Constantine, who was/is actually blond and British in the graphic novels.

    • Nathan says:

      “Istanbul (Not Constantinople) was originally performed by a group called the Four Lads, but the TMBG version is probably more often heard these days. And I actually did reference it. Check out the next to the last sentence before the picture of the statue.

      • vilajunkie says:

        Hmm. Not seeing the reference, but you have two pictures of statues, so I don’t know which sentence to look at.

      • Nathan says:

        The line “Why did Constantinople get the works?” is from the song. I gave an answer that’s probably more historically accurate than “that’s nobody’s business but the Turks’,” however.

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