however zealous for religion, the first Christian emperor showed a scandalous contempt for humanity..
Constantine made a law against the gladiatorial shows, which, however, continued until Honorius suppressed them in AD 403. We may well suspect his sincerity in enacting this law when we remember that during his administration in Gaul, after a signal victory over the Franks, he exposed several of their princes to the wild beasts in the amphitheatre of Treves. He also abolished the cruel punishment of breaking the legs of criminals and branding their faces; and he prohibited crucifixions, probably out of deference to the sentiment of his Christian subjects. But he ordered informers' tongues to be cut out, and molten lead to be poured down the throats of those who connived at the abduction of virgins, the principal offenders being cast to the beasts or burnt alive. "He appointed this punishment," says Jortin, "for various offences. To burn men alive became thenceforward a very common punishment, to the disgrace of Christianity. At last it was thought too cruel for traitors, murderers, poisoners, parricides, etc., and only fit for heretics."
Never before, in the history of civilised peoples, had this devilish punishment been inflicted judicially. Tradition or legend affirmed that Phalaris roasted men in a brazen bull, but this was the act of a ferocious tyrant, who tortured men for his sport. It was reserved for the first Christian emperor to deliberately insert this cruelty in the Roman code. The Church in subsequent ages took ample advantage of the opportunity which Constantine created, and remorselessly burnt heretics at the stake for the glory and honor of God.
Constantine's conversion to Christianity has been fixed at various dates. Cardinal Newman rashly asserts that he was converted by his vision of the luminous cross on his march to Rome to attack Maxentius in A.D. 312, and his subsequent victory over the emperor at the Milvian Bridge. But this famous "vision" is merely a myth. It is derived from Eusebius, who in his Life of Constantine, alleges that the emperor, in a private conversation,
related to him the following story of this wonderful apparition, which he confirmed with an oath:
"About the middle hours of the day, as the sun began to verge towards its setting, he saw in the heavens, with his own eyes, the sun surmounted with the trophy of the cross, which was composed of light, and had a legend annexed, saying, By this conquer. And amazement seized him and the whole army at the sight, and the beholders wondered as they accompanied him in the march. And he said he was at a loss what to make of this spectre, and as he pondered and reflected upon it long, night came on him by surprise. After this, as he slept, the Christ of God appeared to him, together with the sign before seen in the heavens, and bade him make a representation of the sign that appeared in the heavens, and to use that as a protection against the onsets of his enemies. And as soon as it was day, he arose, related the wonder to his friends; and then assembling the workers in gold and precious stones, he seated himself in the midst of them, and describing the appearance of the sign, he bade them imitate it in gold and precious stones. This we were once so fortunate as to set our eyes upon."
Eusebius then gives a full description of this sacred standard, called the Labarum. The shaft was a long spear, surmounted by a crown of gold, bearing "the mysterious monogram, at once expressive of the figure of the cross and the initial letters of the name of Christ;" and the silken veil, depending from a transverse beam, "was curiously inwrought with the images of the reigning monarch and his children."
According to Voltaire, some authors pretend that Constantine saw this vision at Besançon, others at Cologne, some at Treves, and others at Troyes. Cardinal Newman is silent on the matter, but he allows that there were disputes among early Christian writers whether the apparition was that of the monogram without the cross, or the cross without the monogram.
But more serious difficulties remain. Constantine's "vision" is not mentioned by a single Father of the fourth and fifth centuries,
none of whom appears to have been acquainted with the work in which Eusebius relates it. Eusebius himself says nothing about it in his Ecclesiastical History, written twelve years after the event. Why did Eusebius first hear of it in a private conversation with Constantine twenty-five years after it occurred, when it was seen by the whole army as well as by the emperor? And what necessity was there for Constantine to "confirm with an oath" a fact of such publicity?
Gibbon justly remarks that "the nicest accuracy is required in tracing the slow and almost imperceptible gradations by which the monarch declared himself the protector, and at length the proselyte of the Church." It is certain that Constantine continued in the practice of Paganism until his fortieth year. He celebrated his victory over Maxentius at Rome according to the ancient rites; and later still, as Gibbon ironically observes, "He artfully balanced the hopes and fears of his subjects, by publishing in the same year two edicts; the first of which enjoined the solemn observance of Sunday, and the second directed the regular consultation of the Auruspices."
Constantine and Licinius, in their edict of Milan (A.D. 313) granted their subjects "the liberty of following whatever religion they please." They expressly included the Christians, but this was probably owing to their having been so recently persecuted by Diocletian.
Relying on the untrustworthy Life of Constantine by Eusebius, Gibbon says that after the defeat of Licinius (A.D. 324) the conqueror "immediately, by circular letters, exhorted all his subjects to imitate, without delay, the example of their sovereign, and to embrace the divine truth of Christianity."
Constantine's presiding at the Council of Nice (A.D. 325) does not prove that he was then a Christian. Zosimus relates that he asked the Pagan priests to absolve him from the guilt of murdering his son, his nephew and his wife, and that on their refusal he embraced the more accommodating creed of their rivals, and cleansed himself in the expiatory blood of Christ.
Gibbon considers this an anachronism, but Schlegel says "there is, perhaps, some degree of truth in the story." We need not, however, discuss this point; for the Church, by permitting Constantine to preside at the Council of Nice virtually accepted him as a believer, and stood sponsor for his orthodoxy.
It is likely, nevertheless, that the motives which induced Constantine to protect the Christians, and afterwards to favor them, were such as usually animate the rulers of mankind. He first granted them toleration, as Schlegel remarks, "not from a sense of justice, or from magnanimity, and still less from any attachment to the Christian religion, but from principles of worldly prudence. He wished to attach the Christians to his party." Mosheim conjectures that "the emperor had discernment to see that Christianity possessed great efficacy, and idolatry none at all, to strengthen public authority and to bind citizens to their duty." Gibbon expresses the same opinion in his ironical manner. "The throne of the emperor," he says, "would be established on a fixed and permanent basis if all their subjects, embracing the Christian doctrine, should learn to suffer and to obey." Voltaire, in his most impious poem, charges Constantine with making the altars of the Church a convenient footstool to his throne. The Christians, it is true, "still bore a very inadequate proportion to the inhabitants of the empire; but among a degenerate people, who viewed the change of masters with the indifference of slaves, the spirit and union of a religious party might assist the popular leader, to whose service, from a principle of conscience, they had devoted their lives and fortunes."
Constantine naturally patronised a religion which inculcated passive obedience to princes, and maintained his divine right to rule according to the principles of despotism. Paganism never lent itself in this manner to the ambition of tyrants; its Olympus was a kind of Republic, and it was always favorable to popular liberty. The literature of Greece and Rome breathed an unquenchable spirit of freedom, which ill suited the policy of an absolute despot in an empire which had lost every vestige of its ancient independence. Constantine had the sagacity to perceive that
Christianity was more adapted to his purpose. He patronised it, therefore, not as a philosopher, but as an emperor; and finding that it realised his most sanguine expectations, he eventually decided to impose it upon all his subjects and to extirpate every other faith.
It is a signal illustration of the persecuting spirit which is inherent in all theologies, that the Christian clergy, who had only a few years before bitterly complained of their proscription, joyously assisted Constantine in his suppression of Paganism. Their almost incredible arrogance is proved by the fact that Paganism was still the religion of the vast majority of their fellow subjects. Gibbon's estimate of the number of Christians at this time has never been seriously disputed, and it is passed over in silence by his two Christian editors, Dean Milman and Dr. Smith.
"According to the irreproachable testimony of Origen, the proportion of the faithful was very inconsiderable when compared with the multitude of an unbelieving world; but, as we are left without any distinct information, it is impossible to determine, and it is difficult even to conjecture, the real numbers of the primitive Christians. The most favorable calculation, however, that can be deduced from the examples of Antioch and of Rome will not permit us to imagine that more than a twentieth part of the subjects of the empire had enlisted themselves under the banner of the Cross before the important conversion of Constantine."
What an edifying spectacle to the philosopher! Behold the religion of the meek and lowly Jesus, whose yoke was easy and his burden light, forced by its professors down the throats of their Pagan neighbors, who outnumbered them by nearly twenty to one!
Let us also reflect that Christianity introduced the systematic persecution of heresy and unbelief. Such a principle was entirely foreign to Paganism. The Roman law tolerated every form of religion and every system of philosophy. Its impartiality was so absolute that the Pantheon of the eternal city afforded niches to all
the gods of the empire; yet when Tiberius was asked to allow the prosecution of a Roman citizen for blaspheming the deities he replied: "No, let the gods defend their own honor." We do not deny that the Christians were persecuted, although we challenge their exaggerated account of their sufferings. But their partial and occasional persecutions were prompted by political motives. They were regarded as members of a secret society, at once offensive to their Pagan neighbors and dangerous to the State; and although they were sometimes punished, their doctrines were never proscribed. The principle of persecution was first infused into the Roman law by Constantine. According to Renan:
"We may search in vain the whole Roman law before Constantine for a single passage against freedom of thought, and the history of the imperial government furnishes no instance of a prosecution for entertaining an abstract doctrine."
Christianity inaugurated a new era of mental slavery. By forcibly suppressing dissent and establishing an Inquisition for detecting heretics, she carried tyranny into the secret recesses of the mind. "She thus," as Draper says, "took a course which determined her whole future career, and she became a stumbling-block in the intellectual advancement of Europe for more than a thousand years."
Constantine's policy manufactured Christians wholesale, for the masses of such an age were easily seduced or driven. The discreet Mosheim, while not attributing "the extension of Christianity wholly to these causes," allows that "both the fear of punishment and the desire of pleasing the Roman emperors were cogent reasons, in the view of whole nations as well as of individuals, for embracing the Christian religion." Jortin likewise remarks that "along with those who were sincere in their profession there came a multitude of hypocrites and nominal Christians." Gibbon tells us how the people were bribed:
"The hopes of wealth and honors, the example of an emperor, his exhortations, his irresistible smiles, diffused conviction among the venal and obsequious crowds which usually fill the
apartments of a palace. The cities which signalised a forward zeal by the voluntary destruction of their temples were distinguished by municipal privileges and rewarded with popular donatives; and the new capital of the East gloried in the singular advantage that Constantinople was never profaned by the worship of idols. As the lower ranks of society are governed by imitation, the conversion of those who possessed any eminence of birth, of power, or of riches, was soon followed by dependent multitudes. The salvation of the common people was purchased at an easy rate, if it be true that in one year twelve thousand men were baptised at Rome, besides a proportionable number of women and children, and that a white garment, with twenty pieces of gold, had been promised by the emperor to every convert."
Concurrently with these bribes, Constantine devoted much of his energy and wealth to increasing the power and splendor of the Church. "He gave to the clergy," says Schlegel, "the former privileges of the Pagan priests, and allowed legacies to be left to the churches, which were everywhere erected and enlarged. He was gratified with seeing the bishops assume great state; for he thought the more respect the bishops commanded, the more inclined the Pagans would be to embrace Christianity." Jortin remarks that the Emperor was possessed with the building spirit, and spent immense sums on palaces and churches, which obliged him to burden his people with taxes. Gibbon satirically says that "Constantine too easily believed that he should purchase the favor of Heaven if he maintained the idle at the expense of the industrious, and distributed among the saints the wealth of the republic." He gave to the bishops the privilege of being tried by their peers, and their episcopal brethren were their judges even when they were charged with a capital crime. He originated the notion that clerical impunity was better than a public scandal, and declared that if he surprised a bishop in the act of adultery, he would cast his imperial mantle over the holy sinner. Montesquieu alleges that Constantine even ordained that, in the legal courts, the single testimony of a bishop should suffice, without hearing other witnesses.
Constantine's penal laws in favor of Christianity were still more influential. He condemned those who should speak evil of Christ to lose half their estates. His laws against various heresies may be seen in the Justinian code. So far did he advance in true godliness, under the inspiration of the bishops and clergy, that he issued a decree for the demolition of all heretical temples in the following elegant strain:
"Know ye, Moravians, Valentinians, Marcionites, Paulinians, and Cataphrygians, that your doctrine is both vain and false. O ye enemies of truth, authors and counsellors of death, ye spread abroad lies, oppress the innocent, and hide from the faithful the light of truth … That your pestilential errors may spread no further, we enact by this law that none of you dare hereafter to meet at your conventicles, nor keep any factious or superstitious meetings, either in public buildings or in private houses, or in secret places; but if any of you have a care for the true religion, let them return to the Catholic Church … And that our careful providence for curing these errors may be effectual, we have commanded that all your superstitious places of meeting, your heretical temples (if I may so call them), shall be, without delay or contradiction, pulled down or confiscated to the Catholic Church."
Such is the language, and such are the acts, which made Constantine "a pattern to all succeeding monarchs." These oppressive acts were grateful to the Christian clergy; and Eusebius, as Lardner remarks, relates them "with manifest tokens of approbation and satisfaction."
The reign of the first Christian Emperor was distracted by the famous Arian controversy. Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, and his presbyter Arius, had a fierce and bitter dispute about the Trinity, the former contending that the Son was equal, and the latter that he was inferior, to the Father. According to Jortin:
"Alexander wrote a circular letter to all bishops, in which he represented Arius and his partisans as heretics, apostates, blasphemers, enemies of God, full of impudence and impiety,
forerunners of Antichrist, imitators of Judas, and men whom it was not lawful to salute or bid God speed."
This is merely the language of bigotry, for Sozomen acknowledges that these reprobates were learned, and to all appearance good men. As the quarrel grew inflamed the soldiers and inhabitants joined in it, and much blood was shed in and about the City. Constantine wrote Alexander and Arius a long letter, bidding them be more peaceable. But as the controversy spread through the empire, he at length resolved (A.D. 325) to summon a Council of the Church at Nice, in Bythinia, to determine between them. After much wrangling, which Constantine peremptorily ended, the bishops and ecclesiastics discussed the subject of the Trinity. It was finally resolved by a majority that the Father and the Son were of the same substance, and not of like substance. The famous Nicene Greed was drawn up for subscription, with an addendum declaring that -
"The Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematises those who say there was a time when the Son of God was not, and that before he was begotten he was not, and that he was made out of another substance or essence, and is created or changeable or alterable."
The Council of Nice only envenomed the dispute, for, as Gibbon observes, the emperor "extinguished the hope of peace and toleration from the moment that he assembled three hundred bishops within the walls of the same palace." Constantine ratified the Nicene Creed, and issued the following edict against the minority:
"Since Arius hath imitated wicked and ungodly men, it is just that he should undergo the same infamy with them. As, therefore, Porphyrius, an enemy of godliness, for his having composed wicked books against Christianity, hath found a fitting recompense in being infamous and having all his impious writings quite destroyed, so also it is now my pleasure that Arius and those of his sentiments shall be called Porphyrians, so that they may have the appellation of those whose manners they have imitated. Moreover, if any book composed by Arius shall be
found, it shall be delivered to the fire, that not only his evil doctrine may be destroyed, but that there may not be the least remembrance of it left. This also I enjoin, that if anyone shall be found to have concealed any writing composed by Arius, and shall not immediately bring it and consume it in the fire, death shall be his punishment: for as soon as ever he is taken in this crime, he shall suffer capital punishment. God preserve you."
God preserve you! is a fine piece of irony, coming after a menace of death for reading an heretical book. Let it also be noticed that the first great Council of the Christian Church resulted in the first promulgation of the death penalty against heretics.
Ten years afterwards Constantine veered round and favored the Arians. He repeatedly commanded Athanasius, the Archbishop of Alexandria, to receive Arius into the Catholic communion, but that extraordinary man refused to comply with the emperor's will. At the Council of Tyre (A.D. 335) an Arian majority condemned Athanasius to degradation and exile for having, as they alleged, whipped or imprisoned six bishops, and murdered or mutilated a seventh; and the great Archbishop found shelter for nearly two years in the Court of Treves.
Meanwhile Arius came to an untimely end. Constantine ordered Alexander, the Athanasian bishop of the capital, to receive the heresiarch into communion on the following Sunday. On the Saturday the bishop fasted and prayed, and in his church he besought God to avert the evil, even by taking Arius away. The next day, as Arius was on his way to the church, he entered a house to attend to a call of nature, where, according to Athanasius, his bowels burst out. He was at any rate found dead, and the Athanasians saw a divine judgment in his sudden fate. "But when Alexander's party," says Draper, "proclaimed that his prayer had been answered, they forgot what that prayer must have been, and that the difference is little between praying for the death of a man and compassing it."
Gibbon says that "those who press the literal narrative of the death of Arius must make their option between poison and
miracle." He evidently inclines to the former choice, and he is followed in this by Draper. Cardinal Newman, however, regards the death of Arius as a Church miracle. "Surely it is not impossible," says Jortin, "that amongst his numerous enemies there might be one who would not scruple to give him a dose, and to send him out of the way." The cautious Mosheim adopts the same view. "When I consider," he says, "all the circumstances of the case, I confess that to me it appears most probable, the unhappy man lost his life by the machinations of his enemies, being destroyed by poison. An indiscreet and blind zeal in religion has, in every age, led on to many crimes worse than this."
Constantine himself died in the following year (May 22nd, A.D. 337) at Nicomedia. His body was laid in state for several days, and finally interred with gorgeous rites. According to Jortin, he had the honor of being the first Christian who was buried in a church. The true believers paid almost divine honor to his name, his tomb, and his statue, and called him a saint equal to the apostles. And as the clergy had bestowed upon him, during his life, the most fulsome praise even when he was committing the most flagitious crimes, so now, after his death, they had the effrontery to declare that God had endued his urn and statue with miraculous powers, and that whosoever touched them were healed of all diseases and infirmities.
Constantine did so much for Christianity that the apologists and historians of that creed have always striven to whitewash his memory. Their efforts are futile, but they had good reason for the attempt. Not only did Constantine establish Christianity as the religion of the empire, but by sanctioning and promoting its endowment he gave a permanency to its institutions. His removal of the seat of empire to Constantinople gave free play to the ambition of the Western Church, which centred in the eternal city, and was invested with the glamor of the name of Rome. Antioch is now but a name, Constantinople is a Mohammedan capital, and Alexandria is ruled by a dependent of the Sultan; while Rome is
still the centre of Christendom, the home of infallibility, and the obstinate enemy of liberty and progress