Why did the Church give Constantine the title of “ Great”? Does a ruthless ruler of the empire deserve such a title?
The emperor Constantine has been called the most important emperor of Late Antiquity. His powerful personality laid the foundations of post-classical European civilization; his reign was eventful and highly dramatic. His victory at the Milvian Bridge counts among the most decisive moments in world history, while his legalization and support of Christianity and his foundation of a 'New Rome' at Byzantium rank among the most momentous decisions ever made by a European ruler.
Rise to Power
Constantine, was born at Naissus in the province of Moesia Superior, the modern Nish in Serbia, on 27 February, 272. His father was a general named Constantius, his mother a woman of humble background named Helena (later St. Helena). Upon the retirement of Dilcletian and Maximian on 1 May 305 Constantius succeeded to the rank of Augustus. When Constantius died, on 25 July 306, Constantine was at his side. The soldiers at once proclaimed him Augustus. For the next 18 years, he fought a series of battles and wars that left him first as emperor of the west, and then as supreme ruler of the Roman Empire.
At the same time the Senate and the Praetorian Guard in Rome allied themselves with Maxentius, the son of Maximian proclaimed him emperor. Open hostilities between the two rivals broke out in 312, and Constantine won a decisive victory in the famous Battle of the Milvian Bridge, making Constantine the sole ruler of the western half of the empire.
During the night before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine was commanded in a dream to place the sign of Christ on the shields of his soldiers. Lactantius and Eusebius record that he saw a brilliant light, in which he saw the cross or the monogram of Christ. Strengthened by this he advanced courageously to battle and defeated his rival. When the emperor afterwards reflected on the event it was clear to him that the cross bore the inscription: “In this sign wilt thou conquer”. A monogram combining the first letters, X and P, of the name of Christ (CHRISTOS), a form that cannot be proved to have been used by Christians before, was made one of the tokens of the standard and placed upon the Labarum . In addition, this ensign was placed in the hand of a statue of the emperor at Rome, the pedestal of which bore the inscription: "By the aid of this salutary token of strength I have freed my city from the yoke of tyranny and restored to the Roman Senate and People the ancient splendor and glory."
Was this conversion a matter of political expediency rather than a religious conviction? Constantine attributed his victory to the power of "the God of the Christians" and committed himself to the Christian faith from that day on. When examined carefully there is no basis to assume this was a political act. The Christians formed only a small portion of the population, being a fifth part in the West and the half of the population in a large section of the East. Constantine's decision depended less on political or social conditions than on a personal act. Even though Constantine did not receive baptism until shortly before his death, it would be a mistake to interpret this as a lack of sincerity or commitment. In the fourth and fifth centuries Christians often delayed their baptisms until late in life.
Edict of Toleration
In the following year, February 313, Constantine and Licinius (Emperor of the East) met at Milan. On this occasion the two emperors formulated a common religious policy. Several months later Licinius issued an edict, which is commonly known as the Edict of Milan or Toleration of Faith. This declared that Christians and all others have freedom in the exercise of religion. Everyone might follow that religion which he considered the best. They hoped that "the deity enthroned in heaven” would grant favor and protection to the emperors and their subjects.
Constantine showed equal favor to both religions. He watched over the heathen worship and protected its rights. The one thing he did was to suppress divination and magic. Without realizing the full import of his actions, Constantine granted the Church one privilege after another. As early as 313 the Church obtained immunity for its clergy, including freedom from taxation and compulsory service, and from obligatory state offices. The Church further obtained the right to inherit property, and Constantine moreover placed Sunday under the protection of the State.
Constantine did much for children, slaves, and women, those weaker members of society whom the old Roman law had treated harshly. But, in this he only continued what earlier emperors had begun before him.
Constantine was the first to prohibit the abduction of girls. In harmony with the views of the Church, Constantine rendered divorce more difficult.
Constantine was generous in almsgiving, and adorned the Christian churches magnificently. There is no doubt that he was endowed with a strong religious sense, was sincerely pious, and delighted to be represented in an attitude of prayer, with his eyes raised to heaven. In his palace he had a chapel where he read the Bible and prayed. "Every day", Eusebius tells us, "at a fixed hour he shut himself up in the most secluded part of the palace, as if to assist at the Sacred Mysteries, and there commune with God alone ardently beseeching Him, on bended knees, for his necessities". He obeyed as strictly as possible the precepts of Christianity, observing especially the virtue of chastity, which his parents had impressed upon him; he respected celibacy, freed it from legal disadvantages, sought to elevate morality, and punished with great severity the offenses against morals, which the pagan worship encouraged. He brought up his children as Christians. Thus his life became more and more Christian.
He avoided any direct interference with dogma, and only sought to carry out what the synods decided. When he appeared at an ecumenical council, it was not so much to influence the deliberation and the decision as to show his strong interest and to impress the heathen. He banished bishops only to avoid strife and discord, that is, for reasons of state.
Reunification of Empire
The ultimate goal pursued by both Constantine and Licinius was sole power. The agreement of 313 had been born out of necessity, not of mutual good will. Hostilities erupted in 316. In the course of this first war between the two emperors two battles were fought. Neither side won a clear victory. A settlement left Licinius in his position as Augustus, but required him to cede to Constantine all of his European provinces other than Thrace. War erupted again in 324. Constantine defeated Licinius twice, first at Adrianople in Thrace, and then at Chrysopolis on the Bosporus. Constantine was now the sole and undisputed master of the Roman world.
First Ecumenical Council
The Arian Controversy, the Council of Nicaea
Early in the fourth century a dispute erupted within the Christian church regarding the nature of the Godhead, more specifically the exact relationship of the Son to the Father. Arius, a priest in Alexandria, taught that there was a time when Christ did not exist, i.e. that he was not co-eternal with the Father, that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were three separate and distinct hypostaseis, and that the Son was subordinate to the Father, was in fact a "creature." These teachings were condemned and Arius excommunicated in 318 by a council convened by Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria. But, that did not by any means close the matter. Ossius (or Hosius) of Cordova, Constantine's trusted spiritual advisor, failed on his mission to bring about a reconciliation.
Constantine then summoned what has become known as the First Ecumenical Council of the church. The opening session was held on 20 May 325 in the great hall of the palace at Nicaea, Constantine himself presiding and giving the opening speech. The council formulated a creed, which, although it was revised at the Council of Constantinople in 381-82, has become known as the Nicene Creed. It affirms the Homoousion, i.e. the doctrine of consubstantiality. A major role at the council was played by Athanasius, Bishop Alexander's deacon, secretary, and, ultimately, successor. Arius was condemned.
Pilgrimage to the Holy Land
In 326-28, Helen undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In the course of her journey Helen impressed Eusebius of Caesarea and others by her piety, humility, and charity. She played a role in the building of the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem and the Church of the Eleona on Jerusalem's Mount of Olives; but the Church of the Holy Sepulcher seems to have been an undertaking of Constantine alone. Helen also is the one who recovered the True Cross.
The New Rome
During the First Tetrarchy Trier, Milan, Thessalonike, and Nicomedia had served as imperial residences, and the importance of Rome as a center of government had thus been considerably reduced. Constantine went far beyond this when he refounded the ancient Greek city of Byzantium as Constantinople and made it the capital of the empire. His decision to establish a new capital in the East ranks in its far-reaching consequences with his decision to adopt Christianity. The new capital enjoyed a most favorable location which afforded easy access to both the Balkan provinces and the eastern frontier, controlled traffic through the Bosporus, and met all conditions for favorable economic development.
On 8 November 324, less than two months after his victory over Licinius at Chrysopolis, Constantine formally laid out the boundaries of his new city, roughly quadrupling its territory. By 328 the new walls were completed, and on 11 May 330 the new city was formally dedicated. The New Rome, both in its physical features and in its institutions, resembled the Old Rome. It was built on seven hills, it had a senate, and its people received subsidized grain. Constantine without question began the construction of two major churches in Constantinople, Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) and Hagia Eirene (Holy Peace); the foundation of a third, the Church of the Holy Apostles, may be attributed to him with a measure of certainty. Unlike the Old Rome, which was filled with pagan monuments and institutions, the New Rome was essentially a Christian capital (and eventually the see of a patriarch).
Final Years , Death, and Burial
In the years 325-337 Constantine continued his support of the church even more vigorously than before, both by generous gifts of money and by specific legislation. Among his numerous church foundations the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and the Golden Octagon in Antioch deserve to be singled out. At the same time, he was more inclined to suppress paganism; we know of some specific pagan temples, which were torn down upon his orders, while in other cases temple treasures were confiscated and the proceeds fed into the imperial treasury.
Shortly after Easter (April 3, 337) Constantine began to feel ill. He traveled to Drepanum, now named Helenopolis in honor of his mother, where he prayed at the tomb of his mother's favorite saint, the martyr Lucian. From there he proceeded to the suburbs of Nicomedia, and there he was baptized, as both Eusebius and Jerome report.
A few weeks later, on the day of Pentecost, May 22, Constantine died at Nicomedia, still wearing the white robes of a Christian neophyte. His body was escorted to Constantinople and lay in state in the imperial palace. His sarcophagus was then placed in the Church of the Holy Apostles, as he himself had directed; it was surrounded by the memorial steles of the Twelve Apostles, making him symbolically the thirteenth Apostle.
In the Orthodox Church Constantine is regarded a saint; he shares a feast day, May 21, with his mother Helen, and additionally has a feast day of his own, September 3.
So does he deserve the title of Great? He liberated the Christians from persecution and gave the empire a Christian set of values. He moved the capital of the empire to a more defensible location, which quickly became the center of Christianity and the wealthiest city in the world. He called the First Ecumenical Council of the Church establishing the pattern by which the Church formally dealt with deviations from the teachings of the Apostles. The first council formulated the creed, which we still use to this day. By treating the Church clerics with the status of imperial administrators, a union between Church and state was established that was to last throughout the Byzantine Empire. He also established the weekly cycle with Sunday designated for the worship of Jesus. In addition to his conversion to Christianity he was a great ruler uniting the Roman Empire and looking after the welfare of all the peoples of the empire.