The Emperor Constantine, the first Christian ruler of the Roman Empire and the man who ended that empire’s persecution of Christianity, died this week (May 22) in 337 AD, having lived a life that would change the world.
Born a pagan, as were the vast majority of Romans, Constantine’s conversion to Christianity was the result of — or so legend has it — a vision that came to him as he prepared to fight the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD, a battle that would determine who would rule Rome and one in which the odds were stacked against him. According to Constantine, a Christian cross appeared to him with the exhortation “By this sign conquer.” Constantine subsequently ordered his soldiers to inscribe the cross on their shields, and when he did win the battle and became Roman Emperor he converted to Christianity. He also founded a new eastern capital city for the empire, Constantinople, which was his main base of operations. Under Constantine’s rule Christianity went from a persecuted religious sect with an insignificant number of followers to the Roman Empire’s dominant religion.
Scholars debate whether Constantine’s conversion to Christianity was immediate—as the legend of the cross suggests—or more gradual and influenced both by his interaction with religious teachers and his political circumstances. Most scholars agree that Constantine was a genuine believer—he immersed himself in the theological issues of the day, he supported the church financially and granted the clergy privileges. But there is also no denying that from a political standpoint, uniting his empire under one religious orthodoxy based on a single god minimized both religious disputes and social instability. That made his empire more peaceful and easier to control, which is why his promotion of many Christians to high office was probably as politically motivated as it was divinely inspired.
Scholars also note that Constantine did not entirely abandon the pagan rituals of his early life. Indeed, after his victory at Milvian Bridge he built a triumphal arch—the Arch of Constantine—but decorated it not with Christian symbols but with sacrificial images to pagan gods. Again, Constantine’s highest priority was to unite all Romans under his unquestioned rule, a goal that sometimes necessitated balancing the spiritual with the practical.
In any case, Constantine’s conversion to, and support of, Christianity would change history forever because without him Christianity most likely would not have survived. Instead it thrived and is today, with more than 1 billion followers, one of the world’s dominant religions. But theology aside, try to imagine our world today—our politics, our culture, our geography, our very notion of civilization and, of course, our recorded history—had Christianity not spread around the world.