Constantine

, usually called the Great, is memorable for having been the first emperor of the Romans who established Christianity by the civil power, and was born at Naissus, a town of Dardania, 272. The emperor Constantius Chlorus was his father; and was the only one of those who shared the empire at that time, that did not persecute the Christians. His mother Helena was a woman of low extraction, and the mistress of Constantius, as some say; as others, the wife, but never acknowledged publicly: and it is certain, that she never possessed the title of empress, till it was bestowed on her by her son, after the decease of his father. Constantine was a very promising youth, and gave many proofs of his conduct and courage which however began to display themselves more openly a little before the death of his father; for, being detained at the court of Galerius as an hostage, and discerning that Galerius and his colleagues intended to seize upon that part of the empire which belonged to his father, now near his end, he made his escape, and went to England, where | Constantius then was. When he arrived there, he found Constantius upon his death-bed, who nevertheless was glad to see him, and named him for his successor. Constantius died at York in 306, and Constantine was immediately proclaimed emperor by the soldiers. Galerius at first would not allow him to take any other title than that of Csesar, which did not hinder him from reigning in England, Gaul, and Spain: but having gained several victories over the Germans and Barbarians, he took the title of Augustus in 308, with the consent of Galerius himself. Some time after, he marched into Italy, with an army of 40,000 men, against the emperor Muxentius, who had almost made desolate the city of Rome by his cruelties; and after several successful engagements, finally subdued him. Eusebius relates, that Constantine had protested to him, that he had seen in that expedition a luminous body in the heavens, in the shape of a cross, with this inscription, Tola vixat, “By this thou shall conquer:” and that Jesus Christ himself appeared to him afterwards in a dream, and ordered him to erect a standard cross-like; which, after his victory, he did in the midst of the city of Rome, and caused the following words to be inscribed on it: “By this salutary sign, which is the emblem of real power, I have delivered your city from the dominion of tyrants, and have restored the senate and people of Rome to their ancient dignity and splendour.” This, which is one of the most striking events in ecclesiastical history, has also been one of the most contested. Gibbon endeavours to explain it thus: While (says this historian) his anxiety for the approaching day, which must decide the fate of the empire, was suspended by a short and interrupted slumber, the venerable form of Christ, and the well-known symbol of his religion, might forcibly offer themselves to the active fancy of a prince who reverenced the name, and had perhaps secretly implored the power of the God of the Christians; and with regard to the credit due to Eusebius, be thinks Eusebius sensible, that the recent discovery of this marvellous anecdote would excite some surprize and distrust amongst the most pious of his readers. Much has certainly been said against the credibility of this story by authors less prejudiced against the Christian religion than Gibbon. By some the whole is regarded as a fiction, a stratagem and political device of Constantine, yet it is related by Eusebius, a grave historian, who declares that he had it from the emperor, who | confirmed the narration by an oath. By Fabricius, we are told, that the appearance in the heavens was generally looked upon as a reality, and a miracle: but for his own part, he is inclined to consider it as the result of a natural phenomenon in a solar halo; he accordingly admits of the reality of the phenomenon, but does not suppose it to be properly miraculous. Upon a full and candid review of the evidence, Dr. Lardner seems inclined to doubt the relation given by the emperor, upon whose sole credit the story is recorded, though it was twenty years after the event, when Eusebius wrote his account, during which period he must have heard it frequently from eye-witnesses, if the emperor’s relation were accurate that the appearance was visible to his whole army as well as to himself. The oath of Constantine, on the occasion, with Dr. Lardner, brings the fact into suspicion, and another striking circumstance is that Eusebius does not mention the place where this wonderful sight appeared. Without, however, entering, at present, farther into the discussion, we may observe, that Eusebius has led us to the period, when the sign of the cross began to be made use of by Constantine, among his armies, and at his battles; this was probably the day before the last battle with Maxentius, fought on the 27th of October, 312. About this period, it is admitted, that Constantine became a Christian, and continued so the remainder of his life, taking care also to have his children educated in the same principles. His conversion seems to have been partly owing to his own reflections on the state of things, partly to conversation and discourse with Christians, with whom, the son of Constantius, their friend and favourer, must have been some time acquainted, but perhaps, chiefly to the serious impressions of nis early years, which being once made can never be wholly obliterated. Constantine was however a politician as well as a Christian, and he probably hit upon this method to reconcile the minds of his army to the important change in their religious profession and habits, as well as making use of it as a mean of success in his designs against his enemies, for which purpose he rightly judged, that the standard of the cross, and the mark of it as a device on his soldier’s shields, would be of no small service.

Such appear to be the general sentiments of modern historians on this subject. Others, however, find it more difficult to dispute the fact. “He,” says Mr. Milner, | who is determined not to believe Christianity to be divine, will doubtless disbelieve this miracle, from the same spirit which has induced him to harden his heart against much more striking evidence. With such a one 1 would not converse on the subject. But to those who admit the divine origin of Christianity, if any such doubt the truth of the miracle, I would say, that it seems to me more reasonable to admit a divine interposition in a case like this, especially considering the important consequences, than to deny the veracity of Eusebius or of Constantine. On the former view, God acts like himself, condescending to hear prayer, leading the mind by temporal kindness to look to him for spiritual blessings, and confirming the truth of his own religion; on the latter, two men not of the best, but surely by no means of the worst character, are unreasonably suspected of deliberate perjury or falsehood." Much of this passage must be supposed to allude personally to Gibbon; but on the other hand, there are certainly many who believe Christianity to be divine, and yet cannot acquiesce in this miracle; not from a doubt that such might have taken place in the order of providence, but from a want of ample testimony that it really did take place.

After Constantine had settled the affairs of Rome, he went to Milan, where he celebrated the marriage of his sister with the emperor of the East, Licinius. In this town it was that these two emperors issued out the first edict in favour of the Christian religion, by which they granted liberty of conscience to all their subjects: and a second soon after, by which they permitted the Christians to hold religious assemblies in public, and ordered all the places, where they had been accustomed to assemble, to be given up to them. A war broke out in 314, between Constantine and Licinius, which subjected the Christians to a persecution from the latter; but after a battle or two, in which neither had any reason to triumph, a peace ensued, and things returned to their usual course. Constantine now applied himself entirely to regulate and adjust the affairs of the church. He called councils, heard disputes and settled them, and made laws in favour of the Christians. In 324, another war broke out between these two emperors; the result of which was, that Constantine at length overcame Licinius, and put him to death. He was now sole master of the empire, without any controul, so that the Christians had every thing to hope, and apparently | nothing to fear: nor were they disappointed. But the misfortune was, that the Christians were no sooner secure against the assaults of enemies from without, but they fell to quarrelling among themselves. The dispute between Arius and Alexander was agitated at this time; and so very fiercely, that Constantino was forced to call the council of Nice to put an end to it. He assisted at it himself, exhorted the bishops to peace, and would not hear the accusations they had to offer against each other. He banished Arius and the bishops of his party, ordering at the same time his books to be burnt; and made the rest submit to the decision of the council. He had founded innumerable churches throughout the empire, and ordered them to be furnished and adorned with every thing that was necessary. He went afterwards to Jerusalem, to try if he could discover the sepulchre of Jesus Christ; and caused a most magnificent church to be built at Bethlehem. About this time he gave the name of Constantinople to the town of Byzantium, and endowed it with- all the privileges of ancient Rome. After this he laboured more abundantly than ever he had done yet, in aggrandizing the church, and publishing laws against heretics. He wrote to the king of Persia in favour of the Christians, destroyed the heathen temples, built a great many churches, and caused innumerable copies of the Bible to be made. In short, he did so much for religion, that he might be called the head of the church, in things which concerned its exterior policy. The orthodox Christians have nevertheless complained of him a little for listening to the adversaries of Atbanasius, and consenting, as he did, to banish him: yet he would not suffer Arius or his doctrines to be re-established, but religiously and constantly adhered to the decision of the council of Nice.

It must needs, however, seem extraordinary, that this emperor, who took such a part in the affairs of the Christians, who appeared to be convinced of the truth and divinity of their religion, and was not ignorant of any of its doctrines, should so long defer being initiated into it by the sacrament of baptism. “Whether,” says Dupin, “he thought better not to be baptized till the time of his death, with a view of washing away, and atoning for all his sins at once, with the water of baptism, and being presented pure and unspotted before God, or whatever his reasons were, he never talked of baptism till his last illness.” When that began, he ordered himself to be baptized; and | Eusebius of Csesarea relates, that the ceremony was performed upon him by Eusebius bishop of Nicomedia.

He died in 337, aged 66; and divided the empire among his three sons, Constantine, Constantius, and Constans. Eusebius has written the life and acts of this emperor, in which he makes him every thing that is great and good: it is rather a panegyric than a life. Whatever great and good qualities Constantine possessed, he certainly possessed some which were neither great nor good; and it is allowed that he was guilty of many private acts of a very atrocious nature.

Several epistles relating to ecclesiastical matters, written either by him, or in his name, are still extant as are his several edicts, as well concerning the doctrines as discipline of the church. Among these edicts is still to be seen, the noted one by which he bequeaths to Sylvester bishop of Rome, and to his successors for ever, the sovereignty of Rome and all the provinces of the Western empire. But this, though it carries the name of Constantine, is manifestly spurious; and though it might be of some use in supporting the authority of the Roman pontiff in dark and ignorant ages, yet since the revival of letters it has been given up even by the papists as a forgery too barefaced to be defended. 1

1

Univ. History. Mosheim and Milner’s Church Histories, Gibbon’s History. Lardner’s Works, Crevier’s Roman Emperors. Cave, vol. I. —Saxii Onomasticon.