Other Religions Atheism and Agnosticism Pictures of Constantine the Great, Emperor of Rome Share Flipboard Email Print Dan Stanek / EyeEm / GettyImages Other Religions Belief Systems Atheism and Agnosticism Logic Ethics Key Figures in Atheism Evolution Atheism Myths and Misconceptions By Austin Cline Atheism Expert M.A., Princeton University B.A., University of Pennsylvania Austin Cline, a former regional director for the Council for Secular Humanism, writes and lectures extensively about atheism and agnosticism. our editorial process Austin Cline Updated December 31, 2018 Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantine (c. 272 - 337), better known as Constantine the Great, was perhaps the most important person in the development of the early Christian Church (after Jesus and Paul, naturally). Constantine's defeat of Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge put him in a powerful position, but not one of supreme power. He controlled Italy, North Africa, and the Western provinces. 01 of 11 Head from the Colossal Marble Statue of Constantine the Great Located in the Musei Capitolini, Rome Head from the Colossal Marble Statue of Constantine the Great, Located in the Musei Capitolini, Rome. Markus Bernet / Wikipedia Constantine's chief goal was always creating and maintaining unity, be it political, economic or, eventually, religious. For Constantine, one of the greatest threats to Roman domination and peace was disunity. Christianity filled Constantine's need for a basis of religious unity quite well. Just as significant as Constantine’s conversion to and official toleration of Christianity was his unprecedented decision to move the capital of the Roman empire from Rome itself to Constantinople. Constantine was born at Naissus, in Moesia (now Nish, Serbia) and was the oldest son of Constantius Chlorus and Helena. Constantius served in the military under Emperor Diocletian and emperor Galerius, distinguishing himself both in Egyptian and Persian campaigns. When Diocletian and Maximian abdicated in 305, Constantius and Galerius assumed the throne as co-emperors: Galerius in the East, Constantius in the West. 02 of 11 Statue of the Roman Emperor Constantine, Erected in 1998 at York Minster stevegeer/E+/Getty Images Constantine ascended the throne of an empire that was fragmented and in disarray. Maxentius, son of Maximian, controlled Rome and Italy, proclaiming himself emperor in the West. Licinius, the legal emperor, was restricted to the province of Illyricum. Maxentius' father, Maximian, tried to overthrow him. Maximin Daia, Galerius' Caesar in the East, had his troops proclaim him emperor in the West. Overall, the political situation couldn't have been much worse, but Constantine kept quiet and bided his time. He and his troops remained in Gaul where he was able to strengthen his base of support. His troops proclaimed him emperor in 306 in York after he succeeded his father, but he didn't push for this to be recognized by Galerius until around 310. After Galerius had died, Licinius gave up trying to take control of the West from Maxentius and turned East to overthrow Maximin Daia who had succeeded Galerius. This event, in turn, allowed Constantine to move against Maxentius. He defeated Maxentius' forces multiple times, but the decisive battle was at the Malvian Bridge where Maxentius drowned while trying to flee across the Tiber. 03 of 11 Constantine Sees a Vision of the Cross in the Sky Dan Stanek / EyeEm / Getty Images The night before he was to launch an attack on his rival, Maxentius, just outside of Rome, Constantine received an omen... What sort of omen Constantine received is a matter of dispute. Eusebius says that Constantine saw a vision in the sky; Lactantius says it was a dream. Both agree that the omen informed Constantine that he would conquer under the sign of Christ (Greek: en touto nika; Latin: in hoc signo vinces). Lactantius: Constantine was directed in a dream to cause the heavenly sign to be delineated on the shields of his soldiers, and so to proceed to battle. He did as he had been commanded, and he marked on their shields the letter X, with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round thus at the top (P), being the cipher of CHRISTOS. Having this sign, his troops stood to arms. Eusebius: Being convinced...that he needed some more powerful aid than his military forces could afford him, on account of the wicked and magical enchantments which were so diligently practiced by the tyrant, he sought Divine assistance, deeming the possession of arms and a numerous soldiery of secondary importance, but believing the co-operating power of Deity invincible and not to be shaken. He considered, therefore, on what God he might rely for protection and assistance ... [W]hile he was... praying with fervent entreaty, a most marvelous sign appeared to him from heaven...He said that about noon when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, CONQUER BY THIS. At this sight, he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle. ... And while he continued to ponder and reason on its meaning, night suddenly came on; then in his sleep the Christ of God appeared to him with the same sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to make a likeness of that sign which he had seen in the heavens, and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies. 04 of 11 The Cross Banner Used by Constantine as his Vision Instructed Him Cross Banner Used by Constantine at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, as his Vision Instructed Him. Public Domain Eusebius continues his description of Constantine’s vision of Christianity: At dawn of day he arose, and communicated the marvel to his friends: and then, calling together the workers in gold and precious stones, he sat in the midst of them, and described to them the figure of the sign he had seen, bidding them represent it in gold and precious stones. And this representation I myself have had an opportunity of seeing.Now it was made in the following manner. A long spear, overlaid with gold, formed the figure of the cross by means of a transverse bar laid over it. On the top of the whole was fixed a wreath of gold and precious stones; and within this, the symbol of the Saviour’s name, two letters indicating the name of Christ by means of its initial characters, the letter P being intersected by X in its centre: and these letters the emperor was in the habit of wearing on his helmet at a later period. From the cross-bar of the spear was suspended a cloth, a royal piece, covered with a profuse embroidery of most brilliant precious stones; and which, being also richly interlaced with gold, presented an indescribable degree of beauty to the beholder. This banner was of a square form, and the upright staff, whose lower section was of great length, bore a golden half-length portrait of the pious emperor and his children on its upper part, beneath the trophy of the cross, and immediately above the embroidered banner.The emperor constantly made use of this sign of salvation as a safeguard against every adverse and hostile power, and commanded that others similar to it should be carried at the head of all his armies. 05 of 11 Bronze Head of Constantine the Great Majanlahti, Anthony / Flikr Licinius married Constantine’s half-sister, Constantia, and the two of them formed a united front against the ambitions of Maximin Daia. Licinius was able to defeat him near Hadrinoupolis in Thrace, assuming control of the entire Eastern Empire. There was now relative stability, but not harmony. Constantine and Licinius argued constantly. Licinius began persecuting Christians again in 320, eventually leading to Constantine’s invasion of his territory in 323. After his victory over Licinius, Constantine became sole emperor of Rome and proceeded to further the interests of Christianity. In 324, for example, he exempted Christian clergy from all obligations otherwise imposed upon citizens (like taxation). At the same time, less and less tolerance was bestowed on pagan religious practices. The above photo is of a huge bronze head of Constantine — about five times life-size, in fact. The first emperor in at least two centuries to be depicted without a beard, his head originally sat atop a colossal statue that stood in the Basilica of Constantine. This image probably comes from late in his life and, as was characteristic of depictions of him, shows him gazing upward. Some interpret this as suggesting Christian piety while others argue that it’s simply characteristic of his aloofness from the rest of the Roman people. 06 of 11 Statue of Constantine on his Horse before the Battle at Milvian Bridge Located in the Vatican Statue of Constantine on his Horse, Witnessing the Sign of the Cross Before the Battle at Milvian Bridge, Located in the Vatican. Public Domain In his statue created by Bernini and located in the Vatican, Constantine is first witnessing the cross as the sign under which he would conquer. Pope Alexander VII placed it in a prominent location: the entrance of the Vatican Palace, just next to the grand staircase (Scala Regia). In this single statue, viewers can observe the merging of important themes of the Christian church: the use of temporal power in the name of the church and the sovereignty of spiritual doctrines over temporal power. Behind Constantine we can see drapery fluttering as if in the wind; the scene is reminiscent of a stage play with the curtain moving in the background. Thus the statue designed to honor Constantine’s conversion makes a subtle gesture in the direction of the idea that the conversion itself was staged for political purposes. 07 of 11 Roman Emperor Constantine Fights Maxentius in the Battle of Milvian Bridge Roman Emperor Constantine Fights Maxentius in the Battle of Milvian Bridge. Public Domain Constantine’s defeat of Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge put him in a powerful position, but not one of supreme power. He controlled Italy, North Africa, and the Western provinces but there were two others who claimed legitimate authority over the Roman empire: Licinius in Illyricum and Eastern Europe, Maximin Daia in the East. The role of Constantine in shaping the Christian church and church history should not be underestimated. The first important thing he did after his victory over Maxentius was to issue the Edict of Toleration in 313. Also known as the Edict of Milan because it was created in that city, it instituted religious toleration as the law of the land and ended the persecution of Christians. The Edict was issued jointly with Licinius, but Christians in the East under Maximin Daia continued to suffer severe persecutions. Most citizens of the Roman empire continued to be pagan. 08 of 11 Roman Emperor Constantine Fights in the Battle of Milvian Bridge illustration of The battle of Constantine by the Italian Renaissance painter Raphael. Nastasic / Getty Images From the Edict of Milan: When I, Constantine Augustus, as well as I, Licinius Augustus, fortunately met near Mediolanurn (Milan), and were considering everything that pertained to the public welfare and security, we thought, among other things which we saw would be for the good of many, those regulations pertaining to the reverence of the Divinity ought certainly to be made first, so that we might grant to the Christians and others full authority to observe that religion which each preferred; whence any Divinity whatsoever in the seat of the heavens may be propitious and kindly disposed to us and all who are placed under our rule. And thus by this wholesome counsel and most upright provision we thought to arrange that no one whatsoever should be denied the opportunity to give his heart to the observance of the Christian religion, of that religion which he should think best for himself, so that the Supreme Deity, to whose worship we freely yield our hearts) may show in all things His usual favor and benevolence. Therefore, your Worship should know that it has pleased us to remove all conditions whatsoever, which were in the rescripts formerly given to you officially, concerning the Christians and now any one of these who wishes to observe Christian religion may do so freely and openly, without molestation. 09 of 11 Constantine Presides Over the Council of Nicaea The First Council of Nicaea was convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in 325. ZU_09 / Getty Images Constantine’s chief goal was always creating and maintaining unity, be it political, economic or, eventually, religious. For Constantine, one of the greatest threats to Roman domination and peace was disunity. Christianity filled Constantine’s need for a basis of religious unity quite well. Christians may have been a minority in the empire, but they were a well-organized minority. In addition, no one had yet tried to claim their political allegiance, leaving Constantine no competitors and giving him a group of people who would be supremely grateful and loyal for finally finding a political patron. 10 of 11 Mosaic of Emperor Constantine from the Hagia Sophia Scene: Virgin Mary as ConstantinoplePatroness; Constantine with Model of City Mosaic of Emperor Constantine from the Hagia Sophia, c. 1000, Scene: Virgin Mary as Patroness of Constantinople; Constantine with a Model of the City. Wikipedia Just as significant as Constantine’s conversion to and official toleration of Christianity was his unprecedented decision to move the capital of the Roman empire from Rome itself to Constantinople. Rome had always been defined by... well, Rome itself. In recent decades, though, it had become a nest of intrigue, betrayal, and political conflict. Constantine seemed to want to just start over — wipe the slate clean and have a capital which not only avoided all the traditional family rivalries but which also reflected the breadth of the empire. 11 of 11 Constantine and his Mother, Helena. Painting by Cima da Conegliano Constantine and his Mother, Helena. Painting by Cima da Conegliano. Public Domain Almost as important to the history of Christianity as Constantine was his mother, Helena (Flavia Iulia Helena: Saint Helena, Saint Helen, Helena Augusta, Helena of Constantinople). Both the Catholic and the Orthodox churches consider her a saint — partially because of her piety and partially because of her work on behalf of Christian interests during those earlier years. Helena converted to Christianity after she followed her son to the imperial court. She became much more than just a casual Christian, though, launching more than one expedition to locate original relics from the origins of Christianity. She is credited in Christian traditions with having found pieces of the True Cross and the remains of the Three Wise Men.