Constantine the Great Research Paper

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In the fourth century Emperor Constantine favored Christianity over paganism in the Roman Empire by adding Christians to his administration, building churches, and raising his heirs as Christians. At the Council of Nicaea (325–326 CE) he defined “orthodoxy” by insisting on standardized beliefs and practices, and thereby pushed Christianity into a monolithic hierarchical autocracy that sanctioned the persecution of nonbelievers.

Though not baptized as a Christian until he lay upon his deathbed, for the bulk of his reign (306–337 CE), Constantine favored Christians. He promoted them into the imperial administration and gave them a variety of tax breaks and financial incentives (all to the disadvantage of members of other religions, notably the pagans); he presided over their Ecumenical Councils and settling doctrinal disputes among them (including the first state-sponsored persecutions of Christian “heretics”); and he restored and built churches (such as the original St. Peter’s in Rome and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, both based on pagan examples such as the great temples of Artemis at Ephesus and Jupiter at Baalbek) that set the style for Christian architecture and iconography for nearly two millennia. But most important, he raised his sons—who reigned after him for another thirty years—as Christians, thus ensuring Christianity’s victory over paganism.

The son of the Western Empire’s ruler, Constantius Chlorus (reigned 305–306 CE), Constantine was acclaimed emperor by the legions in Eboracum (modern York, England) after his father’s sudden death. A series of civil wars ensued, ending with Constantine in sole control of the empire by 324 CE. In 330 he founded a new—and overtly Christian—capital in the ruined city of Byzantium, renaming it “Constantinopolis” (Constantinople, now Istanbul) after himself, which proved strategically important; in fact, it protected medieval Christendom from Islamic conquest. In 337 on his way to attack the Persians, Constantine died of natural causes at about the age of fifty-two near ancient Nicomedia, and was buried as a Christian in Constantinople.

Though his mother (canonized as St. Helena) had long been a Christian convert, before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (312 CE) Constantine and many of his soldiers seem to have been devotees of Mithraism, a pagan mystical religion associated with sun worship but holding some doctrinal and ritual similarities to Christianity, including the symbol of the cross. Accounts differ somewhat, but on the eve of battle with his rival Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge, Constantine claims that he saw a cross against a bright sun and the words “In hoc signo vincit” (“By this sign shall you conquer”). Instructing his soldiers to affix this cross symbol to their shields, Constantine won the battle—and the Western Empire.

Somewhat later, under the influence of his mother and her confessor, the Christian bishop Eusebius, Constantine became persuaded that his vision came not from Mithras but from Jesus Christ. The resulting Edict of Milan (313 CE) granted Christianity official toleration and marked the end of the pagan Roman Empire. Though Constantine’s vision has often been seen as a cynical ploy to gain Christian favor, the very small number of Christians in the empire, especially in the western half (about 5 percent of the empire’s overall population was Christian, and most of lived in the eastern half), suggests that the vision and conversion should be seen instead as a bit of clever politicking on the part of the then-persecuted Christians to gain favor, if not ascendancy, in the empire. In this Constantine did not disappoint.

Besides promoting Christians into all levels of the Roman administration, Constantine issued a variety of edicts and orders giving Christians financial rewards and legal immunities not enjoyed by others. He also prohibited gladiatorial games and animal sacrifices, and in 330 CE, to finance the building of his new capital of Constantinopolis, ordered the ransacking of the pagan temples of their treasures—bronze doors, gilt idols, and even their gold-shingled roofs— which disastrously affected the pagan cause. He even engaged in the first persecution of non-Christians by Christians. Between this clear favoritism and instructing his children in the new faith, Constantine sent the message that the route to power, influence, and riches now lay through Christianity.

To his horror, Constantine found that rather than a universal monolithic hierarchy, the Christian “church” consisted of mostly independent house-churches loosely confederated with no standardized doctrine, ritual, or scripture. As reported by Eusebius, Constantine considered himself a bishop, a new kind of Christian pontifex maximus, or priest-king, charged with the protection and promotion of Christianity—an example followed by his successors for the next millennium and more. To this end, as soon as he gained control of the whole empire, he called Christian leaders to a council at Nicaea (325–326 CE), where his insistence on standardizing beliefs and practices defined “orthodoxy” and pushed Christianity into a monolithic hierarchical autocracy; his insistence on standardization also led to the first state-sponsored persecution of Christians (the “Donatists”) by Christians, setting yet another dubious example for his successors.

Constantine was both the best and the worst thing that ever happened to Christianity. Without him, Christianity would never have become the critical cultural, political, and religious force that it did, since nowhere has it become a majority religion without state-sponsored favoritism and persecution. Constantine’s insistence on hierarchical autocracy, an orthodoxy of ritual and doctrine, and the persecution of nonbelievers ensured Christianity’s triumph (and some of its greatest crimes). It also laid the foundation for three critical events in European and world history—the Papal Revolution, the Crusades, and the Protestant Reformation. Without Constantine’s conversion, the modern world as we know it would not exist.


  1. Drake, H. A. (2000). Constantine and the bishops: The politics of intolerance. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  2. Elliott, T. G. (1996). The Christianity of Constantine the Great. Scranton, PA: University of Scranton Press.
  3. Jones, A. H. M. (1979). Constantine and the conversion of Europe. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.
  4. Lieu, S. N. C., & Montserrat, D. (1998). Constantine: History, historiography and legend. London: Routledge.
  5. MacMullen, R. (1984). Christianizing the Roman Empire A.D. 100–400. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  6. MacMullen, R. (1997). Christianity and paganism in the fourth to eighth centuries. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  7. Rousseau, P. (2002). The early Christian centuries. London: Longman.

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