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The Effects Of The Reforms Of Constantin Essay, Research Paper
Constantine I was perhaps most well known for being the first Christian emperor of the
Roman Empire. His instigation of the conversion of the entire Roman Empire from paganism to
Christianity also ensured him recognition in history. For all intents and purposes, Constantine was
the single ruler of the Roman Empire from 324 to 337 AD. His reign was perhaps the most
distinctive out of all of Rome?s emperors, insofar as having an impact on the course of the future
of Europe, and ultimately, the greater part of the earth, for he implemented changes that remain to
this day. The resulting alteration of the nature of the Empire had direct ramifications on the
cultures with which it dealt, and those which spurred from its collapse, lasting even today.
Constantine I was the son of Constantius Chlorus and Helena, and was born on February
27, of either 272 or 273 AD. in Serbia. Upon his father becoming Caesar in 293 AD.,
Constantine was sent as a hostage to Emperor Galerius, to ensure Constantius? own appropriate
behaviour. Constantine later returned to his father?s side when Constantius was on his deathbed,
in Britain in 306 AD. The period after his father?s death in 306 AD., until the ultimate defeat of
his enemies in 324 AD., saw Constantine attempting to rule Rome while it was in a state of civil
war. These two sets of military campaigns against him resulted in Constantine eventually
becoming the sole ruler of the Empire.
Prior to Constantine?s rise to the throne, the Roman Empire was in a state of decline. A
multitude of forces on the Empire?s eastern front, as well as barbarian uprisings in the north were
putting a strain on the Rome externally, while at the same time, the division of rule weakened it
on the domestic front. Paganism was seen as a vital part of the Roman culture, as well as a
uniting force offering a strong sense of patriotism. This aspect of the Roman lifestyle however
was being threatened by the growing support for Christianity, which had been gaining momentum
over the preceding two hundred years, despite persecution and mistrust at the hands of the Roman
people and government.
Under the Emperor Diocletian, who ruled from 284 to his abdication in 305 AD., the
Christian minority suffered its most severe persecution. Seen as a threat to the crown as well as to
the Roman way of life, they faced oppression at every turn at the hands of the pagans, sanctioned
by the government of Diocletian. This however did not seem to put an end to the expansion of
Christianity. As a result, the Romans reached the point that they could no longer ignore the
?problem? of Christianity. So far as the Romans were concerned, the matter of religion was
governmental, and the government held the responsibility of ensuring that Rome retained favour
in the eyes of the gods. In the Christian philosophy however, God was seen as separate from, and
a higher priority than, the state.
As a result, the Romans saw the Christians as a threat to their way of life, and believed
that the only way to preserve it was through the persecution of them. The Christians, on the other
hand, only wished to seek relief from the persecution they were suffering at the hands of their
oppressors. Clearly, some change to the existing order would have to occur for the two to exist
together in relative harmony. Upon the abdication of Diocletian in 305 AD., it was apparent that
his successor would be forced to deal with the pressing problem of the two conflicting religions.
After the defeat of his rivals in several military campaigns, Constantine did just that. In 312 AD.,
Constantine?s forces fought and defeated the forces of Maxentius. Later, in 314, 316, and 324
AD., Constantine repeatedly defeated his other enemy Licinius. After the final defeat of Licinius in
324 AD., Constantine became the sole imperator of the Roman Empire.
It was during the first of these campaigns that Constantine openly asserted his Christian
beliefs, crediting Jesus Christ for his victory over Maxentius, at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.
The motives behind the conversion of Constantine remain a topic of debate. Legend states that
Constantine claimed that he had seen the sign of Christ in the sky outside of Rome, and believed
that it was as a result of this experience that he was able to defeat his rival. It is also as a
possibility that Constantine chose to embrace Christianity as a simple demonstration of his
opposition to Maxentius, who held very deep pagan convictions. ?If it was merely experimenting
with the cross of Jesus, the experiment brought convincing belief, for the sacred emblem was
employed in all later military campaigns, ? stated historian Alexander Flick about Constantine?s
conversion. In either scenario, after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine was recognized
as a Christian by all.
The motives of Constantine would govern his policies towards the church throughout his
reign. While purely political incentives would result in Constantine exploiting the church to his
own end, purely religious convictions would see the church using the emperor as a puppet to its
own advantage. History shows that Constantine?s motives were of a mixed nature. As he had
received some Christian background in his upbringing, he held a sympathetic theological
perspective towards the religion. At the same time, he continued his father?s policies of religious
toleration. Thus it was not a complete change in character for Constantine to embrace
Christianity. However, the most probable factor in Constantine?s conversion to Christianity would
be that in his early military campaigns against his adversaries, the Christian God seemed to serve
him well. As a result, his faith increased each time God delivered him another victory over his
In 313 AD., Constantine met with Licinius, and the two rulers drew up the Edict of Milan,
which effectively put an end to the era of Christian persecution by granting the Christians the
freedom to practice their religion without fear of government reprisal. Christians who had lost
their status and legal power in the past now had it reinstated. The Edict also recognized the
church as as a legitimate establishment, for it permitted the church to buy and hold land. It is not
surprising that for these reasons that the church welcomed the Edict of Milan. Its results were
described by Alexander Flick:
It did not make Christianity the state religion, as is generally asserted, but only
legalized it, and popularized it. Now the people could and did openly desert the
old and join the new faith… (The Edict) gave opportunity for public
organization, thus paving the way for the Catholic hierarchy already begun;
and marks as a new era in the history of the Christian church, because at last as
a great Roman Emperor and his conquering army had taken up the sword of
By passing the Edict, Constantine had started the process of making Christianity the
official religion of the Roman state rather than paganism This transition from paganism to
Christianity was accomplished by the passing of laws and other government legislation which
favoured this new-coming Roman religion over that of the old. Constantine began showing favour
towards Christianity as early as 312, however, he himself did not officially convert to the religion
until his baptism in 337 AD. Other decrees that showed favour to the Christians followed the
Edict. Gradually, the clergy became exempt from military and municipal duties ( a privilege
previously reserved for pagan priests and Jewish rabbis). Christian slaves were also emancipated.
In 316 AD., a multitude of customs and traditions the Christians found offensive were abolished,
and by 323, the former gods of the Roman Empire; Jupiter, Apollo, Mars, etc., were no longer
visible on state coinage. It is an interesting sidenote that most of the blatantly obvious pro-
Christian decrees executed by Constantine were not implemented until after the final defeat of
Licinius, in 324 AD., which placed Constantine in the position of sole ruler of the Roman
The changes brought about by Constantine resulted in drastic and permanent effects to the
Roman state, as well as the Christian church. These shifts in the nature of these two
establishments had profound consequences on those citizens involved under each. With the
Christians, it meant public acceptance and an end to unrelenting persecution. With regards to the
Romans, it meant a new way of life, so far as their spiritual community was concerned. In both
cases, the reforms to the Roman state subsequently resulted in a change in the nature of both
The most obvious change implemented by Constantine was the conversion of the Roman
people from the spiritual life of paganism to Christianity. This change altered the nature of the
Christian society by bringing the Christian church and the Christian state closer together. As these
changes were occurring in the Christian culture, the result of Constantine?s reforms and continued
legislation preferring Christianity, there was as a large segment of the Roman population who
gradually found themselves identifying more and more with the Christians, rather than with their
pagan gods of old.
There were a great number of Roman citizens who remained ignorant of the reasons for
their states? theological conversion and were content to simply follow the emperor. All that was
required of these individuals to make this transition was simply the substitution of their old pagan
traditions and idols for the paraphernalia of their new religion of Christianity, and deluding
themselves that, for the time being, everything else was as it had been before. However, obeying
the law later meant that they would have to accept and pursue basic Christian morals. Roman civil
law promoted the basic values of Christianity, and the criminal law of the society became altered
to the point that the distinctions between theological ideas of sin and the actual consequences of
criminal wrong-doing became blurred. Though the Roman people may not have understood their
new religion, they were subject to it nonetheless.
The nature of the Roman state was further redirected by the increased allegiance of the
Christian church with the Roman people. This meant that the state began the process of losing its
previous overwhelming control over its citizenry. The implications of this shift in the control of
the masses meant that the government would now have to work through the church to ensure and
maintain the loyalty of the public. By the creation of the Christian state and the intertwining of
church and state, Constantine had, in a manner of speaking, put himself and those who would
follow him in the throne, at the mercy of the church. He was now dependant upon the support of
the church to ensure the support of the public. Constantine had now put himself under the control
of the church, rather than the reversal, which he had hoped to accomplish.
As as a result of the increase of the political power of the church, while it continued to
adhere to the Christian faith, the church began to lose its spiritual and theological integrity. This
was accomplished through the equation of Roman law with the law of the church, the state was
easily able to shape the theology of the average citizen. Thus, the nature of the church was
altered by the increased number of unconcerned and insincere converts to their religion. Through
this influx of confused and indifferent individuals, Constantine was able to regain some sort of
control over the Christian church. If the masses followed the doctrine as defined by the state, then
the effect of the church?s control over the minds of its congregation was largely eliminated.
There still remained as a great number of devout and educated Christians, clergy and
church elders. These individuals maintained a profound direct influence over Constantine and his
policies, as trusted advisors. Constantine relied on the support of these advisors in order to
maintain the support of the Christian public. At the same time the church found itself dependant
on the favour of Constantine, so as not to lose the favour of the government. Thus the two
separate institutions became interdependent on one another, for they would be rendered weak
without the other.
Constantine further changed the nature of the Roman Empire through the relocation of its
capital from Rome to Constantinople. Constantine realized that in order for the Empire to
successfully move from its pagan routes, it must have a pagan free centre. Thus, Constantine
made the decision to create the city of Constantinople on the site of Byzantium (this city would
also act as the capital of the Byzantine Empire that succeeded it). Constantine recognized
however, that for the new capital of the empire to function as effectively as Rome had, it would
have to be as a Christian version of the same:
Why even Constantine himself could not escape from this deep complex of
thought, and it was as a foregone conclusion that, when he made as a new
centre for the Empire in its new Christian form, that centre could only be as a
new ?Rome.? So when the Emperor founded his new ?city of Constantine,? in
all respects spiritual and material he copied the old Rome, in order to replace it
by the new.
Constantine had to preserve the old Empire in order to bring about a new one.
Ultimately, the conversion of the Roman state from a theology of paganism to Christianity
was necessary to ensure its survival. There can be little doubt that the Roman Empire, in its state
of decline, would not have been able to survive the growing expansion of Christianity within its
boundaries. Thus, it stands to reason that Constantine?s motives in transforming the spiritual
beliefs of the empire could have been just as politically driven as they were religiously. In either
scenario, Constantine?s reforms drastically altered the nature of the Roman Empire.
The Roman Empire changed from a state in which the voice of God was the government,
to a state where church and state cooperated solely to ensure its own continued existence. Prior
to Constantine and his reforms, the state and emperor were the embodiment of the will of the
gods. After the introduction of Christianity-favouring legislation, and the increased power wielded
by the Christian church, the emperor and church were forced into a situation of symbiosis. The
state was no longer in complete and undisputed control of its citizens, for the church had gained
the moral and spiritual allegiance of the people. Thus, the state had lost its complete control over
the people, and was now dependant on the favour of the church.
At the same time, Christian population found themselves in as a situation which they had
not experienced before; the freedom of their religion from the state sanctioned persecution. So far
as the Christian church was concerned, it had to ensure it retained the favour of the Roman
government, so that the legislation in its favour did not become repealed. The Roman people
(ultimately the members of the Christian church) also found themselves in a situation where the
Roman government was not in direct control over their spiritual lives. The government however,
had weakened the Christian church through the more or less ?forced? conversion of many
ignorant or unconfused citizens. Thus, the Christian church had also lost its control over the
people, and was equally dependant on the government.
It was in this manner that the nature of the Roman Empire was changed by the reforms
brought about by Constantine. The Christian church had now been accepted by the Roman
bureaucracy. The government had lost its absolute control over its people. Instead, there were
now two parallel, yet separate, institutions completely dependant upon each other to maintain
their own influence over the masses. These reforms remained in place in the Roman Empire until
its collapse, and the legacy of these reforms is still visible in the present day.
Alfoldi, Andrew. The Conversion of Constantine and Pagan Rome. Oxford: Clarendon Press,
Barnes, Timothy D. Constantine and Eusebius. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,
Cochrane, Charles Norris. Christianity and Classical Culture. New York: Oxford University
Flick, Alexander C. The Rise and Fall of the Mediaeval Church. New York: Burt Franklin, 1909.
Grant, Michael. Constantine the Great – The Man and His Times. New York: Macmillian
Starr, Chester G. A History of the Ancient World. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press,
Reforms of Constantine
Nature of the Roman Empire
Prof D. K. House
April 15th, 1998
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