Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Constantine and Christianity

A/N: Part I, paper 13 essay from Easter term of the 2007/08 academic year. I was supervised by Dr. Sarris at Trinity. 

'What Constantine had done with Christianity, Julian dreamed of repeating with paganism. They both took young and popular religion and lent it their full support.' (Athanassiadi) If this is true, why did one fail and the other succeed?

Constantine has, for the most part, been remembered well by history for his part in introducing Christianity to the Western world. Julian on the other hand has been denounced by Christian writers for trying to reinstate the paganism of classical Rome as the official state religion. Both views are too simplistic and ignore the complex realities of fourth century religion, undoubtedly coloured by the politics at work in contemporary records as well as the religious bias of later generations of historians. Dodds contests the extent to which Constantine succeeded in Christianising the empire, Evans-Grubb casts doubt over how much the emperor even tried to. Similarly Athanassiadi points out that Julian’s aims were not as straightforward as previous historians have suggested, arguing that he was in fact trying to convert the Roman Empire to Mithraism. This question raises three major points: Is it true that they both took young and popular religion? Did they lend it their full support? And is it true to say that one failed where the other succeeded, and if so, why?

Looking at Constantine first it appears difficult to argue that Christianity was a young and popular religion when he first publicly gave it his support in the campaign against Maxentius in 312. Young it undoubtedly was compared to the traditional pagan religion of the empire but as Lane-Fox argues, the Christian church was not in a strong position in the early years of the fourth century; having just suffered under the great persecution of Diocletian Christianity was also being challenged internally with a Donatist breakaway in Africa. Rome had been without a bishop for over 5 years. Evans-Grubb argues that in 312 only 5% of the Roman population was Christian. However this overlooks the fact that where Christianity did have supporters they were particularly ardent; the splits in the Christian were the result of the near fanaticism of Christians towards their faith. If the church could be unified, which Constantine attempted to do with church councils such as the one at Nicaea in 325, it could provide a loyal and fervent support base for Constantine.

Once Constantine had publicly focused his support on Christianity some historians argue that he then did his best to convert his subjects to Christianity. In the mid 330s Constantine assigned Christian priests to army units, thus making Christianity the official religion of the military and passed pro Christian religion like the banning of crucifixion and gladiatorial shows. Baynes however disagrees, claiming Constantine’s support of Christianity was nothing but a smokescreen he used because of its practical benefits. Evans-Grubb argues that Constantine was more concerned with re-establishing strict social hierarchy and that his supposedly pro-Christian policies are, at best, politically central in that they would appeal to both Pagans and Christians, the establishment of Sunday as a holiday for example. Such a view ignores the personal interest Constantine paid towards the Christian church however. Other critics point to the fact that his pro-Catholic policies were, at times, detrimental to the church as a whole; in 324 for example, when the Donatists refused to acknowledge the Catholic bishop of Carthage Constantine confiscated their property as punishment. Other criticisms include the fact that he left the Christian church more divided on his death than it had been before 312 but looking at the whole picture a more positive view concerning Constantine’s active support of Christianity can be seen. Undoubtedly Constantine could have used force and imposed his approved version of Christianity on his subjects, by using non-violent sanctions and allowing for compromise Constantine could pursue Christian aims whilst at the same time keeping his imperial position secure from the threat of religiously incited rebellion.

If then Constantine had lent a considerable amount of support to Christianity it might be expected that his efforts were successful and this is certainly true in the respect that they provided a base from which Christianity continued to grow into the fifth century and beyond. This must however be qualified; some writers have had very negative views on Constantine’s impact on Christianity. The Christian writer Socrates, writing in the 430s, argued that Constantine had encouraged Christians to live lives of vice and was responsible for the schisms of Arianism and Donatism, amongst others. Whilst these claims are erroneous (these problems had beset the church even before Constantine got involved) they and other writers like Zosimus who claimed that “Constantine was the origin and beginning of the present destruction of the empire” remind us that whilst Constantine’s efforts were successful in implementing Christianity, and in laying the foundation blocks for later Christian emperors such as Theodosius II, the transition was neither seamless nor instantaneous.

23 years later in 360 Julian was proclaimed emperor by the army in Paris. Most historians have argued that he set about trying to reinstate the religion that Constantine had tried so hard to remove. Julian’s aspirations were not that straightforward however; initially he adopted a conciliatory policy towards the Christians. Even after his policies became intensely anti-Christian Julian’s aims were not as clear as many historians have suggested. Rather than just wanting to revert to the paganism practiced before Constantine introduced his state sponsored Christianity, Julian wanted to convert his subjects to a branch of neoplatonism – theurgy. Its focus on philosophy, despite making it popular amongst the highly educated pagans of the elite class, made it far less accessible to the masses than Christianity, and it failed to provide the coherent world view of its opponent.

Although initially forced by circumstance to make concessions, once secured his position Julian set about on an intensive programme of conversion. The 361 Chalcedon trials were unavoidably supervised by Christian army officials but by 362 Julian was issuing anti-Christian proclamations. For example Julian proclaimed that only 30 Christians could enter the legal profession, alienating them from the professional spheres and civic life. Whereas Constantine had been happy to compromise in some areas and show tolerance towards paganism, Julian was set on eradicating the “heresy” of Christianity.

Julian cannot be said to have been successful in his aims to re-establish paganism, in any form, as the official state religion. Even his apologist Libanius is forced to admit that where “persuasion proved insufficient,” as it often did, “silver and gold co-operated to ensure adherence.” Most of those who did convert, as suggested by Libanius, did so purely for pragmatic reasons. Hecebolius became a Polytheist under Julian but reverted to Christianity on the emperor’s death. Any changes Julian did manage to make were short-lived; Bowersock sums the situation up when he states “the whole transformation which Julian set in motion stopped abruptly with his death.”

Although the statement must be somewhat qualified it is fair to say then that Constantine was successful in installing Christianity as the new state religion. There are a number of reasons that explain why this was the case, and why, Julian’s similar attempts to convert the empire back to the worship of the traditional gods failed. Firstly the approach each man took had a huge impact on his success, or lack thereof. Constantine adopted a more conciliatory approach, allowing most aspects of pagan worship to continue. Later anti-pagan proclamations, whether through accident or design, were only patchily enforced meaning they resulted in less hostility than might be imagined. A good example of the way Constantine managed to combine the new religion with traditional aspects of civic life can be seen in a ruling of the Elvira church council (with which Constantine was involved personally) that let Christians serving as magistrates, who by necessity carried out pagan ceremonies, be welcomed back into the church once their term in office was over. This let the church maintain its vital links with the high officials in the cities. Julian at first glance would appear to have taken a similar approach to Constantine. His letter about the murder of Bishop George of Cappadocia made it clear that the new emperor did not condone the violent persecution of Christians. The optimism this must have engendered was short-lived however; whilst willing to court Jewish support by rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, Julian was soon implementing specifically anti-Christian policies which effectively cut them out of state life. In June 362 for example Julian passed his edict on teachers which prohibited them teaching anything they did not believe in. This meant that Christians were now barred from the education system which centred on the classical Greek and Roman texts. By adopting a more tolerant stance Constantine could encourage the growth of Christianity without overly alienating those who continued to follow the traditional religion. Julian, unable to compromise, and unwilling to convert his subjects by force, failed to initiate a widespread or lasting reaction against Christianity.

The favour it brought upon the believer had been the traditional test of religion. Shortly after Constantine allegedly had a Christian vision and painted the Christian abbreviation for the cross on his soldiers shields in 312 he won a triumphant victory over Maxentius. This apparent favour seemed to be cemented in 324 when Licinius was defeated after, so Eusebius claims, “Constantine prepared himself for the war by prayer: Licinius by the practice of divination.” Christianity, then, not only provided a convenient smokescreen for Constantine’s expansionist desires, it was also linked with success in warfare, something that was of the utmost importance considering the ever increasing focus on the military since the third century. In addition Constantine’s introduction of the solidus in 309 led to the stabilisation of the currency after decades of inflation. Julian’s gods failed to deliver in the same way. Although his initial successes as Caesar in Gaul where his army defeated the far superior numbers of Alamanni at the battle of Strasbourg were impressive his occupation of Illyricum in 361 almost ended in disaster when troops, loyal to Constantius II, threatened to blockade him in the Alps. Later his proposed campaign against Persia was beset with bad omen after bad omen: in March 363 there was an earthquake at Constantinople, even Sallustius, Julian’s close friend and fellow theurgist, wrote to him imploring him to abandon the Persian campaign. Fowden argues that Julian’s refusal to do so was a sign of his own impiety, as he rejected the omens and wisdom of the gods he had supposedly placed all his trust in. Regardless of their having foretold it, when the campaign failed disastrously, not least because Julian lost his life on the battle field, it seemed to be the final proof the empire needed that paganism and the worship of the traditional gods was not the way forward. Although reliant on more factors than the emperors’ personality their individual experiences with warfare go a long way to explain how successful each was with their respective religious policies.

A further reason why Constantine succeeded to a reasonable degree, where Julian failed is that the religions they were trying to encourage were fundamentally different. In 312 Christianity was radical in that it encouraged charity and support for the poor. In addition the scrupulously moral lives of the Christian bishops and hermits exemplified the ideal of Christian life without trying to force the common man to live his life to the same high ideals. The local bishop lived a life beyond reproach so his parishioners would not have to. Christianity even provided a coherent world view where paganism did not. When Julian tried to undermine Christian support by insisting that pagan priests lived exemplary lives morally and implementing charitable policies such as the fixing of food prices in Antioch (a disastrous scheme as food prices remained artificially inflated in the surrounding countryside) the idea was nothing new, and in fact contradicted with the beliefs held by traditionalists who clung to the old pagan religion. Much was made of Julian’s own humble lifestyle, Claudius Mamertinus claimed in his panegyric to Julian that he could “hardly praise sufficiently the fact that a man so strict and frugal for himself should be so generous and relaxed towards his people.” The truth was somewhat less appealing; Julian’s insistence that the common man should attempt to live up to his own austere lifestyle appealed to virtually nobody. Christianity was satisfied with the veneer of morality, Julian’s new religion demanded exemplary living on a scale that the majority could not, and did not want to, aspire to. The second aspect to this is that Christianity, put bluntly, was a far less tolerant religion. Whereas compromise had been enough to satisfy most of the pagans under Constantine, any blatant challenges to Christian worship was completely unacceptable to the majority of Christians under Julian. As Palladus argued, pagan idols were perfectly acceptable as art; sacrifice was almost acceptable as a customary ceremony, but to reinstate the spiritual symbolism of them was a step too far. Julian found himself with neither the time nor the support to persuade the majority otherwise.

Additionally other factors must be considered. Constantine ruled as emperor from 306 and as sole, unchallenged, emperor of the whole Roman Empire from 324 until 337. This means that Constantine had both the experience and the time span to be able to implement his ambitious religious policies. Julian, in contrast, ruled officially for less than two years. Also much has been made of Constantine’s creation of a new seat of imperial power in Constantinople after he gained control of the East in 324. In July 362 Julian went to Antioch, presumably with a similar idea in mind. But whereas Constantine had had a clean slate to work with in Constantinople, a new city whose architecture suggests was designed to be a Christian city with its numerous churches and could be filled with supporters and loyal officials, Julian was faced with an uphill struggle to persuade the inhabitants of Antioch to convert. They thwarted his every attempt at implementing pagan practices; in August 362 he was dismayed to find only one goose had been provided for sacrifice at his favoured shrine of Apollo at Daphne and in October a fire swept through it, destroying the cult statue. In 363 Julian wrote a scathing attack on what he perceived as the Antiochenes ingratitude in the Misopogon which resulted in nothing but further ridicule for the emperor. Constantine was a victorious leader beating a righteous path forward with Christianity whilst the problems of Julian’s reign appeared, in the eyes of many contemporaries, to be the result in his upsetting of the religious balance by trying to reintroduce the traditional gods.

In conclusion to say that Constantine succeeded in changing the state religion where Julian failed is a long way from saying that Constantine made all the right moves where Julian made all the wrong ones. Constantine was lucky in that circumstance shone favourably upon him: his military campaigns were successful and his own conciliatory approach coupled with the scope for tolerance amongst practicing pagans allowed him to introduce Christianity relatively painlessly. Christianity may have not been the thriving, expanding religion Athanassiadi suggests, but versions of it were fairly popular especially in Africa and Egypt. Constantine’s attempts to make Christianity uniform could have destroyed it but as more and more people converted to the state sponsored version of Christianity it became the norm and the centralisation of church organisation and doctrine served to actually prove advantageous to the religion. Constantine made concerted efforts to furthering the cause of Christianity but was not willing to risk destabilising the whole structure of the Roman Empire over paganism. In contrast Julian tried to install a young but quietly popular religion, but his was more complex and held less appeal meaning the difference in the length of time each emperor reigned must be stressed. It took Constantine many years to slowly introduce Christianity; Julian ruled for scarcely two years, and even this short reign was burdened with problems. The increasing disorder in Antioch and his eventual defeat at the hands of Persia flamed the accusations levelled against his pagan beliefs. Julian’s over intensive policy for forcing Christians out of public life attracted criticism from the new Christian elite and his attempts to buy Christian support with charity were ill thought out. Perhaps the main reason for his failure however was the differing nature of Christianity to Paganism. Although by 360 the empire was by no means entirely Christianised the substantial numbers of Christians were far less tolerant towards other religions, even dissenting offshoots of their own church. Whereas Constantine could introduce aspects of pro-Christian policy without inciting major hostility, Julian’s similar attempts to introduce theurgy were violently opposed by the outspoken, intolerant Christian section of his empire.


  • Panegyrici Latini VI (A.D. 307) 
  • Life of Constantine – Eusebius (ed. Averil Cameron) 
  • Eusebius Ecclesiastical History Bk 10. 1-2 and 7-9 
  • Zosimus New History Bk II, 9-39
  • Ammianus Marcellinus Res Gestae Books XIV-XV 
  • S. Lieu, The Emperor Julian, Panegyric and Polemic (1989) 


  • Robin Lane-Fox, Pagans and Christians (1986) Chapters 1, 12, 13 
  • Timothy Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius (1981) Chapter 13 
  • B.S.Rodgers, Constantine’s Pagan Vision (Byzantion 50, 1980) pp. 259-78 
  • Peter Heather, New Men for New Constantines? (1994, in P. Magdalino, New Constantines) 
  • C. Mango, Byzantine Architecture (1986) Chapter 3 
  • Judith Evans-Grubb, Law and Family in Late Antiquity (1995) Chapter 1 and 7
  • Glen Bowersock, Julian the Apostate (1978) 
  • P. Athanassiadi, Julian: An Intellectual Biography (1992) Chapters 4 and 5 
  • Cambridge Ancient History Volume XII: Mark Edwards 
  • Averil Cameron and Peter Garnsey (ed); Cambridge Ancient History Volume XIII – The Late Empire AD 337-425 (1998): Julian by David Hunt; Polytheist Religion and Philosophy by Garth Fowden; Religious Conflict by Peter Brown.

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