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The Emperor Constantine: Some Background

Time for something new, about as different from the Pentateuch as you can get while still staying in the ancient world.

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about the Emperor Constantine over the past ten months and have decided to devote a thread to him on the blog.   His conversion to Christianity is usually considered a major turning point in the history of the Christian religion. Before he became Christian all the Roman emperors were, of course, pagan, and some of them, including his immediate predecessors on the throne, were virulently opposed to the Christian movement.  He himself converted near the end of what is called the “Great Persecution,” a ten-year period in which, at least in parts of the empire, the imperial forces were trying to wipe out the religion.  After he converted, Christianity went from being persecuted, to being tolerated, to being religion-most-favored .

It is a mistake to say – as so many people do say! – that Constantine made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman empire.  He absolutely did not do that.   That happened only later under the Roman Emperor Theodosius I near the end of the fourth century (Constantine was at the beginning).

Moreover, it is even more commonly said and thought that Constantine’s conversion is what led to the “triumph” of Christianity, that it is the main reason that so many Christians started to convert to the religion.   It is often pointed out that when he converted, something like 7-10% of the empire was Christian (I’ve come to think that figure is too high) and that by the end of the fourth century something like 50% was.   That’s a big difference.  My view is that maybe two or three million were Christian around 300 and maybe about thirty million around 400.  For that to happen, something BIG must have changed things.  It must have been the conversion of the emperor, right?  Well, I think that’s wrong too.

But I think Constantine’s conversion was nonetheless a huge deal, as I will try to argue in these posts.

This thread is going to be more historically oriented than usual.  I won’t be talking about the words and deeds of Jesus, or the writings of Paul, or the interpretation of the Bible, or lots of the other things I normally talk about.  I’m going to be talking about events that happened in the fourth Christian century.   But we can’t very well just plop down at October 28, 312 (the traditional date of Constantine’s conversion) without some historical backdrop.

On the other hand, we can’t really start “at the beginning” because there actually *is* no beginning.  Anywhere you start, there was something that happened before that which makes sense of the think you’re starting with.   But I’ve gotta start somewhere, so let me give some very brief context.

Constantine was probably…

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Preface to Constantine: The Rule of the Four
Are the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Manuscripts Reliable? A Blast From the Past

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Comments

  1. Belasaurius
    Belasaurius  July 12, 2016

    The point of the Tetrarchy?
    Empire too big for one man to rule or something else? I seem to recall, dimly, from grad school, that the Empire was too large but you’ve done more recent reading that I have.

  2. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 12, 2016

    So Diocletian himself was the first Augustus in the East, with Galerian his Caesar? Then Galerian became Augustus, with Constantine his Caesar, and Galerian died soon afterward?

    If Diocletian had chosen the East, was that even then coming to be seen as the most important part of the Empire?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 13, 2016

      No, originally it was Diocletian and Galerius in the East and Maximian and Constantius in the West. When Diocletian and Maximian left office in 305 CE, Galerius and Constantius were elevated.

  3. Avatar
    stokerslodge  July 12, 2016

    Thanks Bart, very enlightening. Will you be giving some background on the ‘Great Persecution’ mentioned above?

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  July 12, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, what was the power of the Church as a whole at this time? Was there enough of an orthodox consensus (pre-Nicaea) to give the Church some semblance of unity, and with it some power?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 13, 2016

      There was probably more unity than in the preceding centuries, because of the emergence of a kind of theological orthodoxy. But lots of division as well. I don’t know if the persecutions had focused people’s attention a bit. But the church as a whole did not have “power,” since it was still a small minority in the empire, maybe three or four million out of sixty when Constantine converted.

  5. Avatar
    saavoss  July 12, 2016

    This idea of the Ceasars and the Augusti… Brings to mind “Ceasar Augstus”… Were the titles of the four emperors named after Ceasar Agustus? Or was “Ceasar Agustus” always a title rather than a name?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 13, 2016

      Caesar was originally a family name (Julius Caesar), which was taken to show relationship to the first sole ruler; Augustus meant “exalted one” and was first used by Caesar Augustus (Julius’s nephew and adopted son) when he assumed power; later emperors used both terms for themselves to show their exalted positions.

  6. Avatar
    godspell  July 12, 2016

    “Constantine was probably born around 273 CE”

    ‘Probably’

    And some people still ask “How can there be so little information about Jesus if he really existed, and he was so important?”

    And we still haven’t found the very first Emperor’s published memoirs. Maybe he should have buried a copy, like his stammering great-nephew. 😉

  7. Avatar
    marcrm68  July 12, 2016

    Great timing! I just finished Constantine Roman Emperor Christian Victor by Paul Stephenson. The main thing that made an impression on me was the military nature of Constantine’s religion… It was public, it was the claimed reasons for his victories, the whole empire followed who he worshipped… When he converted from Sol Invictus to Jesus, it was because Jesus brought his legions victory in battle! I am left wondering if he didn’t just take Sol’s solar crown off, and put it on Jesus’s head!

    • Bart
      Bart  July 13, 2016

      I have a different take then Stephenson on the significance of Sol INvictus for Constantine. I’ll be spelling it out later.

  8. Avatar
    Alfred  July 12, 2016

    I thought Diocletian was most famous for being the only Roman Emperor to retire. I read that when asked how he could give up all that power, he said: “ah – you should see my cabbages”. Please don’t tell me it isn’t true!

  9. Avatar
    nichael  July 12, 2016

    Totally off-topic, but:

    The “Findings” section of an older issue of “Harper’s” magazine contains the following item:
    — “A newly translated Coptic text alleged Judas’ kiss to have been necessitated by Jesus’ ability to shape-shift.”

    (I’m a real fan of Harper’s, but they have a couple sections where they print interesting/tantalizing little items like this. Unfortunately, they usually don’t include any context or source information.)

    Anyway, do you happen to know anything about this?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 13, 2016

      Oh dear. No, I don’t.

      • Avatar
        nichael  July 13, 2016

        Just so you can sleep nights: 😉

        I did a little more digging. It appears that this is referring to an 9th cent fragment of “Pseudo-Cyril of Jerusalem” that was published in 2013.

        Here’s a bit more information:
        http://www.livescience.com/27840-shape-shifting-jesus-ancient-text.html

        (My favorite part is when Pilate invites Jesus over for supper and offers his own son to take Jesus’ place on the cross.)

        • Avatar
          nichael  July 13, 2016

          (P.S. It’s interesting the lengths to which some of the later writers/church fathers went to remove any hint of guilt from Pilate.)

          • Bart
            Bart  July 15, 2016

            Yes indeed! Quite remarkable.

  10. Avatar
    Jason  July 12, 2016

    Can we look forward to your take on Crispus, Fausta and Helena in the Holy Land?

  11. Avatar
    Whipplebob  July 12, 2016

    Great evaluation of a critical juncture not only of Christianity but of the whole of western civilization. I was recently at the Minster in York, England and was quite surprised to see the seated statue of Constantine with the recognition of his proclamation as “emperor” in that town.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 13, 2016

      Yes indeed! He was with his father Constantius defending the northern border from Scot invaders.

  12. Greg Matthews
    Greg Matthews  July 13, 2016

    This idea is several months late, but I just thought of another way to re-energize the blog and add something new to the mix that I think actually might lessen the amount of time you have to spend on the blog each week (time spent answer comments notwithstanding). I’ll pat myself on the back for a moment and say that since I was the one who suggested the reader mailbag post each week that perhaps my creative juices are still flowing.

    How about mixing things up a bit each week by doing at least one (or as many as you like) video blog entry. Use a simple web camera from where ever you might be, in your office, on the road for a debate or on vacation in some place like Turkey (having a historic backdrop for a vlog entry would be super cool!) and talk directly to us for 5 minutes or so rather than spending all that time writing something new or cutting and pasting from a textbook. I imagine you know 97% or more of what you write right off the top of your head so imagine how much less time you’d spend on the blog if you just recorded a 5 minute talk on camera?

  13. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 13, 2016

    A further Comment: I remember some college professor insisting that the Roman Empire never did “decline and fall”! As he saw it, its rulers came to the realization that it was too big to be manageable. So they just gave up the part they saw by then as “less important,” the *European* part – despite that’s being where it had begun. They focused on the East. According to him, the *Ottoman* Empire, which endured till the 20th century, was the *direct* descendant of the “Roman” Empire.

    I think it does seem plausible that with the technology of that era – communications and travel having been, by our standards, maddeningly slow – attempting to govern an over-large Empire might not have been worth the effort.

  14. epicurus
    epicurus  July 18, 2016

    I hope to read a biography of Constantine in the next year or so. Is there a modern work that is generally recognized as the best that Dr. Ehrman or anyone else could recommend?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 19, 2016

      It depends how deeply you want to go. Highly authoritative is Timothy Barnes, Constantine: Dynasty, Religion and Power in the Later Roman Empire (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2014.

      • epicurus
        epicurus  July 19, 2016

        Thank you very much. I’ll track it down. I’ve read a fair bit of general Roman history from non academic books, (as well as most of the teaching co. Roman history courses many years ago, and can read a bit of Latin if it’s not too hard, so a mid level book for lay people would be best for me I suppose. Thanks again.

  15. Avatar
    steppencat  July 22, 2016

    Something that I’ve always wondered…how did the family name “Caesar” end up becoming a title? Augusti makes sense, since as I understand it, “August” literally means “consecrated, venerable”. But Caesar is a name. It would be like if I became president and called myself President Steppencat Kennedy. Actually, that metaphor isn’t even accurate. It would be more like if I became president and called myself Kennedy Steppencat.

    I feel like I remember seeing references to this predating the Tetrarchy, but Diocletian kind of doubled down on the whole idea (which was later incorporated into the many titles that could be won/bought in the Byzantine Empire).

    I guess, to sum up, do we have any idea when/why “Caesar” went from being a plain old name (albeit, of a famous Roman), to an actual title, and how? My sincerest apologies in advance if this question is a bit out of “scope” of the discussion of Constantine.

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