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The motives, progress, and effects of the conversion of Constantine—Legal establishment and constitution of the Christian or Catholic Church.
THE public establishment of Christianity may be considered as one of those important and domestic revolutions which excite the most lively curiosity, and afford the most valuable instruction. The victories and the civil policy of Constantine no longer influence the state of Europe; but a considerable portion of the globe still retains the impression which it received from the conversion of that monarch ; and the ecclesiastical institutions of his reign are still connected, by an indissoluble chain, with the opinions, the passions, and the interests of the present generation.
In the consideration of a subject which may be Date of the
examined with impartiality, but cannot be viewe
conversion of Con
with indifference, a difficulty immediately arises of stantine.
a very unexpected nature; that of ascertaining the real and precise date of the conversion of Constantine.
The eloquent Lactantius, in the midst of his court, A.D. 306.
seems impatient" to proclaim to the world the glorious example of the sovereign of Gaul; who, in the
* The date of the Divine Institutions of Lactantius has been accurately discussed, difficulties have been started, solutions proposed, and an expedient imagined of two original editions; the former published during the persecution of Diocletian, the latter under that of Licinius. See Dufresnoy, Prefat. p. v. Tillemont, Mem. Ecclesiast. tom. vi. p. 465–470. Lardner's Credibility, part ii. vol. vii. p. 78–86. For my own part, I am almost convinced that Lactantius dedicated his Institutions to the sovereign of Gaul, at a time when Galerius, Maximin, and even Licinius, persecuted the Christians; that is, between the years 306 and 3.11.
first moments of his reign, acknowledged and adored the majesty of the true and only God." The learned Eusebius has ascribed the faith of Constantine to the miraculous sign which was displayed in the heavens whilst he meditated and prepared the Italian expedition." The historian Zosimus maliciously asserts, that the emperor had imbrued his hands in the blood of his eldest son, before he publicly renounced the gods of Rome and of his ancestors." The perplexity produced by these discordant authorities is derived from the behaviour of Constantine himself. According to the strictness of ecclesiastical language, the first of the Christian emperors was unworthy of that name till the moment of his death ; since it was only during his last illness that he received, as a catechumen, the imposition of hands," and was afterwards admitted, by the initiatory rites of baptism, into the number of the faithful. The Christianity of Constantine must be allowed in a much more vague and qualified sense; and the nicest accuracy is required in tracing the slow and almost imperceptible CHAP. gradations by which the monarch declared himself. “ the protector, and at length the proselyte, of the church. It was an arduous task to eradicate the habits and prejudices of his education, to acknowledge the divine power of Christ, and to understand that the truth of his revelation was incompatible with the worship of the gods. The obstacles which he had probably experienced in his own mind instructed him to proceed with caution in the momentous change of a national religion; and he insensibly discovered his new opinions, as far as he could enforce them with safety and with effect. During the whole course of his reign, the stream of Christianity flowed with a gentle, though accelerated, motion: but its general direction was sometimes checked, and sometimes diverted, by the accidental circumstances of the times, and by the prudence, or possibly by the caprice, of the monarch. His ministers were permitted to signify the intentions of their master in the various language which was best adapted to their respective principles;" and he artfully balanced the hopes and fears of his subjects, by publishing in the same year two edicts; the first of which enjoined the solemn A.D. 321. observance of Sunday," and the second directed the regular consultation of the Aruspices.' While this important revolution yet remained in suspense, the Christians and the Pagans watched the conduct of
A D. 326.
* Lactant. Divin. Institut. i. 1. vii. 27. The first and most important of these passages is indeed wanting in twenty-eight manuscripts; but it is found in nineteen. If we weigh the comparative value of those manuscripts, one of 900 years old, in the king of France's library, may be alleged in its favour; but the passage is omitted in the correct manuscript of Bologna, which the P. de Montfaucon ascribes to the sixth or seventh century (Diarium Italic. p.409). The taste of most of the editors (except Isaeus, see Lactant. edit. Dufresnoy, tom. i. p. 596) has felt the genuine style of Lactantius.
• Euseb. in Wit. Constant. l. i. c. 27–32. * Zosimus, l. ii. p. 104.
* That rite was always used in making a catechumen (see Bingham's Antiquities, l. x. c. i. p. 419. Dom Chardon, Hist, des Sacremens, tom. i. p. 62), and Constantine received it for the first time (Euseb. in Vit. Constant. l. iv. c. 61) immediately before his baptism and death. From the connexion of these two facts, Walesius (ad loc. Euseb.) has drawn the conclusion which is reluctantly admitted by Tillemont (Hist, des Empereurs, tom. iv. p. 628), and opposed with feeble arguments by Mosheim (p. 968). Euseb. in Wit. Constant. l. iv. c. 61, 62, 63. The legend of Constantine's baptism at Rome, thirteen years before his death, was invented in the eighth century, as a proper motive for his donation. Such has been the gradual progress of knowledge, that a story of which Cardinal Baronius (Annal. Ecclesiast. A.D. 324. No. 43–49) declared himself the unblushing advocate, is now feebly supported, even within the verge of the Vatican. See the Antiquitates Christianae, tom. ii. p. 232; a work published with six approbations at Rome, in the year 1751, by Father Mamachi, a learned Dominican.
* The quastor, or secretary, who composed the law of the Theodosian Code, makes his master say with indifference, “hominibus supradictae religionis” (l. xvi. tit. ii. leg. i.). The minister of ecclesiastical affairs was allowed a more devout and respectful style, orns ovésozov x2, &yuoro, rns zo.éoxixon; égnazuz; ; the legal, most holy, and Catholic worship. See Euseb. Hist. Eccles. 1. x. c. 6.
* Cod. Theodos. l. ii. tit. viii. leg. 1. Cod. Justinian. l. iii. tit. xii. leg. 3. Constantine styles the Lord's day dies solis, a name which could not offend the ears of his Pagan subjects.
i Cod. Theodos. 1. xvi. tit.x. l. l. Godefroy, in the character of a commentator, endeavours (tom. vi. p. 257) to excuse Constantine; but the more zealous Baronius (Annal. Eccles. A. D. 321. No. 18) censures his profane conduct with truth and asperity.
their sovereign with the same anxiety, but with very opposite sentiments. The former were prompted by every motive of zeal, as well as vanity, to exaggerate the marks of his favour, and the evidences of his faith. The latter, till their just apprehensions were changed into despair and resentment, attempted to conceal from the world, and from themselves, that the gods of Rome could no longer reckon the emperor in the number of their votaries. The same passions and prejudices have engaged the partial writers of the times to connect the public profession of Christianity with the most glorious or the most ignominious aera of the reign of Constantine. Whatever symptoms of Christian piety might transpire in the discourses or actions of Constantine, he persevered till he was near forty years of age in the practice of the established religion; and the same conduct which, in the court of Nicomedia, might be imputed to his fear, could be ascribed only to the inclimation or policy of the sovereign of Gaul. His liberality restored and enriched the temples of the gods: the medals which issued from his imperial mint are impressed with the figures and attributes of Jupiter and Apollo, of Mars and Hercules; and his filial piety increased the council of Olympus by the solemn apotheosis of his father Constantius." But the devotion of Constantine was more peculiarly directed to the genius of the Sun, the Apollo of Greek and Roman mythology; and he was pleased to be represented with the symbols of the God of Light and Poetry. The unerring shafts of that deity, the brightness of his eyes, his laurel wreath, immortal CHAP.
3 Theodoret (l. i. c. 18) seems to insinuate that Helena gave her son a Christian education; but we may be assured, from the superior authority of Eusebius (in Vit. Constant. l. iii. c. 47), that she herself was indebted to Constantine for the knowledge of Christianity.
* See the medals of Constantine in Ducange and Banduri. As few cities had retained the privilege of coining, almost all the medals of that age issued from the mint under the sanction of the imperial authority.
beauty, and elegant accomplishments, seem to point him out as the patron of a young hero. The altars of Apollo were crowned with the votive offerings of Constantine; and the credulous multitude were taught to believe, that the emperor was permitted to behold with mortal eyes the visible majesty of their tutelar deity; and that, either waking or in a vision, he was blessed with the auspicious omens of a long and victorious reign. The Sun was universally celebrated as the invincible guide and protector of Constantine; and the Pagans might reasonably expect that the insulted god would pursue with unrelenting vengeance the impiety of his ungrateful favourite."
As long as Constantine exercised a limited sove- He pro
reignty over the provinces of Gaul, his Christian subjects were protected by the authority, and per
tects the Christians of Gaul, A. D. 306
haps by the laws, of a prince, who wisely left to the –312.
gods the care of vindicating their own honour. If we may credit the assertion of Constantine himself, he had been an indignant spectator of the savage cruelties which were inflicted, by the hands of Roman soldiers, on those citizens whose religion was their only crime." In the East and in the West, he had seen the different effects of severity and indulgence; and as the former was rendered still more odious by the example of Galerius, his implacable enemy, the latter was recommended to his imitation by the authority and advice of a dying father. The
* The panegyric of Eumenius (vii. inter Panegyr. Vet.), which was pronounced a few months before the Italian war, abounds with the most unexceptionable evidence of the Pagan superstition of Constantine, and of his particular veneration for Apollo, or the Sun; to which Julian alludes (Orat. vii. p. 228. 270xstorov as). See Commentaire de Spanheim sur les Césars, p. 317.
* Constantin. Orat. ad Sanctos, c. 25. But it might easily be shown, that the Greek translator has improved the sense of the Latin original; and the aged emperor might recollect the persecution of Diocletian with a more lively abhorrence than he had actually felt in the days of his youth and Paganism.