Constantine was no saint

Reading about Emperor Constantine in the book Rome was an eye-opener. He is well known in history as being a Christian and for holding the Council of Nicaea. However, author Robert Hughes says he was not a convert until he was dying. Reflecting back over the millennia, who really knows what was in the man’s heart? One could ponder his actions and perhaps get a glimpse. After Constantine won the battle for Rome Hughes says, “state persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire – torture, murder, confiscation of goods and property – effectively ceased.” Assets confiscated from Christians were returned. Then the Edict of Milan in 313 C.E. allowed followers of Jesus to restore or build places of worship. Constantine also began financially underwriting churches in a big way and – this was new to me – began the practice of exempting churches from taxes.

England 2012 Whatlington church window and crossConstantine funded the construction of “the mother and head of all churches of the city and of the world,” known as San Giovanni in Laternano, which Hughes says remains the cathedral of Rome. It was big and splashy and the apse was decorated in sheet gold, which was later looted. Given this photo of the apse today, it must have been resplendently amazing back in its golden days.

Constantine’s mom Helena made pilgrimages to Jerusalem and he underwrote several churches there, including the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. In the early 1990s I stood inside that church, gasping through clouds of incense and marveling at its ancient presence in a strife-torn area.

The nascent Christian church flourished under all of this attention and largesse. However, England 2012 Hastings church door at nightlike most all of his predecessor emperors, Constantine was no saint. Nope. Hughes rightly describes some of his edicts as “psychotic” – edicts that pretty much put girls and women under the thumb of men, for better or worse. While he decreed that rapists were to be burned alive, the female victims lost the right to inherit property from their parents, essentially marginalizing them in society. Why? Because it must have been their fault. Of the other punishments – read at your own peril.

As Constantine influenced tax codes down through the ages, tragically he also influenced the interpretation of law for victims of sexual crimes.

My next post will be much less dark. I promise.

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One thought on “Constantine was no saint

  1. it is astonishing to see the long reach of culture; chilling, really. This is an eye-opening chapter that comes in tension with our typical narrative of Christianity. Hughes complicates that narrative and we see the way that as Christian culture became Roman culture, it inherited the violence and psychotic patriarchy that, as you point out, has diminished but not disappeared. Classical Rome seems oh so long ago and yet we see the cultural paths that have been laid down before us and that we continue to tread.

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