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6. St Mark |

St Mark is drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 156, of Volume Three, By This Sign of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

An overnight convulsion changes the Christians from outcasts to men of distinction, wealth and power, facing utterly novel problems

St Mark - It’s a whole new era with a whole new peril

St Mark - It’s a whole new era with a whole new peril
Like most of Constantine’s grand churches, Old St. Peter’s in Rome fell victim to redevelopment. A fresco in the present basilica (above) shows a cross-section of the original. The bust of the emperor from his glory days (right) is now in the Louvre in Paris.

For the Christians who lived anywhere in the Roman Empire in the second and third decades of the fourth century–and that included nearly all Christians–the world had suddenly turned right-side-up. Gone was the threat of imminent execution, which had been a lifelong reality for many. No longer did they have to dread public humiliation or slave labor in the salt mines or clothing factories. No longer need they glance back over their shoulders every time they walked down a street. The chill fear of sword, crucifixion, fire and wild beast, which had haunted them on and off for centuries, soon faded from living memory. They were free.

In fact, they were more than free. Their faith, instead of sabotaging their social standing, now elevated them to positions of importance and power. Suddenly the doors to financial prosperity and ownership of the best land swung open wide. Benefits enjoyed by senators, soldiers, veterans and scholars became available to the Christian clergy. Almost overnight, the villains became the builders of the world’s greatest empire; the subversives had come out of hiding to run it.

That this astonishing transformation occurred so rapidly was no accident. Constantine pushed for it aggressively. To be sure, he recognized the religious demographic when he took the reins of the empire into his hands: In the West, ninety percent of the population was still pagan, and paganism was woven into the fabric of all of the empire’s institutions and customs. But immediately and without unduly upsetting the religious status quo, Constantine began to institute legal and administrative changes, codifying the new freedoms and powers of the Christians that would transform the empire unrecognizably in the years ahead.

However, Constantine was not advancing his Christian agenda in the role of an evangelist. He was preeminently an emperor, and he well knew that only if his realm were unified could it survive. In the days of the old republic, religion had been a powerful force for unity. It must be so again, and the religion he chose to do it with was Christianity.

The Roman government had always been responsible to maintain the Pax Deorum, to make sure the gods showered their goodwill on the empire. Thus emperors maintained the cults, especially the imperial cult, and when the gods showed signs of displeasure, the emperors took appropriate steps to placate them. But Constantine no longer believed in pagan religion, let alone that it could unify the empire. He said pagans would not have lost the war against him if their oracles had been true. Worse, he called paganism a devilish deception.

Instead, the newly converted Constantine assumed he had the blessing of the highest divinity. God, he believed, had chosen him and raised him to power to create a Christian empire. It would be a delicate task, but he was convinced the state above all must now support the Christian church and those social and moral principles the church represented. He “enacted many laws for the honor and consolidation of religion,” writes the fifth-century church historian Sozomen. To view the reality behind that simple summation, however, is to behold a building and legislative program of staggering dimensions.

Constantine immediately ordered that Christians who had been banished should be permitted to return to their homes. Those who had been sentenced to hard labor in the mines, or weaving and dying works, were released. Christian soldiers who had been stripped of their military ranks for refusing to offer incense to caesar were offered the choice of returning to their previous station, or receiving permanent immunity from public duties.

Next, he showered an array of privileges on the Christian clergy. One of his first acts was to grant them immunity from municipal obligations. This was no mere release from trivial obligation. These civic duties were a great burden under the later empire, entailing heavy personal expenses for those who fulfilled them. Pagan priests and scholars always had been exempted. Now Constantine extended this privilege to the Christian clergy, freeing them to do what Constantine believed they should be doing. Or as he put it, that “without any disturbance, they [may] serve their own law, since the conduct of the greatest worship of the Divinity will, in my opinion, bring immeasurable benefits to the commonwealth.”

But he went further, slowly conferring, not just privilege, but power on the Christian hierarchy. He ordered that court cases begun before an ordinary court could be transferred to the local bishop, even up to the last minute. The bishop’s decision would be final, and local civil authorities were to execute the bishop’s ruling. Then, to support the high regard for celibacy and continence among Christians, especially among the clergy, he rescinded the clauses of Augustus’s centuries-old Lex Papia Poppaea, which had penalized those who remain unmarried or childless.

To legal benefits he added financial benefits. He opened both state and private coffers. Setting an example in Rome, he returned property (consisting mainly of cemeteries) to twenty-five churches in the city, then made donations to them from his private funds. He also gave the current bishop, Miltiades, the winter residence of his wife, the Empress Fausta–the palace on the Lateran Hill that would remain the palace of the bishops of Rome for a thousand years. He ordered provincial governors not only to permit Christians to worship but to subsidize with state funds “the Catholic Church of the Christians.” A law of the year 321 allowed Romans to make unrestricted bequests to the church. This, coupled with the rising popularity of all things Christian and the increasing number of wealthy converts, brought a steady stream of gifts and legacies to the church.

Perhaps the most precious gift, and certainly the most symbolic, was an order Constantine made, as his new capital Constantinople, was being built. He told his friend and biographer, Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, to have fifty great Bibles made in finely bound volumes and distributed to the churches. Many Christians in the last persecution had heard the ugly knock on the door, and the soldier’s demand for copies of the Christian Scriptures. Many copies had been handed over, under threat of death. Many had been piled and burned–manuscripts that had taken months to copy, pages filled with the words of life, words that gave instruction and hope to the fledgling movement. Many times had Christians huddled together and wondered whether all their Scriptures were doomed to the ashes. Now the tide had turned. The empire itself was ordering the manufacture of the Bibles, magnificent Bibles at that, and all at state expense. How things had changed.1

Nearly all Roman emperors considered themselves builders, each seeking to leave a legacy in wood, brick and stone. But no emperor surpassed Constantine’s ambitions or accomplishments, writes University of Toronto classicist T. G. Elliott, who calls him “the greatest builder of all Roman Emperors.” Like the others, he built secular buildings–baths, mausoleums, arches, state banquet halls, aqueducts, fortifications and so on. But his greatest architectural bequests to posterity were his churches, the most visible witness to his Christian program.

The form these usually took was that of the basilica, the large, multi-purpose public hall the Romans usually erected at public squares. Constantine used this form to fulfill a new function. To his architects, the basic basilica design seemed a perfect setting for Christian worship. Thus a typical Constantinian basilica was oblong, usually with side aisles set off from a central nave by arched colonnades. High up in the building, the colonnades supported a brick wall whose windows filtered light to the nave below. The roofs were normally flat and made of wood–the great vaulted ceilings of earlier Roman buildings seeming too pagan, too ostentatious for Christian worship. Besides, they would have distracted attention from the nave, which directed worshipers’ eyes toward the semicircular front of the basilica, known as the apse, in which stood the altar.

The effect was astonishing. Typically, light streamed through the nave windows, bathing the congregation in an island of brilliance surrounded by shadows. Increasingly, paintings, mosaics, jeweled robes and precious metal objects (donated to churches by wealthy patrons) magnified the impression. The fourth-century Christian poet Prudentius describes the effect of one basilica whose “ceilings with gilded beams make the whole chamber seem like a sunrise. In the windows glows stained glass, so that they look like fields studded with gorgeous flowers.”

Though the city of Rome remained largely pagan in Constantine’s day, he did his best to adorn it with Christian churches, including at least six in and around Rome. Most lay outside the city walls, but there were two great exceptions. One was the Lateran Basilica, which he erected next to the palace he had given Bishop Miltiades. Originally dedicated to the Savior and later to John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, it took the endowment of twenty-nine estates to finance it. It had a lofty apse, silver statues of Jesus, and a silver screen with images of the Resurrected Christ between four angels. The apse and sacristy, the adjoining room where the vessels of the Eucharist were kept and where the priests robed, contained seven golden altars, 115 chandeliers and sixty gold and silver candlesticks. It was the first large Christian ecclesiastical building and was proclaimed by the Roman Christians as “the mother and head of all churches.”2

St. Peter’s, the other great church within the city, is considered by many to be the most remarkable. Begun in 332, it was both a basilica and martyrium, built on the site where Peter is believed to have met his death.3 Like St. John’s, it overflowed with precious objects, furnishings, and rich materials of all kinds. Another church built by Constantine, named “Holy Cross in Jerusalem” (though the church, in fact, is in Rome), contained precious relics including, it was said, a part of the True Cross donated by Helena, Constantine’s mother, which she had uncovered in the Holy Land (see sidebar page 247).

However, Constantine certainly did not confine his attention to Rome. He wanted to make the entire empire a holy land like Palestine, and he built grand churches in towns small and large nearly everywhere. In Antioch, for example, the lofty Golden Octagon, next to the imperial palace on an island in the River Orontes, was named the Church of Concord. In Tyre, Eusebius of Caesarea describes the lavish church there–the earliest portrayal we have of a Christian church. But beyond the ornamentation, Eusebius saw something larger, something that was happening inside Christians and inside the church as a result of his emperor’s efforts: “A mighty, breathtaking wonder is this [cathedral], especially to those who pay attention only to externals. But far more wonderful are the archetypes or divine patterns of material things: I mean the renewal of the spiritual edifice in our souls.”

Constantine’s ambitions went with him to the grave unfulfilled–he died before he could see some of his greatest projects completed (like St. Peter’s). Even while he lived, his ambition was greater than talent allowed: The empire simply did not have a sufficient number of gifted architects and engineers to properly erect the variety of projects he started, a lack he often complained about in his letters. The result was that within a generation of his death, many of the buildings were already falling into decay. Nonetheless, as classics expert Michael Grant puts it, “Constantine’s prolific erection of Christian basilicas and other buildings . . . amounted to an architectural revolution.”

However, Constantine did not think his Christian duty began and ended in monuments of stone. He sought also to reshape Roman society so that it would at least begin to reflect Christian principles. Given the numbers of pagans, he still needed them to run much of the state apparatus, but it quickly became clear that he favored Christians in his appointments. Ablabius, for example, whom some called the greatest of his Praetorian prefects, was a Christian of humble origins, and no doubt owed his advancement partly to the faith he shared with the emperor. Not only individuals but whole communities also benefited if they were Christian. Thus the villagers of Orcistus in Phrygia, when they petitioned to separate from Nacoleia and be granted their own city charter, reminded Constantine that most of them were Christians. The emperor took favorable notice of this in his reply. The inhabitants of Maiuma, the Christian port of Gaza, and those of Antaradus obtained city status in the same way.

His legislative program vividly reflected the same Christian bias. In 316, he forbade the branding of convicts on the face. Echoing the words of Genesis 1, the face “is formed in the image of heavenly beauty,” he said. Within another ten years, he ordered that criminals were no longer to be devoured by beasts or crucified. He also tried to outlaw gladiatorial contests, but their continued overwhelming popularity prevented it. They were to continue in the West for another century.

Several laws show Constantine’s concern for the sanctity of marriage and his disapproval of irregular sexual relations. Though his reforms were highly acceptable to fourth-century Christians, those of the twenty-first century would shudder at their severity. He tightened the rules on divorce: Women were no longer allowed to repudiate their husbands, even for drunkenness, gambling or running after other women, but only for murder, poisoning or tomb robbery. Bastards were severely penalized, being denied all rights of inheritance from their fathers. Parents who had sold their daughters or been accessory to their seduction were similarly condemned.4

Though Christians as a whole still accepted slavery as a fact of economic life, they did insist on just treatment of slaves. This was reflected in many of Constantine’s statutes. For example, he ordered that slave families were not to be separated when an estate was broken up. The church was empowered to enact manumission when a slave had qualified for it, thereby avoiding bureaucratic processes that could long delay a slave’s freedom. This delivered another message. People began to connect freedom with the church. Even so, Constantine’s laws on the control of slaves remained much in line with those of the ancient world. A master was not necessarily liable to a charge of homicide if a slave died following a flogging or confinement in chains, but only if the master deliberately killed him or tortured him to death.

In one area, Constantine waged a futile campaign against the greatest curse of the declining empire–the corruption of the civil service. There was nothing that money could not obtain, and without money nothing could be obtained. Litigants could not gain admission to the law courts without greasing the palms of numerous officials, and the wealthy were able to get their cases transferred to friendlier courts if they gave the right people appropriate “gifts.” Constantine deplored the system: “Let the rapacious hands of the officials forthwith refrain,” he wrote in 331. “Let them refrain, I repeat: for unless after this warning they do refrain, they will be cut off by the sword.” It seems, though, that the disgusted emperor found that he could do little more than remain disgusted. Bribery continued as a way of bureaucratic life.

One of Constantine’s most lasting secular edicts shows how he balanced his Christian program with pagan realities. In March 321, he decreed that “all judges, city-people and craftsmen shall rest on the venerable day of the Sun,” making an exception for farmers, “since it often happened that this is the most suitable day for sowing grain or planting vines, so that the opportunity provided by divine providence may not be lost, for the right season is short.” His reasoning isn’t specifically Christian, and he makes what seems to be a pagan reference in the process. But his choice of Sunday was no accident, since this was the day of worship for Christians. He also required his troops to say a generically addressed prayer on Sundays, so that, as Eusebius puts it, they “ought not rest their hopes on spears or armor or physical strength, but acknowledge the God over all, the giver of all good and indeed victory itself.” Again, there was no specific Christian reference, but assuredly a Christian sentiment.

All these changes could not help but fill Christians with wonder. Eusebius, for example, described how believers felt about the new churches rising before them: “We who had hoped in Christ had inexpressible happiness, and a divine joy blossomed in all our hearts as we saw places that had, a little earlier, been laid waste by the tyrants’ malice now reviving as if from a long and deadly injury and cathedrals rising again from their foundations to lofty heights.” These changes soon began to fill the churches. Though it is extremely difficult to put specific numbers on it, Christians probably constituted ten percent of the western empire, fifty percent in the East, when Constantine was converted–perhaps 3.5 million believers. By the end of the fourth century over fifty percent of the western empire’s inhabitants claimed Christianity as their faith, and the percentages were much higher in the East.

This became both a blessing and a curse. Many people converted because they were for the first time, able to give the Christian faith a fair hearing. They saw both paganism and Christianity for what they were, and they opted happily for the latter. At the same time, other pagans sensed which way the political winds were blowing. They discerned in Christianity, a sure path to imperial appointment and material reward. It’s not surprising that churches soon were brimming with people, many of whom were there from any but spiritual motives.

This created enormous problems for priests and bishops as they strove to introduce thousands of clueless new believers to the intricacies of the Christian faith and practice. Standards simply had to be lowered, both for church membership and for ordination, to keep up with the flood. Many old believers decried the new worldliness that soon became evident within the church. But what is amazing is not that the church lost some of its ardent devotion, but that it retained any at all, in the face of deep tensions produced by popularity, power and wealth.

The churches hardly knew what to do with the new infusion of wealth. It not only introduced greed and materialism into everyday church life, but it also undermined the traditional relationship between the clerics and people. The revenue from which the churches supported their clergy, maintained their buildings and distributed charity to the poor, had always come entirely from voluntary offerings from the faithful. But beginning with Constantine’s reign, the old system of voluntary contributions fell into disuse. Clergy now gained their support from the income on church property, which accumulated rapidly, and from state funds. This soon produced a wall between laity and clergy, a wall that only grew higher in coming centuries.

Worse still, the new order of things created a dilemma that would plague the church for centuries: the proper relation of the church and the Christian emperor, or church and state, as later generations would define it. For the first three centuries of its existence, the church had settled its own disputes, hardly ever seeking outside authority because there was no such thing. Now, however, there was such authority. Constantine had ruled for just six months when the Donatists, a rigorist, schismatic sect, having failed in appeals to the bishop of Rome, and before two church councils, now appealed to the emperor (see sidebar page 169). In this instance, Constantine condemned the dissident group, tried persecuting them, quickly gave up when he saw that didn’t work, then tolerated them.

For Constantine, it was a sobering lesson with wide implications. He learned, and would learn painfully thereafter, that uniting the empire behind a new religion was much more difficult than he had imagined. The Donatist affair also provided a foretaste of the awkward new relationship between church and state. Christian groups, it was to be repeatedly discovered, would appeal to the emperor, then protest against state interference if his decision went against them.

For the moment, however, Constantine was not confused in the least: “In matters of faith,” he said, “my will is law.” He adopted the role of universal bishop, thinking of himself as the final authority in religious as well as secular matters. At first, Christians hardly argued, and it meant that where major controversies divided the church, decisions were often shaped by the intrigues of the imperial court as rival parties tried to manipulate the emperor’s support.

It would take another generation or two before the church as a body could begin exercising independence and exert some pressure on the emperor, though individual bishops and also dissident groups began resisting him from the outset. This reluctance to oppose him formally was partly due to the inchoate organization of the church itself, as well as its frequent internal dissensions. Bishops did not meet regularly, except at provincial synods. General councils could be called only by the emperor, who might summon them merely to endorse a decision he had already made. In the meantime, it was mainly the emperor’s informal ecclesiastical advisers–like Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia and later of Constantinople–who had the emperor’s ear.

If Constantine’s impact on the church was convulsive, much more convulsive was his impact on Rome. In effect he rendered the venerable old city obsolete. He did the unthinkable thing. He effectually displaced it as the imperial capital. In the fourth century Rome was still the formal and sentimental seat of the empire. It was the venue of the Senate, the ancient magistrates, the consuls, the praetors and the quaestors. Though all free inhabitants of the empire were “Romans,” a citizen of Rome was considered “Roman” in a more esteemed sense.

It had been some time, however, since Rome had been the administrative capital. Emperors lived transient lives, visiting Rome only for brief periods between military and diplomatic campaigns. Each emperor had his favorite residence, where he preferred to conduct state business. Most recently, Diocletian had built himself a palace at Nicomedia, and his successors, Galerius and Licinius, had usually resided there. There was nothing new in an emperor’s establishing a semi-official capital in some provincial city nor in an emperor’s giving his name to a city. But no capital away from Rome took root as did Constantinople, the city Constantine built on the shores of the Bosporus (see map page 131, E3).

At the time, it was called Byzantium, founded in the second half of the seventh century b.c. by the Greeks. In about 150 b.c., it became a dependency of the Romans and soon after that the eastern terminus of the Via Egnatia, the main road from the Adriatic eastward. Constantine, like Septimius Severus before him, had occasion to lay siege to Byzantium, and his trained military eye must have been impressed. It occupied a key position at the crossroads between central Asia and Europe; it afforded easy access to the Balkan provinces, which played such an important role in the third and fourth centuries; from here, too, the eastern frontier could more readily be reached.

There may also have been personal, religious reasons for the move. Despite his building efforts, Rome remained saturated with pagan buildings and institutions. The senatorial aristocracy clung to their pagan ways; the altar and statue of Victory still stood in the senate house. The people of Rome, for their part, resented an emperor who pointedly omitted the sacrifices customarily made on state occasions. It seemed inevitable then that Rome would never become the Christian capital of Constantine’s dreams. Political and strategic considerations dictated the creation of a new capital elsewhere.

So on November 8, 324–a Sunday–Constantine formally laid out the boundaries of his new city, moving them more than two miles further out and roughly quadrupling its territory. According to the fifth-century historian Philostorgius, he traced the line of the future walls on the ground with a spear, in the manner of a Greek founder. The same historian reports that Constantine’s companions were amazed at the vast circumference of the new walls. In less than a century, Theodosius II would double the territory of the city once again, and today it is the walls of Theodosius that still stand.

The building and populating of Constantinople were pushed forward with great speed. The emperor offered various incentives to people to settle there, especially if they were skilled in the building trades, and the new walls were completed by 328. In May 330, the new city was formally dedicated with elaborate rites in the Hippodrome. Coins minted that year announced the event to the world. On the obverse of these coins, the figure of Constantinopolis carries a cross scepter over her shoulder, thus emphasizing the Christian character of the city. Like the old capital, Constantinople was built on seven hills and divided into fourteen administrative districts. There was a senate, though its members ranked below the members of the senate in Rome. And like the people of Rome, the people of Constantinople received subsidized grain.

The new capital gave to Constantine an unparalleled opportunity for construction on a grand scale. He enlarged and embellished the existing Baths of Zeuxippos. In the area today occupied by the Mosque of Sultan Ahmed (the Blue Mosque), Constantine built the imperial palace and finished the Hippodrome (begun by Septimius Severus) while enlarging it to a capacity of fifty thousand. The Hippodrome served not only for the entertainment of the people but also for public acts of state, and in the center median the emperor placed the Serpent Column from Delphi (which commemorated the victory the Greeks had won in 479 b.c. at Plataea over the Persians). It was only one of many objects that Constantine appropriated to decorate his new city, a pillaging that caused St. Jerome to remark that “nearly all cities were stripped bare.”

In front of the Old Gate of the Severan walls, Constantine built a forum that bore his name. Inside stood the Column of Constantine, nearly eighty feet tall and nearly ten feet wide at the base. The base contained an altar, so the Lord’s Supper could be celebrated, and the column was crowned by a statue of Helios, its features adapted so as to represent Constantine–likely a reference to Constantine being Christ’s representative on earth.

Constantine also began the construction of at least two churches in Constantinople, the Church of the Holy Apostles which he cherished and the church known as Hagia Eirene (Holy Peace). Though work on a third church, Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), also known as “the Great Church,” was probably begun in 326, the dedication did not take place until 360 under Constantius II.5 These three churches–Hagia Sophia, Hagia Eirene and the Holy Apostles–were to dominate the city politically and ecclesiastically for the next eleven centuries.

The founding of Constantinople had vast consequences, secular and religious. For one thing, it hastened the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. Constantinople controlled all the wealthy provinces of Asia Minor and the East, which contributed the greater part of the imperial revenues. It also had easy access to the Illyrian provinces, which long remained the imperial army’s best recruiting ground. Deprived of the East, the West simply didn’t have the money or manpower to withstand the barbarian assault that was coming.

But Constantinople survived and became the heart of what continued to call itself the “Roman” Empire, though its capital was nowhere near Rome and its people spoke Greek, not Latin. Late in the fourth century and throughout the fifth and sixth, barbarian peoples would sweep through the West, devastating it and turning much of it into a wilderness. But Constantinople would stand unconquered for more than a millennium.

At the same time, Constantine was so lavish in spending–on the erection of new churches, maintenance of a sumptuous court, corn subsidies, and above all on the building and adornment of his new capital (on which he is said to have spent sixty thousand pounds–by weight–of gold)–he was forced to institute two new taxes. One of these was levied on the poor and proved extremely oppressive; all the authorities, Christian and pagan alike, agree in painting a lurid picture of the terrible distress that was caused when it came time to collect these taxes. On the other hand, he also created a stable and abundant gold currency in issuing a gold coin, the solidus. It became the standard coin of the Byzantine Empire, and indeed of the Mediterranean world, for many centuries.

The pagan world in the East watched all these changes with a mixture of chagrin and fatalistic resignation. Though his model metropolis, Constantinople, did contain pagan temples, it was from the start an essentially Christian city, and there, as elsewhere in the East, relatively few pagans openly resisted Constantine’s program.

But the Constantine era met with a very different response in the West, especially in Rome. Rome was the perfect urban setting for paganism and its many spectacular cults. Christianity at this stage could not compete with the massive celebrations that marked, for instance, the funeral feast of Attis on March 24. How could Christian worship hold attention against the taurobolium (blood-bath), the castration rites, the moaning crowds of flagellating penitents. Romans could watch miracle plays and wild dances, routinely accompanied, said Christian observers, by obscene acts and songs. The pageantry and color appealed to something deep in the Roman people.

At a higher social level, the solemn and ancient state rituals of the pagan Pontifical College, conducted in the superb surroundings of the temples whose history went back in some cases nearly a thousand years, appealed to Roman nostalgia, to patriotism, and to a longing for beauty and order that may never have been but was nevertheless remembered.

It is not surprising, then, that Constantine, in seeking to obliterate paganism, would direct his initial assaults on such externals. Where he had previously tolerated pagan temples, he now tore them down, as at Aphaca (Afqua) on Mount Lebanon, where the cult of Aphrodite had a well-earned reputation for licentiousness. At Aegae in Cilicia, the emperor’s soldiers leveled the temple of Asclepius, the center of a popular healing cult. At Antioch the Temple of the Muses was diverted to secular purposes. He built many churches, like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem and the basilica at Mamre, right on top of pagan shrines, which he destroyed in the process. At Heliopolis (Baalbek) in Phoenicia, he forbade the cult of Venus Heliopolitana, which included ritual prostitution, and ordered the construction of a church. In many provinces, the funds of pagan temples were confiscated and put in the imperial treasury.

A historian of a century later wrote of bands of Christian youths going from town to town, allegedly armed with letters from the emperor, ordering obedience to his decrees and browbeating the populace into abandoning their pagan priests. Statues were destroyed or paraded into the streets, and the people were cajoled and intimidated into ridiculing what their ancestors had venerated.

Nevertheless, such wanton vandalism and callous contempt was not typical of Constantine’s rule and was not widely practiced until the era of the Emperor Theodosius I later in the fourth century. While some pagan temples were destroyed by Constantine, many remained open. His law prohibiting the restoration of decayed temples was more typical of his approach. It’s also noteworthy that there are no records of pagan martyrs under Constantine.

In fact, Constantine himself retained a few pagan superstitions. Whether they were a vestige of his pagan past or just a diplomatic gesture to seek the support of leading pagans is difficult to say. At any rate, we know he invited the neo-Platonist philosopher Sopater to his court and asked him to consult the omens for a favorable day for the dedication of his new capital.

Still, by Constantine’s day, pagan temples were increasingly viewed as public monuments to the past rather than centers of worship. By the time of his sons, paganism was visibly dying in the cities, though in the countryside it hung on tenaciously for a few centuries.

Another surviving religious phenomenon presented him with a somewhat different problem. Because of their rich tradition and exclusivity, the Jews had been regarded as an irritation by many emperors over the years. From the time of their first conquest of Judea, Romans in general harbored a lingering anti-Semitism. But as long as Jews did not challenge or offend the pagan status quo, the empire was happy to let them run their own affairs. However, now with a Christian emperor ascending the throne, things became more complicated. Constantine cared little about the Jewish attitude toward paganism but deeply about their relation to Christianity, a daughter religion that was also a direct rival in many ways–and often anti-Jewish as well.

Constantine inherited this Roman suspicion and antipathy to the Jews, and his Christianity intensified this feeling. He publicly denounced them for, as he said, “murdering the Lord.” He enacted legislation that prevented Jews from owning Christian slaves or circumcising any slaves, and from proselytizing in general. Any effort to prevent a Jew from becoming Christian was forbidden by law. On the other hand, he allowed them greater access to the city of Jerusalem and extended to synagogue leaders immunity from municipal obligations, thus giving them equal status with Christian clergy.

Jewish converts to Christianity seemed especially worthy to him, so when he had the opportunity, Constantine liked to shower favors on the new convert. The historian Epiphanius tells of a certain Joseph, a highly respected member of the Jewish community and a disciple of the patriarch Ellel (whom Epiphanius described as hereditary head of all the Jews of the Roman Empire). Joseph spied Ellel being secretly baptized on his death bed and later discovered copies of the Gospels in Hebrew among Ellel’s belongings. Scandalized, Joseph hid the Gospels to protect Ellel’s reputation but became fascinated with them and was caught reading them. He was publicly whipped by his fellow Jews, who then attempted to drown him. Joseph escaped and became a Christian convert. Hearing the story, Constantine bestowed honors upon him and an imperial pension. The grateful Joseph helped Constantine build churches in Galilee at Tiberias, Sepphoris, Nazareth and Capernaum. Prejudice there certainly was, but as with paganism, there is no record of Jewish martyrs under Constantine. Alas, this would not remain so in the future.

As to Constantine’s own personal Christian commitment, that has been debated for nearly seventeen hundred years. One thing, however, is beyond debate. He laid the foundations of what came to be known as “Christendom,” a society at least nominally based on the assumption that Christianity is true. In one form or another Christendom was destined to last for nearly a hundred generations. Constantine’s contribution, however preliminary, remains remarkable.

This is the end of the St Mark category article drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 156, of Volume Three, By This Sign. To continue reading more about St Mark from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at