Constantine accomplished what many had wished for during the imperial crisis of the Roman Empire in the third century: to reintroduce stable and continuous leadership, centralised power, persistent military triumphs, brilliant diplomacy, coupled with the exceptional ability – albeit it through Janus-faced strategies – to reunite the diverse communities and parts of the empire. The fact that he turned to Christianity, however one judges the sincerity of his conversion, seems to be the trigger for many of the crucial changes he brought to the Roman world. One may debate Constantine’s family affairs, his economic, monetary and fiscal policies, or his surprising edicts and letters, of which around forty are still with us today. Yet it is through theological and legal initiatives that the emperor radically changed our world. His mixing of monotheism and state affairs; his injection of clergy in the secular legal structures via the audientia episcopalis; his bold support for Christianity, which would receive far more wealth and privileges than it had initially bargained for; and his subsequent architectural undertakings, which expressed his desire to give the Christians an unexpected level of authority, gladly accepted by the bishops, is what makes Emperor Constantine one of the most emblematic figures of Late Antiquity.
Did Constantine establish state Christianity? He certainly did not. Did Constantine willingly transfer secular political power to the Church? Apart from legal powers to settle disputes, which is a privilege not to be underestimated, he did not. Did Constantine create true religious liberty for all? A brief glance at the Edict of Milan might suggest so at first, but in reality he did not. What he did do, however, was create a politico-legal framework in which theocratic models could be established and grow. He laid the groundwork for medieval models of the competition between church and state. The equilibrium between those two spheres of power or, from another perspective, the absence of rivalry between religion and politics and/or law in Classical Antiquity, was from Constantine’s reign onwards largely gone; now a single God and his army of bishops, presbyters and acolytes competed with another source of authority – the secular state. This created issues on the legal level, with various tensions arising because of differences in norms between secular and religious law. More importantly, to this very day it causes Western liberal democracies to reflect upon the nature of the state and its links and balance with religion. This conundrum knows political responses as varied as there are nations, and still causes challenges and problems that are not easily resolved.
It is the change in Christianity’s status, namely from a persecuted sect on the fringes of Judaism, and marginalised within Roman society, to a political and judicial player, that is the true revolution of the fourth century. Often described as ‘the Constantinian shift’, some argue that it changed the very nature of Christianity. From this perspective, Emperor Constantine’s decisions are seen as detrimental to Christian theology. The very fact that the clergy in fourth-century Rome gladly accepted its new status, escaping the terrible persecutions and assuming its new role, is still hard to accept for some Christian communities. Hence the initiatives advocating a return to what is generally seen as a pure form of Christian faith, far from the glitter and glamour that came with all the advantages and entitlements Constantine provided. Some Christian communities would go as far as refusing to celebrate mass in churches, claiming that house churches, as in a pre-Constantinian Christian context, are the best setting for religious gatherings. Although these remain minoritarian practices, they are a direct response to the developments which took place immediately after Constantine’s conversion.
This leads us to what may be seen as Constantine’s ultimate decision, for it may be the most impactful, namely his choice of the basilica, previously used as a commercial exchange and especially court of law, as the architectural expression of a legitimised Christianity. The basilica has remained the preferred choice for church construction since the fourth century, albeit with slight architectural diversity which is a natural result of the creative nature of the architectural profession and differing local building practices. But if one may generalise slightly when looking back at the influence of Constantine over the past seventeen centuries, Constantine’s strength and legacy lie in his architectural course of action, which is not yet fully understood, but whose results are still with us nevertheless. It suffices to take a short walk in just about any city in Western Europe today to see a medieval or modern church whose architectural plans are largely based on the basilica form Constantine and his entourage selected after his victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.
While the Roman Empire is long gone, many of its magnificent monuments in ruins and much of its multifaceted history still undiscovered or misinterpreted, it is through his unprecedented building programme, and his various avant-garde legal stipulations still with us today in one form or another, that Emperor Constantine maintains a presence among us, seventeen centuries after his glorious reign.
By Werner de Saeger