How Christianity spread in the Roman Empire
Constantine was a hugely influential emperor who changed the course of history and greatly affected the spread and development of Christianity. How much do you know about him? Born at Naissus, Constantine was the son of Constantius I, a Caesar in the tetrarchy (a ruler, but not as powerful as an emperor). As the son of an important politician, Cosntantine was raised in the imperial courts.
According to an ancient biographer, Eusebius, Constantine had a vision. In this vision, he saw a flaming cross in the sky bearing the inscription «by this sign win your victory». He immediately ordered for all of the soldiers in his army to inscribe the Christian letters (chi and rho) onto their shields. Shortly thereafter (in 312 AD), Constantine led his troops into the Battle of Milvian against Maxentius outside of Rome. Constantine was victorious, and so became co-ruler with Licinius over the Western section of the Empire.
This event is commemorated in The Arch of Constantine, which was commissioned by the senate to commemorate Constantine’s victory. The frieze Constantine Speaking to the People, on the arch, is an important piece of art showing both history and artistic styles from the period. (To see the arch and learn more about it, click here.) During Constantine’s reign, Roman art became less realistic. Simple and massive effects were preferred over classical forms and styles, and so art became more stylised. This culminated in the Christian era of artwork that would follow.
For the next twelve years, Constantine and Licenius shared the government of the Empire. Constantine, convinced of the power of his vision and subsequent victory in battle, was the first Roman Emperor to adopt Christianity. Christians were still persecuted at this time, and so in 313 Constantine issued an official edict of toleration. The Edict of Milan not only protected Christians, but granted greater rights to followers of all religions.
In 324 the Empire faced many difficulties, and Constantine defeated Licinius and became the sole Emperor. As the emperor, Constantine quickly moved the capital of the Roman empire from Rome to Constantinople (now known as Istanbul).
In 325, Constantine assembled the Council at Nicaea with a group of bishops. The counsel debated many doctrinal points concerning Christianity, and created the Nicaean creed to unify Christian doctrine and practices. Some common beliefs of the early Christian church were at this point voted against and eradicated from the Church’s teachings. This was the first time that church and state began to merge, and that the imperial office was used to strengthen a church. For Constantine, his motivations were probably as much political as religious. The number of Christians was increasing within the empire, as was the influence of the church. Merging the two strengthened the power of both. From Constantine’s rule on, Christianity was the official religion of the empire. The Christian Church was granted tax exempt status, and Roman coins issued during this period have a cross on them.
Although Constantine had long supported Christianity, he was not baptized until he was on his deathbed. He died in 337.
Cultures and Values: A Survey of Western Humanities. 3rd ed. Philadelphia: Harcourt Brace College, 1994.»Constantine I, Roman Emperor». Academic American Encylcopedia vol. 5 Danbury: Grolier, 1998.Imperial Rome. NY: Time Inc., 1989.W. «Roman Art». History of Art 4th ed. Princeton: Abraius Inc., 1991.
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