Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Peter Jones, BBC History magazine January 2010

It is often assumed that Christianity has always been hostile to warfare. But Jesus was not above using military images to make a point, nor was St Paul, with his armour of God, breastplate of righteousness and helmet of salvation. Further, the sign of the cross that Constantine famously witnessed in 312 at the Milvian bridge outside Rome when he defeated his rival Maxentius said in Greek toutôi nika ‘in this, conquer’ (not ‘you will conquer’, as S. says), a clear sign that the Christian god was a military god.

So this book’s title is intentional, and in his full, detailed, thoroughly documented and very readable account of Constantine’s life and times, Paul Stephenson, Reader in History at Durham (henceforth S.), locates the emperor associated with Christianising the Roman empire in the context of the pagan, heavily militarised Roman world of the 4thC AD, in which soldiers had been (literally) fighting their way to the top job for about a hundred years.

In fact, as S. argues, Christianity was on the rise well before Constantine became co-emperor in AD 312 and sole emperor in 324. He suggests that by 250 there were about a million Christians—Romans distinguished between state and private religion and generally had no problems with Christianity in the second category—but by 300 this had risen to six million and by 350 to about thirty four million (controversially, S. puts this down to its popularity among women, and especially a higher reproduction rate among Christian wives). So whatever Constantine’s beliefs at any time, it was in his interests to catch this tide.

He did so, S. argues, by adopting the pragmatic pagan view that some gods were more powerful than others, and the key to success was to get the powerful ones on board. As Minucius Felix (third century AD) comments, all nations have their own gods, but Rome welcomes the lot. This, he goes on, is why Romans are so successful: they win the favour of captured gods by sacrificing to them immediately. So adding the Christian god to one’s insurance portfolio was a sensible and wholly uncontroversial thing to do.

But monotheism was a harder sell, because it meant rejecting not only other gods but also the whole Roman way of life, wrapped around state ritual relating to pagan deities. What Constantine had to do, therefore, was to demonstrate that the Christian god could not be defeated; and there was no more persuasive evidence of that than regular victories on the battle-field.

Here he was able to catch a trend, already established among soldiers battling it out for top dog in endless civil wars, of aligning himself with deities like Sol Invictus (‘unconquered Sun’) or summus deus (‘top god’, whoever (s)he might be). Sol was especially popular, and ideal for Christians because of Christ’s association with sun imagery.

So when Constantine had demonstrated time and again on the battlefield that the Christian god was invincible, he changed his name from /Invictus /Constantine, with its faintly pagan associations, to the wholly novel and positive /Victor /Constantine, proclaiming the triumph of Constantine, his army and his god; while the rank and file of the increasingly Christianised army spread the faith into parts it had never properly reached—Gaul, Britain, Spain and Germanic tribes.

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