At a banquet of the gods on Mount Olympus, the emperors of Rome were called to account to find which of them was the greatest. When Constantine’s turn came and he recounted his long string of triumphs, Silenus, the drunken companion of Dionysus, stood and rebuked him:This scene appears in a satire called The Caesars written by Constantine’s great-nephew, Julian — known to history as the Apostate.
“Constantine,” he said, “are you not offering us mere gardens of Adonis as exploits?”
“What do you mean,” Constantine asked, “by gardens of Adonis?”
“I mean,” said Silenus, “those that women plant in pots by scraping together a little earth for a garden bed. They bloom for a little space and fade forthwith.”
As can be inferred from this excerpt, Julian didn’t think too highly of the accomplishments of his great-uncle. In fact, his purpose in writing The Caesars was to compare Constantine unfavorably with emperors who had gone before him.
Many so-called post-Christian scholars would readily agree with Julian’s assessment. But such scholars are wrong. Constantine’s war-like deeds had a much wider impact than a mere political consolidation of the empire under his sole rule. Without the military victories of Constantine, and the missionary zeal of that emperor in the aftermath of these victories, the ultimate adoption of Christianity by the mass of citizens in the Roman world would certainly have been long postponed.
But these days, Constantine has been thoroughly “Dan-Brown-ized.” His character has been sullied, distorted, and outright falsified by modern slanderers to the point that almost nothing remains of the real man in the popular imagination.
So who was Constantine and what did his accomplishments really mean?
First and foremost, he was the outstanding soldier and general of his era. He was the son of Constantius Chlorus, a tough provincial soldier who rose through the ranks by his own merits during the chaotic 3rd century AD when the empire teetered on the brink of collapse. Constantine’s mother, Helena, was a saint—literally. When the brutal but effective Diocletian came to power, he tapped Constantius Chlorus to rule Gaul and Britain as his “Caesar” or junior emperor.
With his father in a position of power, the young Constantine was sent off to serve in the retinue of Diocletian himself, no doubt to discourage any rebellious behavior on the part of his father. In this capacity, Constantine participated in the senior Augustus’s campaigns in the Balkans and Egypt. He must have also witnessed the steadily ramped up efforts by Diocletian and his protégé, Galerius, to extirpate forever that most hated sect known as Christians.
The ecclesiastical historian Eusebius Pamphilus reported seeing the young Constantine traveling among the company of Diocletian through the city of Caesarea. “No one was comparable to him for grace and beauty of person, or height or stature,” the bishop wrote. “And he so far surpassed his compeers in personal strength as to be a terror to them.”
But if Constantine possessed physical gifts, he also had the courage and right judgment to know when to use them. While still in the east, now serving under Galerius after the retirement of Diocletian, Constantine received news that his father was dying in far off Britain. Galerius refused to let the young man depart to be at his father’s deathbed and rumors flew that the jealous emperor intended to have Constantine disgraced or executed as soon as Constantius was safely dead. Not waiting on the outcome of events, Constantine fled from the east, riding post horses at a break-neck pace and hamstringing those mounts left behind to hamper pursuit.
Constantine arrived at York just in time to embrace his father before the old man breathed his last. He was then declared emperor by his father’s army—the only legitimate Roman emperor ever to be crowned in Britain.
If Constantius had proved himself to be a solid and capable commander, his son would soon outstrip him in every way. Constantine’s first challenge was to defend the provinces his father had bequeathed to him against barbarian invasion. When Germanic raiders crossed the Rhine to test him, the new emperor met and defeated them with little difficulty.
In Italy, meanwhile, a more dangerous threat emerged. A usurper named Maxentius assumed the imperial power at Rome. Two armies were sent from the east to dislodge him, but Maxentius bribed and absorbed the first and utterly defeated the other, sending the arrogant Galerius retreating back to the Balkans in disgrace. Only Constantine, operating from his base in Gaul, was left to grapple with the tyrant.
Descending into Italy with a force of seasoned troops roughly one-third of that commanded by his opponent, Constantine launched a sequence of brilliant campaigns that soon found him encamped before the massive Aurelian walls of Rome with a trail of broken enemy armies in his path. Here, however, he was stymied, for Maxentius, despite his defeats, retained a considerable numerical advantage. Furthermore, a pagan oracle had encouraged Maxentius to remain safely behind the walls of Rome, and Constantine, possessing neither the means nor the numbers to successfully besiege the city, began to despair of victory.
It was at this moment that God quite literally intervened. Constantine himself described the famous vision to his biographer, the bishop Eusebius Pamphilus:
He said that about mid-day, when the sun was beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, CONQUER BY THIS. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which happened to be following him on some expedition, and witnessed the miracle.What happened next is one of the great turning-points in history. Constantine, who had been a worshiper of pagan god Sol Invictus—the unconquerable sun—decided to trust in this new God Who had revealed Himself. He had his men paint the chi-rho on their shields, symbolizing the first two letters of Christ, and he had a standard created, called the Labarum, which featured a cross and the chi-rho. This device would be carried before the army into battle.
Seeing his opponent checked and appreciating his own numerical superiority, Maxentius now sent his troops out of the city to do battle, though he himself remained in Rome in accordance with the oracle to celebrate the Circensian games. Constantine himself led his army to battle and the fight raged for the better part of the day with neither side able to gain the advantage over the other.
The people of Rome were outraged to see Maxentius sitting haughtily in the imperial box at the arena while the army bled on his behalf but a short distance away. They soon began to goad him by shouting, “Constantine can not be conquered!” Fearing an outright revolt, Maxentius caused the Sybilline Books—works of ancient pagan prophecy—to be consulted. Some soothsayer, with a delicious lack of clarity, discovered a line therein which read: “On the same day, the enemy of the Romans should perish.”
Maxentius took this to mean that he would triumph over Constantine, and so bolstered took the field. But as history would demonstrate, the miraculous promise of the Christian God far outweighed the spurious and contradictory oracles of the pagans. The army of Maxentius broke and fled back toward Rome, but in order to reach the city and safety, the routed host had to traverse the Milvian bridge over the Tiber. In the crush to get across, the bridge collapsed and the tyrant and much of his cavalry were drowned.
This sight of Constantine’s army, completely victorious and marching under the standard of the Cross, was a tremendous shock to many pagan Romans. According to Eusebius, “Those who had so lately been deceived by their vain confidence in false deities, acknowledged with unfeigned sincerity the God of Constantine and openly professed their belief in Him as the true and only God.”
This incredible victory also made a deep and abiding impression on Constantine. Though he probably knew something of the faith given that his mother, Helena, was a devout Christian, the young emperor now realized without doubt that his great triumph had been achieved less by his own valor than via the salutary sign of the Cross. As a result, Constantine set his mind to the promotion and propagation of Christian devotion throughout the empire.
His piety was real. His belief in God and the saving power of Jesus Christ was not mere affectation. In an empire that was still about 85% pagan, what did he have to gain by embracing a small and historically despised minority? Rather, Constantine believed to his core that there could be no true happiness, no joy, no hope outside of Christianity. In a later edict, he set out these beliefs in his own words:
To all who entertain just and wise sentiments respecting the character of the Supreme Being, it has long been most clearly evident:…they who faithfully observe His holy laws, and shrink from transgressions of His commandments, are rewarded with abundant blessings, and are endued with well-grounded hope as well as ample power for the accomplishment of their undertakings. On the other hand, they who have cherished impious sentiments have experienced results corresponding to their evil choice.Lest we assume that Constantine’s belief system was some simplistic notion that God punishes the wicked and rewards the pious in this life, the emperor himself explodes this accusation within the same edict:
Whoever have addressed themselves with integrity of purpose to any course of action, keeping the fear of God continually before their thoughts…such persons, though for a season they may have experienced painful trials, have borne their afflictions lightly, being supported by the belief of greater rewards in store for them.And Constantine had many painful trials yet in store for him. Following his victory over Maxentius, he divided the empire with Licinius, the successor of the persecuting emperor Galerius who had perished in a spectacularly gruesome way—his insides being devoured by worms. Licinius began his reign as a friend of the Christians and the brother-in-law of Constantine. But the two were quickly at loggerheads, and Licinius’s enmity for Constantine soon also became a visceral hatred for Christianity.
The inevitable war between the two immediately became a religious conflict with Constantine’s legions marching under the Labarum and those of Licinius under unabashedly pagan symbols. Both sides infused their propaganda with blatant religious overtones. Constantine kept a retinue of Christian priests nearby to advise him at all times. Meanwhile, Licinius consulted pagan soothsayers who confidently predicted a total victory for him over Constantine, the despiser of the gods.
The two sides clashed in the Balkans. The climactic Battle of Cibalis was a grinding infantry struggle that the pagan historian Zosimus termed, “one of the most furious that was ever fought.” The battle lasted an entire day and the result was in doubt until Constantine’s right wing—which he himself commanded—broke through and routed Licinius’s forces.
Though defeated, Licinius was still able to muster enough strength to save himself from complete destruction. Constantine, for his part, was willing to give his brother-in-law a second chance. So the two settled down into an uneasy truce which allowed the battered empire a brief respite.
When war broke out afresh eight years later, it was to be a fight to the finish. Between the two of them, Constantine and Licinius mustered nearly 300,000 soldiers, with Licinius holding a slight advantage in overall numbers. The armies faced off at Adrianople in Thrace, where Constantine, by the use of a strategem, was able to hit the Licinian army unexpectedly and precipitate a rout. Constantine pursued Licinius to Byzantium and placed the city under siege. It was here that Constantine appreciated the strategic value of the city which would in no short time become the new capital of the empire—Constantinople.
Meanwhile, Constantine’s fleet gained a victory over the Licinian fleet. Fearing that he would be cut off from his base in the east, Licinius immediately retreated to the Asiatic shore of the Bosporus. In a final gambit, the pagan emperor threw all his available forces at Constantine at Chrysopolis near Chalcedon. The resulting battle was one of the largest and bloodiest of antiquity. Zosimus reported that of the 130,000 men that Licinius flung into battle, barely 30,000 remained to him at the end of the day.
His cause doomed, Licinius fled to Nicomedia where he was captured. He was held under house arrest but was executed a year later while trying to raise yet another army.
With this hard-fought victory, Constantine was now the sole emperor of the Roman world. For the next twelve years until his death in AD 337, he set about restoring peace and stability not only to the empire, but to the Church as well. He immersed himself in those intractable theological disputes that roiled the early Church, calling the Council of Nicaea to deal with the Arian heresy. Though he was ultimately unsuccessful in this endeavor, the Council of Nicaea came to be seen as a benchmark for councils of the universal Church and the creed it produced is still recited to this day.
But more than anything else, Constantine promoted vibrant Christianity to a weary pagan population for whom the old gods had lost the power of consolation and inspiration. He and his mother erected dozens of dazzling new churches across the empire. He issued edicts praising Christianity and condemning pagan superstitions, and he enjoined all his soldiers to recite prayers to God on Sundays.
By the end of his reign, Constantine had pruned back the rotting weeds of paganism and allowed the green shoots of Christianity to sprout up across the empire. Though subsequent Christian emperors would not match Constantine’s military prowess, Christianity would continue to thrive under them unabated from the firm roots set down during his reign.
So Constantine’s exploits were clearly not “gardens of Adonis.” But in fairness, Julian the Apostate could not have known that he himself would be the last pagan emperor of Rome. And while Julian’s vain efforts in the name of pagan revival would wither and fade immediately after his death, those of Constantine which he ridiculed would stand tall and strong through the ages, bearing abundant fruit.
[This article will appear in Catholic Men's Quarterly.]