Who allowed Christianity in Rome

Constantine the Great - the first Christian emperor

Difficult start

When Constantine was born as a possibly illegitimate child around the year 280 in the city of Naissus, which lies in what is now Serbia, there was little to suggest that he would one day become a powerful man. His father Constantius Chlorus served as an officer in the Roman lord, his mother Helena probably worked as a maid.

Due to its size, the Roman Empire was ruled by four emperors at that time (tetrarchy). Constantius Chlorus, the father of Constantine, served himself up in the army, was appointed lower emperor (Caesar) and finally administered Gaul and Britain.

In 293 Constantine came to Diocletian's court in Nicomedia (today Ìzmit) in what is now Turkey and was trained as an officer. He was probably held there against his will, because there were always rivalries between the individual rulers. This was to prevent Constantius Chlorus from seizing too much power. But it is also possible that Constantine was accommodated there for educational reasons.

Twelve years later he fled to his father in what is now England. Constantius Chlorus died there in 306. Constantine was proclaimed emperor of the Western Roman Empire by the troops standing behind him.

According to the laws of the tetrarchy, he was actually not the legitimate successor. Because the office of emperor was not officially bequeathed to the son. But Constantine consolidated his power by skillfully forging alliances. One tactical move was, among other things, the marriage to Fausta, one of the daughters of Maximianus Herculeus, who was emperor of Rome at the time.

Struggle for power

In 309 the Roman Empire had four emperors: Galerius Maximus ruled in the east, Licinius and Constantine ruled in the west, and Maxentius in Rome. Like Constantine, Maxentius, the son of Maximianus Herculeus, was not a legitimate emperor under Tetrarchic law.

In 311 Galerius died without a successor. But being one of several rulers was not enough for Constantine. He wanted to rule the empire alone. To achieve his goal, he moved to Rome in 312, which was then behind thick fortress walls.

After a legendary and actually hopeless battle at the Milvian Bridge, he and his troops won against his rival Maxentius. Before the fight, Constantine is said to have had a vision. Accordingly, the cross appeared to him in the sky, which he then had put on the flags of his troops.

After the victory, Constantine is said to have appealed to the Christian God. According to the legend, he gave him the support he needed, but for many historians it is unbelievable. Because a pagan army at that time was probably not ready to fight in the name of Christianity.

In any case, Constantine had defeated one of his toughest competitors and from 313 onwards only had to share power with Licinius, who ruled over the Eastern Roman Empire.

Licinius and Constantine passed the Milan Edict of Tolerance. In this they had it stipulated that the Christian faith was equated with the Roman belief in many gods (polytheism). In 324 Constantine also defeated Licinius and became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire.

Believer Christian or power politician?

It is difficult to say whether Constantine really did become a devout Christian in the course of his life. It is possible that his mother, who is said to have professed Christianity in 312, also influenced her son.

The Christian rhetoric teacher Lactantius was also acquainted with Constantine. However, religion was interpreted differently in the time of Constantine than it is today. At that time belief was not a question of inner conviction, but served the state as a superstructure.

It is possible that Constantine's turn to Christianity wanted to help manifest his power by "decreeing" a unified faith for his kingdom. Because the Christians in the Roman Empire had not given up their faith in spite of all persecutions.

What is certain is that Christian values ​​did not play a major role in Constantine's life. Among other things, he is said to have been responsible for the violent death of his wife, son, brother-in-law and father-in-law.

But there is no question that Constantine paved the way for Christianity: he equated the Christian religion with the many-gods belief of the Romans. He also gave the bishops judicial powers and set Sunday as a public holiday. And he gave back to the Christians cemeteries and churches that the Roman rulers had taken from them during the numerous persecutions.

Byzantium became Constantinople

Constantine's legacy also includes many places of worship, including such famous buildings as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Where it stands, Jesus is said to have been crucified once. Most of the churches were built over the graves of martyrs, including a basilica over the final resting place of the apostle Peter, later St. Peter's Basilica.

Constantine was pursuing another project. Because he did not reside in Rome, but wanted to set a monument for himself with his own city, he went to Byzantium and named the city Constantinople. There, too, in today's Istanbul, he had churches and other buildings built and wanted to make himself immortal.

In 337, Constantine the Great, as he was also known, died in Nicomedia. If Christian sources are to be believed, he is said to have called the bishop on his death bed to be baptized. It is not known why he should only have decided to do this shortly before his death.

The emperor's burial place is under the Apostle Church in Constantinople. However, his remains disappeared when the Turks conquered the city in 1453. Today Constantine is venerated as a saint only in the Orthodox Church because of his controversial history.