Constantine the Great : Christianity Enthroned – Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV : Imperial Antiquity by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV : Imperial Antiquity by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV : Imperial Antiquity

Cyrus the Great : Asiatic Supremacy
Julius Caesar : Imperialism
Marcus Aurelius : Glory of Rome
Constantine the Great : Christianity Enthroned
Paula : Woman as Friend
Chrysostom : Sacred Eloquence
Saint Ambrose : Episcopal Authority
Saint Augustine : Christian Theology
Theodosius the Great : Latter Days of Rome
Leo the Great : Foundation of the Papacy

Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV : Imperial Antiquity
John Lord

Topics Covered
Constantine and Diocletian
Influence of martyrdoms
Influence of Asceticism,–its fierce protest
Rise of Constantine
His civil wars for the supremacy of the Roman world
The rival Emperors and their fate: Maximinian, Galerius, Maxentius, Maximin, Licinius
Constantine sole Emperor over the West and East
Foundation of Constantinople,–its great advantage
The pomp and ceremony of the imperial Court
Crimes of Constantine; his virtues
Conversion of Constantine
His Christian legislation; edict of Toleration
Patronage of the Clergy; union of Church and State
Council of Nice
Theological discussion
Doctrine of the Trinity
Athanasius and Arius
The Nicene Creed
Effect of philosophical discussions on theological truths
Constantine’s work; the uniting of Church with State
Death of Constantine
His character and services

Constantine the Great : Christianity Enthroned

A.D. 272-337.

One of the links in the history of civilization is the reign of Constantine, not unworthily called the Great, since it would be difficult to find a greater than he among the Roman emperors, after Julius Caesar, while his labors were by far more beneficent. A new era began with his illustrious reign,–the triumph of Christianity as the established religion of the crumbling Empire. Under his enlightened protection the Church, persecuted from the time of Nero, and never fashionable or popular, or even powerful as an institution, arose triumphant, defiant, almost militant, with new passions and interests; ambitious, full of enthusiasm, and with unbounded hope,–a great spiritual power, whose authority even princes and nobles were at last unable to withstand. No longer did the Christians live in catacombs and hiding-places; no longer did they sing their mournful songs over the bleeding and burning bodies of the saints, but arose in the majesty of a new and irresistible power,–temporal as well as spiritual,–breathing vengeance on ancient foes, grasping great dignities, seizing the revenues of princes, and proclaiming the sovereignty of their invisible King. In defence of their own doctrines they became fierce, arrogant, dogmatic, contentious,–not with sword in one hand and crucifix in the other, like the warlike popes and bishops of mediaeval Europe, but with intense theological hatreds, and austere contempt of those luxuries and pleasures which had demoralized society.

The last great act of Diocletian–one of the ablest and most warlike of the emperors–was an unrelenting and desperate persecution of the Christians, whose religion had been steadily gaining ground for two centuries, in spite of martyrdoms and anathemas; and this was so severe and universal that it seemed to be successful. But he had no sooner retired from the government of the world (A.D. 305) than the faith he supposed he had suppressed forever sprung up with new force, and defied any future attempt to crush it.

The vitality of the new religion had been preserved in ages of unparalleled vices by two things especially,–by martyrdom and by austerities; the one a noble attestation of faith in an age of unbelief, and the other a lofty, almost stoical, disdain of those pleasures which centre in the body.

Persecution of Christians in the Roman Arena. After the painting by G. Mantegazza

The martyrs cheerfully and heroically endured physical sufferings in view of the glorious crown of which they were assured in the future world. They lived in the firm conviction of immortality, and that eternal happiness was connected indissolubly with their courage, intrepidity, and patience in bearing testimony to the divine character and mission of Him who had shed his blood for the remission of sins. No sufferings were of any account in comparison with those of Him who died for them. Filled with transports of love for the divine Redeemer, who rescued them from the despair of Paganism, and bound with ties of supreme allegiance to Him as the Conqueror and Saviour of the world, they were ready to meet death in any form for his sake. They had become, by professing Him as their Lord and Sovereign, soldiers of the Cross, ready to endure any sacrifices for his sacred cause.

Thus enthusiasm was kindled in a despairing and unbelieving world. And probably the world never saw, in any age, such devotion and zeal for an invisible power. It was animated by the hope of a glorious immortality, of which Christianity alone, of all ancient religions, inspired a firm conviction. In this future existence were victory and blessedness everlasting,–not to be had unless one was faithful unto death. This sublime faith–this glorious assurance of future happiness, this devotion to an unseen King–made a strong impression on those who witnessed the physical torments which the sufferers bore with unspeakable triumph. There must be, they thought, something in a religion which could take away the sting of death and rob the grave of its victory. The noble attestation of faith in Jesus did perhaps more than any theological teachings towards the conversion of men to Christianity. And persecution and isolation bound the Christians together in bonds of love and harmony, and kept them from the temptations of life There was a sort of moral Freemasonry among the despised and neglected followers of Christ, such as has not been seen before or since. They were in the world but not of the world. They were the precious salt to preserve what was worth preserving in a rapidly dissolving Empire. They formed a new power, which would be triumphant amid the universal destruction of old institutions; for the soul would be saved, and Christianity taught that the soul was everything,–that nothing could be given in exchange for it.

The other influence which seemed to preserve the early Christians from the overwhelming materialism of the times was the asceticism which so early became prevalent. It had not been taught by Jesus, but seemed to arise from the necessities of the times. It was a fierce protest against the luxuries of an enervated age. The passion for dress and ornament, and the indulgence of the appetites and other pleasures which pampered the body, and which were universal, were a hindrance to the enjoyment of that spiritual life which Christianity unfolded. As the soul was immortal and the body was mortal, that which was an impediment to the welfare of what was most precious was early denounced. In order to preserve the soul from the pollution of material pleasures, a strenuous protest was made. Hence that defiance of the pleasures of sense which gave loftiness and independence of character soon became a recognized and cardinal virtue. The Christian stood aloof from the banquets and luxuries which undermined the virtues on which the strength of man is based. The characteristic vices of the Pagan world were unchastity and fondness for the pleasures of the table. To these were added the lesser vices of display and ornaments in dress. From these the Christian fled as fatal enemies to his spiritual elevation. I do not believe it was the ascetic ideas imported from India, such as marked the Brahmins, nor the visionary ideas of the Sufis and the Buddhists, and of other Oriental religionists, which gave the impulse to monastic life and led to the austerities of the Church in the second and third centuries, so much as the practical evils with which every one was conversant, and which were plainly antagonistic to the doctrine that the life is more than meat. The triumph of the mind over the body excited an admiration scarcely less marked than the voluntary sacrifice of life to a sacred cause. Asceticism, repulsive in many of its aspects, and even unnatural and inhuman, drew a cordon around the Christians, and separated them from the sensualities of ordinary life. It was a reproof as well as a protest. It attacked Epicureanism in its most vulnerable point. “How hardly shall they who have riches enter into the kingdom of God?” Hence the voluntary poverty, the giving away of inherited wealth to the poor, the extreme simplicity of living, and even retirement from the habitations of men, which marked the more earnest of the new believers. Hence celibacy, and avoidance of the society of women,–all to resist most dangerous temptation. Hence the vows of poverty and chastity which early entered monastic life,–a life favorable to ascetic virtues. These were indeed perverted. Everything good is perverted in this world. Self-expiations, flagellations, sheepskin cloaks, root dinners, repulsive austerities, followed. But these grew out of the noble desire to keep unspotted from the world. And unless this desire had been encouraged by the leaders of the Church, the Christian would soon have been contaminated with the vices of Paganism, especially such as were fashionable,–as is deplorably the case in our modern times, when it is so difficult to draw the line between those who do not and those who do openly profess the Christian faith. It is quite probable that Christianity would not have triumphed over Paganism, had not Christianity made so strong a protest against those vices and fashions which were peculiar to an Epicurean age and an Epicurean philosophy.

It was at this period, when Christianity was a great spiritual power, that Constantine arose. He was born at Naissus, in Dacia, A.D. 274, his father being a soldier of fortune, and his mother the daughter of an innkeeper. He was eighteen when his father, Constantius, was promoted by the Emperor Diocletian to the dignity of Caesar,–a sort of lieutenant-emperor,–and early distinguished himself in the Egyptian and Persian wars. He was thirty-one when he joined his father in Britain, whom he succeeded, soon after, in the imperial dignity. Like Theodosius, he was tall, and majestic in manners; gracious, affable, and accessible, like Julius; prudent, cautious, reticent, like Fabius; insensible to the allurements of pleasure, and incredibly active and bold, like Hannibal, Charlemagne, and Napoleon; a politic man, disposed to ally himself with the rising party. The first few years of his reign, which began in A.D. 306, were devoted to the establishment of his power in Britain, where the flower of the Western army was concentrated,–foreseeing a desperate contest with the five rivals who shared between them the Empire which Diocletian had divided; which division, though possibly a necessity in those turbulent times, would yet seem to have been an unwise thing, since it led to civil wars and rivalries, and struggles for supremacy. It is a mistake to divide a great empire, unless mechanism is worn out, and a central power is impossible. The tendency of modern civilization is to a union of States, when their language and interests and institutions are identical. Yet Diocletian was wearied and oppressed by the burdens of State, and retired disgusted, dividing the Empire into two parts, the Eastern and Western. But there were subdivisions in consequence, and civil wars; and had the policy of Diocletian been continued, the Empire might have been subdivided, like Charlemagne’s, until central power would have been destroyed, as in the Middle Ages. But Constantine aimed at a general union of the East and West once again, partly from the desire of centralization, and partly from ambition. The military career of Constantine for about seventeen years was directed to the establishment of his power in Britain, to the reunion of the Empire, and the subjugation of his colleagues,–a long series of disastrous civil wars. These wars are without poetic interest,–in this respect unlike the wars between Caesar and Pompey, and that between Octavius and Antony. The wars of Caesar inaugurated the imperial régime when the Empire was young and in full vigor, and when military discipline was carried to perfection; those of Constantine were in the latter days of the Empire, when it was impossible to reanimate it, and all things were tending rapidly to dissolution,–an exceedingly gloomy period, when there were neither statesmen nor philosophers nor poets nor men of genius, of historic fame, outside the Church. Therefore I shall not dwell on these uninteresting wars, brought about by the ambition of six different emperors, all of whom were aiming for undivided sovereignty. There were in the West Maximian, the old colleague of Diocletian, who had resigned with him, but who had reassumed the purple; his son, Maxentius, elevated by the Roman Senate and the Praetorian Guard,–a dissolute and imbecile young man, who reigned over Italy; and Constantine, who possessed Gaul and Britain. In the East were Galerius, who had married the daughter of Diocletian, and who was a general of considerable ability; Licinius, who had the province of Illyricum; and Maximin, who reigned over Syria and Egypt.

The first of these emperors who was disposed of was Maximian, the father of Maxentius and father-in-law of Constantine. He was regarded as a usurper, and on the capture of Marseilles, he under pressure of Constantine committed suicide by strangulation, A.D. 310. Galerius did not long survive, being afflicted with a loathsome disease, the result of intemperance and gluttony, and died in his palace in Nicomedia, in Bithynia, the capital of the Eastern provinces. The next emperor who fell was Maxentius, after a desperate struggle in Italy with Constantine,–whose passage over the Alps, and successive victories at Susa (at the foot of Mont Cenis, on the plains of Turin), at Verona, and Saxa Rubra, nine miles from Rome, from which Maxentius fled, only to perish in the Tiber, remind us of the campaigns of Hannibal and Napoleon. The triumphal arch which the victor erected at Rome to commemorate his victories still remains as a monument of the decline of Art in the fourth century. As a result of the conquest over Maxentius, the Praetorian guards were finally abolished, which gave a fatal blow to the Senate, and left the capital disarmed and exposed to future insults and dangers.

The next emperor who disappeared from the field was Maximin, who had embarked in a civil war with Licinius. He died at Tarsus, after an unsuccessful contest, A.D. 313; and there were left only Licinius and Constantine,–the former of whom reigned in the East and the latter in the West. Scarcely a year elapsed before these two emperors embarked in a bloody contest for the sovereignty of the world. Licinius was beaten, but was allowed the possession of Thrace, Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt. A hollow reconciliation was made between them, which lasted eight years, during which Constantine was engaged in the defence of his empire from the hostile attacks of the Goths in Illyricum. He gained great victories over these barbarians, and chased them beyond the Danube. He then turned against Licinius, and the bloody battle of Adrianople, A.D. 323, when three hundred thousand combatants were engaged, followed by a still more bloody one on the heights of Chrysopolis, A.D. 324, made Constantine supreme master of the Empire thirty-seven years after Diocletian had divided his power with Maximian.

The great events of his reign as sole emperor, with enormous prestige as a general, second only to that of Julius Caesar, were the foundation of Constantinople and the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Empire.

The ancient Byzantium, which Constantine selected as the new capital of his Empire, had been no inconsiderable city for nearly one thousand years, being founded only ninety-seven years after Rome itself. Yet, notwithstanding its magnificent site,–equally favorable for commerce and dominion,–its advantages were not appreciated until the genius of Constantine selected it as the one place in his vast dominions which combined a central position and capacities for defence against invaders. It was also a healthy locality, being exposed to no malarial poisons, like the “Eternal City.” It was delightfully situated, on the confines of Europe and Asia, between the Euxine and the Mediterranean, on a narrow peninsula washed by the Sea of Marmora and the beautiful harbor called the Golden Horn, inaccessible from Asia except by water, while it could be made impregnable on the west. The narrow waters of the Hellespont and the Bosporus, the natural gates of the city, could be easily defended against hostile fleets both from the Euxine and the Mediterranean, leaving the Propontis (the deep, well-harbored body of water lying between the two straits, in modern times called the Sea of Marmora) with an inexhaustible supply of fish, and its shores lined with vineyards and gardens. Doubtless this city is more favored by nature for commerce, for safety, and for dominion, than any other spot on the face of the earth; and we cannot wonder that Russia should cast greedy eyes upon it as one of the centres of its rapidly increasing Empire. This beautiful site soon rivalled the old capital of the Empire in riches and population, for Constantine promised great privileges to those who would settle in it; and he ransacked and despoiled the cities of Italy, Greece, and Asia Minor of what was most precious in Art to make his new capital attractive, and to ornament his new palaces, churches, and theatres. In this Grecian city he surrounded himself with Asiatic pomp and ceremonies. He assumed the titles of Eastern monarchs. His palace was served and guarded with a legion of functionaries that made access to his person difficult. He created a new nobility, and made infinite gradations of rank, perpetuated by the feudal monarchs of Europe. He gave pompous names to his officers, both civil and military, using expressions still in vogue in European courts, like “Your Excellency,” “Your Highness,” and “Your Majesty,”–names which the emperors who had reigned at Rome had uniformly disdained. He cut himself loose from all the traditions of the past, especially all relics of republicanism. He divided the civil government of the Empire into thirteen great dioceses, and these he subdivided into one hundred and sixteen provinces. He separated the civil from the military functions of governors. He installed eunuchs in his palace, to wait upon his person and perform menial offices. He made his chamberlain one of the highest officers of State. He guarded his person by bodies of cavalry and infantry. He clothed himself in imposing robes; elaborately arranged his hair; wore a costly diadem; ornamented his person with gems and pearls, with collars and bracelets. He lived, in short, more like a Heliogabalus than a Trajan or an Aurelian. All traces of popular liberty were effaced. All dignities and honors and offices emanated from him. The Caesars had been absolute monarchs, but disguised their power. Constantine made an ostentatious display of his. Moreover he increased the burden of taxation throughout the Empire. The last fourteen years of his reign was a period of apparent prosperity, but the internal strength of the Empire and the character of the emperor sadly degenerated. He became effeminate, and committed crimes which sullied his fame. He executed his oldest son on mere suspicion of crime, and on a charge of infidelity even put to death the wife with whom he had lived for twenty years, and who was the mother of future emperors.

But if he had great faults he had also great virtues. No emperor since Augustus had a more enlightened mind, and no one ever reigned at Rome who, in one important respect, did so much for the cause of civilization. Constantine is most lauded as the friend and promoter of Christianity. It is by his service to the Church that he has won the name of the first Christian emperor. His efforts in behalf of the Church throw into the shade all the glory he won as a general and as a statesman. The real interest of his reign centres in his Christian legislation, and in those theological controversies in which he interfered. With Constantine began the enthronement of Christianity, and for one thousand years what is most vital in European history is connected with Christian institutions and doctrines.

It was when he was marching against Maxentius that his conversion to Christianity took place, A.D. 312, when he was thirty-eight, in the sixth year of his reign. Up to this period he was a zealous Pagan, and made magnificent offerings to the gods of his ancestors, and erected splendid temples, especially in honor of Apollo. The turn of his mind was religious, or, as we are taught by modern science to say, superstitious. He believed in omens, dreams, visions, and supernatural influences.

Baptism of Constantine From the painting by Francesco Penni, Vatican, Rome

Now it was in a very critical period of his campaign against his Pagan rival, on the eve of an important battle, as he was approaching Rome for the first time, filled with awe of its greatness and its recollections, that he saw–or fancied he saw–a little after noon, just above the sun which he worshipped, a bright Cross, with this inscription, [Greek: En touto nika]–“In this conquer;” and in the following night, when sleep had overtaken him, he dreamed that Christ appeared to him, and enjoined him to make a banner in the shape of the celestial sign which he had seen. Such is the legend, unhesitatingly received for centuries, yet which modern critics are not disposed to accept as a miracle, although attested by Eusebius, and confirmed by the emperor himself on oath. Whether some supernatural sign really appeared or not, or whether some natural phenomenon appeared in the heavens in the form of an illuminated Cross, it is not worth while to discuss. We know this, however, that if the greatest religious revolution of antiquity was worthy to be announced by special signs and wonders, it was when a Roman emperor of extraordinary force of character declared his intention to acknowledge and serve the God of the persecuted Christians. The miracle rests on the authority of a single bishop, as sacredly attested by the emperor, in whom he saw no fault; but the fact of the conversion remains as one of the most signal triumphs of Christianity, and the conversion itself was the most noted and important in its results since that of Saul of Tarsus. It may have been from conviction, and it may have been from policy. It may have been merely that he saw, in the vigorous vitality of the Christian principle of devotion to a single Person, a healthier force for the unification of his great empire than in the disintegrating vices of Paganism. But, whatever his motive, his action stirred up the enthusiasm of a body of men which gave the victory of the Milvian Bridge. All that was vital in the Empire was found among the Christians,–already a powerful and rising party, that persecution could not put down. Constantine became the head and leader of this party, whose watchword ever since has been “Conquer,” until all powers and principalities and institutions are brought under the influence of the gospel. So far as we know, no one has ever doubted the sincerity of Constantine. Whatever were his faults, especially that of gluttony, which he was never able to overcome, he was ever afterwards strict and fervent in his devotions. He employed his evenings in the study of the Scriptures, as Marcus Aurelius meditated on the verities of a spiritual life after the fatigues and dangers of the day. He was not so good a man as was the pious Antoninus, who would, had he been converted to Christianity, have given to it a purer and loftier legislation. It may be doubted whether Aurelius would have made popes of bishops, or would have invested metaphysical distinctions in theology with so great an authority. But the magnificent patronage which Constantine gave to the clergy was followed by greater and more enlightened sovereigns than he,–by Theodosius, by Charlemagne, and by Alfred; while the dogmas which were defended by Athanasius with such transcendent ability at the council where the emperor presided in person, formed an anchor to the faith in the long and dreary period when barbarism filled Europe with desolation and fear.

Constantine, as a Roman emperor, exercised the supreme right of legislation,–the highest prerogative of men in power. So that his acts as legislator naturally claim our first notice. His edicts were laws which could not be gainsaid or resisted. They were like the laws of the Medes and Persians, except that they could be repealed or modified.

One of the first things he did after his conversion was to issue an edict of toleration, which secured the Christians from any further persecution,–an act of immeasurable benefit to humanity, yet what any man would naturally have done in his circumstances. If he could have inaugurated the reign of toleration for all religious opinions, he would have been a still greater benefactor. But it was something to free a persecuted body of believers who had been obliged to hide or suffer for two hundred years. By the edict of Milan, A.D. 313, he secured the revenues as well as the privileges of the Church, and restored to the Christians the lands and houses of which they had been stripped by the persecution of Diocletian. Eight years later he allowed persons to bequeath property to Christian institutions and churches. He assigned in every city an allowance of corn in behalf of charities to the poor. He confirmed the clergy in the right of being tried in their own courts and by their peers, when accused of crime,–a great privilege in the fourth century, but a great abuse in the fourteenth. The arbitration of bishops had the force of positive law, and judges were instructed to execute the episcopal decrees. He transferred to the churches the privilege of sanctuary granted to those fleeing from justice in the Mosaic legislation. He ordained that Sunday should be set apart for religious observances in all the towns and cities of the Empire. He abolished crucifixion as a punishment. He prohibited gladiatorial games. He discouraged slavery, infanticide, and easy divorces. He allowed the people to choose their own ministers, nor did he interfere in the election of bishops. He exempted the clergy from all services to the State, from all personal taxes, and all municipal duties. He seems to have stood in awe of bishops, and to have treated them with great veneration and respect, giving to them lands and privileges, enriching their churches with ornaments, and securing to the clergy an ample support. So prosperous was the Church under his beneficence, that the average individual income of the eighteen hundred bishops of the Empire has been estimated by Gibbon at three thousand dollars a year, when money was much more valuable than it is in our times.

In addition to his munificent patronage of the clergy, Constantine was himself deeply interested in all theological affairs and discussions. He convened and presided over the celebrated Council of Nicaea, or Nice, as it is usually called, composed of three hundred and eighteen bishops, and of two thousand and forty-eight ecclesiastics of lesser note, listening to their debates and following their suggestions. The Christian world never saw a more imposing spectacle than this great council, which was convened to settle the creed of the Church. It met in a spacious basilica, where the emperor, arrayed in his purple and silk robes, with a diadem of precious jewels on his head, and a voice of gentleness and softness, and an air of supreme majesty, exhorted the assembled theologians to unity and concord.

The vital question discussed by this magnificent and august assembly was metaphysical as well as religious; yet it was the question of the age, on which everybody talked, in public and in private, and which was deemed of far greater importance than any war or any affair of State. The interest in this subject seems strange to many, in an age when positive science and material interests have so largely crowded out theological discussions. But the doctrine of the Trinity was as vital and important in the eyes of the divines of the fourth century as that of Justification by Faith was to the Germans when they assembled in the great hall of the Electoral palace of Leipsic to hear Luther and Dr. Eck advocate their separate sides.

In the time of Constantine everything pertaining to Christianity and the affairs of the Church became invested with supreme importance. All other subjects and interests were secondary, certainly among the Christians themselves. As redemption is the central point of Christianity, public preaching and teaching had been directed chiefly, at first, to the passion, death, and resurrection of the Saviour of the world. Then came discussions and controversies, naturally, about the person of Christ and his relation to the Godhead. Among the early followers of our Lord there had been no pride of reason and a very simple creed. Least of all did they seek to explain the mysteries of their faith by metaphysical reasoning. Their doctrines were not brought to the test of philosophy. It was enough for these simple and usually unimportant and unlettered people to accept generally accredited facts. It was enough that Christ had suffered and died for them, in his boundless love, and that their souls would be saved in consequence. And as to doctrines, all they sought to know was what our Lord and his apostles said. Hence there was among them no system of theology, as we understand it, beyond the Apostles’ Creed. But in the early part of the second century Justin Martyr, a converted philosopher, devoted much labor to a metaphysical development of the doctrine drawn from the expressions of the Apostle John in reference to the Logos, or Word, as identical with the Son.

In the third century the whole Church was agitated by the questions which grew out of the relations between the Father and the Son. From the person of Christ–so dear to the Church–the discussion naturally passed to the Trinity. Then arose the great Alexandrian school of theology, which attempted to explain and harmonize the revealed truths of the Bible by Grecian dialectics. Hence interminable disputes among divines and scholars, as to whether the Father and the Logos were one; whether the Son was created or uncreated; whether or not he was subordinate to the Father; whether the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were distinct, or one in essence. Origen, Clement, and Dionysius were the most famous of the doctors who discussed these points. All classes of Christians were soon attracted by them. They formed the favorite subjects of conversation, as well as of public teaching. Zeal in discussion created acrimony and partisan animosity. Things were lost sight of, and words alone prevailed. Sects and parties arose. The sublime efforts of such men as Justin and Clement to soar to a knowledge of God were perverted to vain disputations in reference to the relations between the three persons of the Godhead.

Alexandria was the centre of these theological agitations, being then, perhaps, the most intellectual city in the Empire. It was filled with Greek philosophers and scholars and artists, and had the largest library in the world. It had the most famous school of theology, the learned and acute professors of which claimed to make theology a science. Philosophy became wedded to theology, and brought the aid of reason to explain the subjects of faith.

Among the noted theologians of this Christian capital was a presbyter who preached in the principal church. His name was Arius, and he was the most popular preacher of the city. He was a tall, spare man, handsome, eloquent, with a musical voice and earnest manner. He was the idol of fashionable women and cultivated men. He was also a poet, like Abélard, and popularized his speculations on the Trinity. He was as reproachless in morals as Dr. Channing or Theodore Parker; ascetic in habits and dress; bold, acute, and plausible; but he shocked the orthodox party by such sayings as these: “God was not always Father; once he was not Father; afterwards he became Father.” He affirmed, in substance, that the Son was created by the Father, and hence was inferior in power and dignity. He did not deny the Trinity, any more than Abélard did in after times; but his doctrines, pushed out to their logical sequence, were a virtual denial of the divinity of Christ. If he were created, he was a creature, and, of course, not God. A created being cannot be the Supreme Creator. He may be commissioned as a divine and inspired teacher, but he cannot be God himself. Now his bishop, Alexander, maintained that the Son (Logos, or Word) is eternally of the same essence as the Father, uncreated, and therefore equal with the Father. Seeing the foundation of the faith, as generally accepted, undermined, he caused Arius to be deposed by a synod of bishops. But the daring presbyter was not silenced, and obtained powerful and numerous adherents. Men of influence–like Eusebius the historian–tried to compromise the difficulties for the sake of unity; and some looked on the discussion as a war of words, which did not affect salvation. In time the bitterness of the dispute became a scandal. It was deemed disgraceful for Christians to persecute each other for dogmas which could not be settled except by authority, and in the discussion of which metaphysics so strongly entered. Alexander thought otherwise. He regarded the speculations of Arius as heretical, as derogating from the supreme allegiance which was due to Christ. He thought that the very foundations of Christianity were being undermined.

No one was more disturbed by these theological controversies than the Emperor himself. He was a soldier, and not a metaphysician; and, as Emperor, he was Pontifex Maximus,–head of the Church. He hated these contentions between good and learned men. He felt that they compromised the interests of the Church universal, of which he was the protector. Therefore he despatched Hosius, Bishop of Cordova, in Spain,–in whom he had great confidence, who was in fact his ecclesiastical adviser,–to both Alexander and Arius, to bring about a reconciliation. As well reconcile Luther with Dr. Eck, or Pascal with the Jesuits! The divisions widened. The party animosities increased. The Church was rent in twain. Metaphysical divinity destroyed Christian union and charity. So Constantine summoned the first general council in Church history to settle the disputed points, and restore harmony and unity. It convened at Nicaea, or Nice, in Asia Minor, not far from Constantinople.

Arius, as the author of all the troubles, was of course present at the council. As a presbyter he could speak, but not vote. He was sixty years of age, and in the height of his power and fame, and he was able in debate.

But there was one man in the assembly on whom all eyes were soon riveted as the greatest theologian and logician that had arisen in the Church since the apostolic age. He was archdeacon to the bishop of Alexandria, –a lean, attenuated man, small in stature, with fiery eye, haughty air, and impetuous eloquence. His name was Athanasius,–neither Greek nor Roman, but a Coptic African. He was bitterly opposed to Arius and his doctrines. No one could withstand his fervor and his logic. He was like Bernard at the council of Soissons. He was not a cold, dry, unimpassioned impersonation of mere intellect, like Thomas Aquinas or Calvin, but more like St. Augustine,–another African, warm, religious, profound, with human passions, but lofty soul. He also had that intellectual pride and dogmatism which afterward marked Bossuet. For two months he appealed to the assembly, and presented the consequences of the new heresy. With his slight figure, his commanding intellectual force, his conservative tendencies, his clearness of statement, his logical exactness and fascinating persuasiveness, he was to churchmen what Alexander Hamilton was to statesmen. He gave a constitution to the Church, and became a theological authority scarcely less than Augustine in the next generation, or Lainez at the Council of Trent.

And the result of the deliberations of that famous council led by Athanasius,–although both Hosius and Eusebius of Caesarea had more prelatic authority and dignity than he,–was the Nicene Creed. Who can estimate the influence of those formulated doctrines? They have been accepted for fifteen hundred years as the standard of the orthodox faith, in both Catholic and Protestant churches,–not universally accepted, for Arianism still has its advocates, under new names, and probably will have so long as the received doctrines of Christianity are subjected to the test of reason. Outward unity was, however, restored to the Church, both by prelatic and imperial authority, although learned and intellectual men continued to speculate and to doubt. The human mind cannot be chained. But it was a great thing to establish a creed which the Christian world could accept in the rude and ignorant ages which succeeded the destruction of the old civilization. That creed was the anchor of religious faith in the Middle Ages. It is still retained in the liturgies of Christendom.

It is not my province to criticise the Nicene Creed, which is virtually the old Apostles’ Creed, with the addition of the Trinity, as defined by Athanasius. The subject is too complicated and metaphysical. It is allied with questions concerning which men have always differed and ever will differ. Although the Alexandrian divines invoked the aid of reason, it is a matter which reason cannot settle. It is a matter to be received, if received at all, as a mystery which is insoluble. It belongs to the realm of faith and authority. And the realms of faith and reason are eternally distinct. As metaphysics cannot solve material phenomena, so reason cannot explain subjects which do not appeal to consciousness. Bacon was a great benefactor when he separated the world of physical Nature from the world of Mind; and Pascal was equally a profound philosopher when he showed that faith could not take cognizance of science, nor science of faith. The blending of distinct realms has ever been attended with scepticism. “Canst thou by searching find out God?” What He has revealed for our acceptance should not be confounded with truths to be settled by inquiry. It is a legitimate yet underrated department of Christian inquiry to establish the authenticity and meaning of texts of Scripture from which deductions are made. If the premises are wrong, confusion and error are the result. We must be sure of the premises on which theological dogmas are based. If as much time and genius and learning had been expended in unravelling the meaning of Scripture declarations as have been spent in theological deductions and metaphysical distinctions, we should have had a more universally accepted faith. Happily, in our day, the aspirations and ambitions of exact scholarship are more and more directed to the elucidation of the sacred Scriptures of Christianity. Exegesis and philosophy alike appeal to the intellect; but the one can be so aided by learning that the truth can be reached, while the other pushes the inquirer into an unfathomable sea of difficulties. All moral truths are so bounded and involved with other moral truths that they seem to qualify the meaning of each other. Almost any assumed truth in religion, when pushed to its utmost logical sequence, appears to involve absurdities. The “divine justice” of theologians ends, by severe logical sequences, in apparent injustice, and “divine mercy” in the sweeping away of all retribution.

It may not unreasonably be asked, Has not theology attempted too much? Has it solved the truths for the solution of which it borrowed the aid of reason, and has it not often made a religion which is based on deductions and metaphysical distinctions as imperative as a religion based on simple declarations? Has it not appealed to the head, when it should have appealed to the heart and conscience; and thus has not religion often been cold and dry and polemical, when it should have been warm, fervent, and simple? Such seem to have been some of the effects of the Trinitarian controversy between Athanasius and Arius, and their respective followers even to our own times. A belief in the unity of God, as distinguished from polytheism, has been made no more imperative than a belief in the supposed relations between the Father and the Son. The real mission of Christ, to save souls, with all the glorious peace which salvation procures, has often been lost sight of in the covenant supposed to have been made between the Father and the Son. Nothing could exceed the acrimony of the Nicene Fathers in their opposition to those who could not accept their deductions. And the more subtile the distinctions the more violent were the disputes; until at last religious persecution marked the conduct of Christians towards each other,–as fierce almost as the persecutions they had suffered from the Pagans. And so furious was the strife between those theological disputants, estimable in other respects as were their characters, that even the Emperor Constantine at last lost all patience and banished Athanasius himself to a Gaulish city, after he had promoted him to the great See of Alexandria as a reward for his services to the Church at the Council of Nice. To Constantine the great episcopal theologian was simply “turbulent,” “haughty,” “intractable.”

With the establishment of the doctrine of the Trinity by the Council of Nice, the interest in the reign of Constantine ceases, although he lived twelve years after it. His great work as a Christian emperor was to unite the Church with the State. He did not elevate the Church above the State; that was the work of the Mediaeval Popes. But he gave external dignity to the clergy, of whom he was as great a patron as Charlemagne. He himself was a sort of imperial Pope, attending to things spiritual as well as to things temporal. His generosity to the Church made him an object of universal admiration to prelates and abbots and ecclesiastical writers. In this munificent patronage he doubtless secularized the Church, and gave to the clergy privileges they afterwards abused, especially in the ecclesiastical courts. But when the condition of the Teutonic races in barbaric times is considered, his policy may have proved beneficent. Most historians consider that the elevation of the clergy to an equality with barons promoted order and law, especially in the absence of central governments. If Constantine made a mistake in enriching and exalting the clergy, it was endorsed by Charlemagne and Alfred.

After a prosperous and brilliant reign of thirty-one years, the emperor died in the year 337, in the suburbs of Nicomedia, which Diocletian had selected as the capital of the East. In great pomp, and amid expressions of universal grief, his body was transferred to the city he had built and called by his name; it was adorned with every symbol of grandeur and power, deposited on a golden bed, and buried in a consecrated church, which was made the sepulchre of the Greek emperors until the city was taken by the Turks. The sacred rite of baptism by which Constantine was united with the visible Church, strange to say, was not administered until within a few days before his death.

No emperor has received more praises than Constantine. He was fortunate in his biographers, who saw nothing to condemn in a prince who made Christianity the established religion of the Empire. If not the greatest, he was one of the greatest, of all the absolute monarchs who controlled the destinies of over one hundred millions of subjects. If not the best of the emperors, he was one of the best, as sovereigns are judged. I do not see in his character any extraordinary magnanimity or elevation of sentiment, or gentleness, or warmth of affection. He had great faults and great virtues, as strong men are apt to have. If he was addicted to the pleasures of the table, he was chaste and continent in his marital relations. He had no mistresses, like Julius Caesar and Louis XIV. He had a great reverence for the ordinances of the Christian religion. His life, in the main, was as decorous as it was useful. He was a very successful man, but he was also a very ambitious man; and an ambitious man is apt to be unscrupulous and cruel. Though he had to deal with bigots, he was not himself fanatical. He was tolerant and enlightened. His most striking characteristic was policy. He was one of the most politic sovereigns that ever lived,–like Henry IV. of France, forecasting the future, as well as balancing the present. He could not have decreed such a massacre as that of Thessalonica, or have revoked such an edict as that of Nantes. Nor could he have stooped to such a penance as Ambrose inflicted on Theodosius, or given his conscience to a Father Le Tellier. He tried to do right, not because it was right, like Marcus Aurelius, but because it was wise and expedient; he was a Christian, because he saw that Christianity was a better religion than Paganism, not because he craved a lofty religious life; he was a theologian, after the pattern of Queen Elizabeth, because theological inquiries and disputations were the fashion of the day; but when theologians became rampant and arrogant he put them down, and dictated what they should believe. He was comparatively indifferent to slaughter, else he would not have spent seventeen years of his life in civil war, in order to be himself supreme. He cared little for the traditions of the Empire, else he would not have transferred his capital to the banks of the Bosporus. He was more like Peter the Great than like Napoleon I.; yet he was a better man than either, and bestowed more benefits on the world than both together, and is to be classed among the greatest benefactors that ever sat upon the throne.


The original authorities of the life of Constantine are Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, his friend and admirer; also Hosius, of Cordova. The ecclesiastical histories of Socrates, Theodoret, Zosimus, and Sozomen are dry, but the best we have of that age. The lives of Athanasius and Arius should be read in connection. Gibbon is very full and exhaustive on this period. So is Tillemont, who was an authority to Gibbon. Milman has written, in his interesting history of the Church, a fine notice of Constantine, and so has Stanley. The German Church histories, especially that of Neander, should be read; also, Cardinal Newman’s History of the Arians. I need not remind the reader of the innumerable tracts and treatises on the doctrine of the Trinity. They comprise half the literature of the Middle Ages as well as of the Fathers. In a lecture I can only glance at some of the vital points.

Paula : Woman as Friend

Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV : Imperial Antiquity