What Difference Did Constantine Make?

Marble portrait of Constantine from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. H. 37 1/2 in. (95.2 cm). Open Access.
Marble portrait of Constantine from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. H. 37 1/2 in. (95.2 cm). Open Access.

Readers of this blog probably know the captivating story of how the emperor Constantine defeated Maxentius. On October, 28, 312 A.D., at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine and his army watched as his rival drown in the Tiber.

Three decades later, Rome’s first Christian emperor had set in motion a sequence of events that would change the course of history. As Richard Cavendish wrote for History Today in 2012, “When [Constantine] died in AD 337, Christianity was well on its way to becoming the state religion of the Roman Empire.” That’s the way the story is usually told, but new research suggests it warrants a closer look.

The events that took place in Italy in late October, 312 A.D., are famous. As Constantine’s army was encamped north of Rome–perhaps near the site of a later triumphal arch at Malborghetto–the dying embers of the fire were smoldering. Lactantius describes the scene inside the general’s tent that night: “Constantine was moved in his sleep to put the heavenly sign of God on his soldiers’ shield and then, to go into battle. And so he did as he was ordered. The next morning, turning a letter x on its side, with its top bent around, he branded ‘Christ’ on all the shields. Equipped with this sign, the army took up their weapons” (On the Death of the Persecutors 44.5). At the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine emerged triumphant.

In hindsight, Constantine’s victory does look like a watershed. One year later, 313 A.D., with a Christian now living in Caesar’s palace, Christianity would be granted legal status (the so-called Edict of Milan). According to the standard interpretation, Constantine’s vocal support for his new faith virtually ensured pagan Rome would morph into a Christian empire. Over the next half century, sacrifice would be outlawed, temples locked. Christian demographics would swell, as Romans—perhaps more than 50% of the empire by the mid 4th century, according to Rodney Stark—abandoned their tired traditions. (For context, the number of Christians during Constantine’s day is estimated at 10 percent).

Unfortunately, there is a lot missing from this picture. Christian visibility did increase everywhere after Constantine’s victory, from Jerusalem to Spain. The fourth century A.D. was also a time of church councils, at Arles, Nicaea, and Serdica, meetings attended by opinionated bishops. Indeed, because of the sheer amount of this surviving Christian evidence, it really can look–for scholars interested in early Christianity–as if the whole Roman world had changed with one man’s conversion. Yet new evidence suggests Romans did not leave their traditions behind as quickly as once thought.

The archaeological record from some of the most well-documented cities, like Ostia outside Rome, shows that traditional religion remained a vibrant part of urban and domestic life during this time. The most recent study of the religious identity of Roman senators also suggests that, when it came to embracing Christianity, the majority of that august body remained committed to “paganism” for most of the fourth century. Even with Constantine’s conversion—and the remarkable fact that a Christian was now serving openly as the head of state—Christians remained a minority religion for much longer than people suspected.

All this evidence is forcing historians to ask a surprising new set of questions about Constantine’s reign and the “triumph of Christianity.” One of the most fascinating is this: Whose Christianity had “triumphed”? In the three centuries before Constantine, Jesus’ followers had been a chorus of competing voices: from the quiet home-renovators of Dura Europus, Syria; to dutiful Christian soldiers who served in the army in North Africa; to outspoken martyrs. Many of these men and women lived hybrid lives. They participated at civic banquets, for example, even as other Christians chastised them for it. Some refused acts of cultural compromise; others found creative ways to be Roman and Christian at the same time.

All their stories deserve to be told. For the long-standing patchwork nature of their group changes the significance of key events like the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.

Since the mid 20th century, the emphasis in scholarship on Constantine’s reign has been to blur the lines between “pagans” and “Christians” (see here and, forthcoming this November from Cambridge University Press, here) to see where these two groups tread common ground. I have wondered whether, with so much blurring, it might be time to use a sharper lens.

For three hundred years, there had been more than one way to be a Christian in Rome. Unresolved differences within the group might be the very thing which soon lurched Roman politics in a polarizing new direction. In the story of the “rise of Christianity,” Constantine’s conversion has all the drama. But it might also be a red herring.

Hat-tip to Ramsay MacMullen for his 1986 article in Historia (“What Difference Did Christianity Make?), which inspired the title.

Archaeology, Identity, Italy, Ostia, Rome