But since the victorious emperor [Constantine] himself long afterwards declared it to the writer of this history, when he was honored with his acquaintance and society, and confirmed his statement by an oath, who could hesitate to accredit the relation, especially since the testimony of after–time has established its truth? He said that about noon, when the day was already 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, In hoc signo vinces. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle. Bk 1, 28.1.
The first part of this essay discussed the images of Constantine that emerge from the writings of Eusebius. Now, I would like to discuss whether or not his account is accurate. This is a difficult question to answer, because as readers, we must rely on the veracity of what is being written, since we were not there and cannot, of course, verify it directly ourselves. The work’s accuracy seems to be in the details. Constantine, at least initially, uses Christianity as a springboard for power, (Bk 1, 27.3). There is a “religion” spreading through the Empire that worships God; not a god, but the God. It is a God for whom men are willing to die horrible, violent deaths at the mouths of lions, the hands of gladiators, and the swords of Roman soldiers. This certainly must have had an impact on Constantine, as there was nothing in the Empire which offered anything remotely close to the faith present among the early Christians. Reconciling Christianity with the Empire could serve two purposes: it could bring a large and growing number of people under the direct auspices of the Emperor, and it could revive a dying duty of the Roman citizen, the duty towards honoring the gods. I think this is plausible looking at the actions of Constantine himself. Unlike other men who discovered Christianity and converted as soon as they assented, Constantine waited until the end of his life to receive baptism, (Book 4, 62 & ff.). If Christianity was the true religion, as Constantine asserted his whole life, why put off being a part of that religion until the end? Why not make it official? Also problematic is the power Constantine was given by the early Church. We know from the account that he had power to approve and judge synodal decrees and matters of heresy. This is problematic for Christians because these judgments, dealing with matters of faith and morals, could only, in my opinion, rightly be judged by someone who was in the true Faith. One of the tenets of Christianity is its insistence on belonging to the “Body of Christ,” the Church, so why would such a fundamental requisite not be insisted upon by the bishops for Constantine at this time? Is it perhaps a relationship of convenience? Is it one of silence? We can guess but never fully understand.
How much of the account is Eusebius’ own fluff versus actual fact will probably never be known, although, in my opinion, there is a lot of fluff. Despite my quibbles over some of his assertions, Eusebius can and should be trusted on some things. For instance, regardless of his initial reasons for choosing Christianity over the “other gods,” it is true that Constantine did embrace the Catholic/Christian faith at the end of his life. While his actual influence in Church politics is problematic, I don’t find any reason to doubt Eusebius when he states that Constantine did indeed function as a “bishop outside the church,” as history, and the synodal decrees themselves show. I do, however, think the early Christians used Constantine as much as Constantine used them. I also think it is possible that the good Lord used Constantine to spread the Christian faith to heights it had never before enjoyed, heights which would become essential to its ultimate success in Europe and in the West in the coming centuries.
Whether or not Constantine was the “walking saint” as Eusebius portrays him or whether he was an emperor who got lost in his own pursuit of power, ultimately finding solace in the grace that Christianity gives, is not the point. The point is that Eusebius gives us a highly enjoyable read of an even more highly unusual emperor, one who saw the good in something different and allowed that something different to make him someone different. And this, I think, is the true moral of the story, for Christianity can and does transform the minds and hearts of men. Sometimes, all we have to do is simply go and search for it.
About John Heitzenrater
John W. Heitzenrater is a teacher of history at St. Peter’s Classical School, is a visiting lecturer at the Walsingham Society for Christian Culture, and a guest instructor for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth. He graduated from the College of Saint Thomas More and is currently finishing his Masters degree with the University of Dallas where his thesis will explore Individualism and Personalism in Catholic Social Thought. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow John on Google+
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