The Interaction of Politics and Religion in Ancient Rome

by Hannah Magee

Constantine, unlike many of his predecessors, was successfully able to introduce an integrated and dynamic relationship between religion and state law which had profound consequences. This presented the possibility of utilising the political opportunity in front of him to further his own control over Rome and to forge an allegiance between the Church and state. Not only did his actions improve his public standing but it also created a new minority and power shift amongst the empire. From this knowledge, the question as to what extent was Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity motivated by faith or politics arises. Below, I argue that Constantine’s conversion of the state religion in fourth century Rome was motivated not by faith, but rather by his own political agenda. 

Since AD 64 Christianity had been a minor religion within the Roman empire, with Christians often being subjected to local persecution for their alternative religious beliefs by the Pagan majority. This persecution expanded in AD 249 through the introduction of a certificate of Pagan sacrifice into Roman law issued by competent commission, high standing members of the court, as evidence that an individual was not a Christian and identify those opposing Pagan theology. The social pressures and fears of persecution resulted in many Christians leaving the faith, whilst others obtained fake certificates to avoid torture. However, Christianity overcame these difficulties and thrived to become the dominant religion. The introduction of Christianity greatly impacted Roman society, establishing a complete shift in power and roles within its social structures. Ultimately, the change in the state’s favoured religion began to influence both state laws and the interactions between the three key components of Roman life – people, law and power. 

Historian Mark Humphries dictated that the interaction between Christianity and politics was a major factor in the early division of Rome. He concluded that Christian beliefs ‘simply appear[ed]’ in Rome as a haphazard spread of missionary strategy aimed at promoting Christian beliefs and practices within Rome and its rapidly expanding empire. If this concept however was truthful, it contradicts the argument and evidence of religious historian William H. Frend for the importance and influence of Christianity during this period. Frend argues that Constantine was simply taking advantage of the prime political opportunity in front of him that enabled him to maintain power, despite the spreading separation within the state that resulted in the eventual end of classical society. The distinct entangling of societal actions labelled miracles as well as the enticement of the Roman people to convert faiths was allowing for further development of the Church’s importance and rank amongst the social structures of the Roman empire. 

Firstly, Christianity was the catalyst for fundamental changes that occurred in Rome during the fourth century, establishing a complete shift in the power structures and organisational roles within the social hierarchy of Rome under the guidance of Emperor Constantine. New laws as well as governing principles were developed and implemented. Notable examples include the Edict of Milan, an agreement signed by Constantine in 313 which recognised Christianity and gave freedom of worship in the Roman Empire; the Council of Nicaea, a council of Christian bishops convened in the Bithynian city of Nicaea in AD 325; and the Nicene Creed, a formal statement of Christian belief established at the Council of Nicaea which formed the base for all of Constantine’s political actions and decisions during this time. These principles demonstrate Constantine’s ambitions for the religion as political ones. The conversion to Christianity triggered a movement that fundamentally unified the roles and powers of state with the capabilities of the Church. This effective integration of Christian ideologies and religious concepts into the Roman policy and law making processes, in addition to the alteration of pre-existing legal structures, facilitated Constantine’s solidification of a movement of toleration for Christianity rather than one of persecution. Moreover, this enabled Constantine to have a directed focus on his objective of furthering his political control of the empire. If he was purely motivated by religious beliefs, then the extent in which Constantine extended his control would not have been reached. 

Secondly, the formal establishment of the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 highlights Constantine’s intentions to utilise the growing influence of Christianity for his own socio-political agenda. The council formulated the foundations for many debated issues such as the nature of Christ and the proper date to celebrate Easter. Despite the success of some debates, the council opened the first recorded argument pitting Trinitarianism, the belief in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, three coexisting beings, against Monarchianism, the belief in a single Godly figure. Thus, the Nicene Creed was created – a formal summary of Christian beliefs made widely known at the Council of Nicaea. This doctrine was not invented by the Council to introduce new ideas or concepts but to rather affirm and consolidate pre-existing Christian beliefs into a cohesive and unified religion and ultimately, reaffirming historians like Frend that the acceptance of minority religions was nothing but a politically directed objective made by Constantine to guarantee his power as Emperor.  In addition, as the second major political action taken by Constantine, the Nicene Creed was a fundamental step in his separation of his political and religious beliefs, resulting in a clear political advantage being identified within the Church as a tool for furthering his dominance over Rome. Consequently, the Christian Church moved away from a persecuted minority to the favoured religion of the Roman Empire in less than three centuries. Through this crucial action, the Church gained a larger proportion of control over the ruling of Rome, resulting in a greater need for Constantine to keep them on side, to ensure this popularity with its citizens. It was his fears of being overthrown that enticed him to allow the Church to take more control of the state foundations. 

However, historians such as Humphries, Arakaki and Fox have actively argued that all consequential changes during Constantine’s rule stemmed from his spiritual enlightenment before the Battle of Milvian Bridge of AD 312. The battle was a crucial moment in Rome’s faction fighting and civil war between Constantine and Maxentius, ending with Constantine as sole ruler of the Roman Empire and Christianity established as the official religion. In the wake of the establishment of the Council of Nicaea, both Arius and two overseers who refused to sign the Creed were exiled. This highly significant action ultimately identified the influence that religion can have on actions within society and politics and how religious structures can be used to establish and consolidate political and social power structures. This theory can clearly be identified as a source of numerous discrepancies amongst the opinions of historians such as Humphries and Frend due to the limited proof of accuracy of the text as well as the creation of various interpretations of the sacred text by religious groups. 

Constantine’s progression of change within the state occurred in two major stages, the ‘Great Change’ and the ‘Great Council’. The ‘Great Change’ began one year following the Battle of Milvian Bridge. Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, legalising Christianity throughout the Roman Empire in an attempt to gain favour with the religious minorities in Rome. The Edict of Milan dictated Rome’s ‘purpose’ to the extent that all previously seized property from Christian individuals in persecution was returned. The impact of this action established Constantine as an individual who was committed to his promises of introducing an integrated and dynamic relationship between religion and state law, ultimately undermining the methods and theology of many of his predecessors. The political opportunity that accompanied the Christian minority amongst the empire was recognised by Constantine, and was a key factor in building his support base within the empire. 

Similarly, by manipulating Roman law to facilitate his desired goals and outcomes, Constantine was able to further expand his control of the empire by making peace with the Church, whilst additionally gaining the moral allegiance of the people. Despite this, historians like Frend conversely argued that it was the Church whom manipulated Roman law to ease its existence within society after years of persecution. Evidence supporting the concept of Constantine using religion for his socio-political agenda is his response to the backlash regarding his implementation of significant and rapid changes to everyday law. This highlights his desires to demonstrate his control over the empire rather than for religious beliefs. Taking a more aggressive, physical approach to the issue allowed him to create fear amongst the lower classes. This manipulation however is argued to have paved the way for modern consideration of other religious groups, as suggested by Frend who stated ‘Constantine added the current Christian reproach of Jews being a “Gloomy sect”. This directly contradicts the claims made by Constantine within the Edict of Milan that allowed for open worship and religious beliefs. Moreover, this statement proves the disconnection Constantine held with religious faiths. He had no interest in seeking spiritual guidance, he was simply utilising a prime political opportunity in front of him to maintain his control of Rome. 

Subsequently, this approach to policies and Constantine’s aggressive actions further improved his public standing amongst the broad Christian belief base in the empire. Constantine consequently created new minorities and a power shift within the empire as he became more and more consumed by Christian theology as a method of political control. Furthermore, Constantine behaved similarly to his predecessors, demonstrating favouritism towards a single religious following, validating the importance of his Christian followers over other religious minorities as well as Paganism. This became increasingly evident in his rulings of state law from about AD 320 onwards, following the appointment of church bishops as political advisors to the state operations and policies. According to Humphries, the deeper Constantine intertwined himself into the Christian ideology and his desires to obey God’s work and will increased, the more he created an autocracy where the Church held the power within the Roman state. This began with the exemption of the clergy from municipal and military duties, and ultimately stemmed to supporters of the Pagan faith amongst the lower ranks of the Roman council converting to Christianity in attempts to climb up the social hierarchy and gain the favour of the Emperor. Publicly, he became somewhat infatuated with the idea of only Christian Unity. This contributed to the persecution of all non-Christian religions, in contrast to having complete confidence in the teachings of Christ and Christ as a divine being. 

Furthermore, Constantine’s decision to introduce Christianity as the state religion resulted in numerous alterations to fourth century law in order to appease the needs of the Christian Church, such as ordering the destruction of Pagan temples, to ensure Constantine’s continued ability to utilise its faith as a political weapon. This was in spite of Constantine’s original policy for acceptance and introduction of open worship as stated in the Edict of Milan. This created, in terms of power in the state, a role reversal between the Pagans and the Christians. They doubted the faith and blessings of the Emperor, whilst the Church ultimately believed that the two respective devotions could no longer coexist. 

Consequently, sudden outbursts of violence began towards Pagans as well as all other religions that could now openly worship under the guidance of Constantine and the Edict of Milan. The previously persecuted Christians became the persecutors of all minorities. Constantine facilitated this for his own political advantages, through the influence and power gained in his newly found religious position, by passing a law to relieve the clergy of their civic duties. The impact of implementing actions such as ordering the pillaging of Pagan households ultimately increased the evidence of Constantine’s motivation being political over faith-based by clearly outlining his lack of commitment to Christian teachings. Furthermore, the clergy’s exemption from having to pay taxes, or any new taxes in the future, decreased the material claims of other religions. Any initial objectives towards a pathway for peaceful coexistence is lost as many Roman citizens came to view the state as a parasitical vampire

Arguably, Constantine’s key fascination for Christianity stemmed from his spiritual experiences prior to the Battle of Milvian Bridge and his subsequent wartime success, whilst adorning a Christian symbol on his soldiers’ shields. Through this act, Constantine became, in the eyes of the Church, both a physical and spiritual representation of the abilities of the Christian God within the Roman Empire, drawing attention to its teaching, donning Constantine a political saint. Contrasting this opinion held by historians such as Humphries, is evidence from Frend that Constantine restored the senatorial aristocracy with power.18 If this was so, the idea that Constantine was purely motivated by religious beliefs holds little value or significance due to the growing evidence that portrays his actions as being politically calculated. Perhaps, Constantine identified the growing abilities of the Church and attempted to use its power to support his own and vice versa. 

Nevertheless, Constantine’s desperate desire to differentiate himself from his father’s rule enabled him to be easily manipulated by the Church to achieve its own goals. By emulating Constantine in a position of equivalent power and influence to the Church as the Twelve Apostles, the Church was able to ensure changes to Roman laws no longer negatively affected it. The relationship between Constantine and the Church was equally beneficial but ultimately permitted the Church to manipulate legislation for its own benefit. Constantine, though he utilised the power of an affiliation with the Church, was in turn used by it to extend its following and the belief in ‘one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’. 

Towards the end of his ruling, Constantine had become consumed by the ideologies of Christianity and his public language in speeches had become ambiguous. In AD 321, he decreed it a legal requirement that all soldiers, inhabitants of cities, and craftsmen should rest on Sunday and recite a prayer he composed to the almighty God. This further solidified the interdependence between state and religion. Constantine’s ability to compel the Church into doing his will can be seen in his earlier defeat at resolving the Donatist controversy in AD 320. As Frend notes in The Rise of Christianity, ’the lesson, however, had been learned. Never again did he seek to beat into submission a movement within the Church’.

Despite this argument, evidence confirms that bishops following the first councils at Arles ruled that Christians who took public office or any other governing role were to be advised by local bishops. Similarly, it is evident within Constantine’s contemporary and historian Eusebius’ Vita Constantini (Life of Constantine) that during the first three months of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity he displayed a level of bias towards his personal beliefs for the Church. Eusebius recorded that three separate letters were sent to the Carthage, the capital of Roman North Africa. A combination of both Constantine’s obsession and allurement with its religious ideologies and his spiritual status as well as his control as Emperor, gave him grounds to alter Roman laws to be of best advantage to Christianity. Consequently, by disrupting the political structures of the Roman government, Constantine was able to ensure the continuation of his power over Rome. This change increased the taxes of the remaining Roman citizens in order to accommodate for lost state income as well as to ensure Constantine could keep up with the financial demands of the Christian Church. 

On the other hand, some have argued against the accuracy and significance of changes implemented as well as the validity of events due to the lack of available sources from the fourth century. However, the accuracy of many records such as the Codices Theodosianum (the Theodosian Code) as well as Eusebius’ Vita Constantini clearly identify the political influence Constantine exerted on fourth century Roman law for the benefit of Christian theologies and ideologies. These documents show evidence of the diminishing significance and role of other religious groups and beliefs such as Paganism during Constantine’s rule. 

Furthermore, Constantine’s utilisation of Christianity for his personal socio-political gain is clearly identified in AD 315 when Constantine declared that converted Jewish members to Christianity could not be punished under Jewish religious principles. Anyone who participated in this act would face the severe punishment of being burned, as shown by the statement ‘if anyone from the people joins the Jewish sect, he shall receive the deserved punishments with them’. It was not a question of whether Constantine had religious motives for his dedication to Christianity, but how far he was willing to go to ensure his control over the empire. Through his actions it is clear that Constantine was recognising the potential for his power to slip away. Historians such as Digeser state that all Constantine’s official sanctions were ‘founded on gaining explicit political control of Palestine’, further identifying Constantine’s motivations as political. 

Overall, the introduction of Christianity greatly impacted Roman society, causing a complete power shift in Rome’s political organisations and the roles of individuals within its social structures. Upon final analysis, the changes to the state’s favoured religion began to influence both state laws as well as the interactions between the three key components of Roman life – people, law and power.

Historians such as Humphries, Arakaki and Fox believe that Constantine was motivated by his religious beliefs, which was developed following his moment of realisation at the Battle of Milvian. According to Constantine’s philosophy of success, ‘If he served God, God would serve him, influencing his beliefs and role in the Roman Empire’. This however is greatly counterbalanced by the evidence supporting the notion of his motivation stemming from opportunities of socio-political gain within the empire. Constantine saw a prime favourable outcome to extend his influence and maintain control over the empire through a moral allegiance with the Church. In particular, the critical politically-calculated moment of Constantine’s actions of converting the state religion was his introduction of the Edict of Milan. Not only did his actions improve his socio-political standing but also created a new minority and power shift amongst the empire which enabled him to manipulate others around him to achieve his political agenda. 

Emperor Constantine demonstrates the influence and impact personal beliefs and ideologies can have on the political and social interactions within a community and demonstrates the effects projected beliefs can have on desires to achieve and maintain certain lifestyles and social standings, particularly for individuals in higher ranking positions. Whilst Constantine’s own personal faith and beliefs may be a matter of debate for historians such as Frend, the historical importance of his contributions to the Church and the political and legal changes he implemented for personal gain during his rule is undeniable. Ultimately, his influential political strategy of using religion as a ploy for control within a society had a long-term impact on modern religion in western civilisation.

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