The Baptism of Constantine, as imagined by students of Raphael.

Was the Emperor Constantine a True Christian or Was He a Secret Pagan?

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Constantine the Great is known in history as the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity. However, legends and archaeological evidence suggest a different story– it seems that Constantine had a secret about his faith which was hidden for centuries.

Constantine built many churches. He celebrated the faith in one (Christian) God and his son Jesus by creating many of the greatest churches of the world, including: St. Peter’s in Rome, The Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, The Eleona on the Mount of Olives, The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and others.

Construction of The Hagia Sophia depicted in the codex Manasses Chronicle (14th century).

Construction of The Hagia Sophia depicted in the codex Manasses Chronicle (14th century). ( Public Domain )

Constantine became emperor in 306 AD, and ruled for 31 years. According to tradition, just before the battle of the Milvian Bridge (Rome) in 312, he experienced a vision of a flaming cross with the inscription ''In his sign conquer''. As the legends say, he understood it as a sign from the Christian God asking him to convert. Constantine believed that he would be awarded with unusual power, the support of a deity, and the greatest kingdom of the world if he followed through with the vision.

By the decree of Constantine, Christianity became the official religion of Rome in 324. However, did he really become a true Christian, or was he just seeking the support of powerful bishops for political purposes?

The Christian Emperor of Rome

In the group of his closest advisers there were bishops such as Hosius, Lactantius, and Eusebius of Caesarea. He appointed the group of converted Christians to high positions in many parts of his empire. The Christian ministers had special privileges. He also extended many benefits to pagan priests who became Christian ministers. For example, they received monetary support from the Empire and didn't pay taxes.

Eusebius in a modern imagining.

Eusebius in a modern imagining. ( Public Domain )

The bishops were a faithful army for the ruler, but apart from creating some laws, temples, and supporting the growing group of priests, Constantine didn't appear to be much of a Christian. He agreed with the bishops’ suggestions to legislate against magic and private divination. But if a change in these kinds of laws was not put forth by an influential bishop, Constantine wasn't interested in making the changes.

With his decree many pagan temples were destroyed. For example, he ordered the damage of the Temple of Aphrodite in Lebanon, but also many other ceremonial pagan places. It seems that he was interested in destroying some of the important places of pre-Christian cults, but at the same time destruction didn't apply to all of them. In every decision to destroy a pagan temple, it was written that the place could not exist because it was a site of misguided rites and ceremonies - a place of true obstinacy. He never outright banned pagan rituals like sacrifices, but only closed and destroyed important temples when the bishops felt the sites were dangerous to their own faith.

Apart from his political motives to support the growing army of priests, Constantine may have had a secret. What is more interesting, is that it seems that the bishop of Rome knew about it, and supported him in this hidden aspect of his life. The truth was that Constantine outwardly supported the new religion but still worshiped the Sun and pagan symbols.

A Christian who Worshiped the Sun?

Constantine grew up in the court of the emperor Constantine Chlorus, who was a Neoplatonist and a devotee of the Unconquered Sun. His mother, Empress Helena, was a Christian who traveled through the Middle East searching for key sites connected to Jesus. According to the ancient texts, she was the one who identified the most important places known in the Bible. Young Constantine didn't appear as a follower of his mother's religious interests. He worshiped the Sun, or was devoted to Mithraism. 

Orthodox Bulgarian icon of Constantine and his mother, St. Helena.

Orthodox Bulgarian icon of Constantine and his mother, St. Helena. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

After his official conversion to Christianity in 312, Constantine built his triumphal arch in Rome. It is interesting that it wasn't dedicated to the symbols of Christianity, but to the Unconquered Sun. During his reign, he changed many aspects connected with pagan cults, but that doesn’t mean that he stopped the cultivation of old traditions. He often named them differently, but still allowed for pagan practices in many ways. For example, in 321 Constantine legislated that the celebration of the Day of the Sun should be a state holiday – a day off for everybody.

Comments

John Julius Norwich, a retired civil servant of the UK, wrote a 3 volume history of "The Byzantine Empire". The information I used came from the 1st of the 3 volumes. I forget the title of that volume, but it can be found from what I wrote enough.
I recommend reading the 3 volumes to all those interested in history.

Constantine never pretended to be a Christian, however, he remained the high priest for the Roman Empire. Constantine did issue the Edict of Toleration which ended the persecution of Christians and allowed them free worship as they chose. The establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire was still 80 years ago.

Constantine did convert to Christianity on his death bed. As a Roman Emperor he knew he would need to do many un-Christian things in the course of his life, so by being baptized on his death bed, all his sins were wiped away and he knew he would not have time to commit any more sins. This became a practice followed by many.

Constantine did arrange the Council of Nicaea out of which came the Nicene Creed. He did this because he tired of the Christiana bishops endless bickering. Was the Council convened, Constantine told the assembled bishops that they would remain there until they reached an agreement.

By moving the Christian Sabbath to Sun day he got his peoples worshiping on the same day. The Christians did not object because they were just glad they could worship in peace. Besides, the Christians knew Constantine could take away everything he had given them.

Constantine never pretended to be a Christian, however, he remained the high priest for the Roman Empire. Constantine did issue the Edict of Toleration which ended the persecution of Christians and allowed them free worship as they chose. The establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire was still 80 years ago.

Constantine did convert to Christianity on his death bed. As a Roman Emperor he knew he would need to do many un-Christian things in the course of his life, so by being baptized on his death bed, all his sins were wiped away and he knew he would not have time to commit any more sins. This became a practice followed by many.

Constantine did arrange the Council of Nicaea out of which came the Nicene Creed. He did this because he tired of the Christiana bishops endless bickering. Was the Council convened, Constantine told the assembled bishops that they would remain there until they reached an agreement.

By moving the Christian Sabbath to Sun day he got his peoples worshiping on the same day. The Christians did not object because they were just glad they could worship in peace. Besides, the Christians knew Constantine could take away everything he had given them.

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