[Source: Wikimedia Commons]
It’s a well-known story. In 312 Constantine marched his army towards Rome so he could claim the title of Emperor. He encountered the army of his main rival near the Milvian Bridge north of the city. The night before the battle, he had a vision of a particular Christian symbol and the words “under this sign you will conquer.” He had his soldiers paint that mark on their shields, won the battle, and became Emperor. As a result, he immediately converted to Christianity and made it the official religion of the Roman Empire.
The story is pretty accurate except for that last sentence. Constantine did eventually convert to Christianity, but was not baptized until just before he died. Even so, he had a strong interest in the Christian religion. Wit the Edict of Milan in 313 he declared the state neutral in matters of religion. He also financed the building of churches, gave the clergy certain privileges, and gave Christian men important positions in the government. He encouraged the religion’s leaders to come to an agreement about their theology by holding big church councils like the Council of Nicaea.** By the time he died, Christianity was the dominant religion within the Empire.
The thing is, neither Constantine nor the Empire was just going to let go of their gods so quickly. Constantine dedicated the Arch of Constantine to Victoria and made sacrifices to Apollo, Diana, and Hercules. He used Apollo’s symbols at the dedication of Constantinople, not those of Christian God. Lastly, it was Theodosius I who made Christianity the official religion of the empire, 43 years after Constantine’s death.
*A lot of people assume it was a cross. Actually it was a Chi Rho.
**Whence comes the Nicene Creed, for anyone who’s encountered that one in church. And no, please don’t make me explain the theology discussed in this one. I don’t fully understand it myself. A lot of it has to do with the nature of Jesus and God the Father. The one in-depth discussion about it that I was part of in class led to general confusion and quotes like “So, is he two people or four people or all one big ball?” A theologian I most definitely am not.