Constantine (c. 273-337)

Imperial peacemaker

Like the king in chess, Constantine occupied a prominent position at the Council of Nicaea, but he did not actually do very much. Generations of critics have accused him of manipulating the proceedings, jamming words into the creed, and generally trumping theology with politics, but in fact he mainly sat and listened.

An ambitious politician and effective propagandist, Constantine had come to power in the usual swirl of conflict and intrigue. He waged war on barbarians and other Roman factions. He formed and broke alliances, as with Augustus Licinius, who married Constantine's sister, fought alongside him, allegedly turned traitor, and was murdered at Constantine's request. What made him different was his belief that the Christian God had given him a mandate to unify the administratively divided empire under the sign of the cross.

Rome's first Christian emperor did not forswear ungodly behavior at his 312 "conversion" on the Milvian Bridge. The murders of Licinius, Constantine's wife Fausta, and his son Crispus, for example, occurred long afterward. He did, however, immediately begin to institute pro-Christian policies in territories he controlled. These policies, including return of property and status lost in persecutions, government funding for church construction, and restrictions on pagan worship, broadened and strengthened as Constantine solidified his power.

With the empire stabilized under his leadership, Constantine wanted the church to be stabilized, too. Unfortunately, the church had emerged from persecution beset by heresies and schisms. Constantine saw no problem with the idea of disagreeing politely about different theological views. He urged church leaders to settle ...

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