The sign of the cross, which Constantine most solemnly affirmed he saw in the heavens, near midday, is a subject involved in the greatest obscurities and difficulties.
Continuing Roman Emperor Constantine Converted to Christianity,
our selection from An Ecclesiastical History, From The Birth of Christ to the Beginning of the Eighteenth Century by Johann L. Von Mosheim published in 1842. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. The selection is presented in three easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in Roman Emperor Constantine Converted to Christianity.
Place: Milvian Ridge
About this time Constantine the Great, who was previously a man of no religion, is said to have embraced Christianity, being induced thereto principally by the miracle of a cross appearing to him in the heavens. But this story is liable to much doubt. His first edict in favor of the Christians, and many other things, sufficiently evince that he was indeed at that time well disposed toward the Christians and their worship, but that he by no means regarded Christianity as the only true and saving religion; on the contrary, it appears that he regarded other religions, and among them the old Roman religion, as likewise true and useful to mankind; and he therefore wished all religions to be freely practised throughout the Roman Empire. But as he advanced in life, Constantine made progress in religious knowledge, and gradually came to regard Christianity as the only true and saving religion, and to consider all others as false and impious. Having learned this, he now began to exhort his subjects to embrace Christianity; and at length he proclaimed war against the ancient superstitions. At what time this change in the views of the Emperor took place, and he began to look upon all religions but the Christian as false, cannot be determined. This, however, is certain, that the change in his views was first made manifest by his laws and edicts in the year 324, after the death of Licinius, when Constantine became sole emperor. His purpose, however, of abolishing the ancient religion of the Romans, and of tolerating only the Christian religion, he did not disclose till a little before his death, when he published his edicts for pulling down the pagan temples and abolishing the sacrifices.
That the Emperor was sincere, and not a dissembler, in regard to his conversion to Christianity, no person can doubt who believes that men’s actions are an index of their real feelings. It is indeed true that Constantine’s life was not such as the precepts of Christianity required; and it is also true that he remained a catechumen all his life, and was received to full membership in the Church, by baptism, only a few days before his death, at Nicomedia. But neither of these is adequate proof that the Emperor had not a general conviction of the truth of the Christian religion, or that he only feigned himself a Christian. For in that age many persons deferred baptism till near the close of life, that they might pass into the other world altogether pure and undefiled with sin; and it is but too notorious that many persons who look upon the Christian religion as indubitably true and of divine origin, yet do not conform their lives to all its holy precepts. It is another question whether worldly motives might not have contributed in some degree to induce Constantine to prefer the Christian religion to the ancient Roman, and to all other religions, and to recommend the observance of it to his subjects. Indeed, it is no improbable conjecture that the Emperor had discernment to see that Christianity possessed great efficacy, and idolatry none at all, to strengthen public authority, and to bind citizens to their duty.
The sign of the cross, which Constantine most solemnly affirmed he saw in the heavens, near midday, is a subject involved in the greatest obscurities and difficulties. It is, however, an easy thing to refute those who regard this prodigy as a cunning fiction of the Emperor, or who rank it among fables; and also those who refer the phenomenon to natural causes, ingeniously conjecturing that the form of a cross appeared in a solar halo, or in the moon; and likewise those who ascribe the transaction to the power of God, who intended by a miracle to confirm the wavering faith of the Emperor. Now these suppositions being rejected, the only conclusion that remains is that Constantine saw, in a dream while asleep, the appearance of a cross, with the inscription, In hoc signo vinces (“By this sign thou shalt conquer”). Nor is this opinion unsupported by competent authorities of good credit.
The happiness anticipated by the Christians from the edicts of Constantine and Licinius was a little afterward interrupted by Licinius, who waged war against his kinsman Constantine. Being vanquished in the year 314, he was quiet for about nine years. But in the year 324 this restless man again attacked Constantine, being urged on both by his own inclination and by the instigation of the pagan priests. That he might secure himself a victory, he attached the pagans to his cause by severely oppressing the Christians, and putting not a few of their bishops to death. But all his plans failed; for, after several unsuccessful battles, he was obliged to throw himself upon the mercy of the victor, who, nevertheless, ordered him to be strangled, in the year 325. After his victory over Licinius, Constantine reigned sole emperor till his death; and by his plans, his enactments, his regulations, and his munificence he endeavored as much as possible to obliterate gradually the ancient superstitions and to establish Christian worship throughout the Roman Empire. He had undoubtedly learned from the wars and the machinations of Licinius that neither himself nor the Roman Empire could remain secure while the ancient superstition continued prevalent; and therefore, from this time onward, he openly opposed the pagan deities and their worship, as being prejudicial to the interests of the State.
After the death of Constantine, which happened in the year 337, his three surviving sons, Constantine II, Constantius, and Constans, assumed the empire, and were all proclaimed emperors by the Roman senate. There were still living two brothers of Constantine the Great, namely, Constantius Dalmatius and Julius Constans, and they had several sons. But nearly all of these were slain by the soldiers at the command of Constantine’s sons, who feared lest their thirst for power might lead them to make insurrections and disturb the Commonwealth. Only Gallus and Julian, sons of Julius Constans, escaped the massacre; and the latter of these afterward became emperor. Constantine II held Britain, Gaul, and Spain, but lost his life, A.D. 340, in a war with his brother Constans, who at first governed only Illyricum, Italy, and Africa; but after the fall of his brother, Constantine II, he annexed his provinces to his empire, and thus became emperor of all the West, until he lost his life, A.D. 350, in the war with Maxentius, a usurper. After the death of Constans, Maxentius being subdued, the third brother, Constantius, who had before governed Asia, Syria, and Egypt, in the year 353 became sole emperor, and governed the whole empire till the year 361, when he died. Neither of these brothers possessed the disposition or the discernment of their father; yet they all pursued their father’s purpose of abolishing the ancient superstitions of the Romans and other pagans, and of propagating the Christian religion throughout the Roman Empire. The thing itself was commendable and excellent; but in the means employed there was much that was censurable.
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