Now let’s take a step back in time, projecting ourselves from the reign of Trajan (98-117) to that of Constantine (306-337). We are fast approaching the end of the Empire, but it is still resisting.
When Constantine ascended to the throne, only 5-10% of the Empire’s population were Christians. When he died, Christianity was firmly established and Christianity’s march to its status as a universal religion was underway. So much so, today there are no less than a billion and a half worshippers.
As the great Irish historian JB Bury notes: “One must never forget that the religious revolution made by Constantine in 312 was perhaps the most daring act that an autocrat has ever committed, in defying and despising this what did the vast majority of his subjects think ”.
But who is Constantine?
When Constantine ascends the throne at the age of 35 (he is younger than Macron, therefore), Rome lives under the regime of the Tetrarchy (2 Augustes and 2 Caesars) established by Diocletian at the end of the third century, we we saw it previously.
Constantine did not get the best part, he ruled Gaul, England and Spain; it was certainly not the rich East! Constantine should also have ruled Italy and Rome, but a usurper, a certain Maxentius, had got hold of it!
Two dates should be remembered in the adventure of Constantine, which still shapes the world today: 312, Constantine goes to war against Maxentius to take back Italy from him.
The decisive battle took place in the suburbs of Rome, on October 28, 312, at the Milvian Bridge.
In the night before the battle, the God of the Christians had appeared to him in a dream and had said to him “you will overcome under this sign”. This sign is the Chrism, the first two letters of the name of Christ, the Greek letters X and P, superimposed and reversed. This sign had been inscribed on the shields of the soldiers and on the helmet of the emperor. Constantine won and converted to Christianity. On October 29, the emperor made his solemn entry into Rome.
324: Constantine goes to war with the other co-emperor, Licinius, and crushes him in the East.
Constantine has just re-established the unity of the empire and he is all-powerful. The Christian Empire, Christendom, has just been born.
Constantine will never seek to impose Christianity by force, he will not persecute the pagans. He imposed Christianity on his immediate surroundings, but that is all he did. The vast pagan majority could continue to freely practice their worship, pagan temples were even financed with public funds, pagans were promoted to prestigious positions.
Certainly, in his speeches, Constantine referred to paganism as a “ridiculous superstition“, adding, speaking of the pagans, “that they have, if they wish, their temples of lies“, but Constantine freely left the pagans to die in peace, since it was their choice. In doing so, he did not turn the mass of the pagans against him, who considered the choice of the new religion of the emperor as a fad, a whim no doubt without a future.
For Paul Veyne, French historian specializing in ancient Rome, Constantine is neither a cynical calculator nor a superstitious being, but a man endowed with a vision: that of participating in a supernatural epic, and of ensuring the salvation of humanity. He will say to his bishops, “his very dear brothers”, “that the eternal and inconceivable holy piety of our God absolutely refuses to suffer that the human condition continues to wander for longer in darkness”.
Constantine believed he had been chosen by divine decree to play a providential role in the economy of salvation.
Megalomaniac? Without a doubt. But also a man of action, energetic and prudent. “Without Constantine, Christianity would have remained an avant-garde sect,” Paul Veyne says superbly.
Christianity, a “bestseller”?
If there was no compulsion, how did Christianity impose itself so massively and so quickly (it is true that 600 years later a good half of the Roman Empire will become Muslim without great difficulty either, but with other methods)?
Christianity offered such a new and original response that Paul Veyne, normalien, Renaudot prize essay, Prix Femina essay, honorary professor at the College de France, compared this new religion, not to a novel, but to a bestseller.
First, it is a religion of love, and the life of the new believer was given eternal and cosmic significance. For Paul Veyne, it is by the influence of his Lord and by a sublime conception of the world that the new religion has imposed itself.
So the originality of Christianity is the gigantism of its God, creator of Heaven and Earth. “Christianity considered itself to be the only true one, as imposing itself on the whole of humanity, as giving all men a supernatural vocation and spiritual equality … Christianity owed its success as a sect to a collective invention of genius: mercy infinity of God who is passionate about the fate of humanity… a Father whose law is severe, who makes you walk upright, but who, like the God of Israel, is always ready to forgive ”.
Christ enjoyed an exceptional charisma, a relationship of deep intensity united humanity and the Lord, and the human soul received a heavenly nature; and in addition, the Risen One triumphed over death. Therefore, we did not worship God by sacrificing innocent animals to him, we worshiped him by obeying his Law.
Christianity is therefore like a bestseller “that takes you in the guts … at least in the guts of a spiritual or ethical elite from all classes of society, rich or poor, ignorant or literate“
To this must be added the dimension of a thriller with sin and hell which terrifies believers, combining terror with love: “the infernal horrors added to the success of the bestseller by striking the imaginations“.
The Odes of Solomon sing “the waters of the living spring of the Lord where all the thirsty drink.” Constantine understood that there was no point in forcing non-believers to join the bestseller, it was enough to wait …
The conversion of Constantine: sincere impetus or cynical calculation?
The recent tribulations of a young prince who wants to radically transform (one could even say revolutionize) the country for which he is responsible, even if it means facing exemplary unpopularity (not to say hatred) on the part of his people who do not adheres, nor does not understand, his project, leads us inexorably to draw a parallel between this young Prince and the young Constantine.
What is this young Prince looking for? And what was Constantine looking for when he imposed a strange religion on 90% of his unwilling population?
Some historians believe that Constantine sought the help of Christians in his struggle against Maxentius and Licinius. This hypothesis does not hold water, Constantine would have had much more to lose than to gain, and anyway, this help would have been of little use to him, he did not need it.
Paul Veyne recognizes right away that we cannot probe hearts, let alone nearly two millennia apart, but there are a few things we can still note.
Christianity fascinates by its superiority over paganism. So it was, in Constantine’s eyes, the only religion worthy of the throne. In this regard after the Great Invasions, the German rulers will exhibit their Christianity as a mark of high civilization: the princes convert for their religious prestige, to be modern. The greatness of the imperial office required that we surround ourselves with the best, Christianity was the best.
But Constantine made a more subtle calculation: although rejected by 90% of his subjects, Constantine understood the dynamism of this new religion.
Often, notes Paul Veyne, the true ambitious, unlike the upstart, does not calculate the balance of power but judges the dynamics of things.
Constantine felt the energy, the sense of power, the sense of organization of this religion, and he seized it.
So, Constantine, good faith or bad faith?
Constantine’s crusade, if it resulted in reuniting the Empire, was above all a spiritual crusade, which aimed at the liberation of the world through conquest. Because he could have achieved his conquests and reunified the empire without adopting Christianity. His luck, notes Paul Veyne, is that he never found himself faced with the need to choose between power and his faith. Yet Constantine repeatedly said that his piety won him the protection of Providence and victory over his enemies. “If I succeed in restoring by my prayers the unanimity of faith among all the servants of God,” Constantine will say, “I know that the good of public affairs will benefit from a happy change.”
“Let us stop seeing Constantine only through the small end of the telescope,” Paul Veyne tells us. “This Christian prince of exceptional stature had in mind a vast project in which piety and power were mingled; to make there exist a vast whole which is entirely Christian and, therefore, which is one, politically and religiously … Constantine realized it deliberately, not out of interest or absent-mindedness “.
Watch out, dynamite: Does Europe have Christian roots?
We can say, to put it colloquially, that our professor at the College de France is not going dead hand.
The last chapter of his book is devoted to this question: Does Europe have Christian roots? Should it be included in the European constitution? Extensive program …
Since when, does he begin, has a civilization, this heterogeneous, contradictory, polymorphic, polychrome reality, have roots? The tone is set. Religion is only one aspect of this reality, it is only one of its components, it is by no means its matrix.
The Christian religion is universalist, but so were pagan thinkers. Besides, he adds, paganism was also open to everyone, but less exclusive.
Universalism asserts that all races have the same abilities and that differences are due only to society. But what is obvious today has only been since the 19th century, and it is not due to Christianity. Moreover, from the religious universalism of Christianity does not follow – originally – that the master and the slave are equal: slaves, for example, could not be ordained priests, and Saint Paul recommended that slaves obey to their masters.
“Rather than serving as a matrix for the universalism of human rights, Saint Paul has put oil in the workings of unequal societies,” said Paul Veyne. What is more he adds: “Our current Europe is democratic, secular, partisan of religious freedom, human rights, freedom of thought, sexual freedom, feminism and socialism or the reduction of inequalities. All things that are foreign and sometimes opposed to Catholicism … let’s cut the word: the contribution of Christianity to present-day Europe, which still has a high proportion of Christians, is almost reduced to the presence of these among us “.
But we don’t have to agree. For Marie-France Baslez, herself a Normal student (École normale supérieur a prestigious university institution) and associate professor of history, professor at the Sorbonne, without denying the importance of Constantine, she places the phenomenon of the emergence of Christianity in the long term.
Certainly, she affirms in a book published in 2008 (**) and which is intended as an answer to Paul Veyne, Christians were largely in the minority in Constantine’s time, but their social and intellectual weight was much greater than their number. Emerging Christianity met the demands of the pagans in many ways and sought to meet them. Constantine’s decision was therefore not a whim, but the logical decision of a member of the Roman intellectual elite of the time.
Are not the real fights all and always ideological?
(*) «Quand notre monde est devenu chrétien», Paul Veyne, Albin-Michel 2007
( **) «Comment notre monde est devenu chrétien», Marie-Françoise Baslez, éditions CLD ou Point- Histoire
Retrouvez les précédents articles de Jacques Trauman dans la série intitulée: Radioscopie de l’empire
1 – Déploiement stratégique. Offensive-défensive et diplomatie
2 – Un fabuleux voyage chez les Romains avec un sesterce en poche
* Prochains articles à venir:
4– La vie quotidienne à Rome (publication le 20 août 2020)
5 – Andrinople, le jour des barbares. 9 août 378 (semaine suivante)
6 – L’héritage de Rome (semaine suivante)