Page images

media at the first furious outbreak of persecution, and to have witnessed the heroic endurance of the Christians. He afterward commanded the army in Gaul, and, on the death of his father, in the year three hundred and six, when he was nearly forty years old, the troops proclaimed him emperor; but rivals were in the way, and battles must be fought to decide who should wear the imperial purple. He was at that time a worshipper of the gods, and the Sun was his tutelary deity. In consequence of the successful termination of a war with one of his rivals, he gave public thanks in a celebrated temple of Apollo, presented magnificent offerings, and had coins stamped with Soli, Invicto Comiti : To the Sun, the Invincible Companion. His situation at that period was perplexing. Adherents of the old religion, if not the most numerous, were still in possession of power. On the other hand, Christianity had become an important element in state affairs. The numerous communities, scattered throughout the empire, were united by the strongest of all bonds, that of a persecuted faith, and might be expected to serve zealously the interest of any ruler who would espouse their cause. The political enemies of Constantine were also the enemies of Christianity. His rival, Maxentius, was diligently employing every means of worship and of magic to secure the protection of the gods of Rome; and Constantine had great dread of the effect of such rites. If advantage was to be gained by pursuing an opposite course, it would be exclusively his own. He felt the need of assistance from some powerful Deity; and he reflected that emperors who had persecuted the Christians had generally ended miserably, while his father, who protected them, had a happier fate. A recent example had occurred in the painful death of Galerius. This was continually urged by the Christians; and Constantine appears to have been in a state of mind similar to Ahaz, king of Judah, who sacrificed to the gods of Damascus; saying: “The gods of the kings of Syria help them, therefore will I sacrifice to them, that they may help me." Eusebius, the historian, represents him as in a state of conflict; and the fluctuating course he pursued for some time afterward, indicates the uncertainty of his faith.

A short time before the great battle, which was to decide his destiny, he prayed to the Christians' God that he would reveal himself, and protect him from his enemies. It is not easy to imagine a state of mind more favourable for the appearance of omens. It is recorded that, in the course of his march, he saw, about noon, a Luminous Cross above the Sun, which heretofore had been his tutelary deity. · On it was inscribed the motto: “Under this sign thou shalt conquer.” He and his army gazed at the brilliant phenomenon with astonishment. The following night, he dreamed that Christ appeared to him, and showed him a cross bearing the monogram of his name, with the assurance that, if he assumed it for a standard, he would march to certain victory. He sent for Christian teachers, and inquired of them concerning their God, and the import of the symbol. He then caused a standard to be made according to his dream, and, under its protection, he conquered Maxentius, entered Rome in triumph, and was proclaimed emperor. This occurred in the year three hundred and twelve.

The story is told by Eusebius, Bishop of Cæsarea, in his Life of Constantine, written after the death of that emperor, which occurred twenty-five years after the battle. He asserts that Constantine made the statement to him, in familiar conversation, many years after the event, and affirmed it with an oath. Rufinus, a celebrated Christian writer of the fourth century, states that Constantine saw a flaming cross in a dream, and waking up in a fright, found an angel by his side, who exclaimed: "By this conquer!" Cotemporary history is silent; which is remarkable, considering that a whole army were astounded by the extraordinary vision. It is also singular that Eusebius himself, in his Ecclesiastical History, makes no allusion to such a wonderful intervention of Deity to change the religion of the Roman Empire. It, however, remained an unquestioned miracle for many centuries. But, in modern times, the scientific have ventured to inquire of what nature such a luminous apparition in the sky could be; and many of the religious have felt that Jesus could not have assumed the entirely new character of a military protector, without a manifest departure from his own pacific maxims. At the present day, the miracle is very generally rejected. Some consider it a fiction, invented either by Constantine or Eusebius, to throw supernatural interest round the first union of Christianity with the State. Others more reasonably suppose that the emperor really saw some uncommon meteor, and that, as years passed on, the account of it became greatly exaggerated. Being in an anxious state of mind, having prayed that the Christians' God would reveal himself, and living at a period when everything was construed into an omen, or a miracle, the imagination of Constantine would doubtless have been easily excited, either by northern lights in the evening, or a solar halo at noon; and it would be very natural that his dreams should be connected with what he had seen. If he subsequently adopted the motto, it would readily be added to the marvellous story in process of time. The probability that meteors were actually seen is increased by the statement of Nazarius, a Roman orator, and a votary of the old worship. He pronounced a panegyric on Constantine, nine years after his decisive victory, long before Eusebius wrote his account of the miracle. He describes a troop of beautiful Spirits in the sky, clad in refulgent armour, who were heard and seen by the whole army. He says: “It is the report throughout all Gaul that armies were seen, who professed to be divinely sent; saying, We want to find Constantine. We are sent to his assistance.” The flattering orator adds that even Divine Beings were ambitious of such distinction, and glorified themselves with the idea of fighting for Constantine. Among the fantastic forms of the Aurora Borealis, none are more common than shooting streams of light, resembling lances hurled across the sky. In that age of the world, a supernatural cause would of course be assigned for such appearances; and where Greek and Roman imagination saw deities descending with brilliant spears, Christians in the army could quite as easily perceive a luminous cross.

Whatever might have been the real origin of the story, the emperor caused a standard to be made in the form of a cross; and, according to tradition, it was an exact copy of the one seen in his dream. The shaft was cased with gold, and it was surmounted by a golden crown, on which were inscribed a monogram, signifying the name of Christ. Beneath the crown was a small purple banner, and the bust of Constantine, which shared the homage paid by the soldiers to their consecrated standard, without necessarily bringing them under the charge of idolatry. This standard was called the Labarum, the meaning of which is now un. known. It was for a long time carried at the head of the imperial army, intrusted to the care of fifty faithful guards; and a belief prevailed that no weapon could harm them while they were employed in guarding the sacred emblem.

After the victory over Maxentius, Constantine adopted the cross as a kind of amulet, to which he ascribed supernatural powers of protection. It was always carried with him on important occasions, and he was often observed to make the sign of the cross upon his forehead. But his proceedings indicate a prolonged uncertainty in his mind, as if he were waiting for events to decide what deity would prove most powerful to advance his own interests. It is likely that during the first years, the old and the new were mixed in his mind; reverence for the ancient worship remained to a considerable degree, and struggled with the conviction that Jehovah was the greatest of all gods. He pursued a very liberal policy toward Christians; but many of his actions were obvious violations of their precepts. He set at liberty those who were unjustly imprisoned, and pardoned most of those who had taken up arms against him; but he caused many of his enemies to be executed, and put to death the infant son of his rival Maxentius. Many of his German captives, whom Roman pride designated as barbarians, were exposed to contests with lions and tigers in the circus, for the amusement of

Vol. UI.-1*

the populace; as had been the custom with previous emperors. In the year three hundred and thirteen, he published an edict of unlimited toleration, in which Christianity was recognized as one of the forms in which Deity might be lawfully worshipped. The church property, confiscated during previous reigns, was restored, and he gave large sums of money to the Christians in Africa to rebuild their ruined edifices. Those who had meanwhile come into legal possession of the land were indemnified. A regular allowance of corn was granted in each city, to meet the demands of ecclesiastical charity. His pious subjects received permission to bequeath land or money to the church to an unlimited extent. The clergy were exempted from taxes, contributions, and certain municipal services, which pressed heavily on other citizens. Thus the nucleus of an ecclesiastical power, distinct from the civil, was introduced into the Roman Empire, which had hitherto never known an established priesthood. The emperor, in a letter to the Bishop of Carthage, assigns, as a reason for these privileges, that the Christian Clergy ought not to be withdrawn from the worship of God, on which the prosperity of the state depended.

But while so much favour was shown to the longpersecuted faith, entire freedom was secured to other forms of religion. The old temples and altars were not only left undisturbed, but in many cases were repaired at the ex. pense of government; and orators lauded him for the munificence of his donations. His medals and coins still bore the image of the Sun, and other emblems of the old religion. He did not offer sacrifices to the gods himself, or cause it to be done for him by representatives in the provinces; but he followed the custom of his predecessors in accepting the title of Supreme Pontiff of the old religion, and performed many of the public functions of that office.

In three hundred and nineteen, he published laws in which it was declared: “They who wish to remain slaves to their superstition, have liberty for the public exercise of their worship.” “You, who consider it profitable to your

« PreviousContinue »