The Day The Roman Empire Went Christian
Today is the birthday of Constantine the Great. He was born on February 27th, 272 AD apparently. That’s a birth date with a lot of twos and sevens in it (27.02.272).
But February 27th is also the anniversary of the date when the Roman Empire went Christian in 380, by which time Constantine was long gone.
There is a deal of misunderstanding about Constantine. He did not make the Roman Empire Christian. He was not an especially religious man himself, and his interest in Christianity seems to have been chiefly in terms of a standard or an emblem or a cause he could use to unite his followers and crush his rivals (Maxentius, Licinius etc. etc.). He did not in fact get baptised until he was practically on his deathbed.
He seems to have preferred something closer to Arianism than what became orthodox Nicean Trinitarianism. Although Constantine did make Christianity a favoured religion, it was unclear which version of Chistianity was to be favoured. The Fourth Century saw endless conflicts between the Arians and the Trinitarians as well as a brief period in which paganism got a nostalgic nod from the top table under Julian (one of Gibbon’s favourite emperors).
No it was not until Theodosius the Great ( the very last high emperor over east and west) issued the Edict of Thessalonika in 380 that the Empire itself was proclaimed something we’d recognise as an orthodox version of Christianity. It is with Theodosius not Constantine, that Europe’s Christianity became properly established.
Why does the idea of a Christian Constantine appeal? I think because it makes for a better salvation narrative. If the story of Europe is to resemble the story of an individual soul, then the soul of Europe in the Fourth Century is a soul that prevaricates, a confused soul, a backsliding soul, a soul that struggles to learn its own purpose and true direction.
If the soul of Europe corresponds however to the false history of a Christian Constantine, however, then this soul undergoes one single transformative experience. Telescoped history can construct Europe as Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus. By making Constantine the man who made Europe Christian, a more dramatic and sudden narrative is constructed where Europe seems to leap quite suddenly from the bitter persecutions of Diocletian to the triumph of the faithful under Constantine. And the more sudden the transformation the more dramatic the sense of Divine intervention.
Very few Christians actively celebrate the Edict of Thessalonika or keep February 27th special in order to remember the emperor Theodosius. The longer, more truthful narrative of Europe’s relationship with Christianity seems stained with bathos compared to the more condensed and exciting Constantine narrative. Unless, however, you think there’s something to be said for the still small voice.