Chi Rho Monogram -- 2325 bytes
 

The Christian Empire: 313-476

Jesus Christ Pantocrater

Christianity Becomes Dominant

The status of Christianity changed considerably in the fourth century because of one person, Emperor Constantine the Great, who officially permitted and promoted Christianity in the Roman Empire. The emperors who followed Constantine I continued his legacy; they were all Christian except one. A little later in the century, Theodosius I (379-395) required that all of his subjects be Christian. Now the former "persecuted church" was in danger of becoming a worldly and "oppressing church."

At the time of the Edict of Milan, the Roman Empire was at war with Persia. Rome began to consider Christians in the Persian Empire as potential allies. As a result, the Persian Empire persecuted Christians under its rule, the worse time being between 339 and 379, under Sapor II. Thousands of Christians were martyred.
 

Jesus Christ PantocraterParts of a giant statue of Constantine - 10007 Bytes
Constantine, head and fragments from a colossal statue: on display in the courtyard of the Palazzo dei Consevatori, Rome. ca. 313-315 (or 330) A.D.

Another Powerful City Emerges

Chi Rho Monogram -- 2325 bytesShortly after his victory over Licinius near the ancient city of Byzantium in 324, Constantine founded the "New Rome" on the site Byzantium. The new capital city became known as Constantinople (it is now Istanbul, Turkey). Constantine made Constantinople his imperial headquarters.

Constantine built a number of Christian churches, including those of the Holy Apostles, where he was buried. Hagia Sophia, an early basilica erected in 325 and restored many times since then, is one of the most important monuments of the Byzantine architecture.

Constantinople became a major center of Christianity along with:

         Antioch in Syria

         Alexandria in Egypt

         and Rome in Italy

         Caesarea in Israel

Between 330-565, Constantinople became arts and cultural center of the world. During the reign of Justinian (527-565), early Christian civilization gained momentum and created some of the best landmarks of the history of civilization.

Constantine I

Flavius Valerius Constantius (c. 285-337), Constantine the Great, was the son of Emperor Constantius I and his concubine, Helena. When his father died in July 306, Constantine became emperor of Britain, Gaul (now France), and Spain. Gradually he gained control of the entire Roman empire.

Constantine I invaded Italy in 312. Constantine claimed that he had a dream in which he saw the Chi-Rho symbol (a monogram composed of the first two Greek letters for the word Christ, X and P) and the words, "By this sign you will conquer."1 The holy monogram was painted on the shields of his soldiers. Constantine's action had an "...unfortunate and abiding effect; for the first time Christ became a god of battles."2

Constantine on horse at Battle of Milvian (or Mulvian) Bridge - 13549 Bytes

Constantine at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, detail from painting by Raphael

Just outside of Rome, Constantine won the Battle of Milvian (Mulvian) Bridge against Maxentius. He was made senior Augustus by the Roman senate, which welcomed him. In 313, Constantine and Licinius, who married Constantine's sister Constantia, agreed to end the persecution of Christians and issued the Edict of Milan. Constantine was ruler of the West; Licinius became ruler of the East after defeating Maximim.

Trouble arose between the two rulers. Licinius, a pagan who never was a Christian, began to restrict the public life of the Eastern churches. As a "champion of Christian faith," Constantine invaded Licinius' territories in 323 and forced Licinius to abdicate in 324. Licinius was executed. "Constantine became sole ruler of the empire, and the churches awoke to find that the cause of Rome and the cause of Christ had become one."3

Constantine was involved in ecclesiastical politics, including the Donatist and Arian controversies. He convened and presided over the first "ecumenical" council at Nicea in 325 to respond to the teachings of Arius. The bishops (clergy), most of whom had been persecuted for their Christianity and all but six of them from the East, created a foundation for orthodoxy by establishing the anti-Arian Nicene Creed (to which minor changes were made by the Council of Constantinople in 381).4

Constantine was baptized by Eusebius of Nicomedia in 337, just before he died. (Deathbed baptisms were common at the time.) During his life he had brought Christianity from the position of being a persecuted minority to the dominant power in religious life in the Roman Empire.

   1 Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors, 44. Cited in A History of the Christian Church, 4thedited by Williston Walker, Richard A. Norris, David W. Lotz, and Robert T. Handy (New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985), p. 125.
   
2 An Outline of Christianity: The Story of Our Civilization, Vol. II (New York: Bethlehem Publishers, Inc., 1926), p. 80.
   
3Walker, et.al., p. 125.
   
4Walker, et.al., p. 135-136.
   "Constantine at the Battle of Milvian Bridge" is a detail from painting by Raphael in An Outline of Christianity: The Story of Our Civilization, Vol. II (New York: Bethlehem Publishers, Inc., 1926), p. 80.

 

Changes in Christianity by 500 A.D.

During the time of the Christian Empire, the first ecumenical councils were convened; early statements of orthodoxy, such as the Nicene Creed, were written; and the church recognized and Old and New Testament but the canon was not yet completely closed.

Like the Roman Empire, the church of the 4th and 5th centuries was divided into two groups, the East, where most Christians spoke Greek, and the West, where most Christians spoke Latin. In the first two centuries of Early Church, most of the churches had been Greek-speaking; some spoke Aramaic and other languages. The church expanded beyond the Roman Empire to places such as Ethiopia and India, where other languages were spoken and other Christian traditions developed.

Eventually the differences between geography, cultures, traditions, and languages contributed to the church's splitting into the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches (1054). Certain churches that began in Ethiopia, India, Egypt, Armenia, and Syria that accept only the church councils before Chalcedon were to become the Oriental Orthodox churches.

Take the Highway

Journey Through TimeDuring the time of the Christian Empire, many more people became Christians. With the growth of Christianity came more conflict and controversy. Meet Athanasius of Alexandria, the "Father of Orthodoxy."
 

Choose a Byway

1. Learn about the some of the ways early Christians interpreted the Bible. Meet Ephraim of Syria of the Edessan School of Interpretation, Clement and Origen of Alexandrian School of Interpretation, and John Chrysostom of the Antiochene School of Interpretation.

2. Read the Edict of Milan, the document which ended the persecution of Christians.

3.Visit other web sites that have information about this time