V. The New Republic: Constantine and the Triumph of the Cross
Prior to 313 AD, there had been a sense of opposition between Christians and the world, and a sense of apathy about Rome. (177) The end of persecution meant the end of opposition and the "victory of Christianity over the secular order." (177-178) These are embodied in the Edict of Milan. (178) This Edict
- guaranteed the right to be Christian and removed legal persecution (including via the military service or bureaucracy);
- allowed all men to worship as they would;
- it returned seized land and buildings, or made restitution;
- it allowed the church the right to own property.
The Tetrarchy ("Sacred College") failed, and indeed was "an evil legacy," since it devolved justice onto the divine person of the emperor. (181) Rights were overturned and torture and tyranny were the order of the day. (181-182) This bled over into religious oppression as well. (182)
Constantine, thus, was viewed as Augustus, as restorer. (183) And if Constantine had no Virgil, he at least at a Eusebius. (183-184) For Eusebius, Constantine was God's right hand, come to smite His enemies. (184) In Constantine was seen the triumph of the cross and the arrival of the eschaton. (185) This was the dream of Classical Civilization, but now achievable since Christianity provided the means to unify men. (185) Constantine was the divinely appointed ruler of the Kingdom of God on earth. (185-186) So Constantine gained in prestige by sacrificing imperial divinity (186-187), and although he restrained himself from interfering in the church (187), his heirs had no such qualms.
And so limitations were sought to be placed on the Emperor, who was no longer divine. (187-188) Thus arose the argument that the Emperor was a member of the church, not its head. (187-188) In exchange, the monarchy was given fresh vigor, and a sense of absolute authority with moral and social goals as well. (188-189) Though orientalism hung around (especially through image-worship and dynasticism), Romanitas somewhat endured. We see this in 1) the councils embodying philosophic thought; 2) in public opinion's relationship with popular leaders like Ambrose and Athanasius. (189-190)
Constantine reformed administration into East and West prefectures. (190) But what hope did this really offer? We've already seen Eusebius' answer. Skipping over Arnobius (191), Lactantius and his Institutes also also have something to say here. Reason and authority, for him, are based on Divine Providence, for both pagans and Christians. Classical philosophy must be dismissed, since it teaches nothing about God and offers no hope for change, and so ends up with nothing more than a discussion of human justice. (192) Thus relationships cannot be based on necessity, contract, idealism, or materialism, but only on our nature as sons of God. (192-193)
Justice is the love of men, based on pietas (devotion to God) and aequitas (equality), both of which the Classical ideal perverts into a strictly political and economic ideal. (193-194) Classical society was 1) deceitful, in that it never fulfilled its promises; 2) destructive, in that one society only grew through the destruction of another; 3) ignorant of the family, which is the proper basis of society in the first place. (194)
So the new society was to be built on the family according to God's will for man's fulfillment. (194-195) The state was defined by virtuous freedom, and only acted as a restraint in the name of humanity. (195)
Lactantius seems, however, to have no sense of original sin. (195-196) No new view of nature is given, and Classical freedom is seen as the result of the Gospel. (196) Thus, his thinking is a soft utopianism. (196-197) The fate of this soft blending of pagan and Christian humanitarianism may be analogous to the fate of the modern social gospel...
The "general spirit and purpose" of Constantine's legislation was 1) "to create a world fit for Christians to live in" (individual Christian focus); and 2) "to make the world safe for Christianity" (church focus). (197-198)
In practice, his legislation reconstituted the Roman "familia." Slavery, dependents, women, and children were all treated more warmly. And yet, this was amelioration, not true reform. (199-200) As we see in the fact that some laws were made harsher. (200-201) Constantine simultaneously fixed people in their places, and was generous with favors to groups he liked. (201-202) Especially harsh were the oppressive land laws, begun by Diocletian and continued by Constantine. (202) These punished local nobles and killed patriotism in the Western Empire, even as they softened the punishment for delinquent taxpayers. (202-203)
These and other taxes show Constantine's dedication to preserving the status quo, and so we can assume that any actual changes were made for religious reasons. (203) But why didn't the newly empowered Christianity transform society and make things better? (204) Partially because it arrived too late; but mostly because that wasn't really Constantine's goal. (204-205) His real "programme" was the use of the church as a means of shoring up the Empire (where the bourgeois had failed). Thus, something like the Donatist schism became a political question. (205-206) Even more, despite the neutrality of the Edict of Milan, Constantine became increasingly Christian. (206-207) This planted the seeds of Caesaropapism. (207-208) As Constantine glorified the church, so the church glorified Constantine (208), increasingly tying itself to the fate of the Emperor and the Empire. (209)
Yet, despite his best efforts, Constantine never truly became a Christian "ponitfex maximus," and Nicea and the African controversy showed that the church would not be dominated. (209-210)
The Nicene Council was an ecumenical attempt at peace (210), and was enforced by law. This was seen as the beginning of the broadening of the Empire to any place where Christians dwelt. (210-211)
Constantine's goal "was to legislate the millennium in a generation." (211) This forced Christians to rethink the "social and political implications of their faith." Not that he saw the long-term havoc this would wreak. Constantine was an odd mix of practical and mystical, much like Scipio Aemilianus of old, his religion was one of success--as seen in his simultaneous pagan deification and Christian sainthood. (212)