The Roman emperor Constantine is one of the great heroes of Christian history. As legend would have it, he singlehandedly put an end to religious persecution and became the first Christian emperor. His impact was nothing short of miraculous, and this is why his name is often adorned with superlatives: he is Constantine “the Great,” or as some branches of Christianity regard him “Saint” Constantine. More than any other figure, he is the true Godfather of Christianity, who helped it turn from a small troubled sect into the dominant religion of the empire.
But the word godfather applies to Constantine in more ways than one. Think Don Vito Corleone kind of Godfather (actually, I like Don Vito Corleone, so more like Michael Corleone). The historical reality is that Constantine was a brutal dictator who used Christianity for his own self-aggrandizing means and probably never even converted (some say he converted on his death bed, while others say he never did).
At the beginning of the 300s, the Roman Empire was a mess: there were too many people following too many religions speaking too many languages. Culturally, politically, religiously and in every other way, hardly anything brought unity to the empire. The confusion was so intense that it was not unusual for multiple people to claim the title of emperor at the same time. Civil wars to settle the squabbles between these contenders were the norm.
Constantine had quickly understood that ruling over such a diverse population, with such divided loyalties, would always be an uphill battle unless he figured out a way to bring them together. Religion seemed to fit the bill: a shared religion would give his citizens a common sense of loyalty and identity.
The old Roman polytheism didn’t seem to serve his purposes since few people still believed in it. Christians instead were very enthusiastic about their faith. Perhaps even more attractive, monotheism preached the need for all to worship a single source of authority—a concept that was music to Constantine’s ears. By tying religion and imperial power together, Constantine would be able to claim that any rebellion against him was a rebellion against God’s right hand man. Saint Paul’s writings about political leaders receiving their authority from God gave Constantine plenty of ammunition for his totalitarian project.
Constantine probably didn’t give a rat’s ass about religion (or if he did, he had a curious way of showing it since—as we will see—his newly found interest for Christianity didn’t dampen his passion for murder). He professed devotion to the Church, but he also regularly offered sacrifices to Apollo, Diana and Hercules, and remained head of the official pagan priesthood throughout his life. What he was looking for was a tool that would allow him to tighten his grip on power.
Accordingly, Constantine tested the waters by putting an end to the persecutions against Christians in 313 CE. The infighting among different Christian sects, however, bothered him. Religious disagreements could lead to conflicts and rebellion, and this would mean more people to kill, more heads to be bashed, and nothing but work, work, work. If Christianity were to serve his purpose, only one official version should be allowed. So, in 325, Constantine invited bishops from all over the empire at the Council of Nicaea, where they could get their act straight and vote once and for all regarding which one would the true Christian doctrine, and which should be eliminated as heresies. Once the bishops were done bickering, Constantine immediately moved to repress any alternate versions of Christianity.
Shortly after thus becoming the champion of the new religion, Constantine demonstrated how much religious piety had touched his soul by having his son executed, and his own wife boiled alive, for he feared they may have been plotting against him. Jesus’s message to “love your enemies” must have not gotten to destination, since Constantine had some of his rivals beheaded, and others hanged after he had promised them clemency if they surrendered.
Constantine played an incredibly important role in legitimizing Christianity, but considering him a saint may be a tad overoptimistic. The man, in fact, was a gangster with a tiny heart and a Godzilla-sized ego.
[Site editor’s note: This is an excerpt from the recent Disinformation title 50 Things You’re Not Supposed To Know: Religion, authored by Daniele Bolelli.]