Constantine – the first Christian Emperor

Constantine The Emperor

by David Potter

(Oxford University Press, £14.99 pb)

Next month sees the celebration of the anniversary of the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD, an event which marked an important moment in both the history of the Roman Empire and the emergence of Christianity as a world religion.

David Potter discusses in the epilogue to his biographical history the controversial and often contradictory views held over the centuries about the Emperor, from Eusebius in his History of the Church, down to John Carroll, who sees him as the source of the Church’s supposed anti-Semitism in his book Constantine’s Sword, and to Dan Brown who provides a cruelly misleading account of him in The Da Vinci Code.

Potter, a Professor of Greek and Latin literature and history at the University of Michigan, who has already written an important book on the emperors of Rome, sets out see Constantine in the circumstances of his life, and to examine events as they happened not as they were later imagined to have happened. 

His narrative is crisp, clean and uncluttered, calmly dispassionate about men and events that have long been the subject of intensive, sometimes bitter controversy.

The battle of the Milvian Bridge in the folklore we learned as children was where the Emperor had a vision that led to his victory. Afterwards he inscribed a new symbol on his soldiers’ shields, the Chi-Rho. It was said that his vision told him “in hoc signo vinces”, in this sign you shall conquer, according to the story derived from Eusebius.

But as Potter explains, the vision, whatever it may have been, took place before the battle, and in southern Gaul rather than Italy. The sigla itself may allude to another phrase rather than to Christ.

The first Christian Emperor of our school books was, it seems, only baptised, by his biographer Eusebius, just before his unexpected death while on his way to war with the Persians. To see Constantine from an exclusively Christian point of view may be to lose sight of the historic reality, so Prof. Potter claims.   

Constantine’s ambition was to rule, and to this his whole life was devoted. Potter traces the fortunes to the Empire, and the threats against it, and the influence of the rule of his predecessor Diocletian on Constantine. Indeed, we are fully a third of the way through the book before we get to the Milvian Bridge, where Constantine defeated his rival for power Maxentius.

Constantine spoke in an ambiguous way about his devotion to “the highest of the Gods”.  His “conversion”, Potter suggests, was no sudden thing, vision or no, but the outcome of many years of thought. Potter discusses with even-handed certainty such controversial matters as the Edict of Milan, a doubtful document, and the Donation of Constantine, which was an outright forgery, intended to sustain the civil authority of the papacy.


Constantine’s aim was to hold the empire together, to rule it with equity and fairness, in accordance largely with ancient Roman precepts. To do this he had to find a way of making a place for Christians, traditional faiths and Jews within the rule of law.

His verbal attacks on the Jews at the time of the controversy over the dating of Easter were certainly vicious, but were part of a long standing Roman dislike of the Jews and their difficult opinions. In reality, however, he was more tolerant than might have been thought.

 He enabled Christianity to find a place in the empire – even to the extent of allowing bishops to settle civil cases between Christians.  But he also saw that the ancient temples and rituals were also respected and preserved. There was no clean sweep in favour of Christianity. That came later.

Potter devotes chapters to the Donatist and the Arian controversies, to the dating of Easter and to the Council at Nicaea from which the Creed emerged.

Those words which Christian repeat today “I believe in God the Father almighty” are the actual words of Constantine. They are not those of a baptised Christian, but of an Emperor anxious to preserve equity in his empire.

Indeed, good government and an ordered society were his constant aim. To achieve this he had to reconcile not only conflicting religions, but also conflicting cultures of Rome, with its respect for law, and Greece, with its delight in philosophy. Those laws and that philosophy were also what went to make Christianity what it later became, for better or worse. So despite that tardy death bed conversion, Constantine can still be seen as the first Christian emperor.

When he died he left to his heirs a war in the Middle East – a very topical echo – and an empire over which there would be many later struggles. But it was an empire which persisted down to the fall of Constantinople (the new imperial capital he had built for himself on the Bosphorus) to the Muslims in May 1453 – the year from which we can perhaps date the true beginning of our modern world.  

Islam had conquered a city; some of its adherents persist in the hope of conquering what survives of the Constantine’s empire, in the shape of  present-day Europe.