Constantine, Emperor of Rome (Part two of three)

(Click for Part one of Constantine, Emperor of Rome)

The Roman Empire was now effectively split into two halves – east and west – with each comprising six of the 12 dioceses established by Diocletian. The two emperors (Constantine and Licinius) governed their realms with very little reference to each other and neither – at first – showed much interest in challenging the other for complete control.

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However, problems arose when it came to planning for the succession if and when either of them should die. In 315 and 316 both of them became fathers of sons. Constantine already had a son, namely Crispus by his first wife Minervina, but Constantine was not sure whether he wanted Crispus to be his chosen heir. When Licinius’s son was born, the two men came to an agreement that neither son should succeed, but that the heir for both halves of the empire should be Bassanius, the husband of Constantine’s half-sister.

But then along came Constantine’s first son by his second wife Fausta, and he changed his mind. If anyone wanted evidence that Constantine’s apparent conversion to Christianity did not include a change of heart in favour of Christian morality, his machinations in favour of his family’s interests should prove the point. Bassanius was promptly executed on a trumped-up charge and Constantine prepared to make war on Licinius.

However, things did not go all his own way. Licinius proved to be a tough nut to crack and Constantine could only conquer one of the three Balkan dioceses held by Licinius. He was forced to accept a compromise over the succession that recognized the claims of both infant sons as well as that of Crispus. The treaty that settled this was signed in March 317 and stayed in force for the next seven years.

By 324, Constantine and Fausta had produced two more sons and a daughter. Seeing himself as heading a potentially powerful dynasty, Constantine saw no reason why his family should share the imperial throne with anyone else and decided to get rid of Licinius for good.

This was achieved without too much difficulty. The civil war began in the summer of 324 and was all over by November. Licinius was sent into exile but then suffered the same fate as the unfortunate Bassanius. There was no doubt now as to who ran the Empire.

With the Christians of the Empire now free from persecution, they proceeded to do what religious fundamentalists have delighted in doing down the ages, namely persecute each other. The relatively young religion was riven with disputes over matters of theology, and Constantine was well aware that this was a potent source of unrest. He decided to step in and knock some heads together.

The dispute that caused most upset, and which was to have the most profound implications, arose when a priest in Alexandria, named Arius, had a sharp disagreement with his bishop, named Alexander. This was over the nature of Christ and his relationship with God the Father. Arius maintained that the two were “of different substance” and that the Son was subservient to the Father. Alexander held that they were “of the same substance” and the Son (i.e.Jesus) had existed for all time as opposed to being created when “born of the Virgin Mary”.

Arius and Alexander each had many supporters for their point of view, and the issue – in Constantine’s view – could only be settled by bringing all the parties together and reaching a decision that would have the imperial seal of approval. The grand council met at Nicaea, in what is now Turkey.

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(A 16th-century impression of the Council of Nicaea)

The result was a statement of belief known as the Nicene Creed, ostensibly composed by Constantine although probably drafted by advisers, which (in amended form) has been the basic statement of belief held by most Christian denominations ever since. It was a compromise between the two opposing camps, although it supported Bishop Alexander’s view much more strongly than that of Arius.

Given a free choice, many modern Christians might think that Arius’s theory had much to recommend it – it does seem to make more sense logically – but they are not given that choice. For this they have a semi-pagan Roman emperor to thank whose grasp of theology was shaky at best and who may well have decided that the view of a bishop held more sway than that of a mere priest. Whatever the case, the decision stuck.


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