European Pagan Memory Day

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Constantine: religion supporting power


One of the most debated themes by Pagans all over Europe is the theme of the relation between State and Religion: depending on the national history of each pagan group, the separation between State and Religion is considered to be right or harmful. According to Pagans considering it harmful, the separation would have been introduced by Christianity to separate people from their identity as it was expressed by the traditional religion and eliminating this separation would imply the return to the original unity. This is the opinion mostly of Pagans coming from protestant countries; according to Pagans who live in catholic or orthodox countries the separation is on the opposite very important, because they have already experienced how deeply Christian religion took possession of the State.

We could object that Ancient religion was after all a part of the State and that ancient chiefs were often also religious chiefs and so on, but we must make a distinction. When we are talking about ancient religion, we are talking about a symbolic system that mediates between the man and "universes of meanings, values, rules that serve as a binding force in a community" (the definition so summarized is by J.P. Vernant). In other words, the ancient religion is part of the way the man expresses his worldview; it was part of the State because the State was above all a community so expressing its way of thinking, which could also be changed and "contaminated" even on an individual level. This is not true for Christian religion, that considers itself universal and unchangeable. According to ancient people, religion didnít come from the gods, but from the men towards the gods; Christian religion is on the opposite a revealed one, it comes from a single god towards men. This introduction was needed to understand why Constantine, who we are going to talk about here, moved in a certain way between ancient religion and the Christian one.

Constantine is commonly remembered at least because of one fundamental thing: the edict of Milan in 313 a.d., with which freedom of cult is granted to Christians too, together with, actually, a privileged position. Maybe everyone of you knows the legend, told both by Lactantius and by Eusebius, about Constantineís vision of the cross in the sky just before the battle of the Milvian bridge, that took place in the same year and just before the edict of Milan: Constantine saw the sign of the cross in the sky just after midday and later in dreams he would have been advised to use that sign for protection. What we probably donít know, is that Constantine wasnít stranger to this kind of visions.

Before telling about Constantineís visions, we must step back and look at the structure of the Roman Empire at those times. In 293 Diocletian divided the Empire in two halves, a western half and an eastern one, each of them ruled by one Augustus, flanked by one Caesar, his appointed successor. But the two Augusti werenít equals and to underline that, Diocletian put his line of succession, the eastern one, under Jupiterís protection, while the western line was protected by Hercules, son of Jupiter and half-god, so on a lower level. In the western line Constantine became Augustus in 307, but he wasnít an appointed heir: he was chosen as Augustus by his soldiers, while there were a lot of self-proclaimed Augusti all over the Empire and the Diocletian system was collapsing. So Constantine was in desperate need of a legitimation of his power and wanted to conquer the full supremacy. This is why he began to use religion.

In the Roman Empire more than among other indoeuropean populations, the religion acquired the function of being the binding force of the State: some cults and rites, like the Lupercalia, made people recognize themselves as Romans. This is also why, many centuries before, Cato spoke against the Greek influence on Roman culture. Constantine exploited this feature of the Roman Empire and at the same time also exploited the influence that an Eastern cult gained on Roman army. It was the cult of Mithra or the Sun. Proclaiming his own line of succession under the protection of the Sun was also a way for Constantine to recall the glory of Aurelian, who in 275 established the festival of the Sol Invictus (Unconquerable Sun). The Sol Invictus was related to the Eastern cult of the Sun, but he was well accepted because it was some kind of cult fit for all, because every polytheistic religion inside the Empire worshipped the Sun and its return after the Winter Solstice; we must also remember how easily ancient religions were translated one into another as if they were texts to be translated from a language to another. Accepting and dignifying the cult of the Sun was also a way to gain the approval of soldiers, many of whom were already its followers.

In this context, Constantine had his first divine revelation. The story is told by a panegyric (a poem to celebrate the emperor) composed about the 311 a.d., one year after the supposed vision1. It is said that Constantine would have seen the god Apollo with the goddess Victory, offering him laurel crowns as a sign of his benevolence and a prophecy of a very long reign. Constantine was trying to legitimate his power through the apparition of a god.

But this way canít work in a polytheistic system and this is why, three years later, there was another vision, but in a Christian version. The problem is that in a polytheistic system the godsí hierarchy, where exists, is a fluid one: new myths can be told, new cults can come from abroad, like the cult of the Sun-Mithra came from the East. Apollo, a god of the Sun himself, was deceived by a newborn Hermes. Jupiter himself was defeated by Numa who used a play on words to avoid offering him human sacrifices. But when a religion doesnít recognize other gods than its own god, the only one, it means that when the only god offers his benevolence to an emperor, the emperor must be recognized as an emperor by everyone according to godís will. Therefore, Constantine gradually abandoned the polytheistic system to favour Christian religion, which had a net of communities and priests, useful for control purposes. So began the politic ascent of Christianity.

In another webpage, we are going to talk about the favours made by Constantine to Christianity and why the edict of Milan wasnít the beginning of the freedom of cults, but only the first of the many concessions made to monotheism, which became the new support of the State with the identification of the Emperor with the only god.

Manuela Simeoni


1. Paneg., VII, 21, 4-5.Back to the text


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