Monday 4 May 2015

V is for Vicar of Christ: Constantine’s Amazing Transition from Roman God to the First Vicar of Christ

Constantine, Christianity, and the Imperial Cult

Constantine the Great

Constantine was the son a Caesar who then became Augustus of the Western Roman Empire, but that only guaranteed opportunity, not success. Through good fortune, native intelligence, and an ability to transform existing imperial perks to suit contemporary reality, he not only changed the religious orientation of the Roman Empire, but rewrote the rules of how the Imperial game would henceforth be played. 

The Imperial cult that Constantine so ably tweaked in 325 AD was the inspiration of yet another master of realpolitik and spin, Caesar Augustus. Both men had inherited an empire in trouble, and both came up with brilliant solutions.

Step One: Roman Leaders Become Gods

The Imperial Cult began with the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 BC and continued in some fashion right up to the accession of Constantine in 306 AD.  Before Julius Caesar, no Roman ruler had declared himself or been declared a god. Leaders made do with triumphs and garlands. Mark Antony got the divinity ball rolling while standing over Caesar ‘s corpse; he declared him divine during his funeral oration.(1) A cult to divus Julius developed almost overnight, a cult that was most certainly nurtured by Caesar’s heir Octavian. It became so popular that the Roman senate, although reluctant at first, was forced to accept it as a fait accompli and, in 42 BC, with the "full consent of the Senate and people of Rome", Octavian presided over the ceremonial apotheosis of his adoptive father, Julius Caesar. 

Why the Cult Continued
 The concept would have made inspired sense to Octavian (who became  Imperātor Caesar Dīvī Fīlius Augustus in 27 BC). As a newly emerged absolute ruler, he had to both affect and justify the change from republican values to absolute rule.  A state approved cult to an emperor would acknowledge his office and rule as both legitimate and divinely approved.

This presentation in onyx is thought to represent the apotheosis of Augustus himself. The fire, the eagle (shades of the phoenix) the laurels, the cornucopia and winged victory, all there – and all poised to be integrated into Christian imagery!

  It was a win-win proposition, and by making an emperor one of the many existing gods, he could still show a proper respect for traditional republican deities and professed republican morals. In fact, he could present his new regime as restorative, a continuation of past values, and thus appease traditionalists. Augustus’ success in creating the famous Pax Romana justified the continuation of emperor worship. (2)

In time, the role of Pontifex Maximus (the high priest of Rome’s college of priests), once open to patricians and later to Plebeians, became incorporated into the Imperial office. This led to an interesting situation where Emperors as high priest of state gods, could preside over services in honour of their own genii! One emperor had his own statue placed in the company of the twelve Olympian gods, just in case anyone missed the point.
The apotheosis of Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina c. 161 AD, with appropriate symbols all in place

The ceremonies of apotheosis became extravaganzas even by Roman standards as the apotheosis of the emperor Severus in 211 illustrates.

He had died and was buried abroad but that posed no real problem. In Rome, an exact waxen replica of the emperor was displayed on an ivory couch in the palace forecourt. The figure was pale - the image of a sick man. For seven days senators dressed in black attended ‘him’ along with noblewomen dressed in white. As was the custom of mourners, no jewelry or finery was worn. Each day, court physicians mimed visits and growing concern until on the final day they declared the effigy dead.

At that point his couch, was borne along the Via Sacria, placed in the forum for a service, and then carried through the city to the Campus Martius where a large square chamber decorated with rich tapestries and gold and ivory images and complete with door openings and windows, constructed entirely of wood, was waiting to receive the bier. On top of this chamber was a smaller chamber and on top of that another yet smaller, and so on until when completed the entire structure resembled a light house in height and shape.

They placed the ‘emperor’ inside, and I quote: they collect all sorts of aromatics and incense, and every sort of fragrant fruit or herb or juice; for all cities, and nations, and persons of eminence emulate each other in contributing these last gifts in honour of the emperor. And when a vast heap of aromatics is collected, there is a procession of horsemen and of chariots round the pile, with the drivers clothed in robes of office, and wearing masks made to resemble the most distinguished Roman generals and emperors. When all of this is done, the others set fire to it on every side, which easily catches hold of the faggots and aromatics; and from the highest and smallest story, as from a pinnacle, an eagle is let loose to mount into the sky as the fire ascends, which is believed by the Romans to carry the soul of the emperor from earth to heaven; and from that time he is worshipped with the other gods." (*/Apotheosis.htmlv )

A sendoff like this would impress even a Kim Jong Un! The funeral pyre cum altar with fruits smacks of age old fertility rituals like the one to Aphrodite in Patras that Pausanias described, the symbolism of a holocaust and aromatic smoke would have had multiple symbolic resonances back then (3), and that eagle rising from the top of the bier towards the heavens is sheer genius. I am still wondering how they managed it. If the method isn’t clear, the message was: the emperor was now with Jupiter – Zeus, he even shared his symbol, the eagle, and was in the company of other deified emperors who could be counted on to bring good fortune to the people  providing that they offered the correct ritual sacrifices. 

Medals and commemorative coins for various deified emperors were minted right up to the time of Constantine.

How sincere was such a belief? Well, that’s a tough one. History has shown that sincere piety and expedience work well together on so many levels, and the expedience of Imperial divinity was never in question. It worked in Rome from the get go and the concept dovetailed nicely into Hellenistic ruler cults that had been in existence for a long time.
West meets East

God-rulers were something of a norm in the Hellenistic world. Alexander the Great had himself depicted on coins as both Heracles, (the only Greek hero to become a god), and as Zeus Ammon.

  In Egypt, he had been hailed as pharaoh (and therefore a god) even before he went to Persepolis and adopted the hieratic ways of the Persian court. This may have disgusted his Macedonian troops, but it did wonders for his image.
With the cultic ground so nicely prepared in the Hellenistic world no one blinked when, after they gained power, Roman emperors’ statues appeared in Greek temples along with local gods and other Roman civic deities.

 As a concept, it had its points. In an increasingly large and diverse empire, Emperor worship had the benefit of focusing loyalty on the leader and therefore creating cohesion and common ground. It both preserved and at the same time subordinated others religious cults. Rome didn’t much care who else you worshipped in various parts of the empire, as long as the emperor-god and other Roman civic gods were given their due. It worked like an oath of allegiance. Proper observance of the cult these civic deities was considered essential to Rome's survival and their neglect was therefore treasonous. Many temples were built throughout the empire specifically for an emperor-god. Jews, the only monotheists in the empire at the time, were exempt.(4)
But when Christianity began appearing on the Roman radar as an ever larger blip, an exception for the growing number of this apparently ubiquitous and, worse, proselytizing sect seemed to the Roman leadership to be a step too far. The growing number of adherents crossed boundaries of class and ethnicity. They could be anywhere!  It was not their dogma that disturbed so much; mystery cults were fine per se, but their obsessive brand of ‘monotheism’ was unsettling as was their refusal to worship other gods. Christians were especially fanatic in their refusal to offer sacrifices to the emperor’s statue. It was seditious!

 From the Roman point of view, the solution was simple: just make the gesture. That’s what counted. But this, the Christians refused to do. So in times of imperial crisis Christians, the obvious scapegoats, were persecuted, and executed like the traitors the powers that be thought they were. These persecutions, although horrible, were sporadic, arising in troubled times when scapegoats were necessary.(5)

By the mid two hundreds, the empire had become larger, even more culturally diverse, and increasingly hard to govern; repression followed. In 250 the emperor Decius issued an edict that all subjects of the state (Jews were still excepted) must sacrifice to ancestral gods in a ritual that had to be witnessed, certified, and individual. The insistence on individual sacrifice was specifically meant to identify traitors. Performing this act became a personal litmus test of loyalty to Rome. Valerian, in an attempt to stop the rising tide of recalcitrant Christians, outlawed Christian assembly in 253 and again urged them to sacrifice to Rome’s traditional gods.

In 284 when the emperor Diocletian took control; he thought a tetrarchy of leaders would be better able to govern with a western and eastern Augustus, each aided by a western and eastern Caesar. Unfortunately, that had the effect of de facto dividing the empire into two with each Augustus having his own ambitious Caesar waiting in the wings. Human nature being what it is, what he actually did was create three potential rivals with their very own armies, never a good thing for an authoritarian regime.

As if to counter-balance the plethora of rulers he had himself created, Diocletian apparently attempted to bolster his own god-like status. Court etiquette increasingly reflected his growing paranoid position: it became more complex; an audience with the senior Augustus was possible only if accompanied by rituals which were as intricate and complicated as they must have been galling to those outside of his increasingly small inner circle. Imperial Eunuchs who had no apparent army or faction connections became the norm. They were considered safer.

 The famous statue of the tetrarchs, intended at the time to show solidarity but, in hindsight, they look as if they are huddling together in the face of the disaster that this idea became.

All the while, in the background, we have Christianity continuing to emerge as a more cohesive movement with its own sacred books, its own rituals, organization and hierarchy. Diocletian, influenced by his fanatic Caesar, Galerius, ordered the Great Persecution (as it is called by historians) of Christians. Galerius was convinced that he could eliminate the sect or beat it into submission. It was too late for that, however, and these persecutions garnered a lot of sympathy for the Christian martyrs. Not only that, but Diocletian’s counterpart in the west, did not wholeheartedly support the plan.
And here our Constantine enters the picture. His father Constantius had become Caesar in the west in 293 and Constantine, by then a successful army officer, would join in his father’s service in 305 when he was named Emperor of the west. Upon his father’s death in 306 Constantine’s moment had arrived. He was proclaimed Emperor by his own army (6) and immediately set out to win it all in a long series of civil wars with various co-rulers that left him by 324 AD sole emperor at the age of 52.

He inherited all of the grandeur, tradition, power, (and absurdities) of imperial rule along with all of the problems of his predecessors. What he did with that inheritance is why we now call him Constantine the Great.

Step Two: From a God to Vicar of Christ

If you Can’t Beat ‘em, Join ‘em

Constantine was a realist. What he did was to take a cold, hard look at his empire and rethink the failed policies of the past. He needed a new organizational principle that would ensure both loyalty to himself and unite the diverse components of the empire. His gaze fell upon the persecuted Christian church and there he saw a golden opportunity. His decision to sponsor this particular religious sect would change the empire, the emerging Church, and, as some have argued, even the face of God.

Christians were by no means a majority when Constantine took over, but they were an organized minority, with a hierarchy, churches, and a foothold if not more in many parts of the empire.(7) Constantine, no moralist himself, appears not to have cared much about Christian dogma – only that it be consistent- but he may have been influenced by their moral uprightness and willingness to die – it was impressive. So he went from an edict of toleration in 313 to the Council of Nicaea in 325 just one year after he had gained absolute power, – a council he sponsored, paid for, attended, and influenced – all in order to hammer out a form of Christianity which would be mutually beneficial to the church hierarchy and the Roman empire. His two great personal contributions were to help define the elusive Trinity and set the date for Easter. As Pontifex  Rex, neither he nor his subjects would have found his hands on participation at Nicaea odd. (8)

He likely never became a Christian, although the solar halo of his hitherto personal god Sol Invictus, did get turned into a Christian symbol,

 nor did he ban other religions; that happened later.  He simply decided to favour this one using all of the impressive persuaders that an absolute ruler could provide.

This included a massive building campaign. Constantine financed churches in Rome, in Jerusalem, and, above all in his new city of Constantinople – named after himself, but dedicated to God in that it would be the first Roman city to be entirely devoted to Christian worship.

What sort of Christianity did Constantine want?  A unified one for sure. Nicaea was both a definition and a purge.  It banished the Arians who did not see Christ as equal to God, and was the first step in making heresy, up until that point a matter of hotly debated opinion, into a civil crime.

Constantine would have had no problem embracing the Old Testament concept of kingship and the interconnection of secularism and piety  that so easily fitted into a Roman emperor’s wish for unambiguous leadership,  - giving something to Caesar that Caesar, in fact,  already considered his due. Did the Hebrew God of the Old Testament change at all? Well, he did begin to develop a rather Roman face after 325 – an Imperial face. 

The Trade-off

Constantine had to give up the possibility of actual deification, but that idea had been wearing thin for almost a century. And he got something better: not just the promise of eternal life but, as Vicar of Christ, his rule and his right to a world empire was sanctioned for all time by a single all-powerful God, and his people, under his divinely sanctioned leadership, became God’s new chosen people. (9) The divine right of kings has had a long run… and going against a divinely sanctioned emperor could mean excommunication and no possibility of the salvation the new religion promised to all – powerful persuaders indeed.

The Church must have been delighted: federal funding, federally sponsored buildings, federally sponsored meetings, federally sponsored dissemination of texts, and suppression of those they considered heretics because Constantine did recognize at Nicaea that the Christian priestly hierarchy could determine what exactly was Orthodox and what was not. Not surprisingly, his greatest supporter and eulogist turned out to be Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, who often came perilously close in his praise to calling Constantine divine. 

In his article The Legitimization of Constantine,(10) S.I.D. Cohen points out that this “comfortable symbiotic relationship between the empire and the church” that Constantine put in place has in fact defined the cultural powerhouse that is Europe and the West today: not at all a bad legacy for someone whose only real claim to legitimacy was being raised on his soldiers’ shields.

An Afterword
I realize that, to a cynic, Constantine might be considered something of a charlatan. The famous sign from God at the Milvian bridge in 312 (ἐν τούτῳ νίκα" "In this, conquer") apparently led according to Eusebius,  to his use of the Labarum on his soldiers’ shields in subsequent battles.

This was supposedly witnessed by his entire army although the story was not actually recorded until twenty five years later, long after the True Cross had been rediscovered by Helena, Constantine’s mother, and the cross had become the most important Christian symbol of all. 

The mission that led to the discovery of the True cross by Helena also had a murky beginning. For reasons no one now knows for sure, in 326, Constantine had his own son and heir Crispus murdered and hard after that his second wife Fausta – not an unusual happening in Imperial households to date but perhaps a little too much of business as usual for his new post-Nicaean image. Not co-incidentally, his mother Helena, then 80 and a Christian, was almost immediately dispatched on the famous mission to recover the True Cross. (Informed sources at the time had her greeting Constantine in mourning for her grandson previous to her departure – a clear and public sign of disapproval for his action.)  Thus, the finding of the true Cross came at an extremely opportune moment for his reputation and his legacy. In the long run it would win for both Constantine and his mother Orthodox Sainthood.
                      Always depicted as a pair; many churches in Greece are dedicated to them.

In the short term, this miraculous discovery completely overshadowed his faux pas (a sin in the new dispensation) in murdering his son and marked the beginning of a long term imperial investment in Christian relics, one that became something of an Imperial cult in its own right. (see R is for Relics on this blog). 

Constantine’s Burial

Constantine’s reputation in life was so elevated by the time he died in 337, that his sarcophagus was placed in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople amid 12 columns, one for each Apostle, making him the Thirteenth Apostle and gaining him the epithet “equal to the apostles”. In the Christian world he had helped create, it shouldn’t have got better than that but some say it did. On his death he was not only venerated by Christians but many held that he had ascended directly to heaven – an apotheosis of sorts. And then there is his fame: his contribution to western cultural history, for better or worse, has lasted for over 1700 years and counting…


1. Shakespeare does not have mark Antony go so far as to deify Caesar in Julius Caesar, but looking at that speech again I am amazed at the echoes of the crucified Christ.
2. Although every subsequent Roman emperor may have aspired to divine status, not all achieved it.  Accepted etiquette required that they not appear to seek it in life although they did accept the soubriquet of genius of the people. However, when cults to a living emperor arose (such a nice compliment on the part of any individual or city or province seeking imperial favour!) no emperor ever complained about being hailed as a god here on earth.  After death, there was a process: an emperor deemed worthy was first voted a Divus by the senate and then elevated in an act of apotheosis. That ‘deemed worthy’ was important because a bad emperor and there were a lot, did not get the posthumous vote. Oddly, instead of detracting from their divinity, the weeding out process meant they were keeping company with the best. It enhanced the image of the office. Imagine such a process with presidents or prime ministers!

3. I am thinking of Heracles’ funeral pyre, holocausts for Asclepeios etc.

4. I shouldn’t be as surprised as I am but, having read so much history from a Greek perspective, I have always seen the Romans as somewhat ham handed and lacking in imagination. No so. The liberality of emperors like Trajan, and exemptions like this one seem amazingly progressive.

5. It is hard not to make a comparison between the way Diocletian treated the Christians and the way Christians subsequently treated the Jews. The reasons and justifications are depressingly similar.

6. Army Investitures would prove to be the bane of future emperors all through Byzantine history. Many an ‘emperor’ was created by being raised on the shields of his loyal army and he got to keep the job if his army was strong enough to back him up. The church investiture and sanction was a fait accompli in all too many cases.

7. It seems to me a point worth noting that by allying himself with and supporting the Christian church, Constantine assured himself of a positive spin in every Christian Church throughout his empire, and made the blessing of his rule a matter of ritual during services. In modern times, a Greek bishop was heard to say to a Greek politician with whom he disagreed: “Don’t forget, we have a corner shop”. What he didn’t need to add was that there was one on every corner!

8. Constantine did not entirely abandon his role as Pontifex Maximus; he seems to have taken on the role of a deacon or a quasi-deacon as did future emperors and often delivered sermons.

9. Constantine officially ended – or attempted to end – blood sacrifices to the genius of living emperors but, he retained and enhanced all of Diocletian’s court rituals, rituals that astounded and amazed western visitors throughout the empire’s long life. He did allow cult temples to himself and the imperial family. 


  1. I love this post! So many people have no idea how Christianity became official religion of the Roman Empire, first they are feeding them to lions,(or at least in the bad Easter movies), then the Emperor becomes the vicar of Christ...This transition has never been explained so eloquently,clearly and succinctly. Well done!

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