Imperial Power in the Service of Christ

SEVERAL SAINTS on the Byzantine calendar are described as Equals to the Apostles. Some, such as St Mary Magdalene and the first woman martyr St Takla, were among the earliest witnesses to the Resurrection. Others, were among those who first brought the Gospel to areas beyond the apostolic patriarchates. Ss Cyril and Methodius (Moravia), St Gregory the Illuminator (Armenia), St Nino (Georgia), St Patrick (Ireland), and St Vladimir (Kievan Rus) are among those designated Equals to the Apostles for their missionary activity.
This title is also given to the fourth-century Roman Emperor Constantine the Great and his mother Helena. As the first Roman rulers to profess the Christian faith, they had the greatest impact on both the Church and the empire.

Early Years

Constantine was born in c. 272 to a Roman military officer, Flavius Valerius Constantius and Helena, whom some ancient sources call his wife and some do not. St Ambrose of Milan says that she was a stable-maid. Sometime before 289, as Constantius’ career prospered, he married the daughter of Emperor Maximian. Helena and her son were sent to the Eastern court of the emperor in Nicomedea, Asia Minor (Izmit, Turkey today). Helen never remarried and lived quietly with her son.

In ad 293, the Roman Empire had been restructured into four divisions, two in the East and two in the West. The leaders of these divisions, called the Tetrarchy, were constantly jockeying with one another for supreme authority. In 305 Constantius became emperor of the West and Constantine joined him as commander of the Roman troops in Britain. He was in York when Constantius died in 306.The Roman troops in Britain acclaimed Constantine as his successor. He devoted the next seven years to securing his power in the West. His final victory in the West came against Maxentius, who had declared war on Constantine in 311. The following year, Constantine defeated Maxentius’ numerically superior troops at the Milvian Bridge over the Tiber, north of Rome. Pushed into the Tiber by his fleeing troops, Maxentius drowned, leaving Constantine sole power in the West. By 324 he would be the sole emperor of both East and West.

Constantine reunified the administration of the empire and restructured its military. He successfully combated inflation and restored the power of Rome after a period of decline. None of these achievements, however, earned him the title “Equal to the Apostles.”

Constantine and the Church

Scholars now feel certain that Constantine had embraced Christianity some time before his famous victory at the Milvian Bridge in 312. He remained a catechumen throughout his life. As his death approached, he put aside his imperial regalia and was baptized, never taking them up again.

Constantine reversed the fortunes of the Church in the Roman Empire in every aspect of its existence, beginning with:

The Legalization of Christianity The last great persecution of Christianity, begun by Emperor Diocletian in 303, was not enforced in the West by Constantius or Constantine. The persecution was formally ended in 311 by Galerius who declared Christianity a religio licita (a form of worship acceptable) in the empire. The growing number of Christians made their support a bargaining chip for the warring rivals for power. Their support turned to Constantine during his struggle against Maxentius when he marked his standards with the ☧ (Chi-Rho), the first letters of the name of Christ in Greek. One of Constantine’s advisors, Lactantius, wrote that he did this in response to advice received in a dream “to mark the heavenly sign of God on the shields of his soldiers.” The contemporary historian Eusebius wrote that this dream was preceded by a vision: Constantine “… saw with his own eyes in the heavens a trophy of the cross arising from the light of the sun, carrying the message, In Hoc Signo Vinces” (with this sign, you shall be victorious.) In 313, after defeating Maxentius, Constantine and Licinius issued the Edict of Milan in which property confiscated from Christians during the persecution was ordered restored “without payment or any claim of recompense and without any kind of fraud or deception.” While these edicts expressed only a toleration of Christianity, Constantine actively promoted it.

Faith & Order in the Church To promote unity in the empire Constantine fostered unity among Christians. In 325 he called the first ecumenical council (Nicaea I) which gave us the Nicene Creed and the patriarchal structure in the Church.

A New Christian Capital Constantine sought to distance his empire from its pagan origins. In 330 he built Constantinople as a New Rome, free of pagan temples and dotted with great churches. His successors enshrined the relics of apostles and martyrs in these churches and made it the administrative center of the Church in his empire.

Enhancement of Worship As previous emperors had endowed and built pagan temples, Constantine began constructing Christian shrines and basilicas, including those at Bethlehem, Constantinople and Rome. Most famously, he developed Palestine as a Christian Holy Land and Jerusalem as the “Mother of the Churches” centered around Calvary and the tomb of Christ (both now enclosed in the Anastasis) and the mount of the Ascension. These basilicas made possible the more elaborate forms of worship which we inherited from these centers.

Helena and the Holy City

Much of Helena’s life was spent in relative obscurity. After twenty years together, she and her son were sent away when Constantius married a woman of higher station. In 312, with Constantine poised to take over the empire, Helena was recalled to the imperial court where she remained as a close confidant to her son. She was given the imperial title Augusta in 325.

There are conflicting stories concerning when Helena became a Christian. In the Ecclesiastical History by Theodoret of Cyrrhus (c. 393-458) we are told that Helena (already a believer) influenced her son to become a Christian. Eusebius, on the other hand, wrote in his Life of Constantine (c. 339) that Helena became a Christian through her son’s influence. In any case, Helena was known for her piety, her regular presence at divine services, and her generosity to the poor. As Eusebius wrote, “This admirable woman was to be seen, in simple and modest attire, mingling with the crowd of worshipers, and testifying her devotion to God by a uniform course of pious conduct.”

In fulfillment of a vow Helena undertook a pilgrimage to Palestine, although she was almost 80 years old. According to Eusebius, Helena “… though now advanced in years, yet gifted with no common degree of wisdom, had hastened with youthful alacrity to survey this venerable land and at the same time to visit the eastern provinces, cities, and people with a truly imperial solicitude. As soon, then, as she had rendered due reverence to the ground which the Savior’s feet had trodden, according to the prophetic word which says “Let us worship at the place on which His feet have stood,” she immediately bequeathed the fruit of her piety to future generations; for without delay she dedicated two churches to the God whom she adored, one at the grotto which had been the scene of the Savior’s birth; the other on the mount of His ascension.” Helena died shortly after returning from this sacred journey.