History of the Church: Christian Antiquity - Notre Dame

The Church Under Christian Emperors

[Illustration] from Church - Christian Antiquity by Notre Dame

I. The Triumph of Christianity

Three hundred years had elapsed since the Ascension of our Blessed Lord. Pagan rulers had done their worst against the Church, and had utterly failed. The time was now come when God would deliver His faithful people from such terrible trials and sufferings, and would cause His Church to triumph over her heathen foes.

We have seen that one of the Caesars chosen by Diocletian and Maximinian to aid them in governing the Roman Empire was Constantius Chlorus, and that this noble-hearted man would not allow Christians to be persecuted in his province when he could help it. He married a Princess named Helena, who probably was a British lady. They had a son known in history as Constantine the Great. In A.D. 306 this Prince succeeded his father as Caesar, or Governor, of Britain and Gaul.

The rulers of the Roman Empire at this time disagreed among themselves. Maxentius, the Italian Caesar, declared war against Constantine, who advanced to meet him. He had got as far as Rome, when, one midday, he saw in the heavens a bright cross of light with the words, "In this sign thou shalt conquer." The following night our Lord appeared to him and told him to use the cross as a standard, promising him victory if he did so. Up to this Constantine had always used the famous Roman eagle as his ensign. Now he caused another to be made like the cross he had seen in the sky. This was called the Labarum, and became the first Christian standard of war ever used. The cross was formed by a long lance with a beam at its upper end. From the arms hung a richly-jewelled banner, on which the monogram of Christ was worked.

With this standard at the head of his army, Constantine marched to victory. Maxentius was defeated at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, A.D. 312, and Constantine reigned over the Western Empire. Twelve years later another war broke out, which ended in the death of the Eastern Emperor. Licinius. Thus Constantine became sole master of the wide-spreading Roman Empire.

Constantine had favoured the Christians even before his famous victory. But, seeing that he owed so much to the cross of our Divine Lord, he himself became a catechumen, without, however, declaring it openly or being baptized. He ordered all persecutions to cease in the land over which he reigned. He caused an edict or solemn proclamation to be issued, granting great privileges to Christians, and restoring to them the churches that had been taken away from them. Slaves were to be less cruelly treated, and might more easily gain their freedom. Certain sacrifices were forbidden. The punishment of crucifixion was abolished, and Sunday was set apart as a day of rest, A.D. 321.

It was only when he became master of the whole Empire that Constantine openly declared himself a Christian. At this time he bestowed the Lateran Palace on the Pope, gave large gifts in money and lands to the Church, and expressed a wish that his subjects should be Christians. At his call the Bishops assembled for the first General Council of Nicaea. He built many churches; some of the most famous were in Palestine.

St. Helena, mother of Constantine, had become a Christian, and, though she was very aged, she undertook a journey to the Holy Land in order to seek for the true Cross which she was very anxious to find. Two hundred years before, the Emperor Hadrian had ordered that Mount Calvary should be covered with earth, so that people might forget where it was; but as a statue of Venus was placed on the top, it only served to mark the spot, and St. Helena had no difficulty in finding it.

Three crosses were discovered, but there was nothing to show which was that of our Blessed Lord. A woman of position in Jerusalem lay ill of an incurable disease. The crosses were borne to her bedside, and as soon as the true Cross touched her she was healed. A portion of the blessed wood was detached, placed in a magnificent reliquary, and sent to Constantine. The remainder St. Helena left under the care of the Bishop of Jerusalem. She built many fine churches in the Holy Land before returning to Rome. That over the Cave of the Nativity at Bethlehem is still standing.

St. Helena


About this time, a new city which Constantine had built, and which he called Constantinople, was solemnly dedicated as the capital of the Roman Empire. Constantine was now at the height of his glory. Unfortunately, he sometimes acted in a way that was very wrong, especially in a Christian, and on one very important matter he let himself be deceived in a strange way for one so wise. This we shall see in the next chapter.

Falling dangerously ill, Constantine received the sacrament of baptism at Nicomedia, and died a few days afterwards, A.D. 337. This is the account given by Eusebius, contrary to the Roman local tradition which has always been that he was baptized at the Lateran by Pope Sylvester, about A.D. 312. He divided the Empire among his three sons, Constantine II., Constantius, and Constans. Within a few years, by the death of his brothers, Constantius was left alone to rule the vast dominions of Rome.

II. Downfall of Paganism

Constantius, the last of the three sons of Constantine the Great, was succeeded as Emperor by Julian, his cousin. In history he is known as Julian the Apostate, because, through hatred of Christianity, he abandoned the true faith in which he had been brought up. He determined to make the Empire pagan again. To accomplish this, he ordered the temples destroyed by Constantine to be rebuilt at the expense of the Christians, who had to give up for the purpose all the lands and money they had received for their churches. The Christians were no longer allowed to hold any public offices, but pagans were chosen to fill all places of trust, and were loaded with innumerable favours. The clergy were deprived of their pensions, and forbidden to teach even secular subjects. In fact, the Emperor did all he could to throw disgrace and contempt on the Catholic religion. If only he could persuade Christians to give up their faith, he treated them with even greater honour than he did the pagans, and placed them in the highest posts.

If the Apostate hated Christians, he hated our Lord Jesus Christ still more. He thought he could easily make Christians give up their faith if he could show that our Lord had deceived them by false prophecies. As our Divine Master had said that the Temple of Jerusalem should be utterly destroyed, Julian determined it should be rebuilt with great magnificence.

The Jews hastened from all parts, and the work began. But hardly were the first foundations laid when a terrible earthquake destroyed all that had been done, and globes of fire came out of the earth and burnt great numbers of the workmen. Every time the work was renewed this miracle was repeated, till at last Julian was forced to abandon his plan. He had only succeeded in proving yet more strongly the truth of the very prophecies he sought to falsify. Far from limiting the spread of the faith, his act became the means of many conversions.

After a short reign of two years, in A.D. 363, the Emperor, while engaged in war with Persia, was struck by a javelin thrown by an unknown hand. His blood spouted out, and, in his despair, Julian threw some of it towards heaven, crying out, "Thou hast conquered, O Galilean!"

The death of Julian the Apostate ended the struggle of paganism against Christianity, for Jovian, who succeeded him as Emperor, was himself a Christian, and had suffered for his faith under Julian. Jovian's first care was to reopen the churches, and to restore the privileges and property of the clergy. He recalled the Christians to the offices from which they had been driven by Julian and his pagan favourites. Hence-forward the rulers of Rome were Christians, and the faith spread rapidly throughout the whole Empire.

III. Fall of the Roman Empire

During the centuries which ensued the great Roman Empire was gradually falling to pieces. Even so far back as the reign of Augustus various German tribes had continually invaded the fair Roman provinces north of the Danube. Though they were always driven back, the enemy gradually grew stronger, while the Empire grew weaker. Sometimes a German chief with his tribe would take service in the Roman armies, and receive a grant of land as a reward—the chief becoming a Roman general or governor. Thus these German or Teutonic people gradually learned and adopted Roman ways and customs, and also their religion, so that we find that the Teutons were Christians before they finally settled in the Roman Empire.

The first great barbarian invasion was due to fear of the Huns, a fierce people who long before had been driven out of China. They came in crowds into the fertile lands of the Goths, a Teutonic tribe, and, taking their country, forced them over the Danube into Roman territory, where the Goths were allowed to remain and settle. Those who advanced far westwards were called Visigoths; the eastern settlers were known as Ostrogoths. The last of the great Roman Emperors was Theodosius. He succeeded for a time in keeping the invaders in check, but when he died, A.D. 395, and the Empire was finally divided into two (the Western and the Eastern), things rapidly went from bad to worse.

The Visigoths, who had settled in the Empire, revolted against their Roman rulers, and under their king, Alaric, advanced upon Rome, which they sacked and pillaged, A.D. 410. Then it was that Roman troops were called home, and distant provinces like Britain were abandoned to their enemies, so that whole countries were cut off from the Empire by the settlements made by Teutonic tribes, chiefly the Saxons, Franks, Burgundian, and Vandals.



But both the Teutonic settlers and the Roman Empire itself were threatened by the fierce Asiatic tribes of Huns, led on by their king Attila. He ravaged the Roman land far and wide. At length, in A.D. 451, he was defeated near Chalons, in France, by the united forces of the Romans, Goths, and Franks. Attila himself escaped, and, with fresh hordes, advanced towards Italy. Nothing was done to oppose him by the terrified Emperor and people, and he was crossing the rich plain of Lombardy when Pope Leo I. (the Great) came forward to withstand the haughty conqueror. Vested in his pontificals, he met Attila near the Mincio, and succeeded in inducing him to withdraw.

The Romans rejoiced at their recovered safety, but soon forgot their deliverer's warning—that they had been thus threatened on account of their wickedness, and that if they did not repent, God's judgments would still overtake them.

Another Teutonic tribe, the Vandals, under Genseric, came into Italy from North Africa, where they had settled, and Pope Leo's words came true only four years after they were uttered. Genseric advanced against Rome A.D. 455. Again St. Leo interceded for the people. This time he could only obtain the promise that the lives of the Romans and the principal monuments of the city should be spared. Rome was pillaged during fourteen days, and, in spite of his promise, Genseric's barbarians carried off many beautiful works of art.

The West Roman Emperors at this time were a worthless set of men. The last was named Rcmulus AugustuIus. After his death, the Senate voted that one Emperor was enough, and said that Zeno, the East Roman Emperor, should rule over the whole Empire. But this union was one in name only, for Zeno was forced to allow Odoacer, a Teutonic chief, to reign over Italy with the title of Patrician.

Thus ended 'the great Roman Empire. But the old Roman Iaws and names went on long after the wide Roman provinces had passed into the hands of a number of Teutonic chiefs, and had been broken up into small states. These smaller states, however, gradually became new kingdoms, while the old inhabitants were either enslaved or driven away, and the conquerors settled down as lords and rulers. Thus, from the ruins of the vast Roman Empire, arose the modern European states and nations.

[Illustration] from Church - Christian Antiquity by Notre Dame