Before we can move into the fifth head of the beast, we need to take a little time to get to know someone who had a huge influence on bringing Christianity out of persecution, popularizing it, and also merging pagan rituals to fit into its practices. This man was known as Constantine the Great, born as early as 272 A.D. (reports vary as to the actual date of his birth) to an innkeeper's daughter by the name of Helena. His father was a general in the Roman army by the name of Flavius Constantius Chlorus, and had been passing through the area with the army when he stopped at the inn in Naissus where Helena's father was so impressed by the man that instead of going to get a widow to keep him company that night, as was usually the custom, he offered his virgin 16-year old daughter. Constantius appears to have felt a little guilty about this, for in the morning when he left, he asked the innkeeper to please keep the girl pure and that if that night had resulted in a child, to raise that child as the apple of their eye. He left a sum of money with the innkeeper and his purple tribunal cape that contained a buckle with his initials and military rank. Ten years later, Constantius is promoted to governor of the area of Dalmatia (in present-day Croatia), which was a key area controlling the flow of trade between east and west. He was now an important man, and Helena just another poor peasant woman with a child. As chance would have it, however, the army came through Naissus again, stopping at that same inn. When the soldiers caught a young boy playing with their horses, they began to beat him. Helena came running out, exclaiming that this child was the son of governor Constantius, and she had his cape to prove it. They brought the news back to the governor that he had a child, and Constantius was thrilled. He brought Helena and young Constantine to the palace to live, and married the young woman, or as close to marriage as he was allowed, considering that Roman politics did not allow for a full marriage to take place between such differing classes. He wanted to give his child some form of legitimacy, so he took advantage of a ceremony, matrimonium concubinatum, which legally tied Helena to him and gave his son rights to inheritance and made him a legitimate child.
Roman politics and rule were more than a bit complex, with murder and intrigue taking place to secure new rulers. There was a very large empire to run, and when Diocletian was in power in 283 A.D., he decided to divide Rome into eastern and western sides and develop a tetrarchy to rule, with a senior emperor called an Augustus and a junior emperor called a Caesar over each side. Diocletian was Augustus of the east and still maintained the most authority over the empire, with a man named Galerius as his Caesar, and he gave the position of Augustus of the west to Maximian, with Constantius as his Caesar. In doing this, Diocletian also insisted that both Constantius and Galerius divorce their current wives and marry women more suitable to their new position. Constantius was asked to marry the daughter of his senior, Maximian, a woman named Theodora, and Galerius was asked to marry the daughter of his senior, Diocletian. This would make it harder for either of these men to betray their senior emperors, since those men were now their fathers-in-law. Constantius divorced Helena, sent her away and married Theodora. It is at this point that historians believe Helena turned to Christianity and away from the traditional Roman ways, and it is quite possible that Constantine harbored resentment for his father's rejection of his mother for the rest of his life.
Constantine's in Eastern Rome
Constantine was sent to the east to the court of Diocletian to be educated in Greek and Latin and to learn the finer points of Roman leadership and court conduct. He was now a grown man and was given a position in the imperial army. Here, he was able to see firsthand some of the persecution the Christians were subjected to. Christians were hated, particularly by Galerius. Contrary to popular belief, Christians weren't hated because they worshiped a deity different from the rest of the Romans. The truth was, the Romans had so many gods they didn't care who worshiped whom or why. The only thing they were concerned with was that Rome remain united. Part of the Roman philosophy was that the emperor was also a god and needs to be worshiped, and Christians would have no part in worshiping anyone but their Creator, which seemed to undermine the rule of the emperor. Galerius' mother was a pagan priestess and was angered that the Christians wanted no part of her rituals, and she instigated her son to destroy them. Galerius pushed hard for their execution, but Diocletian wasn't convinced. He started asking a lot of questions and learned that Christians were considered good citizens and faithful soldiers, which was definitely a good thing, but he also heard complaints that Christians wouldn't participate in public sacrifices to the Roman gods. This was worrisome to the Romans because the Roman gods may become offended and quit helping on the battlefield, and this made pagan soldiers very nervous. He wasn't keen on the idea of using violence to get them under control. It might get them into line, but it also fosters resentment and animosity and may lead to an uprising, which he would prefer to avoid. He also knew from experience that if he attempted to kill Christians, they would march bravely to their deaths and become martyrs, thus encouraging others to join their ranks. He knew that the more Christians were persecuted, the more their numbers grew...
Diocletian had to do something, so he started with civil punishments, removing all Christians from his army and firing the Christians who worked in his palace. This wasn't enough, however, and Diocletian started to get angry. In 303 AD he suddenly decided to storm the Christian church in Nicomedia, ordering his soldiers to use a battering ram to knock the entire building down and to burn all the books. The following day, the Roman government issued an edict against the Christians that was implemented throughout the empire, including the west where Maximian and Constantius were in power. Christians were stripped of their religious liberty, with no right to worship. Their Scriptures were confiscated and burned publicly, and they were denied any protection of law. People could attack and steal from them at will and not be charged for a crime. A few months later, the church leaders were brought together and told that if they didn't make a sacrifice to the emperor, they would be put to death. This isn't really what Diocletian wanted to do. He just wanted to make the Christians miserable enough that they gave in and offered the sacrifices to the gods. Then a fire started in the palace, which Galerius tried to blame on the Christians. Diocletian still wasn't certain and was attempting to be cautious, so Galerius, knowing the Christians would never participate, planned a ceremony thanking the gods for sparing the lives of the emperor and his family. A public ceremony was held, and one by one, the Romans walked by a huge fire and tossed in a pinch of incense. Those who did not were seen to be ungrateful for the life of the emperor, and this could not be forgiven. These people were tortured and put to death. Two weeks later, another fire broke out in the palace during a lightning storm, the Christians were blamed again, and this time Diocletian did not hold back, and the persecution of the Christians lasted for years...
In September of that same year, Diocletian decided to do something no emperor had done before him. He was at the top of his game and he wanted to end that way and be remembered that way. He also insisted that Maximian in the west step down and that both of their Caesars be promoted to the rank of Augustus. A huge celebration was planned in Rome, and Constantine was able to see his father again for the first time in about 10 years. After the party, which turned into a drunken orgy, everyone returned to their respective homes, Constantine returned with Galerius to the east, and his father back to the capital in the north.
Constantius was now the emperor of western Rome and he put it forward that he'd like his son to be the new Caesar. Maximian also put his own son Maxentius forward as the new Caesar. However, because Diocletian had more authority in the east, Galerius took this opportunity to choose two of his own men to be the new Caesars, a legion commander with a major drinking problem by the name of Severus, and his own nephew, a half-barbarian by the name of Daia Maximus. Diocletian didn't like either of these men and said so, but Galerius was determined and Diocletian did nothing to stop him. He was retired, and as far as he was concerned, if the empire fell apart, it would no longer be his fault and the blame could be laid at Galerius' feet. However, this means that Maxentius and Constantine had been passed over for promotion and this was cause for more than a little bit of resentment. Galerius knew that if he allowed Constantine to go west to see his father, there would be trouble, so he refused to let Constantine leave the palace.
A few years later, Constantius became gravely ill. He wrote to Galerius asking for Constantine to be sent to see him before he died. Galerius could not directly refuse a request from a fellow Augustus, but he wasn't about to let Constantine go without a fight. He arranged for Constantine to leave the following morning, with hopes that he could come up with an excuse to delay Constantine from leaving, or to have him arrested. After dinner that evening, he retired to his bedroom and deliberately stayed in bed until noon the following day before calling for Constantine to come to him, only to find out that Constantine was way ahead of the game. After the emperor had gone to bed the night before, Constantine fled the palace, killing all horses he came across on the imperial highway in an effort to slow Galerius down from pursuing him. It worked, much to Galerius' frustration, and Constantine made it to his father.
Constantine in Western Rome
Together, he and his father went to war, defeating the Picts, a band of fierce pagan warriors from the British Isles. Constantine was so impressive in battle that the soldiers wanted him as their new ruler and decided to honor his father's request to make him the new emperor. In fact, upon Constantius' death, they gave Constantine his father's purple cloak and proclaimed him the new Augustus, right over the head of Severus, the current Caesar. Galerius was furious and nearly burned the messenger who brought him the news. However, Diocletian managed to talk him down, saying he couldn't fight this, but he could recognize Constantine as the new Caesar, not Augustus, which Galerius prudently agreed to do, and Constantine prudently accepted. There was still a problem, however, that Maxentius, Maximian's son, had still been passed over for promotion, and he wasn't happy about this.
Maxentius decided to take matters into his own hands. The city of Rome, being the "Mother City" had always been exempt from taxes. This was one of the few perks the city had left, since it was no longer the capital. Galerius decided that they should be taxed, just like everyone else. This was an unpopular move and Maxentius decided to capitalize on it. The Roman Senate had been losing power for centuries. Once upon a time, the Senate were the ones who chose the leaders. Now the armies did. Maxentius told the Senate that if they proclaimed him emperor, they would be able to reclaim their old power and restore Rome's glory. They weren't sure, because of his young age and lack of experience, but he promised to get his father involved, and he would be the assistant to his father. They agreed to this and declared it so. Maximian did come to Rome for a time, but Maxentius, through a series of political maneuvers, made himself the new emperor, and the Senate's fears were soon realized. This man was not fit to rule. His power completely went to his head and he quickly lost everyone's respect. He was going to have to be removed. Galerius and Severus had already attempted to get rid of him which killed Severus and neutralized Galerius' authority. Galerius died a few years later, in 311 A.D. Constantine was determined to step in and do something about the problem.
In October 312 A.D., Maxentius knew Constantine was on his way to fight him, but he wasn't letting that stop him from throwing a celebration for being on the throne for five years. Besides, a party would reassure his citizens that he wasn't worried and they wouldn't have to be worried either. If that sounds familiar, it should. It's the same thing Belshazzar did in Babylon, the night before Babylon fell to the Medes and Persians. Unlike Babylon however, the walls of the city weren't as much an obstacle to overcome as the minds of the soldiers were. Attacking Rome felt like attacking their mother, so if Constantine had any hope of succeeding, he'd need to draw Maxentius outside. During a chariot race held to celebrate Maxentius' reign, hecklers in the crowd started calling out to Maxentius that he was a coward, and more soon joined in. This got Maxentius thoroughly riled up and after consulting with an ancient prophecy held by the Senate, which said that the next day, the enemy of Rome would perish, and assuming that meant Constantine, he confidently headed out to the field of battle the very next day.
In the meantime, someone also gave Constantine the news of that prophecy, and knowing that his troops were superstitious, as he himself was, he needed his own divine intervention to boost his army's courage. He came up with the idea to have his soldiers paint a symbol on their shields. You can see the symbol in the graphic below. It's referred to as the chi-rho because it is a combination of the Greek letter chi (X), which is like "ch" and the Greek letter rho (P) which is like our "r". Early Christians were said to use to use the symbol because it was the first two letters in the Greek name for Christ, Christos. However, the symbol is older than Christianity. It was first used by pagans because it represented the first two letters in the Greek word for "good luck," chrestus. Constantine told his soldiers that he'd seen the symbol in a dream from the gods, and that if they painted it on their shields, they would be guaranteed to win, and they did. It was only much later, years after the battle took place, when Christianity was in full swing, that a legend came out saying that he had a vision of that symbol, and some say a cross, blazing in the sky, with an inscription that translated to something like, "Under this sign, you will conquer," and attributed the victory to the power of Jesus Christ.
Maxentius tried for a surprise attack and was killed in the battle that ensued, drowned in the Tiber River. The next day, the body having been found, Constantine rode into Rome with nothing more than the head of Maxentius on a spear as proof of his conquest. He rode up to Capitoline Hill where the custom after a victory was to make a sacrifice to Jupiter, but he chose not to do this. He suspected that it was the Christian God who had been responsible for his victory. In his mind, Jesus was like the new Roman God of War, very different from the actual teachings of Christ.
Constantine and Christianity
Christianity had taken hold in Constantine's household. Not only had his mother been a Christian for awhile, but his stepmother had also become a Christian, and his half sister had been named Anastasia, which was a Christian name, meaning "Resurrection." He gave in to some of the Christian customs, like having Maximian buried in a coffin when he died, and refusing to sacrifice to Jupiter after the battle in Rome. But there were other things that showed he himself had not fully converted. For example, he had a son in 305 A.D. by the name of Crispus to a woman named Minervina, then married another woman, Fausta, in 307 who gave him three other sons. Constantine groomed Crispus to be a leader, and he did well in battles. He made his father proud. However, in 326, he suddenly had Crispus executed, and not long after, he had his wife drowned in a tub of boiling water. It is said that she had seduced Crispus, maybe in an effort to secure a future as heir for one of her own sons. Constantine showed no remorse for his actions. Christians make mistakes, it's true, but they also show regret and repent from their ways.
It seems likely that Constantine had a healthy respect for the Christian God, and it seemed to him that Christians were unified in a way that was enviable, and if he could make the empire look Christian, then the Christians might be willing to die for him, just as they were willing to die for Jesus, and if he could merge Christianity with Rome, then Christians would be eternally loyal to the empire. He gifted the Lateran Palace where he'd been staying to the Bishop of Rome, who, until that point, had been living in poverty across the Tiber River. This really elevated the status of the Bishop in a whole new way.
Even though Christianity had become elevated in Constantine's realm, persecution in the east was still rampant. The east was now ruled by a man named Licinius. In 313 A.D., Constantine and Licinius met at a wedding in the city of Milan. They talked about a number of things, Christian persecution among them, and decided to issue an edict, known as the Edict of Milan, that offered religious liberty to ALL, including Christians. It is interesting to note that there was persecution for 10 full years. This seems to fulfill a prophecy written in Revelation 2:8-11. John had written letters to seven literal churches, but Bible scholars have noticed that the letters seem to hold a feeling of prophecy to them, and do seem to follow a timeline of events in reference to the Christian church as a whole. The second letter was written to a church in Smyrna, and made mention of 10 days of tribulation when the Devil would be throwing them into prison. In Bible prophecy, days are often used to represent years, and in this case, it is stunningly accurate when looking at the Roman persecution of Christians.
Unfortunately for Constantine, he may have been overly optimistic about how unified the Christians were. In fact, this isn't the case at all. If it were, we wouldn't have hundreds of denominations today, and back in those days, it wasn't much better. Christians argued all the time about various theologies and doctrines. When the persecution finally came to an end, there was a bigger struggle that was eventually brought to the attention of Constantine. There were many Christians who couldn't handle the persecution and forsook Christianity, at least until it was ok to be Christian again, and then they wanted to return, which made other Christians who'd been persecuted heavily very unhappy. Some of them didn't want those Christians to be able to return to the church, and they certainly didn't want them back in leadership positions. Paul warned us in 1 Corinthians 6:1-2, to settle disputes within the church, not take it to the courts of law. However, this warning was ignored, and the Donatists, the group in North Africa who wanted to keep the "traitors" out, appealed to Constantine to decide the matter. Still in 313 A.D., Constantine enlisted the help of the Bishop of Rome to preside over the matter and make a decision one way or the other. The Bishop ruled against the Donatists, who were furious and tried again. This time, in 314 A.D., Constantine called together bishops from all over the empire, they reconvened on the matter, and again ruled against the Donatists, who were still determined to have their way. Constantine was afraid that God would stop favoring him and his empire was going to fall apart if he couldn't make the Christians get their act together. He threatened to come down and show them how to run a church if they couldn't settle their controversy. He threatened to put those to death if they didn't toe the line. In fact, there are records that show that the Donatists who caused such a ruckus were actually rounded up and put to death.
This was the beginning of the marriage of church and state. Soon a priest by the name of Arius, also in North Africa, began to question the full divinity of Jesus, whether he should actually be considered equal with God the Father, feeling he should actually be slightly less, and a creation of the Father, who then created Earth, so therefore had a beginning. This wasn't the first time it had been questioned, but Arius pushed it out into the spotlight and it caused a huge uproar in the church. This time, it was not a question of church politics, but of church doctrine and theology, and Constantine didn't understand the full gravity of the dispute. If Jesus was not the same as God of the Old Testament, then worshipping Him was idolatry. Finally figuring out that this debate was a bigger deal than he had understood, he called for a meeting in Antioch and asked his mother's pastor to mediate. This resolved nothing, so another meeting was called in the city of Nicaea in 325 A.D. Delegates came from all over the empire, many bearing the scars of the persecution they had undergone by the Romans. This was a very serious matter to them. At the end, they decided what Christians had always believed to be true, that Jesus and God were one and the same, and also wrote the Nicene creed, which applied to all Christians. It was later modified and became known as the Apostles' creed and is still recited today in some churches. Ultimately, the Council of Nicaea came to the right decision on the divinity of Jesus, based on Scripture, but they had the wrong person heading the debate, someone whose Christianity was still uncertain and whose interest was that of a unified empire, not what was best for the church.
With the Roman emperor now at the head of the Christian church, it became more ok for matters to be handled by coercion, rather than persuasion, and with violence, rather than with peace. "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" was no longer quite so clear, as the things that are Caesar's and the things that are God's began to merge. The state began to use force to run the church. In 321, Constantine passed one of the first blue laws, forbidding work on Sunday: "On the venerable Day of the Sun let the magistrates and people living in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed." The "venerable Day of the Sun" was an important festival for pagan Romans, and Constantine "christianized" it, making it a mandatory holiday. In the Bible, the Sabbath was the 7th day. The "sun day" was the first day of the week. He effectively changed the day of rest to make it easier for pagans to become "christian" themselves. Eventually, it wasn't just the state leading the church, but also the church running the state, and became the foundation for the heretic trials, torture chambers, inquisitions, and executions, carried out in the name of Jesus. It was no longer Romans persecuting the Christians, but Christians persecuting other Christians, no longer willing to give religious liberty to one another.
As Constantine was growing older, a city was being built for him in the east. It would be called Constantinople, and Constantine was planning on relocating his family there, and wanted to be baptized after he arrived. In 337 A.D., Constantine fell ill and, realizing he was not going to live much longer, asked to be baptized on his deathbed. It is not clear whether he had ever truly given his heart to Jesus or if he was simply doing what was expected as a "Christian." After his death, his body was taken to Constantinople for burial and the Roman Senate, in a move that's more than a little ironic, made the decision to deify him, elevating their Christian emperor to the status of a pagan god... Eventually, the rulers in the west made their way to Constantinople, leaving the Bishop in charge of leading Western Rome.
In this day and age, Americans have religious liberty, but because most of us have never had to live under religious tyranny, we've forgotten how important it is to keep church and state separate. Many American Christians are bemoaning the fact that Christianity is not our national religion and they want to put someone in power who will make it so. However, once that is done, we will only be ushering in more persecution. Being a Christian can never be forced on someone. Submitting to the will of God is a personal choice. Following traditions for tradition's sake does not make a person a Christian, having a relationship with Christ and submitting to His will and letting Him live through them is what makes a Christian. Jesus never used coercion or force to make people believe in Him, and it is important to continue to follow his example.
If you would like to learn more, please check out the book, Shadow Emperor: the Rise and Fall of Religious Freedom by Shawn Boonstra. Please look below for the references to scriptures and the Nicene creed.
8 "And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write,'These things says the First and the Last, who was dead, and came to life: 9 I know your works, tribulation, and poverty (but you are rich); and I know the blasphemy of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death." '
1 Corinthians 6:1-2
1 Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? 2 Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters?
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible:
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by Whom all things were made: Who for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man: And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried: And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures: And ascended into Heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father: And he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead: Whose Kingdom will have no end:
And I believe in the Holy Ghost the Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spake by the Prophets. And I believe in One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins. And I look for the Resurrection of the Dead: And the Life of the world to come. Amen.