The Pokey Finger of God

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The Victor

February 18th, 2008 · No Comments · christianity, history

Like most great conquerors of history, Flavius Valerius Constantinus was also a bastard and a usurper. Beginning with his father, the neo-Flavians had a knack for the early, embarrassing sexual entanglements. ’s dad dropped his mother, Helena, like a rock when an opportunity arose to marry into an Imperial family — some question whether the initial alliance was ever formalized.

Diocletian was a clever man who was greatly concerned with the perpetuity of the . Civil wars tended to break out when the Imperial throne was in question, and invasion threats on one border were greatest when Imperial attention was on other borders. Big D’s big idea was to duplicate the entire executive office four times, and distribute them to the trouble spots of the Empire. These multiple, simultaneous executive agents would each rule different parts of the empire (and retiring before old age and madness), such that a decision maker could be within a few days ride from nearly anywhere.

Long gone were the days that the Imperial throne was passed from father to son. The Empire had become a military machine, and the military leaders became the Imperial leaders. Diocletian thus named his second-in-command to be ‘Caesar in the West’ to deal with the Goths while he remained to counter Persia in the East. This arrangement worked so well, that eight years later, each Caesar named themselves ‘Augustus’ and named their 1st lieutenants ‘Caesar’. Thus, Diocletian did name Galerius Caesar in the East, and correspondingly did Maximian name Constantius, Constantine’s dad, Caesar in the West.

After the retirement of Diocletian and Maximian, there was great surprise when Galerius failed to name Constantine as the new Caesar in the West. Consequently, he escaped from Galerius and returned to his father’s court. Constantine fought well and bravely, such that when his father died, his army declared that he was the new ‘Augustus’. He sent the announcement of his father’s death with a big portrait of himself in the purple to Galerius, who could do little to counter this initial usurpation.

After the Battle of Milvian Bridge, when Constantine took control of Rome, he had the Senate declare him Most August, without the consent of the other Caesars. Since he had twice usurped his powers, he probably felt little obligation to maintain the system that denied absolute control to him. He also had no compunction against utilizing the traditional enemies of Rome against his co-Caesars — conspiring with one Gothic tribe to provide the excuse for war against the previously allied Licinianus.

Constantine’s relationship with Christianity is remarkable. It’s not clear that he ever understood the theology of the various factions, but he certainly understood the politics. Pre-Roman Christianity was highly factionalized (with or without the notion that the term included Mithraism and Attis cults), and he clearly knew how to play the factions off one another. Most of the stories dealing with matters of theology show Constantine to be a garden-variety neo-Platonic sun worshiper. In dealing with Christian factions, he was a master of intrigue and manipulation. He didn’t care what his people worshiped, as long as his people were loyal to him.

The Milvian Bridge story is telling: no matter how you take the “vision of the cross” story, there is still the reference to putting the ‘holy symbol’ (which was probably the ‘chi-rho’, and not a modern, Roman Catholic cross) on the shields of the infantry men. The talismanic effect of this is played up in most tellings, but the significance for Constantine was that the sign bought loyalty from the Christians in the conflicting army.

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