The Romans threw Christians to the lions; then Constantine I converted to Christianity and everything was fine. Right? Of course it was far more complicated than that, as Simon Turney and Gordon Doherty show in Sons of Rome, their new novel which follows the rise of Constantine and his rival Maxentius. They tell Historia about religion and politics in the Roman world of the late third century.
Constantine the Great emerged from rather humble beginnings, born in AD 272 in the imperial backwater of Naissus, Illyricum. The fractious and ultimately doomed relationship between his Christian mother and Mars-worshipping father somewhat foreshadowed the world he would go on to dominate.
At the time of his birth, the Roman Empire had outgrown the more comfortable early centuries of pagan concordia. During Constantine’s lifetime, he rose to claim the role of emperor and oversaw monumental changes in the shape and system of empire; none greater than the sharp swing away from the pagan pantheon towards Christianity.
However, when he died in AD 337, the empire was still far from a harmonious Christian realm; indeed, Christianity still wasn’t even the official religion of the empire and wouldn’t be for another forty or so years.
Regardless, his reign saw an enormous change of direction for the Roman Empire and for the world as a whole. What was the motivation for such fundamental shift?
Roman emperors had been accepting of almost all religions from the outset, for Rome was, in those terms, an inclusive world. Against the druids, the empire took a scorched earth policy, but for purely political reasons. But when they came to Jews and Christians, there was a hopeless stumbling block. The Abrahamic religions had in their very tenets that there was only one god. This refuted all possibility of imperial divinity, and therefore those religions were fundamentally at odds with the ethos of the empire.
Christians were already mistrusted when Nero used them as candles. By the time of Vespasian, Jews and Christians alike were worrying the empire so much that he had his legions demolish most of Jerusalem. Successive emperors tried to crush the Christian church, yet every attempt seemed to simply boost their numbers. By the late third century the Christians were a large and influential sect, and yet were still deniers of imperial divinity, and so they were becoming the focus of ever more horrific and violent imperial reprisals – mainly in the eastern half of the empire.
Burnings and beheadings became the norm, and many emperors engaged on campaigns of annihilation, not least Diocletian, who ruled during Constantine’s youth, and who personally oversaw one of the most extensive and sustained Christian persecutions in Roman history. This provoked deep unrest and riots between sympathisers on both sides rippled across the eastern half of the empire like wildfire.
The Roman world was ripe for change. The Christians were rising to become a factor in imperial politics, and the emperors were becoming all too mortal. Soon the rulers of Rome would have to accept that Christianity either had to be exterminated completely… or accommodated.
During his early and well-travelled military career and gradual progression into the eastern imperial court, Constantine saw all of this turmoil first hand and must have understood the dilemma better than we as historians will ever be able to. Equally, his soon-to-be rival for the imperial throne, Maxentius, must also have had a rich understanding of the situation and a particularly nuanced one given that he spent a great deal of his life in the Imperial capitals, both East and West.
It is tempting to look at how each man handled the situation with the assumption that – being rivals – they must also be polar opposites on the religious front. Indeed, later Christian writers often paint a picture of Constantine the saint and Maxentius the pagan tyrant. In fact this is far from the truth, which comes in various shades of grey.
Constantine was progressive and shrewd in his approach. It began when he claimed the title of Augustus of the Western Roman Empire. Having seen the chaos of the persecutions, he wisely chose to maintain and double-down on the existing western policy of ignoring the hot-blooded edicts emanating from Diocletian’s East.
The persecutions were never practiced in Constantine’s realm and, unsurprisingly, this made for a rather stable region. Yet there was no notion of his western dominion being a ‘Christian’ land, far from it. Open worship was the norm, and this undoubtedly helped when he had to muster his armies for the wars that would win him the empire entire.
In what is probably his most famous battle – versus Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge, outside Rome – his legions were almost certainly comprised of soldiers of many faiths, empowered and unified by their right to this freedom of worship. Indeed, soon after that battle he issued an edict, installing this right into the constitution of his portion of the empire.
“No man whatever should be refused complete toleration, who has given up his mind either to the cult of the Christians, or to the religion which he personally feels best suited to”. Lactantius, The Edict of Milan.
Though Maxentius has come down to us as the villain of this religious epic, compared with St Constantine, we must remember that we are viewing the man though the eyes of those who owed their strength and continued security to his enemy. The written accounts of Maxentius are naturally biased and must therefore be treated with care.
Our main sources for Maxentius (Lactantius, Zosimus and Eusebius) are uniformly scathing of him, and yet none of them accuse him of persecution or wickedness aimed specifically at Christians. Indeed, in Eusebius, when compared with Daia in the East, he comes off as the lesser evil by far.
One enduring story of Maxentius comes from the Hagiography of St Catherine of Alexandria, supposedly a princess and/or daughter of the Roman governor, who, as a Christian, visits Maxentius. She engages in religious debate with every learned mind Maxentius can pit against her, and destroys every argument of theirs until Maxentius, in a fit of pique, has her killed. This legend has been largely debunked by historians.
Confirmable history and archaeology tell a different story, one of a traditional Roman with old-fashioned attitudes and yet with a seemingly open mind to the Christians in his realm – centred on the city of Rome. Despite the stories of his detractors, there remains no shred of evidence that Maxentius pitted himself against the Christians, just that he followed a traditional example of Roman emperorhood.
Indeed, Church history tells us that Rome’s previous pope had died in 304 and during the time of persecution there had been no successor, yet in 308, in Maxentius’s second year of power, he allowed Marcellus to succeed as the next pope. He even went so far as to exile Marcellus less than a year later and replace him for indiscretions ill-fitting of his role. This does not sit well with the image of a man who despises Christians.
In truth, Rome being home to a huge Christian community and the heart of their Church, Maxentius likely knew that their settlement was an important factor in keeping Rome peaceful. Though there are no hints that Maxentius favoured Christianity, he likely saw the value of keeping them on side.
When you rule a city and the world is out to get you, every able body in that city is worthwhile, after all. Maxentius must have dealt with the religious issues of the world with a prosaic approach, which is what the evidence suggests outside the world of vilifying biographers.
We will never know the truth of what lay within Maxentius’s thoughts during his reign, sadly, and what might have been. What can be said is that whatever his motives, Maxentius played his own role in the religious transformation of the Western Empire, and perhaps spurred some of it on in spite of, or even through, his opponent.
Saints or demons or just practical rulers, the world would never be the same, for the reigns and conflict of Constantine and Maxentius gave birth to a new world.
With a background in ancient history and a love of the Roman world in particular, Simon Turney has spent decades studying the late Republic and the Empire as far as the days of Byzantium. Re-enacting with Principate era Roman legionaries and travelling the world in search of Roman sites has fuelled a fascination that has led to a large array of works, from the days of Julius Caesar to the fall of Constantinople.
Simon’s Historia feature The Templars and the reconquest of Spain looks at the world of the early 13th-century Templar order from an unusual angle. His The Women of the Knights Templar explores just what it says in the title and is one of Historia’s more popular features.
Gordon Doherty is a Scottish writer whose love of history was first kindled by visits to the misty Roman ruins of Britain and the sun-baked antiquities of Turkey and Greece. His expeditions since have taken him all over the world and back and forth through time, allowing him to write tales of the later Roman Empire, Byzantium, Classical Greece and even the distant Bronze Age.
The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer by Jean-Léon Gérôme, Walters Art Museum: via Wikimedia
Bust of Constantine, photo by mharrsch: via CC Search
Temple of Venus and Rome: by Simon Turney
Battle of the Milvian Bridge by Giulio Romano (1520-24), photo by Nick in exsilio: via CC Search
Ikon of St Catherine of Alexandria, St Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai, Egypt (13th century): via Wikimedia
Bust of Maxentius, Pushkin Museum: via Wikimedia