Constantine’s Conversion

Vision of the Cross by Raphael | Courtesy of vaticanpage.com

There are many different opinions surrounding the conversion of Constantine the Great, the Roman emperor known for reuniting the divided Rome after taking power as the sole emperor of the Roman empire.1 His conversion is said to have taken place sometime after his victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 CE, after which he issued the Edict of Milan, allowing Christians in the Roman Empire to openly practice their faith.2 Proving when and whether Emperor Constantine ever converted to Christianity has been a subject for scholarly debate. There are many scholars who present arguments both in favor of and in opposition to the conversion of Constantine. Among these scholars are Edward Gibbon and Thomas G. Elliott. The arguments presented by each of these scholars is unique and convincing in its own way. Gibbon argues that Constantine did convert, while Thomas G. Elliott argues that he did not.3

Head Bust of Roman Emperor Constantine I | Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Head Bust of Roman Emperor Constantine I | Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

While both arguments have their merits, Gibbon’s argument is the stronger of the two. I argue that his argument is stronger because it acknowledges the fact that, while the conversion may have had various motives, it still amounted to a conversion. It is possible for Constantine to have converted to Christianity, especially because of the account of his experiences during the Battle of Milvian Bridge; but I also understand that he may have made his decision to convert as an emperor—or even as a commander in war—rather than as a matter of individual faith. Gibbon’s argument is backed by solid evidence for this sentiment, and because of the evidence he presents, I find his claim more convincing.

Edward Gibbon, a supporter of Constantine’s conversion, authored a six-volume series titled The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in which he analyzes and dissects important events in Rome’s long history. In Volume 2, Gibbon addresses the issue of Constantine’s conversion, and he introduces an interesting perspective about it. To begin his argument, Gibbon notes that Constantine was put in a special position because “the elevation of Constantius to the supreme and independent dignity of Augustus, gave a free scope to the exercise of his virtues” and that Constantius’ ability to establish toleration during his reign gave way for Constantine to “[declare] himself the protector of the church, [and be deserving of] the appellation of the first emperor who publicly professed and established the Christian religion.”4 Gibbon goes on to say that Constantine most likely had motives surrounding his conversion, and says “that every victory of Constantine was productive of some relief or benefit to the church.”5 That quote makes it evident that Gibbon’s argument is as follows: yes, Constantine did convert to Christianity, but he did so as a political move, not as an act of faith.

Gibbon explains that one problem surrounding the question of Constantine’s conversion is the fact that no date for his conversion can be identified, and he qualifies this statement with proof that the writings of several historians including Lactantius, Eusebius, and Zosimus contradict each other by providing different timelines for the conversion.6 Gibbon goes on to point out that as a child, Constantine witnessed the cruelties inflicted on Romans—in both the East and West empires—for expressing their religion, and says that as a result, once Constantine was emperor he “immediately suspended or repealed the edicts of persecution, and granted the free exercise of their religious ceremonies to all those who had already professed themselves members of the church.”7 From this ruling to allow the free expression of faith, the people who lived under Constantine were given reason “to depend on the favor as well as on the justice of their sovereign, who had imbibed a secret and sincere reverence for the name of Christ, and for the God of the Christians.”8 Gibbon is claiming that the fundamental purpose surrounding Constantine’s conversion was politics and power, not personal conviction or divine calling. Gibbon makes it clear that in Constantine’s decision to issue the Edict of Milan and claim his own conversion, he was gaining the trust of the nation he ruled, and was therefore motivated by the chance to not only be an able emperor, but a trusted, loved, and respected one.

In opposition to Constantine’s conversion, author Thomas G. Elliott presents quite an interesting interpretation of the event, and whether or not it really even occurred. Elliott begins his article by noting that, although some believe Constantine became a Christian convert after 312, evidence exists that he was a pagan before 312.9 This introduction already raises questions in the reader’s mind as to whether or not the conversion could have been real, considering that he may have been a pagan for an extended period of time before his sudden conversion. Elliott brings about another controversial idea concerning Constantine’s faith when he mentions that while delivering a panegyric (propaganda speech) in 310, Constantine told his audience that he had “made lavish gifts to a temple of Apollo in Gaul, that in the temple he saw God himself present…[Elliott adds that] scholars had interpreted this to mean that Constantine had professed some sort of Apolline faith…[this being] the strongest indication that Constantine was pagan.”10 Already in these claims, Elliott raises the question of how credible the story of Constantine’s conversion is. But he does not stop there; he goes on to say that “Constantine tailored his statements according to the religion of his audience,” and he gives the example that in 324 Constantine sent two different version of the same letter to the church and to the general public, so as to please both groups.11 In noting this example, Elliott also makes the point that “Constantinian propaganda statements…tells against the view that this material is reliable evidence of the emperor’s personal religious beliefs.”12 Overall, the argument that Elliott makes is based on the fact that any religious professions made by Constantine were simply political propaganda used to turn the people in his favor, and that he did not convert to Christianity.

In my opinion, Edward Gibbon’s argument is more convincing, and I agree with his more than with that of Thomas Elliott. I argue that Constantine did convert to become a Christian, and the evidence that Gibbon provides gives me sufficient reason to assert Constantine’s conversion; it has also given me more insight as to when and why the conversion happened. Gibbon brings up great points in acknowledging that Christianity was probably prevalent in Constantine’s life since his childhood, that each of his victories in war was in some way beneficial to the church, and that his acceptance of the Christian faith helped him in his position of power to win over the trust of the Roman people. All of these arguments make plausible Constantine’s conversion as well as the reason for the conversion: political persuasion and power. Gibbon’s argument provides evidence that support the idea of Constantine converting for the sake of his reign as emperor, and therefore have convinced me to find substance in his argument and agree with his stance.

  1.  Jerry H. Bentley, Herbert F. Ziegler, and Heather E. Streets-Salter, Traditons & Encounters: A Brief Global History From the Beginning to 1500, Fourth, vol. 1 (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2016), 170-171.
  2.  Jerry H. Bentley, Herbert F. Ziegler, and Heather E. Streets-Salter, Traditons & Encounters: A Brief Global History From the Beginning to 1500, 170-171.
  3.  Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 2, 6 vols. (Penguin Classics; Reprint edition, 1996), 126, 427-428, 433-434; Thomas G. Elliott, “The Language of Constantine’s Propaganda,” Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-) 120, 349-351.
  4. Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 126.
  5. Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 126.
  6. Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 427-428.
  7. Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 433.
  8. Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 434.
  9.  Elliott, “The Language of Constantine’s Propaganda,” 349.
  10.  Elliott, “The Language of Constantine’s Propaganda,” 349.
  11.  Elliott, “The Language of Constantine’s Propaganda,” 50.
  12.  Elliott, “The Language of Constantine’s Propaganda.”, 351.
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28 Comments

  • I feel like it is hard to argue one side of his conversion. It is evident that he did convert and that at some level he bought into it. The real question is when he started to buy in. Is it when he claimed that he saw a vision from God or did he claim this just to gain the support of the Christians and he started to buy into it only after. I think it is hard to know either way for sure but their or certainly arguments for both.

  • Now I understand the reason why Catholicism originated from the Roman Empire. Constantine had almost the same encounter with God like Paul did. The interesting thing is that they both converted to Christianity and tried to share their faith to other people. Although there are arguments on why Constantine converted the Roman Empire to Christianity, it is difficult to know the truth about this.

  • Very well written and concise article. I had a clear perspective of two sides of the situation and could actually see where both sides were coming from. I, myself, believe that Constantine converted due to political advantage only. There doesn’t seem to be any reason as to why he would do it elsewhere and he has made no other claims of helping the christians in any way other than the edict of milan.

  • It is interesting reading Edward Gibbon and Thomas G. Elliott’s hypotheses about Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. Gibbon’s argument presents that Constantine converted despite the differing motives he had for doing so. Elliott believes there was never a conversion and Constantine simply played varying roles to different crowds depending on the majoritie’s religion. After reading this article, I believe the conversion was a political move at best so Constantine would be favored among his people.

  • Nice article. I knew that at some point Constantine converted to Christianity, but I did not know that his conversion was so hotly contested. It totally makes sense that he converted to Christianity for political reasons. It would have made him seem more legitimate to his Christian subjects. Because Christianity was becoming so popular this move certainly did make sense.

  • Though there is evidence for both sides I’m still indecisive on whether Constantine converted. Even if he did convert would he be an actual Christian- obeying the rules of Christianity and believing in one God? Even in my Latin class I was told he wasn’t necessarily Christian and remained a pagan for the majority of his life. Whatever the case is, it is clear that there are some pieces of the puzzle we just don’t have.

  • I agree with the author of the article that Gibbon’s argument is much more convincing for the fact that, despite what conflicting sources say, Constantine was involved in the Church’s affairs. After all, no one disputes his presence at the first Council of Nicea which was one the Catholic Church’s major council against the Arian heresy. Through my own personal reading on the matter one source I have read from says that Constantine converted on his death bed. It is up to the leading scholars and historians on the matter to shed the light of truth on the matter. Great article!

  • This article was very well organized and I enjoyed reading both arguments. Personally, I believe he believed in something, but I can’t say if I agree if he saw the Christian God or a pagan God. I understand that he converted, but the conflicting timelines struck me. An event as big as a pagan emperor changing religions is a very big event and to be so wishy washy is a red flag for me. I believe it was more of a political move to help unify his people rather than a personal thing.

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