Emperor Constantine I is often credited with converting the Roman
Empire to Christianity. In fact, though he ended the persecution of
Christians and eventually converted, some historians debate the
true nature of his faith.
His association with Christianity began with a fateful battle for
control of the Western Roman Empire. Constantine faced Western
Roman Emperor Maxentius at the Tiber River's Mulvian Bridge in A.D.
312. Fourth-century historian and bishop Eusebius of Caesarea
reported that before the great battle Constantine saw a flaming
cross in the sky bearing the words "in this sign thou shalt
conquer." Constantine did indeed conquer, routing and killing
his enemy on a day that loomed large not only for the emperor but
for the Christian faith.
The next year Constantine, now the Western Roman Emperor, and
Eastern Roman Emperor Licinius signed the Edict of Milan, which
finally ensured religious tolerance for Christians. The agreement
granted freedom of worship to all, regardless of deity, and brought
an end to the Age of Martyrs, which had begun after Jesus' death.
Christians were also given specific legal rights such as the return
of confiscated property and the right to organize dedicated
After unifying the Roman Empire under his rule in A.D. 324,
Constantine rebuilt his seat of his power in largely Christian
Byzantium, which was renamed Constantinople and today is Istanbul.
The growth of a Christian ruling class under Constantine ensured
the faith's increasing and enduring prominence through the Roman,
and later Byzantine, Empire.
Constantine convened and took part in the first meeting of
Christian churches, the Council of Nicea, held in 325 in what is
today Iznik, Turkey. He hoped to help church leaders find common
ground on some contentious aspects of Christian doctrine. Chief
among these issues was the relationship and relative divinity of
God the Son (Jesus) and God the Father. Arianism was popular during
this period. This Christian belief championed by Arius, a priest of
Alexandria, Egypt, held that Jesus, though the Son of God, was
inferior to God the Father. The Council of Nicea established the equality of Father and Son
and documented this in a creed, or universal statement of faith, to
which all but two attending bishops agreed. The dissenting bishops
were exiled, as was Arius himself. After this council, orthodox
Christians agreed on the critical point that Jesus and God were
equally divine and created of the same substance. The council also
condemned the practice of money lending by clerics and attempted,
unsuccessfully, to standardize the date of Easter.
Ancient Christian historians enthusiastically portrayed Constantine
as a pious Christian convert. In later years some scholars
suggested that the emperor simply used the faith to his
political advantage. The truth may lie somewhere in between,
but Constantine's importance to his adopted religion is beyond
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