When the Cross Bent the Sword of the Caesars

Jubilee of Constantine the Great and freedom of religion.

Scholars agree to designate February 27, 272 as the date of birth of Constantine the Great. In 2022, therefore, we celebrate a Jubilee of 1,750 years.

The Roman emperor is renowned for his conversion to Christianity and for granting freedom of religion. Some, however, claim that he even founded the Catholic Church. On hearing this, I recollect a scene of Napoleon’s life: exiled on the island of Saint Helena, flatterers often proposed him the idea of founding a new religion. Finally, already upset, he retorted: “Enough! Do you want me to be crucified too?” Establishing a religion is easy; dying on the Cross, not so…

Obviously, Constantine did not found Christianity – nor did he want to be crucified! -but historians can agree that thanks to him, the Church was finally able to sigh some relief after three centuries of sadistic persecutions.

Indeed, shortly after the death of the Crucified, the Roman Senate promulgated a fierce “non licet esse christianos” – “it is not lawful to be a Christian.” According to Tacitus, Nero set fire to Rome in 64 and blamed the Christians. Under Domitian, Christianity was considered an “illicit superstition.” Later, Decius decreed the public and universal worship of Roman gods under pain of death. In 257, Valerian ordered all churches to be closed and property confiscated. Under Diocletian, the imperial edict of 303 prohibited Christian meetings, deprived them of civil rights and destroyed their churches and sacred books.

On October 28, 312, however, the pages of history were marked forever by a dramatic turn of events. According to Lactantius, before the battle of the Milvian bridge against Maxentius, considered a usurper, Constantine had a dream: Jesus told him to mark the shields of his army with a Christogram. According to Eusebius, during the battle, the Emperor saw a cross in the sky with the motto: “In this sign thou shalt conquer.” In the end, the Cross of Christ bent the sword of the Caesars.

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The following year, the so-called “Edict of Milan” gave “Christians and everyone the freedom and the possibility of following the religion of their choice.” It also granted unrestricted freedom of worship, prompt restitution of confiscated property and temples, and support for the Christian community.

Although Constantine still retained links with paganism, his decisions laid the first foundations of Christian civilization and a period of relative peace. The promise of the true founder of Christianity to the first pope was finally fulfilled, as in many other historical stages: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18).

In conclusion, another episode in Napoleon’s life may present an analogy to Constantine and his predecessors on the throne. It is said that once, the Emperor of the French – called by some the “Corsican Nero,” by others “the god Mars” – attended a military parade in his honour. In the end, he exclaimed: “Such power!” Faced with the scene, the wheedling Talleyrand did not hesitate to shoot back: “One can do anything with a bayonet, except sitting on it.”

In other words: it is easy to conquer and oppress with the sword; it is challenging to keep it sharp for a long time. The Caesars imagined that they could sit on thrones forever while armed to the teeth. While Jesus rightly warned: “Those who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt 26:52).

It is challenging to carry the Cross. And yet, as the motto of the Carthusians proclaims, ‘The cross stands while the world turns…’

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By Father Felipe de Azevedo Ramos, EP – Doctorate in Philosophy by the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) Rome, Italy.

Published in O Tempo, February 26, 2021, p. 22, year 25, n. 9205.

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