Constantine’s Conversion Again

Photo Marco Prins

Constantine

One of the responses to my initial posting on Constantine’s conversion contained this remark:

Though I see Constantine’s conversion as a total fake (I think he did not believe anything really and was an opportunist)…

This is a good point, that deserves a reply at some length. Constantine was pragmatic, certainly, but precisely because of that, I think that the vision – whatever it may have been – was real.

I am trying to imagine how I would respond to a politician who claims to have seen the light. I am not talking now about born-again American presidents like Jimmy Carter, but about someone who really claims to be on a mission from God. I think that I would, if I were in a bad mood, not trust him, and would, if I were in a good mood, recommend him to consult a psychiatrist.

My distrust, I think, is pretty common. Leaders who claimed to have experienced some kind of revelation, were nearly always subject to ridicule: Alexander‘s soldiers did not believe he was the son of Ammon, Jesus dryly commented that “a prophet is not honored at home”, and Muhamad had to leave Mecca. Joan of Arc was subject to ridicule first, and the French king refused to help her later, when the English had taken her captive. Polybius seems to shield Scipio Africanus from criticism by stating that the Roman general did not really believe in the mystical powers others attributed to him.

Pretending to have a divine revelation is just not smart for a politician. People like Joan of Arc, Muhamad, and Jesus really must have experienced something, and I think Constantine must indeed have seen a vision (as mentioned as early in 309/310 by the Panegyricist). It must have confused him profoundly, first interpreting it as a sign from the sun god, later reinterpreting it as a sign from Christ. Personally, I find the idea very attractive that the Roman emperor, the most powerful man on earth, felt himself led by Something Bigger Than Himself, but never quite never understood what that might have been.

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4 Responses to Constantine’s Conversion Again

  1. soloncircus says:

    Jona,

    My opinion on this subject, respectfully, is working in the opposite direction. Constantine chose the avante garde religion. This was such a break with the established religion at the time that it does not seem a safe and calculated political risk, leaving another possible bold and brash reason perhaps more likely: sincerity. (Not that there are only two possiblities. Maybe he lost a bet.)

    It was only after Constantine that Christianity became the status quo, and the safe choice for cynical politicians. Could he have been such a genius visionary that he knew he could turn off millennia of paganism like turning off a tap, as we now see it in our superficial modern misconception of the spontaneous metamorphosis from ancient Rome to medieval Europe?

    Alexander, Scipio Africanus, Joan of Arc etc. seem to embrace the established religion of their times. Mohammed and Jesus, of course, were ultra avant garde, but they were not politicians.

    It was not considered a calculated political opportunity for Kennedy to be a Catholic in order to become U.S. President. Otherwise he would have worn a cross, as Constantine did during the time when it perhaps was more of a novel concept in the 4th century to be Christian than for a U.S. president to be Catholic. I tend to think it more likely that for Constantine publicly to “go Christian” was more of a political liability than if Obama had decided to “go Muslim.”

    Clinton Burks

  2. I notice that no one even mentions Helen, purported Saint and mother of Constantine. Not being a scholar of this period, I pose no opinion, but I do wonder if one ought not remember that mothers tend to influence their “boys” one way or the other. If SHE were an earlier devotee and convert, she might well have been arguing certain interpretations and actions over the dinner table as it were. Any thoughts?

  3. The sources about Helen are quite late, that’s the problem.

  4. jfjoyner3 says:

    The comments above seem to be based on modern attitudes about Constantine without considering Constantine’s time and place.

    In one of his popular books, Robin Lane Fox has offered a helpful evaluation of Constantine’s sincerity. If I recall it correctly from reading it years ago: Fox claims Constantine’s dedicatory speech to the Anastasia Church (Jerusalem) was composed in Greek, by him, and not in Latin then translated into Greek. His point, if I remember correctly, is that Constantine wrote it himself, in Greek, and the lecture (sermon?) can be perceived as an expression of Constantine’s genuine faith. To Fox, the conversion is irrelevant.

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