Hello, and welcome to the History of the Copts. Episode 10. Constantine.
You are not listening to the wrong podcast, and the intro hasn’t changed. Just The intro today is special, because.. Well, Constantine is special
The Coptic liturgical hymn I used for the intro is dedicated to Constantine to be sung on the Coptic feast of the cross. My friend, and amazing deacon, Mina Yacoub helped and recorded it.
It is translated as follow: through the prayers of my Lord King Constantine and his Mother Queen Helena: O lord, grant us the forgiveness of our sins
Now, this is significant. Not only Constantine is mentioned with the company of St. Mary, St. Anthony, and other traditional Coptic saints. He is there despite exiling Pope Athanasius from his seat in Alexandria.
And St. Athanasius for the Copts is their greatest Pope and their most beloved national hero. I used his picture as represented in modern Coptic art for the Podcast because he is probably the most known Coptic Historical figure.
In addition to his rocky relationship with the Coptic leadership, Constantine wasn’t above the usually brutal power plays of Roman emperors. He went as far as to kill his own son when he was deceived into seeing him as threat, and did I mention that he wasn’t baptized until the last few days of his life. Essentially on his death bed? So, technically, he was only officially a Christian for like a week
If you are thinking something is off here, well, remember. I did say Constantine is special.
For the record, I think Constantine belongs in the Coptic liturgy despite all his flaws. Once we understand his world and his achievements, it becomes clear that Constantine has changed the world and played a major role in the history of Christianity and therefore, the history of the Copts, and for that, he at least deserves our remembrance for 1 day of the year.
Last week, when Diocletian abdicated, Constantine was at his court. Officially, to receive his education and military training. Unofficially, he was also a hostage, to ensure the cooperation of his father, who was the junior emperor in the West
Constantine situation was tricky. Sure, he was a Ceasar oldest son. But his father has divorced Helena, Constantine’s mother and a lowly maid for a politically convenient marriage that produced other children. He was also based in the East with Diocletian, while his father was at the opposite end of the empire, in the west.
It became even trickier when Diocletian abdicated. Now, he was a contender to become a Cesar but in a hostile court, because Galerius naturally wanted his own men as Cesaers and eventually succeeded at his aim, but Constantine was never his man.
On the other hand, the situation couldn’t have been better for Galerius. He was the de-facto replacement for Diocletian with two loyal Caesars and a far-away co-augusti who Galerius had his oldest son as a hostage. Galerius would be crazy if gave away his leverage and let Constantine reunite with his father.
What happened next is Galerius gave away his leverage and let Constantine reunite with his father
Apparently, Galerius got really drunk one night and let Constantine go. Constantine got on a horse and never looked back until he reunited with his father. Legend has it that he broke the legs of every imperial horse he rode so when Galerius sobers up and wants to get him back, his agents wouldn’t be able to catch up to Constantine
Constantine and his father then went on Campaign in Britain where the troops that served under his father got to know Constantine and Constantine got to cultivate their loyalty
Which was perfect timing, because his father died less than a year from their reunion and immediately, the troops declared Constantine as an Augustus, and of course he accepted.
You see, Constantine was an ambitious man, throughout all his life, you can see the threads of power weaving his story. He respected Power, he aimed to consolidated it, and above all, he didn’t like to share it
Judge him all you want, but growing in the anarchy of the third century and later in Diocletian’s court, it was only natural for him to value Power above all else
He was smart and patient though, so he sent a diplomatically worded letter to Galerius informing him that he was declared a senior emperor by his troops, and he only accepted because of their pressures
Now, as you can imagine, Galerius was furious. For Power is finite, the more Constantine accumulates, the less Galerius has in his disposal. Luckily for Constantine, in between them lay another claimant to the throne who rose to power by the actions of the Senate in Rome.
In order to get to Constantine, Galerius had to control Rome first. So, he compromised with Constantine and gave him the title Cesar and concentrated his effort on reasserting control of Rome
With the title Cesar, Constantine gained legitimacy and for a time concentrated on good governance of his realm which was what is now Britain, France, and Spain and left Galerius and other members of the tetrarchy wasting men and resources fighting each other
Constantine by this point was a pagan, but had no interest in persecuting the Christians. So while Galerius and his Ceasar Daza were creating havoc in the East and Egypt. Constantine was securing his borders and building good-will with all his subjects, including Christians.
His favorite deity seemed to be Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. But that will change shortly.
By the time Constantine consolidated his rule, Galerius was dead and for the surviving members of the tetrarchy it became clear that war is coming and power sharing is no longer in style
Constantine knew the power of propaganda, so while the closest of the tetrarchs to him in Italy was raising taxes and enlarging his army, and naturally becoming a hated figure among the tax averse Italians. Constantine was engaging on a multi-level propaganda campaign to raise his profile as a benevolent emperor supported by the gods to overthrew the tyrant in Rome
He also married off his half-sister to one of the tetrarchs to form a political alliance and avoid a situation when he has to fight on multiple fronts
His opponent in Rome fired the first shot, and declared war on Constantine. Now, a brief overview of geography of Italy is due to appreciate the insanity of what happens next.
The Italian peninsula is an extremely difficult place to conquer militarily. Surrounded on three sides with water and on its fourth side, a formidable mountain range sits guarding its northern borders.
A conquering army would have to go through extremely difficult and easily defensible mountain passes, then somehow feed itself in a hostile territory filled with walled cities that can last long sieges.
And if all that is successful, then Rome sits in the middle of the Peninsula guarded by shiny and strong walls that can make the city last a long siege.
So, when Constantine told his advisers and pagan soothsayers that he will take a third of his army and go to free Rome from tyranny instead of taking a defensive position and waiting, they strongly advised against it. But, he went anyway
He was that kind of a person. It’s hard to figure out what was going on in his head but historians speculate that Constantine had an aura of invincibility around him, plus of course self-confidence and ambition that drowned the voice of logical reasoning by his advisers
Or maybe he was able to correctly predict that the Italians will welcome him as a savior not a conqueror and his decision was perfectly reasonable, who knows, either way
Constantine went through hostile territory vastly outnumbered and not knowing what to expect once he crosses the Alps into Italy
Predictably, the first town he came across closed its gates, but that was no problem for Constantine. He wasn’t planning any sieges, he was going all in. He ordered his troops to burn the gates and storm the walls and they surprisingly gotten a quick victory.
Important to our story, his troops were held back and there was no bloody massacre or looting. The restraining of soldiers, while not something new, was a difficult thing to accomplish and attests to Constantine’s charisma and ability to cultivate loyalty from his soldiers
To Constantine, framing the war as a war to save Rome and the Empire was far more important than any meager material riches
Convinced by Constantine propaganda, towns and cities in northern Italy opened their gates and the road to Rome was open.
Still though, Constantine was outnumbered 2:1 and Rome’s walls stood in the way
What happened next is an incredible tale that have change the history of the western world
According to Eusebius, a Christian bishop and a historian who lived during the events, while Constantine on his road to Rome, he looked at the sun and saw a unique sign, with the message, “with this sign, you shall conquer”
The message in the sky was followed by a dream at night, where Christ appeared to Constantine with the sign and told him to make the standard of the army in this sign
Another ancient historian, Lac-tan-tius, also tells a similar story, where Constantine dreams that he should mark the shields of his soldiers and the army standards with that sign
Now, in many of the modern telling of the story, the sign by which Constantine conquered is the cross, but it wasn’t the cross
The sign that Constantine adopted was the Greek letters Rho and Chi, which was the first two letter of the Greek spelling of the Khristos, I.E Christ. An obvious Christian symbol still, but not a Cross
I have posted a picture of Constantine’s Arch on the podcast Facebook page which still stands in Rome today with the Rho Chi symbol.
The situation inside Rome couldn’t have been more favorable to Constantine, where the crowds were turning against their ruler, and he realized that to sit behind the walls for a siege was a risky proposition, as he couldn’t count on his populace not to betray him.
So, he took his army and offered battle to Constantine outside the walls and beyond the Tiber river after building a temporary bridge that came to be known as the Milvian bridge
So, once the standards were raised, and the shields painted. Constantine fought outside Rome in the famous battle of the Milvian bridge outnumbered 2:1 and with Christians symbols for his standard
The battle was brief. Constantine army smashed through the lines and the opposing army had no place to go but to drown in the Tiber River and Constantine successfully added Italy to his domain
Now, at this point, you would think Constantine would be a fully committed Christian, but alas, he still had a long way to go
He was definitely impressed by the Power of the Christian God and as result when he entered Rome he skipped the traditional sacrifices at the temple of Jupiter
His victory arch that was commissioned on the occasion also displayed the Rho Chi symbol, but his coins, which was a major propaganda tool, still displayed pagan gods
One gets the image of Constantine as one who has found the most powerful God, but still afraid to offend the other gods. He didn’t get it yet, the concept of one God and no other gods was a radical idea for his time, and it needed a lot of time to settle in
Either way, as a token of appreciation to the Christian God, Constantine and friendly imperial Colleague Li-cinius met in Milan in 313 AD and signed the famous Edict of Milan which officially granted full tolerance to Christianity and all religions in the empire
During this meeting Li-cinius married Constantine half-sister and they cemented their alliance for now
Now, Li-cinius wasn’t really interested in Christianity and in time, will end up persecuting the Christians – But the Edict served as powerful political tool for him, as he was about to fight Daza for the East and Egypt and Daza was in the middle of an intense persecution of the Christians that took the life of Pope Peter in Egypt and countless others
Li-cinius was simply trying to undermine Daza and cast himself as the savior of the east, just like Constantine was the savior of the west
As we saw from the last episode, Licinius defeats Daza shortly after the edict and the great persecution started by Diocletian finally ends after 10 years of ebbs and flow
Now we have a somewhat stable situation. Constantine is in the west, Licinius is in the East, and The Copts have Pope Alexander as their head with a priest called Arius quickly gaining a large following in Alexandria after the end of the persecution and a young deacon called Athanasius rising quickly through the church hierarchy and becoming Pope Alexander’s secretary and protégé
But, as I mentioned before, Constantine wasn’t a big fan of sharing power, and so was Licinius. Within two years, they started trying to outmaneuver one another, culminating in full out civil war a decade after the Edict in 323 AD in which Constantine was victorious and became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire in September 324 AD.
A couple of notable things that happened during those 10 years. Constantine oldest son, Crispus was becoming an efficient and capable general but he was from a prior marriage with his mother either being deceased or divorced from Constantine
He will shortly play a part in one of the darkest chapters of Constantine rule
The second, is Constantine gradually got more involved in Church matters and his support for Christianity increased going as far as using the powers of civil government to quell a minor heresy in North Africa in 317 AD
By the time he took control of the whole empire in 324 AD, pagan gods disappeared from his coins, multiple bishops were at his court as advisers, and the Chi Rho symbol was everywhere.
By 325 AD, he would call for the Church Council of Nicea to settle the heresy of Arius and play an active role. Now, he was a Christian in all, but baptism.
Before going any further, since we are leaving Constantine for a little bit, I have to say that I intentionally left out a lot of details and names of Constantine’s rise to become an emperor. My goal is not to give an exhaustive history of Constantine, but to simply highlight the circumstances of his rise, slow conversion to Christianity, and the rise of the Christian empire, under which, the Copts started their theological golden age.
So, if you know his story in details, and disappointed that I left out Maximian and his son, Dicoletian’s post-retirement conference and all the fascinating power plays in between, at least now you know what I am trying to do.
The second important piece that I skimmed over, is the historical debate of whether Constantine really saw a sign in the sky, or dreamt it, or it was all made up later in his career as part of cultivating an image of an emperor chosen by God. For that, I am personally content with undisputed facts that Constantine had succeeded despite unfavorable odds, and that he used and stuck with Christian symbols from the Milvian bridge battle and onward. Whether divine intervention was at play or not is an interesting point to ponder, but beyond this podcast.
Now, let’s go back to Egypt and the brewing controversy of Arius that will engulf the empire for close to a 100 years
Arius was an Alexandrian priest from a Libyan origin, he was assigned to the most symbolically important church in Alexandria at the site of St. Mark martyrdom in Bucolia, just outside Alexandria
On top of that, he was an incredibly eloquent speaker and attracted a large following but he insisted on a problematic theological concept that was opposed by the Coptic Church hierarchy
Or at least some of them, as we saw last week, where Pope Achilles either have restored him to the church according to the Coptic sources or ordained him as a priest according to the non-Coptic sources
Either way, Pope Achilles dies within a year and he was followed by Pope Alexander in 312 AD, just before the Edict of Milan.
As soon as the persecution was over, Pope Alexander immediately goes on a campaign against Arius and his teachings
Without going too much into theology, Arius position was that in the trinity, the Son was created before time, and subordinate to the Father. The Son, a created being was able to attain his diving position only when the Father granted it to him
Pope Alexander position, which was later adopted by the universal church and formed the basis of Orthodoxy was that the Father and the Son are co-eternal, I.E without beginning or an end, and they are full and equal participants of the Godhead. In other words, the Son was not a created being, but a creator.
By 318 AD, Pope Alexander convened a local council of the Egyptians bishops, who discussed the matter and formulated a confession of Orthodoxy. Arius was asked to sign it and agree with its theology or face excommunication
Naturally, Arius refused to sign it and was excommunicated but Li-cinius was still in charge of Egypt, and unlike Constantine, he had no interest in using the civil government to stamp out perceived or real heresies, so Arius was free to travel throughout the East and garner support among its bishops
Very quickly, he was able to gain several bishops to his side including the influential bishop of Nicomedia who was part of Licinius and later Constantine’s court
Similar to the local council of Alexandria, two local councils assembled in Asia minor, I.E Turkey and Ceaserea in Palestine that supported Arius’ theology and called for his reinstatement in Alexandria
Encouraged by the support received, Arius decided to go back to Alexandria and set up a rival church
He also allied himself with the bishops ordained by mellitus who weren’t recognized by Pope Alexander, thereby directly threating the unity of the Copts under one church that was starting to represent the whole of Egypt
Now, things got messy. The Copts were out of the persecution and into internal divisions. And, the divisions went beyond the complicated theology. The conflict was extended to all classes of the society, from simple sailors in Alexandria, to the growing movement of monasticism.
Copts and Christians all over the empire were picking sides and the peace achieved by the Edict of Milan was quickly slipping
If only a good Christian emperor would intervene and put an end to the matter.
Next week, Constantine would try to put an end to the matter, but things will get even more complicated and St. Athanasius will make his first official appearance on the Podcast.
I am also planning to go through the theological and political climate of Alexandria exploring why a local theological conflict became an international crisis that threatened the peace of the newly minted Christian Empire. Without the right geopolitical conditions, Arius ideas could have died quickly and quietly. With that,
Farewell, and until next week.
The Early Coptic Papacy: The Egyptian Church and Its Leadership in Late Antiquity by" Stephen J. Davis
The History of the Patriarchs by" multiple
The Roman Empire from Severus to Constantine by" Pat Southern
Constantine and the Christian Empire by" Charles Odahl
Galerius and the Will of Diocletian by" Bill Leadbetter