By Pamela Sharp
Master’s thesis: University of New Mexico, 2010
Abstract: Focusing on Late Antiquity and in particular the fourth century AD, the question of Emperor Constantine’s policy of religious tolerance is examined. Constantine and his times and issues introduce the theme. The sincerity of Constantine’s Christian belief and his relationship to the Church set the background of the debate, along with a look at three influences upon him, Eusebius of Caesarea, Ossius of Cordova, and Lactantius. Examining the atmosphere or climate gives added criteria for determining Constantine’s religious policy. Lactantian views are investigated more fully for his influence on Constantine. Other problems looked at are the controversy over the Edict of Milan, the question of Eusebius’ reliability and whether or not Constantine issued a ban on sacrifice. After exploring these issues, it is concluded that Constantine did maintain a policy of religious tolerance.
Introduction: Late antiquity, that middle ground between the classical and medieval worlds, yields not only the first Christian emperor, Constantine, but most importantly a crucial concept of religious toleration. Narrowing our focus to the fourth century, we can see the emergence of religious tolerance as a key issue. As the sides changed in the fourth century, from Roman persecution of the Christians to Christian harassment of the pagans, the debate remained.
We will follow Constantine as he grows in his Christian faith but also establishes as policy the concept of religious tolerance. The issue arises: Did Constantine really maintain a policy of religious toleration? After exploring Constantine‘s sincerity of faith, influences upon him and questions concerning his policy, we will conclude whether or not he maintained a policy of tolerance.
Chapter One addresses the chaotic world of the third century. When Emperor Diocletian came into power, he carried out reforms in the military administration, economics (especially to deal with the problem of inflation) and religion. He established a Tetrarchy, a four-way sharing of power, to stop the prevailing anarchy and civil wars. Diocletian stabilized the frontiers and brought peace to the empire.
Constantine, after Diocletian‘s abdication, became emperor. The world changed with Constantine becoming the first Christian emperor. Matters examined here include the sincerity of his Christian faith. This question has been an issue with some scholars, especially Jacob Burckhardt, earlier in the nineteenth century, who considered Constantine to have chosen the Christian faith for reasons of political advantage. The question of Constantine‘s sincerity will be looked at in some depth. The role of pontifex maximus retained by Constantine and the idea of maintaining the pax deorum (peace of the gods) influenced how Constantine related to the Church. Misunderstanding of Constantine‘s concept of this role leads some scholars to misinterpret Constantine‘s motives and actions.