Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene

The 1707th Anniversary of Constantine’s Accession

Yesterday marked the 1707th anniversary of Constantine’s accession to the purple in York. At the OUP blog, Michigan’s David Potter uses this as an entrée to discuss an exhibition on Constantine currently underway in the Colosseum in Rome:

July is a month of historic anniversaries. The Fourth of July and Bastille Day celebrate moments that have shaped the modern world. No less important is the 25th of July. This Thursday will mark the 1707th anniversary of Constantine’s accession to the throne of part of the Roman Empire (the part that included York in the UK). Within five years he would have taken over a good deal of the rest of the Roman world and converted to Christianity, setting in motion the transformation of the Roman Empire, and subsequently, Western Europe into Christian societies.

Although Constantine took the throne in York, Rome is the city where Constantine rules this summer. This past fall the Superintendenza speciali per bene di Archeologici di Rome began celebrating the 1700th anniversary of Constantine’s occupation of Rome and conversion to Christianity with a spectacular exhibition in the Colosseum: “Constantino 313 d.C”. The exhibition’s location couldn’t be better, nor could its content be more spectacular. Thousands of people who pass through every day can look out at the great arch celebrating Constantine’s victorious entry into the city. The exhibition puts on view an extraordinary range of unique objects enabling us to appreciate the complexity of the world in which Constantine lived, the remarkable nature of his career, and his relationship with the extraordinary woman who was his mother.

Though the Church would later claim preeminence over the civil power and still later eras would separate them, things did not begin this way, for Constantine was assertive and he was, well, the Roman emperor–and thus was the chief religious authority in his realm, the pontifex maximus. Neither councils nor popes operated except under his auspices. As A.H.M. Jones writes in the conclusion to his overview of the Donatist controversy in his classic Constantine and the Conversion of Europe,

[I]n the course of the struggle Constantine unawares achieved a victory over the Church. He claimed, and the Church admitted, his right as emperor to adjudicate ecclesiastical disputes, whether through councils of bishops, summoned at his behest, or in his own person. He claimed–and once again the Church raised no protest–to exile bishops, seize churches and prohibit religious meetings. The Church had acquired a protector, but it had also acquired a master. (p. 107)

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.