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CONSTANTINE THE GREAT.
Constantine entered Rome as a Christian, and from his time forward
Christianity prevailed. He reigned only over the West at first, but
Licinius overthrew Daza, treating him and his family with great
barbarity, and then Constantine, becoming alarmed at his power, marched
against him, beat him in Thrace, and ten years later made another attack
on him. In the battle of Adrianople, Licinius was defeated, and soon
after made prisoner and put to death. Thus, in 323, Constantine became
the only Emperor.
He was a Christian in faith, though not as yet baptized. He did not
destroy heathen temples nor forbid heathen rites, but he did everything
to favor the Christians and make Christian laws. Churches were rebuilt
and ornamented; Sunday was kept as the day of the Lord, and on it no
business might be transacted except the setting free of a slave;
soldiers might go to church, and all that had made it difficult and
dangerous to confess the faith was taken away. Constantine longed to see
his whole empire Christian; but at Rome, heathen ceremonies were so
bound up with every action of the state or of a man's life that it was
very hard for the Emperor to avoid them, and he therefore spent as
little time as he could there, but was generally at the newer cities of
Arles and Trier; and at last he decided on founding a fresh capital, to
be a Christian city from the first.
The place he chose was the shore of the Bosphorus, where Asia and Europe
are only divided by that narrow channel, and where the old Greek city of
Byzantium already stood. From hence he hoped to be able to rule the East
and the West. He enlarged the city with splendid buildings, made a
palace there for himself, and called it after his own name—Constantinople,
or New Rome, neither of which names has it ever lost. He carried many of
the ornaments of Old Rome thither, but consecrated them as far as
possible, and he surrounded himself with Bishops and clergy. His mother
Helena made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to visit the spots where our
blessed Lord lived and died, and to clear them from profanation. The
churches she built over the Holy Sepulchre and the Cave of the nativity
at Bethlehem have been kept up even to this day.
There was now no danger in being a Christian, and thus worldly and even
wicked men and women owned themselves as belonging to the Church. So
much evil prevailed that many good men fled from the sight of it,
thinking to do more good by praying in lonely places free from
temptation than by living in the midst of it. These were called hermits,
and the first and most noted of them was St. Anthony. The Thebaid, or
hilly country above Thebes in Egypt, was full of these hermits. When
they banded together in brotherhoods they were called monks, and the
women who did the like were called nuns.
At this time there arose in Egypt a priest named Arius, who fell away
from the true faith respecting our blessed Lord, and taught that he was
not from the beginning, and was not equal with God the Father. The
Patriarch of Alexandria tried to silence him, but he led away an immense
number of followers, who did not like to stretch their souls to confess
that Jesus Christ is God. At last Constantine resolved to call together
a council of the Bishops and the wisest priests of the whole Church, to
declare what was the truth that had been always held from the beginning.
The place he appointed for the meeting was Nicea, in Asia Minor, and he
paid for the journeys of all the Bishops, three hundred and eighteen in
number, who came from all parts of the empire, east and west, so as to
form the first Oecumenical or General Council of the Church. Many of
them still bore the marks of the persecutions they had borne in
Diocletian's time: some had been blinded, or had their ears cut off;
some had marks worn on their arms by chains, or were bowed by hard labor
in the mines. The Emperor, in purple and gold, took a seat in the
council as the prince, but only as a layman and not yet baptized; and
the person who used the most powerful arguments was a young deacon of
Alexandria named Athanasius. Almost every Bishop declared that the
doctrine of Arius was contrary to what the Church had held from the
first, and the confession of faith was drawn up which we call the Nicene
Creed. Three hundred Bishops at once set their seals to it, and of those
who at first refused all but two were won over, and these were banished.
It was then that the faith of the Church began to be called Catholic or
universal, and orthodox or straight teaching; while those who attacked
it were called heretics, and their doctrine heresy, from a Greek word
meaning to choose.
COUNCIL OF NICEA.
The troubles were not at an end with the Council and Creed of Nicea.
Arius had pretended to submit, but he went on with his false teaching,
and the courtly Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, who had the ear of the
Emperor, protected him. Athanasius had been made Patriarch, or
Father-Bishop, of Alexandria, and with all his might argued against the
false doctrine, and cut off those who followed it from the Church. But
Eusebius so talked that Constantine fancied quiet was better than truth,
and sent orders to Athanasius that no one was to be shut out. This the
Patriarch could not obey, and the Emperor therefore banished him to
Gaul. Arius then went to Constantinople to ask the Emperor to insist on
his being received back to communion. He declared that he believed that
which he held in his hand, showing the Creed of Nicea, but keeping
hidden under it a statement of his own heresy.
"Go," said Constantine; "if your faith agree with your oath, you are
blameless; if not, God be your judge;" and he commanded that Arius
should be received to communion the next day, which was Sunday. But on
his way to church, among a great number of his friends, Arius was struck
with sudden illness, and died in a few minutes. The Emperor, as well as
the Catholics, took this as a clear token of the hand of God, and
Constantine was cured of any leaning to the Arians, though he still
believed the men who called Athanasius factious and troublesome, and
therefore would not recall him from exile.
The great grief of Constantine's life was, that he put his eldest son
Crispus to death on a wicked accusation of his stepmother Fausta. On
learning the truth, he caused a silver statue to be raised, bearing the
inscription, "My son, whom I unjustly condemned;" and when other crimes
of Fausta came to light, he caused her to be suffocated.
Baptism was often in those days put off to the end of life, that there
might be no more sin after it, and Constantine was not baptized till his
last illness had begun, when he was sixty-four years old, and he sent
for Sylvester, Pope or Bishop of Rome, where he then was, and received
from him baptism, absolution, and Holy Communion. After this,
Constantine never put on purple robes again, but wore white till the day
of his death in 337.