The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 3

Author: Johann Lorenz von Mosheim  | Date: A.D. 300-337

Conversion of Constantine;
Decline of Paganism

A.D. 300-337


A new epoch in the history of the Roman Empire began with the accession of Diocletian to the throne in A.D. 284. From that time the old names of consul, tribune, etc., belonging to the republic lost their significance, and even the senate was practically abolished. Thenceforth the empire became an oriental sovereignty. In the year 292, having previously associated with himself one colleague, Maximianus Herculius, Diocletian created two Caesars: the one, Galerius Maximianus, to act as his subordinate in the East; the other, Constantius Chlorus, to divide the government of the western provinces with Maximianus Herculius. Each of these emperors ruled with vigor in his own territory, defending the frontiers of the empire and also suppressing such revolts as broke out within its borders.

But these transformations in the empire were preparing the way for events of unprecedented nature and importance, and for the rise of an emperor destined to play a part in the history of the world quite different from that performed by any of his predecessors. This was Constantine, in whose character, throughout his life, opposing elements seemed to contend for mastery, as was shown in his treatment of the perplexing questions that arose during his reign concerning Christianity, which was persecuted under Diocletian and the old Roman religion. Of his statesmanship and his further transformation of the empire, in ways which Diocletian could not have foreseen, history has made an impressive record.

But the great events of his reign, which caused it to be regarded as the inauguration of a new era, were his conversion to Christianity and the acts whereby he secured its toleration and then its supremacy in the empire. In the account which follows it is clearly shown by what steps these results were attained, and how the work of Constantine the Great became the chief agency by which Christianity mounted the throne of the Caesars.

In the beginning of the fourth century the Roman Empire had four sovereigns, of whom two were superior to the others and bore the title of Augustus, namely, Diocletian and Maximianus Herculius; the two inferior sovereigns, who bore the title of Caesars, were Constantius Chlorus and Galerius Maximianus. Under these four emperors the state of the Church was peaceful and happy. Diocletian, though superstitious, indulged no hatred toward the Christians. Constantius Chlorus, following only the dictates of reason in matters of religion, was averse to the popular idolatry, and friendly to the Christians. The pagan priests, therefore, from well-grounded fears lest Christianity, to their great and lasting injury, should spread far and wide its triumphs, endeavored to excite Diocletian, whom they knew to be both timid and credulous, by means of feigned oracles and other impositions, to engage in persecuting the Christians.

These artifices not succeeding very well, they made use of the other emperor, Galerius Maximianus, who was son-in-law to Diocletian, in order to effect their purpose. This Emperor, who was of a ferocious character and ill-informed in everything except the military art, continued to work upon his father-in-law, being urged on partly by his own inclination, partly by the instigation of his mother, a most superstitious woman, and partly by that of the pagan priests, till at last, when Diocletian was at Nicomedia, in the year 303, he obtained from him an edict by which the temples of the Christians were to be demolished, their sacred books committed to the flames, and themselves deprived of all their civil rights and honors. This first edict spared the lives of the Christians; for Diocletian was averse from slaughter and bloodshed. Yet it caused many Christians to be put to death, particularly those who refused to deliver up their sacred books to the magistrates. Seeing this operation of the law, many Christians, and several even of the bishops and clergy, in order to save their lives, voluntarily surrendered the sacred books in their possession. But they were regarded by their more resolute brethren as guilty of sacrilege.

Not long after the publication of this first edict, there were two conflagrations in the palace of Nicomedia; and the enemies of the Christians persuaded Diocletian to believe that Christian hands had kindled them. He therefore ordered many Christians of Nicomedia to be put to the torture and to undergo the penalties due to incendiaries. Nearly at the same time there were insurrections in Armenia and in Syria; and as their enemies charged the blame of these also upon the Christians, the Emperor by a new edict ordered all bishops and ministers of Christ to be thrown into prison; and by a third edict, soon after, he ordered that all these prisoners should be compelled by tortures and punishments to offer sacrifice to the gods; for he hoped, if the bishops and teachers were once brought to submission, the Christian churches would follow their example. A great multitude, therefore, of excellent men, in every part of the Roman Empire, Gaul only excepted, which was subject to Constantius Chlorus, were either punished capitally or condemned to the mines.

In the second year of the persecution, A.D. 304, Diocletian published a fourth edict, at the instigation of his son-in-law and other enemies of the Christians. By this edict the magistrates were directed to compel all Christians to offer sacrifices to the gods, and to use tortures for that purpose. And as the governors yielded strict obedience to these orders, the Christian Church was reduced to the last extremity. Galerius Maximianus therefore no longer hesitated to disclose the secret designs he had long entertained. He required his father-in-law, Diocletian, together with his colleague, Maximianus Herculius, to divest themselves of their power, and constituted himself emperor of the East; leaving the West to Constantius Chlorus, whose health he knew to be very infirm. He also associated with him in the government two assistants of his own choosing, namely, Caius Galerius Maximianus, his sister’s son, and Flavius Severus; excluding altogether Constantine, the son of Constantius Chlorus. This revolution in the Roman Government restored peace to Christians in the Western provinces, which were under Constantius; but in the Eastern provinces the persecution raged with greater severity than before.

But divine Providence frustrated the whole plan of Galerius Maximianus. For, Constantius Chlorus dying in Britain, in the year 306, the soldiery by acclamation made his son Constantine, who afterward by his achievements obtained the title of "the Great," Augustus or Emperor; and the tyrant Galerius was obliged to submit, and even to approve this adverse event. Soon after a civil war broke out. For Maxentius, the son-in-law of Galerius Maximianus, being indignant that Galerius should prefer Severus before him, and invest him with imperial power, himself assumed the purple, and took his father, Maximianus Herculius, for his colleague in the empire. In the midst of these commotions Constantine, beyond all expectation, made his way to the imperial throne. The western Christians, those of Italy and Africa excepted, enjoyed a good degree of tranquillity and liberty during these civil wars. But the oriental churches experienced various fortune, adverse or tolerable, according to the political changes from year to year At length Galerius Maximianus, who had been the author of the heaviest calamities, being brought low by a terrific and protracted disease, and finding himself ready to die, in the year 311, issued a decree which restored peace to them, after they had endured almost unbounded sufferings.

After the death of Galerius Maximianus, Caius Galerius Maximinus and Caius Valerius Licinius divided between themselves the provinces which had been governed by Galerius. At the same time Maxentius, who held Africa and Italy, determined to make war upon Constantine, who governed in Spain and Gaul, in order to bring all the West under his authority. Constantine anticipated his designs, marched his army into Italy in the year 312, and in a battle fought at the Milvian bridge, near Rome, routed the army of Maxentius. In the flight the bridge broke down, and Maxentius fell into the Tiber and was drowned. After this victory Constantine, with his colleague Licinius, immediately gave full liberty to the Christians of living according to their own institutions and laws; and this liberty was more clearly defined the following year, A.D. 313, in a new edict drawn up at Milan. Caius Galerius Maximinus, indeed, who reigned in the East, was projecting new calamities for the Christians, and menacing the emperors of the West with war; but being vanquished by Licinius, he put an end to his own life, in the year 313, by swallowing poison, at Tarsus.

About this time Constantine the Great, who was previously a man of no religion, is said to have embraced Christianity, being induced thereto principally by the miracle of a cross appearing to him in the heavens. But this story is liable to much doubt. His first edict in favor of the Christians, and many other things, sufficiently evince that he was indeed at that time well disposed toward the Christians and their worship, but that he by no means regarded Christianity as the only true and saving religion; on the contrary, it appears that he regarded other religions, and among them the old Roman religion, as likewise true and useful to mankind; and he therefore wished all religions to be freely practised throughout the Roman Empire. But as he advanced in life, Constantine made progress in religious knowledge, and gradually came to regard Christianity as the only true and saving religion, and to consider all others as false and impious. Having learned this, he now began to exhort his subjects to embrace Christianity; and at length he proclaimed war against the ancient superstitions. At what time this change in the views of the Emperor took place, and he began to look upon all religions but the Christian as false, cannot be determined. This, however, is certain, that the change in his views was first made manifest by his laws and edicts in the year 324, after the death of Licinius, when Constantine became sole emperor. His purpose, however, of abolishing the ancient religion of the Romans, and of tolerating only the Christian religion, he did not disclose till a little before his death, when he published his edicts for pulling down the pagan temples and abolishing the sacrifices.

That the Emperor was sincere, and not a dissembler, in regard to his conversion to Christianity, no person can doubt who believes that men’s actions are an index of their real feelings. It is indeed true that Constantine’s life was not such as the precepts of Christianity required; and it is also true that he remained a catechumen all his life, and was received to full membership in the Church, by baptism, only a few days before his death, at Nicomedia. But neither of these is adequate proof that the Emperor had not a general conviction of the truth of the Christian religion, or that he only feigned himself a Christian. For in that age many persons deferred baptism till near the close of life, that they might pass into the other world altogether pure and undefiled with sin; and it is but too notorious that many persons who look upon the Christian religion as indubitably true and of divine origin, yet do not conform their lives to all its holy precepts. It is another question whether worldly motives might not have contributed in some degree to induce Constantine to prefer the Christian religion to the ancient Roman, and to all other religions, and to recommend the observance of it to his subjects. Indeed, it is no improbable conjecture that the Emperor had discernment to see that Christianity possessed great efficacy, and idolatry none at all, to strengthen public authority, and to bind citizens to their duty.

The sign of the cross, which Constantine most solemnly affirmed he saw in the heavens, near midday, is a subject involved in the greatest obscurities and difficulties. It is, however, an easy thing to refute those who regard this prodigy as a cunning fiction of the Emperor, or who rank it among fables; and also those who refer the phenomenon to natural causes, ingeniously conjecturing that the form of a cross appeared in a solar halo, or in the moon; and likewise those who ascribe the transaction to the power of God, who intended by a miracle to confirm the wavering faith of the Emperor. Now these suppositions being rejected, the only conclusion that remains is that Constantine saw, in a dream while asleep, the appearance of a cross, with the inscription, In hoc signo vinces ("By this sign thou shalt conquer"). Nor is this opinion unsupported by competent authorities of good credit.

The happiness anticipated by the Christians from the edicts of Constantine and Licinius was a little afterward interrupted by Licinius, who waged war against his kinsman Constantine. Being vanquished in the year 314, he was quiet for about nine years. But in the year 324 this restless man again attacked Constantine, being urged on both by his own inclination and by the instigation of the pagan priests. That he might secure himself a victory, he attached the pagans to his cause by severely oppressing the Christians, and putting not a few of their bishops to death. But all his plans failed; for, after several unsuccessful battles, he was obliged to throw himself upon the mercy of the victor, who, nevertheless, ordered him to be strangled, in the year 325. After his victory over Licinius, Constantine reigned sole emperor till his death; and by his plans, his enactments, his regulations, and his munificence he endeavored as much as possible to obliterate gradually the ancient superstitions and to establish Christian worship throughout the Roman Empire. He had undoubtedly learned from the wars and the machinations of Licinius that neither himself nor the Roman Empire could remain secure while the ancient superstition continued prevalent; and therefore, from this time onward, he openly opposed the pagan deities and their worship, as being prejudicial to the interests of the State.

After the death of Constantine, which happened in the year 337, his three surviving sons, Constantine II, Constantius, and Constans, assumed the empire, and were all proclaimed emperors by the Roman senate. There were still living two brothers of Constantine the Great, namely, Constantius Dalmatius and Julius Constans, and they had several sons. But nearly all of these were slain by the soldiers at the command of Constantine’s sons, who feared lest their thirst for power might lead them to make insurrections and disturb the Commonwealth. Only Gallus and Julian, sons of Julius Constans, escaped the massacre; and the latter of these afterward became emperor. Constantine II held Britain, Gaul, and Spain, but lost his life, A.D. 340, in a war with his brother Constans, who at first governed only Illyricum, Italy, and Africa; but after the fall of his brother, Constantine II, he annexed his provinces to his empire, and thus became emperor of all the West, until he lost his life, A.D. 350, in the war with Maxentius, a usurper. After the death of Constans, Maxentius being subdued, the third brother, Constantius, who had before governed Asia, Syria, and Egypt, in the year 353 became sole emperor, and governed the whole empire till the year 361, when he died. Neither of these brothers possessed the disposition or the discernment of their father; yet they all pursued their father’s purpose of abolishing the ancient superstitions of the Romans and other pagans, and of propagating the Christian religion throughout the Roman Empire. The thing itself was commendable and excellent; but in the means employed there was much that was censurable.

Rhetoricians and philosophers, whose schools were supposed to be so profitable to the community, exhausted all their ingenuity, both before the days of Constantine the Great and afterward, to arrest the progress of Christianity. In the beginning of this century Hierocles, the great ornament of the Platonic school, composed two books against the Christians, in which he had the audacity to compare our Saviour with Apollonius Tyanaeus, and for which he was chastised by Eusebius in a tract written expressly against him. Lactantius speaks of another philosopher who endeavored to convince the Christians they were in error; but his name is not mentioned. After the reign of Constantine the Great, Julian wrote a large volume against the Christians, and Himerius and Libanius in their public declamations, and Eunapius in his lives of the philosophers, zealously decried the Christian religion. Yet no one of these persons was punished at all for the licentiousness of his tongue or of his pen.

How much harm these sophists or philosophers, who were full of the pride of imaginary knowledge and of hatred to the Christian name, did to the cause of Christianity in this century appears from many examples, and especially from the apostasy of Julian, who was seduced by men of this stamp. Among those who wished to appear wise, and to take moderate ground, many were induced by the arguments and explanations of these men to devise a kind of reconciling religion, intermediate between the old superstition and Christianity, and to imagine that Christ had enjoined the very same thing which had long been represented by the pagan priests under the envelope of their ceremonies and fables. Of these views were Ammianus Marcellinus, a very prudent and discreet man; Chalcidius, a philosopher; Themistius, a very celebrated orator, and others, who conceived that both religions were in unison, as to all the more important points, if they were rightly understood, and therefore held that Christ was neither to be contemned nor to be honored to the exclusion of the pagan deities.

As Constantine the Great and his sons and successors took much pains to enlarge the Christian Church, it is not strange that many nations, before barbarous and uncivilized, became subject to Christ. Many circumstances make it probable that the light of Christianity cast some of its rays into both Armenias, the Greater and the Less, soon after the establishment of the Christian Church. But the Armenian Church first received due organization and firm establishment in this century; in the beginning of which Gregory, the son of Anax, commonly called "the Illuminator," because he dispelled the mists of superstition which beclouded the minds of the Athenians, first persuaded some private individuals, and afterward Tiridates, the king of the Armenians, as well as his nobles, to embrace and observe the Christian religion. He was therefore ordained the first bishop of Armenia, by Leontius, bishop of Cappadocia, and gradually diffused the principles of Christianity throughout that country.

In the European provinces of the Roman Empire there still remained a vast number of idolaters; and though the Christian bishops endeavored to convert them to Christ, the business went on but slowly. In Gaul, the great Martin, bishop of Tours, was not unsuccessful in this work; but travelling through the provinces of Gaul, he everywhere persuaded many to renounce their idols and embrace Christ, and he destroyed their temples and threw down their statues. He therefore merited the title "Apostle of the Gauls."

It is very evident that the victories of Constantine the Great, and both the fear of punishment and the desire of pleasing the Roman emperors, were cogent reasons, in the view of whole nations as well as of individuals, for embracing the Christian religion. Yet no person well informed in the history of this period will ascribe the extension of Christianity wholly to these causes. For it is manifest that the untiring zeal of the bishops and other holy men, the pure and devout lives which many of the Christians exhibited, the translations of the sacred volume, and the excellence of the Christian religion were as efficient motives with many persons as the arguments from worldly advantage and disadvantage were with some others.

Although the Christian Church within the Roman Empire was involved in no severe calamities from the times of Constantine the Great onward, except during the commotion of Licinius and the short reign of Julian, yet slight tempests sometimes beat upon them in certain places. Athanaric, for instance, a king of the Goths, fiercely assailed for a time that portion of the Gothic nation which had embraced Christianity. In the more remote provinces, also, the adherents to idolatry often defended their hereditary superstitions with the sword, and murdered the Christians, who in propagating their religion were not always as gentle or as prudent as they ought to have been. Beyond the limits of the Roman Empire, Sapor II, the king of Persia, waged three bloody wars against the Christians in his dominions. The first was in the eighteenth year of his reign; the second was in the thirtieth year; and the third, which was the most cruel and destroyed an immense number of Christians, commenced in his thirty-first year, A.D. 330, and lasted forty years, or till A.D. 370. Yet religion was not the ostensible cause of this dreadful persecution, but a suspicion of treasonable practices among the Christians; for the Magi and the Jews persuaded the King to believe that all Christians were in the interests of the Roman Empire.


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Chicago: Johann Lorenz von Mosheim, "Conversion of Constantine; Decline of Paganism," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 3 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed December 11, 2019,

MLA: Mosheim, Johann Lorenz von. "Conversion of Constantine; Decline of Paganism." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 3, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 11 Dec. 2019.

Harvard: Mosheim, JL, 'Conversion of Constantine; Decline of Paganism' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 3. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 11 December 2019, from