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Byzantine Empire


After Jesus and Paul, Constantine is perhaps the most important person for the development of the early Christian Church. It is he who ultimately gave them political and social legitimacy.

What is most important to remember about Constantine is that he ascended the throne of an empire which was fragmented and in disarray, thus his chief goal was always creating and maintaining unity, be it political, economic or, eventually, religious. For Constantine, one of the greatest threats to Roman domination and peace was disunity.

Christianity filled Constantine's need for a basis of religious unity quite well. Christians may have been a minority through the empire, but they were a well-organized minority. In addition, no one had already tried to claim their political allegiance, leaving Constantine no competitors and giving him a group of people who would be supremely grateful and loyal for finally finding a political patron.

According to the stories, Constantine was preparing to launch an attack on his rival, Maxentius, in 312 when he had a vision or a dream which informed him that he would be victorious if he fought under the Christian symbol. The first important thing he did after this was issue the Edict of Milan in 313, which instituted religious toleration as the law of the land and ended the persecution of Christians. In 324, Christianity became an officially recognized religion and equal to the others.

But because of Constantine's desire for unity, he ruthlessly enforced his particular brand of orthodoxy among the various Christian groups - there was just no way he would allow them to be weakened as a political force through internal strife or disagreement. Constantine appropriated this authority for himself by declaring that he was a "bishop, ordained by God."

First, Constantine moved to eliminate the external challenges posed by paganism, destroying their temples and books. After that, he ordered that those Christian groups which had been deemed "unorthodox" also be eliminated, thus removing internal challenges. Very quickly, theological disagreements which had been a part of the Christian experience became "unchristian." For Constantine, religious differences were impediments to the power that had replaced Maxentius and Licinius. In this way, choice ("heresy") to be religiously different became defined as treason, a political crime.

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Related Resources:

What is Christianity?
What are the various Christian groups, denominations, sects and heresies? What are some key concepts in Christian theology? What are some of the most important events in Christian history? All of this and more are covered in the Christianity FAQ.

What is the Philosophy of Religion?
Sometimes confused with theology, the Philosophy of Religion is the philosophical study of religious beliefs, religious doctrines, religious arguments and religious history. The line between theology and the philosophy of religion isn't always sharp, but the primary difference is that theology tends to be apologetical in nature, committed to the defense of particular religious positions, whereas Philosophy of Religion is committed to the investigation of religion itself, rather than the truth of any particular religion.

What is Theism?
What is the difference between monotheism and monolatry? Between pantheism and panentheism? How about between animism and shamanism? Or theism and deism? What the heck is henotheism?

What is Religion?
A system of human beliefs, ideals and practices which is harder to define than it may at first appear. Read more about how dictionaries, scholars and others have tried to define and explain religion.

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