Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

CONSTANTINE.

§ I.
The Age of Constantine.

Among the ages which followed the Augustan, that of Constantine merits particular distinction. It is immortalized by the great changes which it ushered into the world. It commenced, it is true, with bringing back barbarism. Not merely were there no Ciceros, Horaces, and Virgils, any longer to be found, but there was not even a Lucan or a Seneca; there was not even a philosophic and accurate historian. Nothing was to be seen but equivocal satires or mere random panegyrics.

It was at that time that the Christians began to write history, but they took not Titus Livy, or Thucydides as their models. The followers of the ancient religion wrote with no greater eloquence or truth. The two parties, in a state of mutual exasperation, did not very scrupulously investigate the charges which they heaped upon their adversaries; and hence it arises that the same man is sometimes represented as a god and sometimes as a monster.

The decline of everything, in the commonest mechanical arts, as well as in eloquence and virtue, took place after the reign of Marcus Aurelius. He was the last emperor of the sect of stoics, who elevated man above himself by rendering him severe to himself only, and compassionate to others. After the death of this emperor, who was a genuine philosopher, there was nothing but tyranny and confusion. The soldiers frequently disposed of the empire. The senate had fallen into such complete contempt that, in the time of Gallienus, an express law was enacted to prevent senators from engaging in war. Thirty heads of parties were seen, at one time, assuming the title of emperor in thirty provinces of the empire. The barbarians already poured in, on every side, in the middle of the third century, on this rent and lacerated empire. Yet it was held together by the mere military discipline on which it had been founded.

During all these calamities, Christianity gradually established itself, particularly in Egypt, Syria, and on the coasts of Asia Minor. The Roman Empire admitted all sorts of religions, as well as all sects of philosophy. The worship of Osiris was permitted, and even the Jews were left in the enjoyment of considerable privileges, notwithstanding their revolts. But the people in the provinces frequently rose up against the Christians. The magistrates persecuted them, and edicts were frequently obtained against them from the emperors. There is no ground for astonishment at the general hatred in which Christians were at first held, while so many other religions were tolerated. The reason was that neither Egyptians nor Jews, nor the worshippers of the goddess of Syria and so many other foreign deities, ever declared open hostility to the gods of the empire. They did not array themselves against the established religion; but one of the most imperious duties of the Christians was to exterminate the prevailing worship. The priests of the gods raised a clamor on perceiving the diminution of sacrifices and offerings; and the people, ever fanatical and impetuous, were stirred up against the Christians, while in the meantime many emperors protected them. Adrian expressly forbade the persecution of them. Marcus Aurelius commanded that they should not be prosecuted on account of religion. Caracalla, Heliogabalus, Alexander, Philip, and Gallienus left them entire liberty. They had, in the third century, public churches numerously attended and very opulent; and so great was the liberty they enjoyed that, in the course of that century, they held sixteen councils. The road to dignities was shut up against the first Christians, who were nearly all of obscure condition, and they turned their attention to commerce, and some of them amassed great affluence. This is the resource of all societies that cannot have access to offices in the state. Such has been the case with the Calvinists in France, all the Nonconformists in England, the Catholics in Holland, the Armenians in Persia, the Banians in India, and the Jews all over the world. However, at last the toleration was so great, and the administration of the government so mild, that the Christians gained access to all the honors and dignities of the state. They did not sacrifice to the gods of the empire; they were not molested, whether they attended or avoided the temples; there was at Rome the most perfect liberty with respect to the exercises of their religion; none were compelled to engage in them. The Christians, therefore, enjoyed the same liberty as others. It is so true that they attained to honors, that Diocletian and Galerius deprived no fewer than three hundred and three of them of those honors, in the persecution of which we shall have to speak.

It is our duty to adore Providence in all its dispensations; but I confine myself to political history. Manes, under the reign of Probus, about the year 278, formed a new religion in Alexandria. The principles of this sect were made up of some ancient doctrines of the Persians and certain tenets of Christianity. Probus, and his successor, Carus, left Manes and the Christians in the enjoyment of peace. Numerien permitted them entire liberty. Diocletian protected the Christians, and tolerated the Manichæans, during twelve years; but in 296 he issued an edict against the Manichæans, and proscribed them as enemies to the empire and adherents of the Persians. The Christians were not comprehended in the edict; they continued in tranquillity under Diocletian, and made open profession of their religion throughout the whole empire until the latter years of that prince’s reign.

To complete the sketch, it is necessary to describe of what at that period the Roman Empire consisted. Notwithstanding internal and foreign shocks, notwithstanding the incursions of barbarians, it comprised all the possessions of the grand seignor at the present day, except Arabia; all that the house of Austria possesses in Germany, and all the German provinces as far as the Elbe; Italy, France, Spain, England, and half of Scotland; and Africa as far as the desert of Sahara, and even the Canary Isles. All these nations were retained under the yoke by bodies of military less considerable than would be raised by Germany and France at the present day, when in actual war.

This immense power became more confirmed and enlarged, from Cæsar down to Theodosius, as well by laws, police, and real services conferred on the people, as by arms and terror. It is even yet a matter of astonishment that none of these conquered nations have been able, since they became their own rulers, to form such highways, and to erect such amphitheatres and public baths, as their conquerors bestowed upon them. Countries which are at present nearly barbarous and deserted, were then populous and well governed. Such were Epirus, Macedonia, Thessaly, Illyria, Pannonia, with Asia Minor, and the coasts of Africa; but it must also be admitted that Germany, France, and Britain were then very different from what they are now. These three states are those which have most benefited by governing themselves; yet it required nearly twelve centuries to place those kingdoms in the flourishing situation in which we now behold them; but it must be acknowledged that all the rest have lost much by passing under different laws. The ruins of Asia Minor and Greece, the depopulation of Egypt and the barbarism of Africa, are still existing testimonials of Roman greatness. The great number of flourishing cities which covered those countries had now become miserable villages, and the soil had become barren under the hands of a brutalized population.

§ II.
Character of Constantine.

I will not here speak of the confusion which agitated the empire after the abdication of Diocletian. There were after his death six emperors at once. Constantine triumphed over them all, changed the religion of the empire, and was not merely the author of that great revolution, but of all those which have since occurred in the west. What was his character? Ask it of Julian, of Zosimus, of Sozomen, and of Victor; they will tell you that he acted at first like a great prince, afterwards as a public robber, and that the last stage of his life was that of a sensualist, a trifler, and a prodigal. They will describe him as ever ambitious, cruel, and sanguinary. Ask his character of Eusebius, of Gregory Nazianzen, and Lactantius; they will inform you that he was a perfect man. Between these two extremes authentic facts alone can enable us to obtain the truth. He had a father-in-law, whom he impelled to hang himself; he had a brother-in-law, whom he ordered to be strangled; he had a nephew twelve or thirteen years old, whose throat he ordered to be cut; he had an eldest son, whom he beheaded; he had a wife, whom he ordered to be suffocated in a bath. An old Gallic author said that “he loved to make a clear house.”

If you add to all these domestic acts that, being on the banks of the Rhine in pursuit of some hordes of Franks who resided in those parts, and having taken their kings, who probably were of the family of our Pharamond or Clodion le Chevelu, he exposed them to beasts for his diversion; you may infer from all this, without any apprehension of being deceived, that he was not the most courteous and accommodating personage in the world.

Let us examine, in this place, the principal events of his reign. His father, Constantius Chlorus, was in the heart of Britain, where he had for some months assumed the title of emperor. Constantine was at Nicomedia, with the emperor Galerius. He asked permission of the emperor to go to see his father, who was ill. Galerius granted it, without difficulty. Constantine set off with government relays, called veredarii. It might be said to be as dangerous to be a post-horse as to be a member of the family of Constantine, for he ordered all the horses to be hamstrung after he had done with them, fearful lest Galerius should revoke his permission and order him to return to Nicomedia. He found his father at the point of death, and caused himself to be recognized emperor by the small number of Roman troops at that time in Britain.

An election of a Roman emperor at York, by five or six thousand men, was not likely to be considered legitimate at Rome. It wanted at least the formula of “Senatus populusque Romanus.” The senate, the people, and the prætorian bands unanimously elected Maxentius, son of the Cæsar Maximilian Hercules, who had been already Cæsar, and brother of that Fausta whom Constantine had married, and whom he afterwards caused to be suffocated. This Maxentius is called a tyrant and usurper by our historians, who are uniformly the partisans of the successful. He was the protector of the pagan religion against Constantine, who already began to declare himself for the Christians. Being both pagan and vanquished, he could not but be an abominable man.

Eusebius tells us that Constantine, when going to Rome to fight Maxentius, saw in the clouds, as well as his whole army, the grand imperial standard called the labarum, surmounted with a Latin P. or a large Greek R. with a cross in “saltier,” and certain Greek words which signified, “By this sign thou shalt conquer.” Some authors pretend that this sign appeared to him at Besancon, others at Cologne, some at Trier and others at Troyes. It is strange that in all these places heaven should have expressed its meaning in Greek. It would have appeared more natural to the weak understandings of men that this sign should have appeared in Italy on the day of the battle; but then it would have been necessary that the inscription should have been in Latin. A learned antiquary, of the name of Loisel, has refuted this narrative; but he was treated as a reprobate.

It might, however, be worth while to reflect that this war was not a war of religion, that Constantine was not a saint, that he died suspected of being an Arian, after having persecuted the orthodox; and, therefore, that there is no very obvious motive to support this prodigy.

After this victory, the senate hastened to pay its devotion to the conqueror, and to express its detestation of the memory of the conquered. The triumphal arch of Marcus Aurelius was speedily dismantled to adorn that of Constantine. A statue of gold was prepared for him, an honor which had never been shown except to the gods. He received it, notwithstanding the labarum, and received further the title of Pontifex Maximus, which he retained all his life. His first care, according to Zosimus, was to exterminate the whole race of the tyrant, and his principal friends; after which he assisted very graciously at the public spectacles and games.

The aged Diocletian was at that time dying in his retreat at Salonica. Constantine should not have been in such haste to pull down his statues at Rome; he should have recollected that the forgotten emperor had been the benefactor of his father, and that he was indebted to him for the empire. Although he had conquered Maxentius, Licinius, his brother-in-law, an Augustus like himself, was still to be got rid of; and Licinius was equally anxious to be rid of Constantine, if he had it in his power. However, their quarrels not having yet broken out in hostility, they issued conjointly at Milan, in 313, the celebrated edict of liberty of conscience. “We grant,” they say, “to all the liberty of following whatever religion they please, in order to draw down the blessing of heaven upon us and our subjects; we declare that we have granted to the Christians the free and full power of exercising their religion; it being understood that all others shall enjoy the same liberty, in order to preserve the tranquillity of our government.” A volume might be written on such an edict, but I shall merely venture a few lines.

Constantine was not as yet a Christian; nor, indeed, was his colleague, Licinius, one. There was still an emperor or a tyrant to be exterminated; this was a determined pagan, of the name of Maximin. Licinius fought with him before he fought with Constantine. Heaven was still more favorable to him than to Constantine himself; for the latter had only the apparition of a standard, but Licinius that of an angel. This angel taught him a prayer, by means of which he would be sure to vanquish the barbarian Maximin. Licinius wrote it down, ordered it to be recited three times by his army, and obtained a complete victory. If this same Licinius, the brother-in-law of Constantine, had reigned happily, we should have heard of nothing but his angel; but Constantine having had him hanged, and his son slain, and become absolute master of everything, nothing has been talked of but Constantine’s labarum.

It is believed that he put to death his eldest son Crispus, and his own wife Fausta, the same year that he convened the Council of Nice. Zosimus and Sozomen pretend that, the heathen priests having told him that there were no expiations for such great crimes, he then made open profession of Christianity, and demolished many temples in the East. It is not very probable that the pagan pontiffs should have omitted so fine an opportunity of getting back their grand pontiff, who had abandoned them. However, it is by no means impossible that there might be among them some severe men; scrupulous and austere persons are to be found everywhere. What is more extraordinary is, that Constantine, after becoming a Christian, performed no penance for his parricide. It was at Rome that he exercised that cruelty, and from that time residence at Rome became hateful to him. He quitted it forever, and went to lay the foundations of Constantinople. How dared he say, in one of his rescripts, that he transferred the seat of empire to Constantinople, “by the command of God himself?” Is it anything but an impudent mockery of God and man? If God had given him any command, would it not have been — not to assassinate his wife and son?

Diocletian had already furnished an example of transferring the empire towards Asia. The pride, the despotism, and the general manners of the Asiatics disgusted the Romans, depraved and slavish as they had become. The emperors had not ventured to require, at Rome, that their feet should be kissed, nor to introduce a crowd of eunuchs into their palaces. Diocletian began in Nicomedia, and Constantine completed the system at Constantinople, to assimilate the Roman court to the courts of the Persians. The city of Rome from that time languished in decay, and the old Roman spirit declined with her. Constantine thus effected the greatest injury to the empire that was in his power.

Of all the emperors, he was unquestionably the most absolute. Augustus had left an image of liberty; Tiberius, and even Nero, had humored the senate and people of Rome; Constantine humored none. He had at first established his power in Rome by disbanding those haughty prætorians who considered themselves the masters of the emperors. He made an entire separation between the gown and the sword. The depositories of the laws, kept down under military power, were only jurists in chains. The provinces of the empire were governed upon a new system.

The grand object of Constantine was to be master in everything; he was so in the Church, as well as in the State. We behold him convoking and opening the Council of Nice; advancing into the midst of the assembled fathers, covered over with jewels, and with the diadem on his head, seating himself in the highest place, and banishing unconcernedly sometimes Arius and sometimes Athanasius. He put himself at the head of Christianity without being a Christian; for at that time baptism was essential to any person’s becoming one; he was only a catechumen. The usage of waiting for the approach of death before immersing in the water of regeneration, was beginning to decline with respect to private individuals. If Constantine, by delaying his baptism till near the point of death, entertained the notion that he might commit every act with impunity in the hope of a complete expiation, it was unfortunate for the human race that such an opinion should have ever suggested itself to the mind of a man in possession of uncontrolled power.

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