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2016 Romano Lecture

How did Constantine meet his God?

By Haley Silverstein 

The conversion of Roman emperor Constantine to Christianity is presented as a public event. However David Potter, the Francis W. Kelsey Professor of Greek and Roman History and Professor of Greek and Latin at the University of Michigan, said it was in fact extraordinarily private. The religious direction of Constantine only became obvious over time. 

Potter discussed “How Did Constantine Meet His God” as keynote speaker at the 2016 Mario and Antoinette Romano Lecture on April 20 in Casadesus Hall.

Constantine was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity and promoted the faith with vigor. Using historical texts, relics and images, Potter traced Constantine’s arrival to his new faith.

Edward Gibbon, an English historian known for his work on the Roman Empire, believed that Constantine converted to Christianity after A.D. 326, after the exile of his wife Fausta and the execution of his son Crispus. The pagan version of the legend suggests that Constantine converted out of remorse as he tried to find a God who would forgive him. The only god who would forgive him was the Christian God.

However, according to Potter, in the Vatican Museum there are four images of Constantine’s conversion that represent two distinct legends. The first comes from Life of Constantine, in which the Roman historian Eusebius recounts the story of Constantine’s  vision of a cross in the sky. Constantine is preparing for battle against his brother-in-law Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge when he sees the astonishing sight and converts.

According to Eusebius, Constantine was wondering what God to worship before invading Italy. Every previous emperor had faced defeat. Constantine began to look for a new God.

“[Constantine] invoked God in prayers and begged [God] to show him who he was and to stretch out his right hand to assist him in his plans,” Potter said.

As Constantine was praying, there appeared an astonishing sign, a cross in the sky. He had a second vision in which God tells Constantine he was the God who appeared in the cross in the sky. And said in this sign you will conquer. According to Eusebius, Constantine then declares that he is converting to Christianity. 

The second legend emerges in the 5th century.  Constantine had been persecuting the Christians of Rome when he was smitten with leprosy. He was told by a priest that he could be cured if he bathed in the blood of freshly slaughtered infants. Constantine felt remorse and ordered the children to be returned to their parents. Sylvester, the Roman bishop prepared Constantine for baptism instead. On Easter Sunday, Constantine found that he was cured of leprosy.

According to Potter, Constantine waged the war against Maxentius in part to show that he had been guided by God.

“Dreams and horoscopes provided guidance for the individual and even if the reading was correct, the justification for political assassination,” Potter said.

However, Constantine never advertised his dreams. It was not until the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 that Constantine describes a waking vision. Potter suspects that the subsequent visions after 313, inspired Constantine to think that he could succeed prior to the invasion of Italy. 

“God revealed to Constantine what he needed to believe … that he needed to leave behind the errors of his ways and thus succeed in the future,” Potter said.

Potter also discussed the work of Artemidorus, a diviner from the 2nd century, on dream criticism.

Potter quoted Artemidorus saying, “A man will not dream about things about which he has not thought, people do not see things about private things about which they have not thought. It is impossible for a person who is small to receive something outside of his power … it is contrary to reason since dreams are private and only come true only for the dreamer, unless he is a king, magistrate or of the great. These men have reflected about public affairs and they receive dreams about them.”

According to Potter, Artemidorus emphasized the significance of communication through dreams.

“In other words, if you’re going to tell someone you’ve met a God you don’t want to suggest you’ve done it a completely eccentric sort of way,” Potter said.

In a letter to the Bishop of Arles in 314, Constantine described what he saw and spoke of a shining light. According to Potter, the symbolism was evocative of a sun God such as Apollo. Constantine continued to make use of traditional imagery of empire until the last years of his life, despite the fact that he had converted to Christianity. 

“The question of where did Constantine meet his God, I think is answered quite simply,” Potter said. “He met [God] in his head. It was Constantine and Constantine alone when Apollo appeared in his vision.”

There was a synchronism of Christ through the sun god and image of resurrection, the rising and setting of the sun as a metaphor for resurrection.

“East is attached to God because He is the source of light and the illuminator of the world and he makes us rise towards eternal light,” Potter said. “Many Christians drew the connection by referring to the Dia Solus as the Lord’s Day.”

Constantine revealed the nature of his personal journey and the revelation that his God offered. His vision is reflected in the Column of Constantine in Constantinople with a statue of Constantine originally situated at the top in the figure of Apollo and the column itself adorned with Christian relics.

“To this extent, there was a vision of a heavenly God that drew Constantine to a new faith,” Potter said. “But at least for now, it was a heaven that had appeared in the recesses of his own mind.”

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Last Updated: 3/1/17