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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Vasilief, A History of the Byzantine Empire

The empire from Constantine the Great to Justinian

The Conversion of Constantine


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For a long time historical opinion was influenced greatly by the skeptical judgment of the well-known German historian, Jacob Burckhardt, expressed in his brilliant work, The Time of Constantine the Great. He represents Constantine as a statesman of genius, seized by high ambitions and a strong desire for power, a man who sacrificed everything to the fulfillment of his worldly aims. Attempts are often made, wrote Burckhardt, to penetrate into the religious conscience of Constantine and then draw a picture of the changes which presumably took place in his religious beliefs. All this is done in vain. For in the case of this man of genius, whose ambitions and thirst for power troubled every hour of his life, there could be no question of Christianity and paganism, of a conscious religiousness or non-religiousness; such a man is essentially irreligious (unreligios) If he had stopped even for a moment to consider his real religious consciousness it would have been fatal. This deadly egotist, having recognized that Christianity was bound to become a world force, made use of it precisely from that point of view. In this recognition, according to Burckhardt, lies Constantines great merit. Yet Constantine gave very definite privileges to paganism as well as to Christianity. To look for any system in the actions of this inconsistent man would be all in vain; there was only chance. Constantine, an egotist in a purple mantle, does and permits all that will increase his personal power. Burckhardt used as his main source Eusebius Life of Constantine, disregarding the fact that this work is not authentic. The judgment of Burckhardt, given briefly here, makes no allowance for any genuine religious feeling on the part of the Emperor.  

Basing his arguments on different grounds, the German theologian Adolph Harnack, in The Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, arrived at similar conclusions. After a study of the status of Christianity in individual provinces of the empire he admitted the impossibility of determining the exact number of Christians and concluded that though toward the fourth century they were numerous and influential in the empire, they did not constitute the majority of the population. But he remarked further:  

Numerical strength and real influence need not coincide in every case; a small circle may exercise very powerful influence if its members are largely drawn from the leading classes, whilst: a large number may represent quite an inferior amount of influence if it is recruited from the lower classes, or in the main from country districts. Christianity was a religion of towns and cities; the larger the town or city, the larger (even relatively) was the number of Christians. This lent it an extraordinary advantage. But alongside of this, Christianity had already penetrated deep into the country districts, throughout a large number of provinces; as we know definitely with regard to the majority of provinces in Asia Minor, and no less so as regards Armenia, Syria, Egypt, Palestine, and Northern Africa (with its country towns). 

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