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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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Dividing all the provinces of the empire into four categories according to the wider or narrower spread of Christianity, Harnack analyzed the position of Christianity in each category and concluded that the headquarters of the Christian church at the opening of the fourth century lay in Asia Minor. It is well known that for a number of years previous to his famous flight to Gaul, Constantine stayed at the court of Diocletian in Nicomedia. His impressions of Asia became apparent in Gaul, in the form of political considerations which led him to make his decisive resolve; he could benefit by the support of the firm and powerful Church and episcopate. It is idle to ask whether the Church would have gained her victory even apart from Constantine. Some Constantine or other would have come upon the scene. In any event, the victory of Christianity all over Asia Minor was achieved before Constantine came on the scene at all, and it was assured in other provinces. It required no special illumination and no celestial army chaplain to bring about what was already in existence. All that was needed was an acute and forceful statesman who had a vital interest in the religious situation. Such a man was Constantine. He was gifted, inasmuch as he clearly recognized and firmly grasped what was inevitable.  

It is quite apparent that Harnack viewed Constantine as a gifted statesman only. Naturally, even an approximate statistical estimate of the number of Christians at that period is out of the question. It is admitted by many of the best modern scholars, however, that paganism was still the dominant element in the state and society, while the Christians were decidedly in the minority. According to the calculations of Professor V. Bolotov, which coincided with the estimates of several other scholars, it is probable that toward the time of Constantine the Christians constituted one-tenth of the entire population; perhaps even this figure needs to be reduced. Any claim that the number of Christians exceeded one-tenth is precarious. At present there seems to be uniform agreement that the Christians were in the minority during the time of Constantine. If that is true, then the purely political theory in regard to Constantines attitude toward Christianity must be dropped. A great statesman would not have allowed his wide political schemes to depend upon one-tenth of the population which at that time was taking no part in political affairs.  

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