Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus, the 57th emperor of the Roman Empire, was quite a dude. He moved the seat of the Roman Empire from Rome to Byzantium, renamed as Constantinople, and began to build a massive, defensive wall around the city in 324. John and I visited a large section of the wall today which spurred me to contemplate how Constantine has impacted my — and probably your — life.
Now you’re probably wondering how our lives could possibly have been touched by a Roman emperor who built a wall almost 1700 years ago. Here goes…
Did you know that it was Constantine who ensured that the cross – the electric chair of the ancient world – became the symbol of Christianity? He saw it in a midday vision during a war against his brother-in-law and co-emperor, Maxentius. At least, that’s what he told his biographer, Eusebius Pamphilus, the bishop of Caesarea in Palestine several years later. According to Eusebius, Constantine was praying to God for assistance before a crucial battle at a bridge on the Tiber River in 312 when he saw the vision of a cross of light at midday bearing the inscription in hoc signo vinces (in this sign you will be victorious).
That night, Constantine had a dream that reaffirmed his midday vision. He believed God told him to use the sign he had been given as a safeguard in all his battles. Constantine ordered the symbol of his newfound Savior’s name – the intersection of the Greek letter chi and rho (Christos) – to represent his army. You guessed it – Constantine won the battle and continued to wear the symbol for Christ against every hostile power he faced.
But the first Christian emperor didn’t stop there. It was Constantine who made the birthday of the pagan Unconquered Sun god, December 25th, the official birthday of Jesus. It was Constantine who made Sunday an official Roman holiday so that more people could attend church – which he exempted from taxes. It was Constantine who gave us the “sprinkle on the forehead” version of baptism. It was Constantine who funded church leaders and the construction of places of worship. In fact, it was Constantine who in 325, took part in the first meeting of Christian churches – the Council of Nicea. Three hundred bishops joined Constantine in what today is Iznik, Turkey to find common ground on certain aspects of Christian doctrine, most importantly the affirmation of Jesus’ complete divinity.
Meeting with the Council of Nicea, exemplifies, in my humble opinion, Constantine’s greatest effect upon the world — the total integration of church and state, what is now called “Constantinism.” If you’ve studied European history, you know that theocracy didn’t play out so well in the ensuing centuries. It’s why our Founding Fathers, forming a government more than 1400 years after Constantine, sought to avoid it like the plague.
Like his impact on what is now the world’s largest religion, the wall the Emperor built still stands. In the 5th century, another emperor, Theodosius, added to it by building a second wall. In tandem, the walls kept the city and the Byzantine Empire safe during multiple sieges before finally succumbing to the Ottomans in 1453.
After Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople, he ordered the construction of a fort, Yedikuli Fortress, in 1458. For much of the Ottoman Empire, it was used as a treasury, archive and prison before being converted to a museum in 1895.
And that’s how a Roman emperor affected our lives in the 21st Century. Constantine’s wall — like so many of his religious ideas — remains standing, a solid testimony to how one person can irrevocably change the world.