Few ancient figures draw as much interest than Constantine, the controversial leader known for his exploits on the battlefield and efforts to unify the Roman Empire.
Many religious scholars, however, consider his most important legacy to be protecting Christians from persecution and legitimizing the faith in an oppressive ancient world.
“Constantine was very good to Christians,” says Msgr. Arthur Holquin, pastor emeritus of Mission San Juan Capistrano and vicar for Divine Worship for the Diocese of Orange. “He was pivotal because he was the first emperor to end the state-sponsored persecution of Christians.”
Constantine didn’t work alone; he had help, and it came from a familiar place — his mother.
Constantine and his mother, Helena, promoted and spread the values of Christianity at a time when Christians—and all of those who didn’t follow the traditional pagan beliefs of the Roman Empire—faced widespread persecution. Churches were torched. Their beliefs and customs outlawed, Christians were tortured and killed, often by beheading or stoning.
“Both Helena and Constantine played a critical role relative to the history of Christianity and its spread in what is today western Europe,” Holquin says. “Prior to Constantine, the religion of Roman Empire was officially paganism and the belief in multiple gods. This was not a matter of personal discretion — it was a mandated belief of the empire.”
Because of their beliefs, Christians did not acknowledge the pantheon of Roman gods, Holquin adds. “It was for this reason that Christians were persecuted and martyred,” he says.
But as the Roman Empire grew under Constantine, Christianity became more common among its citizens.
Constantine’s connection to Christianity began in 312 A.D. when he saw a vision in the evening sky before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge at the Tiber River in Rome. The vision brought Constantine to believe he was under guidance and protection of God. Constantine won the battle and became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire.
Constantine established the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., an empire-wide mandate establishing tolerance for all faiths and beliefs. The edict outlawed religious persecution and gave Christians legal rights. It set the foundation for Christianity to become the religion of the Roman Empire, which was officially declared by Emperor Theodosius I in 380 AD.
Although Constantine was not a formal member of church, he was tolerant and favorable to the Christian faith, says Lawrence Cunningham, professor emeritus of theology at the University of Notre Dame. Teachings of the Christian faith influenced new laws that punished crimes against women and children. Land was given for churches. Christians slowly emerged from society’s fringes.
“The Church thrived under his reign,” Cunningham says. “He was very sympathetic to the emergence of the Christian church as a free institution.”
The edict also allowed Helena, the wife of Constantine’s father, the Emperor Constantius, to begin her work in the Holy Land. Constantius divorced Helena after the birth of Constantine to marry Theodora, the step-daughter of Maximianus, the Roman emperor who Constantius later succeeded. Despite the shame of divorce at the time, Helena and her son remained close. She lived in relative obscurity until he was seated as emperor.
“She was, in a very real way, a woman scorned,” says Rev. Troy Schneider, parochial vicar of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange. “At the time, you married for status. From her scorn and her devotion to Christ, she became an incredible witness to faith.”
Religious scholars believe Constantine’s allegiance to Christianity and elevation to emperor laid the foundation for Helena to begin spreading the teachings of Jesus Christ. At the time, the Roman Empire was still thriving, while much of the world’s population suffered from religious and economic oppression. The Edict of Milan and the spreading popularity of Christianity propelled Helena across the Holy Land and into Palestine, where she discovered several important relics, including the cross on which Christ was crucified. She founded churches in Rome, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, including the Church of the Nativity. Religious scholars believe that much of her work came later in life: Helena embarked on her multi-year journey to the Holy Land when she was about 80, traveling across a vast region to spread the teachings of the Christian faith.
“Palestine was still struggling with the poor,” Schneider says. “Helena desired not only to help the people of Palestine but establish it as the birthplace of Christ and build it as an area of pilgrimage. She felt a call to walk the footsteps of Christ.”
Today, Constantine and Helena are revered in the Catholic faith for their work. The emperor was baptized just before he died in 337 A.D. Helena is revered as a saint in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Lutheran churches.
“It was amazing to do what she did and her accomplishments were especially significant at the time,” Schneider says. “Helena was a woman of divorce but that did not stop her from leading an incredibly whole and devout life.”