This is the 12th blog in this series which began with Two Versions of Constantine the Great. The previous blog is The Myth of Constantinianism? This blog series is considering Constantine the Great as presented in two books: Paul Stephenson’s CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR and Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE.
Two ways in which Constantine demonstrated the influence of Christianity on his thinking and piety are associated with animal sacrifice and the gladiatorial games of Rome. Constantine first refused to participate in animal sacrifice and then began forbidding it in areas of the empire which were under his direct control – in the military and in civic ceremony. As both historians Leithart and Stephenson note, animal sacrifice was a normative part of Roman civil society, and in some ways marked the very nature of religion in Rome. Constantine’s personal choice to refuse to participate in such sacrifice and then his forbidding it in civic and military ceremonies in which he took part do reflect the growing influence of Christianity on his religious understanding. Christians did believe that Christ’s sacrifice once and for all replaced the need for animal sacrifice in the temple in Jerusalem, and now Constantine recognized that same truth for the empire: animal sacrifice was not needed to please the great God.
Constantine also came to see the gladiatorial games as dehumanizing and not a good part of the Roman Empire. This thinking is a radical change for the gladiatorial games were recognized as almost synonymous with Roman self understanding and self glorification. For example in an early time, Pliny the Younger praised Emperor Trajan for his gladiatorial games as
“a spectacle that inspired the audience to noble wounds and to despise death, since even in the bodies of slaves and criminals the love of praise and desire for victory could be seen.” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, p 194)
What happened in the Empire after Constantine’s conversion is that the games were given an entirely new understanding through Christian eyes. The Christians, who were sometimes the murdered victims in events associated with the games, turned their deaths into witness (martyria) to the Kingdom of Jesus and His power over death. The glories of Rome, namely the gladitorial games, were defeated by the blood of the martyrs who turned their deaths into a triumph over Roman power. The pagan Gladiators despised death to show their bravery and love of praise, but Christianity triumphed over this worldly understanding saying the martyr’s death too despised death because Christ had triumphed over death and now they too shared in this triumph and eternal life. The Christians embraced martyrdom that came to them in the arena and in embracing it as a means to triumph over death and even over the ultimate power of Rome, converted the entire understanding of the gladiatorial games. Dying for glory in this world became despised, just as death had been despised, because the power of this world had been conquered by Christ, and the power of this world – namely the Roman empire and its emperor – had also been conquered by Christ’s death and resurrection at the hands of Rome. As the martyrs imitated Christ in accepting death and proclaiming the resurrection, so Rome’s power was exposed as having no eternal value. Rome under Christian Constantine now gave its claim to glory to Christ Himself, the unconquerable God. Rome had not conquered Christ through crucifying Him, rather the Crucified one had conquered the Roman empire not by slaying anyone but by giving life to all.
“Martyrs endured flame and sword because in that anguish they shared in the sufferings of Christ. But they also knew that the sufferings of Christ were not perpetual. Jesus suffered, died, was buried and then rose again, vindicated by his Father over against all the condemnations of the world and the devil. Martyrs went to their deaths expecting vindication, and expecting that vindication not only in heaven and at the last day but on earth and in time. That is what Lactantius’s treatise on the death of persecutors is all about. ‘Behold,’ he writes to one Donatus, ‘all the adversaries are destroyed, and tranquility having been re-established throughout the Roman empire, the late oppressed Church arises again, and the temple of God, overthrown by the hands of the wicked, is built with more glory than before.’ Just like Jesus.” (Leithart, DEFENDING CONSTANTINE, pp 308-309)