Hillsdale Academy Headmaster Dr. Kenneth Calvert On Constantine
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HH: Time for the Hillsdale Dialogue of the week. Each week for an hour, I sit down with either Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, or one of his extraordinary colleagues at Hillsdale. And we revisit as we have for the last year the history of how the West became the West, how we ended up here in 2013. And I’m so pleased this week to resume a conversation I began last year with Dr. Kenneth Calvert of the Hillsdale faculty. He is also the headmaster of the Hillsdale Academy. And Dr. Calvert, Happy New Year to you, welcome back.
KC: Thank you, Hugh, Happy New Year.
HH: Let’s remind people of what the Hillsdale Academy is so that they understand that Hillsdale College has many outreaches not just over the radio or in the classroom at the college.
KC: Right, this is a K-12 school that was founded in 1990 by the college to serve as a traditional and classical model of education, in other words, a throwback to the way education used to be done in order to show a way forward for the country in its education, educating K-12 students. We’ve worked with many private schools and charters schools. Very recently, this has grown into the Barney Charter School Initiative now establishing charter schools across the country. So it’s private, it’s charter. Anybody who wants to work with us to reestablish right-headed, traditional education in America.
HH: There is a great part of the website at www.hillsdale.edu that explains the academy. And if you are out there listening and you’re intrigued, just send Dr. Calvert an email, email@example.com. And of course, this and all of the Hillsdale Dialogues are available at www.hughforhillsdale.com. You can recall, regular listeners, and to my new audiences across the land, including in Casper, Wyoming this week, Dr. Calvert and I and Dr. Arnn had begun a study of the early Christian church last year that we interrupted to focus on Winston Churchill for a while. But when we left off, we were nearing 285. But I want to go back if I can with you, Dr. Calvert, and have you, if you just take a floor for a moment, remind people of how the Church became the Church. And I think this is so crucial, because just this week, I heard a sermon on when the acts of the Apostles became separated from the Gospels. And I think that goes to about 170AD. And the early Church took a long time forming before we got up to Constantine.
KC: That’s correct. Constantine, of course, came to power in 324AD. And in that three hundred years between the time of Christ and the rise of Constantine, you had a whole development there of the Church beginning with the disciples, and of course, He made it clear that His kingdom was not of this world, that He was sending them out to evangelize the whole world, not just the Mediterranean, but to bring the whole world into a knowledge of the Gospel and into His Church. And over those three hundred years, you had heresies emerge, you had all kinds of persecution, the Roman pagan empire persecuting the Christians because they could not worship the gods of the empire. And through that time, the Christians, as Tertullian, one of the great Christian fathers, said, that the blood of the saints is the seed of the Church, that Christianity actually grew and prospered in that context, and by the time of Constantine, had become a significant power.
HH: And it was throughout the Western world, and we define the Western world as including the lands of Arabia and the Middle East as well as, we tend to think of Rome as Rome, but it was a far-flung empire.
KC: Absolutely, from Britain up in the northwest to Arabia in the southeast, the Roman empire included dozens upon dozens of various cultures throughout that area.
HH: One of the things we covered last year is that the persecutions were not systematic, but when they occurred, they were ferocious.
KC: Absolutely. For the first two hundred years, persecution was really local, very much a local affair. It depended upon the magistrate. Sometimes, the magistrate would be very anti-Christian. Other times, magistrates would just let the Christians be themselves. In fact, in North Africa, the region of Carthage, around Carthage, Christians had not been persecuted for many, many years. The first empire-wide persecution came under the emperor Decius in 249AD. And then after that, there were a couple of other further persecutions. But these were the first empire-wide persecutions as these emperors got the feeling, or began to believe that the Christians were truly hurting the empire.
HH: And I think we also have to spend just a minute or two on when people think of Rome, they think of Caesar, and maybe the late Roman Republic and the Senate, and maybe Sula and some of these others. But by the time we are talking about, we’ve been through all of the Augustus Caesars, and now tell us about how the empire ran and who became emperor, and what was the defining feature of being the emperor in these years.
KC: Right, an important part of this whole history is the fact that at the same time the Christians were going from being a persecuted minority into a fairly substantial group within the empire, the empire itself was waning. It was becoming more, it was becoming weak. The golden age of the Roman empire was from the time of the emperor Augustus, we’ll say 27BC, until 180AD in the time of Marcus Aurelius. That’s when things were really strong. After Marcus Aurelius, about 180, things began to be weak. And from about 180 to 284, in that area, there were no less than 27 different emperors.
HH: In a hundred years, 27 emperors?
KC: That’s right. So you’re talking about, you know, on average, three to four years, you had a transition. And there was a great deal of civil war, a great deal of upheaval within the empire during that hundred years.
HH: Goodness, the average playing career of an NFL professional is three and a half years, Dr. Calvert. So an emperor actually just about an NFL career span, huh?
KC: That’s about right. And for many of those emperors, actually, a far shorter amount of time, some just a couple of months. And so it was not a happy time. And Constantine comes, really, at the end of that period. And what’s important to understand about Constantine is that this was an age in which the emperors were trying to recover the old strength of the Roman empire to bring things back together again.
HH: Well, tell us about the man. And people know of Constantinople now, of course, Istanbul.
HH: And it’s just a name shrouded in 1,700 years ago history. But he must have been, you know, flesh and bone, a very, very vibrant figure. Tell us about him.
KC: Well, Constantine was born to his mother, Helena, who was a Christian woman. She was not particularly learned and not of a great family. But she was a Christian woman, and was very staunch in her faith. His father, Constantius Chlorus, had been emperor and was a very powerful man, particularly located and had his regional power in the west, in Gaul, in Britain, in the west. And so when Constantine came to power, he grew up, he came up through a family that was both pagan and Christian. Constantius Chlorus worshipped Apollo, worshipped the unconquerable sun, Sol Invictus. He was a sun worshipper, very strong military cult as well. And so Constantius and Helena raised their son in kind of a divided household, both Christian and pagan, but Constantine seemed to be decidedly a strong personality, a strong individual, and when his father died, he took on his father’s mantle and became a candidate, if you want to call it that, for emperor himself. His father died in 306, and Constantine struggled from 306 to 324 to take on the other candidates, or the other opponents for imperial power, and by 324 had defeated no less than three other opponents.
HH: You know, Dr. Calvert, people think of political leaders now, and they never imagine them in armor with a sword in their hand. But there were, as some fighting generals became presidents in our era like Grant and Benjamin Harrison, there were fighting emperors. And I think Constantine was very much a fighting emperor, wasn’t he?
KC: He was definitely a fighting emperor. I think, though, it’s important for us to distinguish between his context and a person like Eisenhower who was under, was a military man under civilian control. Constantine was both a military man and he was the government. So a very important distinction there in their positions as general, but Constantine, yes, he was both emperor, and as emperor, general, commander of all the armed forces.
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HH: I love his ratings, by the way, at www.ratemyprofessor.com. He’s an extraordinarily appreciated professor on the campus of Hillsdale. He’s also a headmaster of Hillsdale Academy, so he’s a beloved professor, and I assume a beloved headmaster. We don’t know.
KC: Certainly not all days.
HH: I’ll bet not all days. What principal is, right?
HH: And he is our guide through the rise of early Christianity and its adoption by the state. Now I must admit, you used the word Gaul in the first segment, and for the benefit of the Steelers fans, that’s France and a little bit of Italy.
HH: So Constantine rises up, battles others to take over the Roman empire, and I have, for as long as I can remember, known what the Battle of the Milvian Bridge was in 312, but I honestly, I have no idea where it occurred.
KC: Milvian Bridge is right near the city of Rome. It’s just north of the city of Rome. And at this point, what’s happening is Constantine is fighting one of his opponents, Maxentius, for control of the west, of the western part of the empire and for control of the city of Rome. And he has before the battle takes place, he has a vision. And this vision is of a Christian symbol, the Chi-Rho, which is interestingly enough placed, he sees it in his vision before or next to the sun in the sky. So in a way, you have this mixture of a Christian symbol, but also a little hint of that sun worship that his father was involved in. And there is a voice from Heaven that says to Constantine by this sign, go forth and conquer. And so he puts the Chi-Rho symbol on the shield, this Christian symbol, on his soldiers’ shields, and they go forth and they beat their enemy. They beat Maxentius. And from that point on, Constantine honors Christ as his God, as his Savior.
HH: Now Dr. Calvert, do we know from contemporary accounts how this was received by his army? I mean, this is, if all of a sudden we had President Obama come out and say by this sign, conquer, I’ve had a vision, we’d seek to have him committed. But of course, this is the not ancient world, but near-ancient world in 312. What do we know about the reaction?
KC: Well, this kind of thing is not uncommon at all. It is quite common to have a dream, to have a vision, to have some sort of sign from the Divine in the midst of a battle, in the midst of some sort of important event. So in their minds, and in that world, it was not at all unusual for that to happen. And so what most scholars understand about this is that his army had to be made up of a great number of Christians for this to have gone over well and to be well-accepted. And if, and those who were not Christian, they certainly would have bought into the idea that their emperor, their leader, had had a vision from the Divine, from his God, and that this was something that was readily accepted.
HH: Now when you say his army had to be made up of Christians…
HH: Immediately, people listening are wondering what do you mean by that. Do you mean that they, there’s no Council of Nicea, there’s no creed at this point. What do you mean by it had to be made up of Christians? What would be their core belief?
KC: Well, the core belief at that point was that Jesus Christ was their Savior, Jesus Christ was their King. The Church had begun to be planted and established throughout the Mediterranean world. There were already bishops active in many of the regions, and of course, there was a bishop at Rome who already had some authority as the bishop of the capital of the empire. And so there were Christians present. And you know, when the persecutions took place in the Roman world, quite often, it was in the west that the persecutions were least effective or least pursued. And so Helena really is an example of Christianity in the western part of the empire. And it’s understood that his armies had to have included a good number of Christians.
HH: Now the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, what kind of scale, and we know what Wellington said of Waterloo. It was a damn close run thing.
HH: What was the scale of the battle? And was it a rout, or was it truly something that turned on a division or a battalion or a handful of troops?
KC: Well, not a great deal is known about it. There were tens of thousands on each side. We do know that Constantine had preplanned a number of aspects of the battle, including a number of pontoon bridges which the enemy had to use that were actually designed to fall apart and to break up on the enemy. There is definitely a sense that this was a pretty one-sided battle, that Constantine won it fairly handily, and yes, it was a rout and ended up in the death, eventually, of his opponent, Maxentius, and his control of the city of Rome.
HH: And those of us who love Roman history know these are bloody affairs, and the wounds are horrible, and the suffering is great.
HH: So in the aftermath, you can have a traumatized legion or a traumatized people. I don’t know what Rome reacts, but the Edict of Milan follows a year later. What was that and what does it matter to our story?
KC: Well, what’s happening here is that through Constantine, it’s very clear that Christianity is now moving surely but gradually into the mainstream. It’s becoming more accepted. And the Edict of Milan in 313 is an agreement between Constantine and one of his other opponents, a man named Licinius, who was controlling the eastern part of the empire at that point, an agreement that Christianity would now be legal, that it would be tolerated and it would be legal in the empire, another religion among all the many religions in the empire. It would now be considered as a legal religion and would no longer be persecuted.
HH: I’m curious, did the Christians buy this? Or were they, you know, if you came out in Syria today, or in Iraq or in one of the Islamic countries and you had an edict of Damascus saying hey, Christians, Ollie Ollie in free, come on out…
HH: No one would rush out and start worshipping in public, I think.
KC: Well, it did take some time. It did take some time for not only the Christians to get used to this, but also for the pagan oppressors to get used to this idea. Very interesting that there was a group in North Africa called the Donatists, who did not trust Constantine. In fact, they viewed Constantine as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And the Donatists were Christians who were very rigorous, what we might call fundamentalist in their Christianity, and really doubted the idea that this emperor would now embrace and legalize Christianity.
HH: Oh, how interesting. So the suspicion that we would anticipate today was there as well as the schisms that rise, just completely destroy Church unity.
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HH: We’re in a crucial period right now, the period of 313, after the Edict of Milan that legalizes Christianity up through the time of the Council of Nicea. Take us forward, Dr. Calvert.
KC: Right, in 313, of course, the Christian faith becomes legal. But there is still another eleven years of conflict between Constantine and his opponents, and particularly Licinius in the east. By 324, he does become the sole emperor. He defeats Licinius, and at that point, begins to consolidate his power throughout the Mediterranean, consolidate his power throughout the Roman empire. And this is a particularly important moment not only for Christianity, but also for the Roman empire because there had been this struggle for well over a hundred years now of bringing the whole thing together and bringing peace to the empire. And so Constantine is sometimes called the new Augustus. Augustus was the founder of the Roman principate, of the Roman empire. And here, Constantine, the new Augustus, has now revived that unity, brought it together again. At the same time, he eliminates this problem of the persecution of Christianity, and his problem of a division over this religion by making it legal and bringing it under his sphere of influence. And this is something we have to really understand about Constantine, that he held a position called pontifex maximus, which is a position that every emperor had held before him from the time of Augustus up through to Constantine. And the pontifex maximus was the high priest of all the religions of the Roman empire, and oversaw all of those religions, and now including Christianity.
HH: Well, this is, of course, for people who are wondering when does the pope emerge, this is, the bishop of Rome becomes the leader of all the Church, this is very confusing, because it’s kind of hard to merge a pontifex maximum into the Christian faith, isn’t it?
KC: Well, not really. The original term pontifex maximus means the great bridge builder. And it was that high priest within the pagan Roman world which oversaw all of the rites and all of the liturgies and all of the sacrifices of the pagan world. What happened in Rome was they simply Christianized that idea. It is not the idea that the pope oversees pagan religions, but that the pope oversees now all of the priest and all of the activities, to unify it, to make it more consistent throughout the Catholic world. That’s what the Christian idea of pontifex maximum means.
HH: Now meanwhile, the Church isn’t exactly all on the same page. The Arian heresy is swirling. Would you tell people what that is?
KC: Right. Arias was a deacon in the city of Alexandria. He lived from 250 to around 336AD. And Arias, well, first of all, you have to understand that Alexandria was very much an intellectual place. It was very much a university town. There was a lot of philosophical discussion going on. And Arias was very much a product of this time, this era in Alexandria. And what Arias taught was that Jesus had not existed from the beginning of time, that He only came into existence when He came into the world as the incarnate Christ. And so Arias said that there was a time when He was not, that is there was a time when Jesus did not exist. Now this conflicted with, for instance, the Gospel of John, in which the writer of the Gospel of John says In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was, of course, Jesus. So there was this conflict between Arias and between the orthodox or Biblical view of Jesus. And you may remember from our conversation a few months ago that we talked about the roots of heresy among the Christians. It almost always had to do with the person of Jesus. Was He fully Divine? Was He fully human? What was that mixture and how do we talk about that? And this is where the Arian controversy is rooted as well.
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HH: We’re making great progress, but I should call this the segment of the two cities that matter beyond Rome – Constantinople and Nicea, because these are the two cities that really are intertwined with where the world goes next, Dr. Calvert. Tell us about the roles they play.
KC: Right, Constantine is now, of course, the sole emperor. And he sees that there is division within the Christian Church between the Arians and between the orthodox. And so what he does is call together a council to settle this issue. It’s important to understand that the evidence that we have suggests that Constantine did not quite understand what the doctrinal problem was, but he knew that the Christians were divided. And in his role as emperor, in his role as pontifex maximus, now overseeing the Church, it was for him, it was his duty to bring them together to settle this so that they were no longer conflicting with one another. And so he brought them together at the Council of Nicea in which the Nicean Creed has its roots.
HH: When does that occur?
KC: The foundation…excuse me?
HH: When does that occur?
KC: That occurred in 325AD, about a year after he had defeated Licinius. So it was very quickly that he brought the bishops together to this council at the same time he’s establishing his new capital at Constantinople.
HH: Why did he do a new capital?
KC: Well, it’s very important to understand that throughout the history of the Roman empire, the eastern half of the empire was always the strongest half. It had all of the industry, the largest population, the greatest wealth. The west was not as strong as the east, and the focus of government had been shifting more and more to the east. And so it was actually quite a necessary and brilliant move to establish a new capital.
HH: And as we will find out in future weeks, this eventually leads to the split between Roman Catholicism and orthodoxy. But for the moment, let’s focus on those dozen years left in Constantine’s life after he consolidates his power, and after he calls the Council of Nicea together and establishes the new capital. How does he, and how does his mother bring vigor and order to the Christian world?
KC: It’s quite remarkable. He and Helena were keen to establish the most holy sites of the Christian faith in Jerusalem and throughout the Holy Land, such as the Church of the Nativity, et cetera. They also established a common Bible to be used throughout the Church, a number of things that they did to strengthen the Church. They gave a great deal of wealth, a great deal of money to the establishment of churches, including, of course, the great Basilica of St. Peters at Rome, which was later torn down and the new reconnaissance St. Peters was built. So a great deal of activity in the, on behalf of Christianity.
HH: She brought the, she brought much of Jerusalem to Rome, didn’t she? I think she brought the steps that I have climbed to Rome.
KC: She did. She did. The steps that we are told had been part of Herod’s palace, yeah.
HH: Yeah, and so they go about this church building and empire building. What does, does he in turn persecute the people that won’t go along with him?
KC: Now what’s important to understand is that he does not make Christianity the sole religion. He promotes Christianity, and Christianity is legal. But what many do not understand is that Constantine actually continued to give money to support the worship of Apollo. He also gave some money to worship, continue the worship of the sun. Many of his inscriptions will talk about God, but will not be so precise as to mention Christ or Jesus. He uses a variety of symbols that can be variously interpreted both Christian and pagan. So it is important to understand that Constantine, though, well, let me put it this way. For those who want to see him as a Christian, they will call him the thirteenth apostle. On the other hand, there are those who are very cynical about Constantine and say that he really wasn’t Christian at all, he was just using the Church for his own political ends.
HH: And given where he’s buried, that’s an interesting title, the thirteenth apostle.
KC: That’s right. He’s buried in the Church of the Twelve Apostles. He was baptized in his final year before he passed, before he died in 337, which is another piece of evidence that those who are more cynical will say well, he’s just waiting until the last minute to be baptized. Really, from my perspective, and there are a number of authors who have touched on this, from my perspective, it’s somewhere in the middle.
HH: Is there a best biography of Constantine that you recommend to people?
KC: Yes, there is. I would say that David Potter’s book, Constantine, The Emperor, is the title by David Potter, published in 2012, is a fine biography.
HH: What a remarkable man. I mean, people don’t know much about him, but without him, we wouldn’t have the West, would we?
KC: Right. He was absolutely essential to the West, not only in giving Christianity a place at the table, but also in the way he established kingship. Many of the Western and Eastern, for that matter, Byzantine, but also in the West, many of the Western kings, many of the Western monarchs, took Constantine as a model for their rule.
HH: Now let’s do what we call a radio tease and set up next week. There’s another figure emerging at the same time he is preeminent – Athanasius. And tell us a little bit about why people should look forward to next week.
KC: Well, I think Athanasius is a great example, number one, of the battle between the orthodox and the Arians, that is those who saw Jesus as from the beginning. That’s what Athanasius would say, and those who saw Jesus as only becoming Divine later in His life. So Athanasius is an important doctrinal person. But also, Athanasius came into conflict with Constantine. Constantine, after Nicea, wasn’t entirely sure he had done the right thing, and he came into conflict with Athanasius, and actually exiled him to the city of Trier, in Gaul.
HH: And when we come back next week, we are going to pick up the story of that most amazing bishop, the father of orthodoxy, he’s called. And we will march forward. Dr. Kenneth Calvert, you’ve covered a lot of ground, but I am glad to spend an hour on Constantine and salute him. And I look forward to continue our conversation next week. America, if you’ve enjoyed this, all of the Hillsdale Dialogues are this way, because every member of the faculty and staff at Hillsdale committed to understanding the West. They’re all at www.hughforhillsdale.com. They’re all for free. Don’t miss next week.
End of interview.