The conversion of Saint Constantine and the mythology associated with it, provide an excellent example of the syncretic process at work on a symbolic level, between the state and the church.
In Constantine’s conversion narrative we are able to see the complete synthesis of a religious tradition, Christianity, founded on the story of the life and death of a Hebrew prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, with that of the good old time Indo-European religion, with their pantheon of deities, and their cults of sacrifice.
Prior to Saint Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, even on the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine was not yet a Christian. He was an adherent of the Celtic cult of Sol Invictus, which was itself a syncretic variant of the Romano-Persian cult of Mithras Invictus, Zoroastrianism.
This so-called “mystery-cult,” the cult of Mithras-Sol Invictus was the most prominent religious tradition among the officers and ranks of the Roman armies. At the beginning of 4th century, roughly thirty percent of Roman citizens had some affiliation with it, approximately equivalent to the number of Christians living in the empire at the time.
On the eve of the battle that brought him his decisive victory, Saint Constantine purportedly had a vision, revealing to him that he would conquer under the sign of Christ, and so he ordered his soldiers to paint the sign of Christ, the Chi-Rho on their shields, and he was in fact victorious.
This event became the justification for transforming the Christian religion into the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Some might like to view Saint Constantine’s conversion as a radical transformation, but it is a murky matter.
This was not divine intervention.
The soon to be emperor made a political calculation.
Saint Constantine’s opponents had seen the burgeoning Church as a threat to themselves and the imperial government. They saw the suppression of the Church as their path to victory, and control.
They were wrong.
Saint Constantine saw the balance of power tipping in favor of the Christians, he saw their strength in urban centers throughout the empire, he witnessed and acknowledged their ownership and control of various systems of social welfare, the most important of which was the grain dole. He courted their favor and threw in with the Christians.
Not only did the Christians come out for him at the battle of the Milvian Bridge, opening the gates of the city for his soldiers, bearing the mark of Chi-Rho on their shields. When the battle was over they exercised their influence in their communities through the empire, backing the new emperor, allowing him to consolidate control.
Beyond the political calculation that Saint Constantine made, it was insightful, his conversion to Christianity was not that remarkable.
It must be noted that, in the first three centuries of the common era, there had been an affinity between Christians and members of the cults of Mithras-Sol Invictus.
This affinity went beyond a basic philosophical agreement about the nature of reality, good versus evil, salvation and redemption, Christians and the members of these cults shared seach other’s worship spaces and participated in each other’s liturgies.[i]
There is evidence that some groups of Sol/Mithraites identified Jesus as Mithras or Sol, seeing the Invictus (the unconquered son) in the risen Christ, believing that they were the same entity.
Given this context, it must be note that even though Saint Constantine gave credit for his decisive victory to Christ, when he was crowned emperor, the coins that were struck to commemorate the event bore his countenance with the inscription Sol Invictus.
This is an example of Saint Constantine’s self-identification with Sol, the Celtic solar deity. His simultaneous embrace of the Christian Church indicates that he also identified Mithras-Sol Invictus with Christ, and we must allow for the probability that Saint Constantine confused himself with Christ as well.
In Saint Constantine’s mind, he was an incarnation of Sol, of Mithra, of Christ. He took their birthday as his own, December 25th. He saw himself as the second coming of Christ, as the Invictus, the Unconquered Son.
Saint Eusebius was the chronicler of Saint Constantine’s life, as well as the dramatic transformation of the Church during the emperor’s reign, including the first plenary council of the Church at Nicea c. 318 CE.
Saint Eusebius hails the rise of Saint Constantine, and explicitly depicts the transformation of the Christian Church, into the state of Christendom that became the Holy Roman Empire, as the coming of the kingdom of God on earth, as a moment of eschatological triumph for the Church.[ii]
Saint Eusebius interpreted the events of Saint Constantine’s life this way, either because he genuinely believed it to be true, or to flatter his emperor. It does not matter which it was. It is consistent with the thinking Saint Eusebius’ expresses, to see Saint Constantine in the role of Christ! For Saint Eusebius, the emperor is the Messiah, returning to usher in the New Age.
Like other Caesars before him, the syncretic transformation of Saint Constantine the emperor, into an allegory of Christ Invictus, represents deification, uniting the ancient imperial pantheon of the state with the new religion institution of the Christian Church. In that moment the new synthesis of Church and State was both symbolically complete, and complete in reality.
This is a seminal event, in it the pattern of syncretization changes.
The growth and spread of the Church is now modulated in accordance with the reality that it has become an apparatus of imperial government.
The Pontifex Rex, an ancient title and station, once held by the head of the Imperial Pantheon, and since the time of Julius Caesar, held by the reigning emperor, was a title now given to the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, the Papa, and the synthesis was complete.
[i] Please see, Mithraic Iconography and Ideology, by Leroy A. Campbell, published by E. J. Brill, 1968. Mithraic Studies, edited by John R. Hinnells, published by Manchester University Press, 1975. Mithraism in Ostia, edited by Samuel Laeuchli, published by Northwestern University Press, 1967. The Mithras Liturgy, edited and translated by Marvin W. Meyer, published by Scholars Press, 1976. Mysteries of Mithras, by Franz Cumont, translated by Thomas J. McCormack, published by The Open Court Publishing Company, 1903. The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, by David Ulansey, published by Oxford University Press, 1989.
[ii] Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, v. 1, 133 – 135.