Constantine’s Conversion—To What?
THE claimed conversion of Roman emperor Constantine has long interested students of religion. According to his own account, on the eve of a battle in 312 C.E., which he won, the pagan Constantine saw a vision of a cross with the motto: “In this [sign] conquer.” He was “converted” shortly thereafter (in 313 C.E.) and brought an end to the persecution of Christians in the Roman empire. Constantine encouraged the then current form of Christianity as a State religion, and even intervened in internal church disputes. However, he also committed acts that called into question the genuineness of his conversion and was not baptized until just before his death some 24 years later.
In an article in Bible Review, numismatist and doctoral student of theology Stanley A. Hudson revealed how the coinage struck during Constantine’s reign contributes some fascinating information on this subject. Up until Constantine’s time, it was common for Roman coins to depict the popular Roman deities. But Hudson reported that after Constantine’s conversion, pagan themes appeared less and less—with one exception. Coins depicting Sol, the sun god—formerly Constantine’s favorite—were minted profusely. Why?
Hudson suggested two possibilities. First, Constantine’s conversion may have been very gradual—despite his dramatic vision. Or Constantine may actually have confused Sol with Jesus. Syncretism (combination of different forms of belief) is not unusual even today. For example, in Latin America, the pre-Columbian goddesses Pacha-Mama and Tonantzin are still worshiped under the name of the Virgin Mary. In the same way, Constantine may have worshiped Sol under the name of Jesus.
Such syncretism would explain why December 25th, ‘the birthday of the unconquered sun,’ was chosen as the day to commemorate the birth of Jesus. It would also help us to see why on a coin minted to commemorate Constantine’s death there is an inscription “DV Constantinus” (“Divine Constantine”). This shows that, despite his conversion and eventual baptism, Constantine was viewed as a god after his death, just like the pagan emperors before him.
[Picture Credit Line on page 7]
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bequest of Mrs. F. F. Thompson, 1926 (26.229)