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§ 3. The Sons of Constantine. a.d. 337–361.

For the literature see § 2 and § 4.

With the death of Constantine the monarchy also came, for the present, to an end. The empire was divided among his three sons, Constantine II., Constans, and Constantius. Their accession was not in Christian style, but after the manner of genuine Turkish, oriental despotism; it trod upon the corpses of the numerous kindred of their father, excepting two nephews, Gallus and Julian, who were saved only by sickness and youth from the fury of the soldiers. Three years later followed a war of the brothers for the sole supremacy. Constantine II. was slain by Constans (340), who was in turn murdered by a barbarian field officer and rival, Magnentius (350). After the defeat and the suicide of Magnentius, Constantius, who had hitherto reigned in the East, became sole emperor, and maintained himself through many storms until his natural death (353–361).

The sons of Constantine did their Christian education little honor, and departed from their father’s wise policy of toleration. Constantius, a temperate and chaste, but jealous, vain, and weak prince, entirely under the control of eunuchs, women, and bishops, entered upon a violent suppression of the heathen religion, pillaged and destroyed many temples, gave the booty to the church, or to his eunuchs, flatterers, and worthless favorites, and prohibited, under penalty of death, all sacrifices and worship of images in Rome, Alexandria, and Athens, though the prohibition could not be carried out. Hosts now came over to Christianity, though, of course, for the most part with the lips only, not with the heart. But this emperor proceeded with the same intolerance against the adherents of the Nicene orthodoxy, and punished them with confiscation and banishment. His brothers supported Athanasius, but he himself was a fanatical Arian. In fact, he meddled in all the affairs of the church, which was convulsed during his reign with doctrinal controversy. He summoned a multitude of councils, in Gaul, in Italy, in Illyricum, and in Asia; aspired to the renown of a theologian; and was fond of being called bishop of bishops, though, like his father, he postponed baptism till shortly before his death.

Those were there, it is true, who justified this violent suppression of idolatry, by reference to the extermination of the Canaanites under Joshua.5757   So Julius Firmicus Maternus, author of a tract De errore profanarum religionum, written about 348 and dedicated to the emperors Constantius and Constans. But intelligent church teachers, like Athanasius, Hosius, and Hilary, gave their voice for toleration, though even they mean particularly toleration for orthodoxy, for the sake of which they themselves had been deposed and banished by the Arian power. Athanasius says, for example: “Satan, because there is no truth in him, breaks in with axe and sword. But the Saviour is gentle, and forces no one, to whom he comes, but knocks and speaks to the soul: Open to me, my sister?5858   Song of Sol. v. 2. If we open to him, he enters; but if we will not, he departs. For the truth is not preached by sword and dungeon, by the might of an army, but by persuasion and exhortation. How can there be persuasion where fear of the emperor is uppermost? How exhortation, where the contradicter has to expect banishment and death?” With equal truth Hilary confronts the emperor with the wrong of his course, in the words: “With the gold of the state thou burdenest the sanctuary of God, and what is torn from the temples, or gained by confiscation, or extorted by punishment, thou obtrudest upon God.”

By the laws of history the forced Christianity of Constantius must provoke a reaction of heathenism. And such reaction in fact ensued, though only for a brief period immediately after this emperor’s death.

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