Eusebius’ Account of Constantine’s Gradual Conversion

By: Jacqueline Pedlow

Paradoxically, at the beginning of the fourth century Roman laws permitted the persecution of Christians, yet by the end of the same century, the Holy Roman Empire was thriving.  Bishop Eusebius’ account of Constantine’s conversion from Paganism to Christianity in 312 at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge is traditionally viewed as the catalyst for this change.  In Eusebius’ biography, Life of Constantine, when Constantine began praying for divine assistance in battle, “a cross-shaped trophy formed from light” appeared in the sky, along with the words “‘By this conquer.’”[1]  That same evening, Constantine dreamed of a conversation with God, who told him to use the sign in the sky “as protection against the attacks of the enemy.”[2]  The next morning, Constantine sought to learn about and devote his life to this Christian God.  The emperor quickly won the battle and then “somewhat later,” added the image from the sky to his solders’ armor and called it the labarum.[3]

Many scholars today wonder if Constantine truly converted during this battle in 312.  Some historians argue the battle led to Constantine’s conversion and the creation of the labarum, while others believe it only resulted in the labarum.  Few historians go further, presenting the idea that the mystical event never even occurred.  In this debate, historians have made Eusebius’ account of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge synonymous with Constantine’s conversion.  When scholars analyze Eusebius’ work, they assume Eusebius argues that Constantine converted during the battle in 312.  Perhaps, however, Eusebius’ purpose in writing this account was not to tell of Constantine’s conversion, but rather to share Constantine’s experience. Moreover, perhaps Eusebius’ account argues that Constantine’s complete conversion took more time than just one day, and therefore the typical perspective taken on Eusebius’ passage is flawed.

A title is the first tool authors have in introducing their reader to their work and their purpose.  With this in mind, Eusebius uses two headings for this event: “Constantine seeks divine aid and receives the labarum” and “The vision of Constantine.”[4]  Eusebius’ choice of titles does not imply a conversion but does reference the labarum. It would be logical to assume, then, that Eusebius saw the creation of the labarum as the more important, or perhaps the more relevant, result of the emperor’s experience than his conversion.

Toward the beginning of the account, Eusebius claims the story he tells is that which Constantine directly told him “a long while after” the occurrence, and when he“was privileged with [the emperor’s] acquaintance and company.”[5]  In other words, Eusebius is reporting the words of Constantine.  It is worth mentioning Eusebius does not use any form of “convert” through the tale.  The idea of a conversion comes from the line that states Constantine was “determined to worship no other god than the one who had appeared,”[6]clearly implying a change in religious affiliation, though the bulk of the commentary is on Constantine learning about Christ as opposed to worshipping him.  While Eusebius claims this is when Constantine decided to follow God, the length of time over which Constantine learns about God is unclear—learning about God could have been, as it often is, a gradual process.  Historian T. G. Elliott states that “Constantine never mentioned the alleged conversion” elsewhere.[7]  This fact could call Eusebius’ credibility into question, but this is an entire debate within itself.  For the purpose of this paper, let us recognize that historian H. A. Drake argues there is ample evidence that the primary flaw of Eusebius’ work is that the biography is incomplete, not inaccurate.[8]  With this understanding, it is feasible Constantine never mentioned the conversion because when Constantine shared the event with Eusebius, his purpose was not to explain his conversion, but rather, as Eusebius’ title implies, to explain the origin of the labarum.

Nonetheless, regardless of why Constantine shared this event, the fact remains that he didinclude that this was when he dedicated his life to the Christian God.  Although this seems troubling on the surface, “modern studies of conversion experiences suggest that a dramatic 180-degree turn…is the way converts typically remember the event long after it has happened.”[9]  Drake argues that “Constantine fits this model.”[10]  It is likely that the cross in the sky influenced Constantine’s religious beliefs, but that the overall conversion was gradual.

If Eusebius’ account can support that Constantine’s conversion was gradual, then Life of Constantine becomes an asset instead of a hinderance in uncovering the true story of Constantine’s walk of faith.  For example, T. G. Elliott argues against the 312 conversion because there is evidence that Constantine may have been Christian before this date.[11] Acknowledging that religion is not a black and white topic, with a gradual conversion, Constantine may have believed pieces of Christianity and/or combined these beliefs with other religions before 312.  Then the Battle of the Milvian Bridge can be looked at as one piece of Constantine’s journey in faith in which he became more connected to Christianity, but not the sole, decisive event which caused the conversion.  In short, seeing Eusebius’ story as one of a gradual rather than a sudden conversion opens doors for the ways in which Life of Constantine can be used as evidence.

[1]Eusebius, Life of Constantine, trans. Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), 81.

[2]Eusebius, Life, 81.

[3]Eusebius, Life, 82.

[4]Eusebius, Life, 79-80.

[5]Eusebius, Life, 81.

[6]Eusebius, Life, 82.

[7]T. G. Elliott, “Constantine’s Conversion: Do We Really Need It?”  Phoenix 41, no. 4 (Winter, 1987): 437, JSTOR.

[8]H. A. Drake, “What Eusebius Knew: The Genesis of the ‘Vita Constantini,’” Classical Philology 83, no. 1 (Jan., 1988): 37, JSTOR.

[9]H. A. Drake, “The Impact of Constantine on Christianity,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine, ed. Noel Lenski (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 115.

[10]H. A. Drake, “The Impact,” 115.

[11]T. G. Elliott, “Constantine’s Conversion,” 424-7.