History05 Jul 2009 06:33 pm
Constantine I, best known for being the first Christian Roman emperor, is considered a saint (along with his mother Helena) by the Eastern Orthodox Church, and is revered under the title “The Great” by the Latin church for his contribution to Christianity. The circumstances surrounding his conversion to Christianity remain in dispute; while it is widely believed that his mother exposed him to the religion as a child, some scholarship suggests that he converted to Christianity following his victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. However, it is undisputed that Constantine had converted to Christianity by the time he issued the Edict of Milan in 313, which reversed the persecution of Christians that had been enacted under his predecessor, Diocletian.
While Christians throughout the Roman Empire rejoiced at their newfound religious freedom, Jews were forced to reckon with a new set of restrictive laws imposed by the Emperor. In fact, Constantine I was the first Roman emperor to promulgate laws that radically proscribed the rights of Jews as Roman citizens, in effect rescinding this privilege granted to them by Emperor Caracalla is 212. By 329, the Emperor had outlawed the conversion of Christians to Judaism, a crime punishable by death. Moreover, he issued an edict forbidding the intermarriage between Christians and Jews (also punishable by death). He also proclaimed that Jews were not allowed to own Christian slaves and could not circumcise them. Notably, these laws were written in extremely hostile language, even going so far as to refer to Judaism as a “bestial sect.”
As Christianity grew in both strength and number throughout the Roman Empire, subsequent emperors went even further than Constantine I in promulgating laws that restricted the civil and political rights of Jews. In fact, many Jewish scholars trace the subsequent and progressive deterioration of Jewish rights throughout Europe to the influence of Constantine I and his negative attitude towards the religion.
Despite countless analogous examples in history, it is always surprising to see how an influential leader can be both lionized and loathed by the people affected by his rule…..
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