Supreme Court of the Roman Empire: Constantine's Bishops
10 Pages Posted: 27 Mar 2017
Date Written: March 21, 2017
Constantine, the Roman Emperor from 315-337, was a law-giver and put the Christian Church in a place of primacy in the organization of the state which it only lost as recently as the seventeenth century: as such, he is very important to legal and social history in the Western experience. This thesis looks at one aspect of the degree to which the Emperor Constantine’s adoption of the Christian religion’s political structure affected the social cohesion of the state. I suggest that the adoption was the single most important confluence of state powers in Late Antiquity, and I demonstrate how Constantine did this using the instrumentality of legislation regarding religious tolerance and the vaulting of Bishops in to the position of appeal court judges throughout the Roman Empire. I suggest what Constantine was trying to achieve was an imputation of his own consciousness into the legal life of the Empire by making Christian bishops the final court of appeal for anyone who felt they would get a more fair hearing in front of a bishop than they would under a Roman provincial magistrate: and, very importantly, we know from the legislative record that Constantine was very concerned to root out corruption in the practice of court officials across his empire. He was able to accomplish this in large part, I suggest, by opening up new courts of appeal across his empire which all Roman peoples, Christian or not, could get a more just hearing at. In this way, I will demonstrate how Constantine, having the Bishops already beholden to him by his adoption of their religion, thought he could count on these prelates to employ his consciousness to the various matters that came before the court. In other words, his close relationship to the bishops, established at Nicaea, was used to consolidate his control over the Roman legal system by making the courts of bishops a kind of Supreme Court of the Roman Empire. By alleging this I then agree with Burckhardt, that Constantine did use the Church to his own political ends.
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