Constantine and Ezanus: Converting Kings and Empires

The story of the conversion of the Roman Empire under the emperor Constantine is a well-known foundation narrative for the Western church. Constantine famously saw a vision of a cross bearing the words Hoc Signo Vinces (by this sign you will conquer) before going into battle against the rebel Maxentius. Constantine would sign the Edict of Milan in 313 AD proclaiming religious toleration in the Empire, and thus ensuring that Christians could worship freely. The process of Constantine’s conversion is now accepted as more gradual than the tale of his vision on the battlefield would suggest; his mother Helen was a Christian, but Constantine did not officially declare his adherence to the faith until he was in his forties.

There is an interesting African parallel to this story of a conversion of a king: one which would bring about the rise of the Ethiopian church, now one of the oldest Christian churches in the world.

In the 4th Century AD a Syrian trader named Frumentius was credited with converting Ezana, the Negus (king or emperor) of the Northern Ethiopian state of Aksum. Ezana would go on to build monumental Christian sculptures shaped like monolithic stelae, and raise the first cathedrals in the region. He changed the symbols on his coins from a crescent and two stars to a Christian cross and his currency remains amongst the oldest bearing this symbol. Ezana would renounce his status as the son of the Ethiopian war god and instead set about ensuring his immortal memory as a Christian king. The Ethiopian church has traditionally had a fascination with Judaism – in part stemming from its foundational text’s (the Kebra Nagast: ‘Book of the Glory of Kings) recounting of the Ethiopian monarchy’s origins in the union of King Solomon of Israel and the Queen of Sheba. There is an Orthodox Ethiopian monastery (Deir es-Sultan) in Jerusalem to this day, which is found just behind the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The stories of these two very different rulers perhaps reminds us of the value of monarchical or ‘status’ converts to the spread of Christianity.

References: Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity (London: Penguin Books, 2010), pp. 240-245

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