People tend to lament the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine to Christianity. Yes, he wasn’t perfect. Yes, he probably chose Christianity to unify his empire. But, it wasn’t all bad.
John Meyendorff highlights the mixed-bag nature of the Christianization of the Roman Empire: “If the Roman state, now Christian-inspired, hardly modified its philosophy of marriage, it did begin to integrate some principles of Christian family ethics. Thus help was provided to parents unable to feed their children and tempted to abandon them. The sale of children to slavery and their use for prostitution was severely punished. Laws prohibiting celibacy, which was encouraged by the Church, were abolished. Homosexuals were to be burnt at the stake. Earlier, Constantine had condemned pederasts to gladiator’s fights, but soon decided to abolish such fights altogether, after also forbidding mutilation, by fire-branding, of a criminal’s face because ‘it bears the similitude of God’” (Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions, 10-11).
So, in the midst of what most would consider barbaric punishments, we have laws against child-abuse, and a thoroughly Christian reason for not branding criminals on their faces!
I love Meyendorff–although he is Eastern Orthodox, he is truly objective. He doesn’t shy away from the messy (or objectionable) details of church history, and nor does he over-emphasize the virtues of the early church.