Bishops on the bench : why Constantine legislated Christian bishops into the role of judges


University of British Columbia

Date Issued


Document Type



Doctor of Philosophy - PhD




This research is focused around a central question: why did Constantine make bishops judges and legislate them into this role with two pieces of legislation in 318 and 333? The short answer to this question is that he appears to have made this move based on his firsthand experience with the bishops sitting as judges in the Donatist hearings, wherein certain rigorist bishops had appealed their case to his court. He ultimately sat with a panel of other bishop judges in 316 and, as Emperor, decided the matter by making the same findings as the lower court of bishops he had initially sequestered for this task. The main reasons Constantine made the bishops judges can be summarized as follows: 1) Christian bishops were beholden to Constantine for saving their religion from persecuting emperors. After witnessing their ability to decide the Donatist legal proceedings at various levels of court and himself coming to the same decision, Constantine dovetailed their role as judges in the Christian community to one that would serve the state, and he reasonably expected them to cooperate. 2) The second reason is connected to the first, and concerns Constantine’s anger against the level of corruption in Roman courts, something he clearly legislated against in 331. As bishops were commissioned by their own religion to care for the poor, and because of the strict moral code of the bishops, it seems reasonable to suggest that Constantine hoped that bishops as judges might be part of the answer to making sure that the poor in society had access to justice in a court that was not corrupt. This may also have been an end-run on the rank-and-file judges in so far as the knowledge that litigants could simply request their case be transferred to a bishop’s court may have been intended to spur them to less corrupt practices more generally. The timing of his decision to make them judges is suggestive, if not conclusive: almost immediately following his experience in the Donatist appeal cases, Constantine made the bishops judges in the Roman legal system.


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Law, Peter A. Allard School of