(the Great) – circa
274 – 337 AD
from 306 AD to 337 AD
Constantine can be called the last great emperor of the Roman Empire as well as being the founder of the Byzantium. During his lifetime he would create massive change on a scale almost unimaginable before that time. His conversion to Christianity would change the theological fabric of the western world and his establishment of an eastern Roman capitol would change the political fabric.
Constantine, Flavius Valerius Constantinus, was born on February 27, 274 (dates of 271, 272, and 273 are also given, but I am going with a source I respect) in Moesia Superia (modern Nish, Serbia). His father was a military officer by the name of Constantius Chlorus (Chlorus being ‘the Pale’) and his mother Helena was a common woman, and innkeeper’s daughter from Bithynia. It is rumored that Helena, as a young girl, was in fact one of the amenities that her father’s inn offered; for a nominal fee of course.
Constantine’s father Constantius had already been a tribune, provincial governor and, one would expect, a praetorian prefect for a good many years when he was included as a Augustus in the First Tetrarchy that the Emperor Diocletian organized on March 1, 293. Diocletian kept the eastern areas to himself, while splitting the rest of the empire between three men; Maximian, Galerius and Constantius Chlorus. Being as Helena was of no notable birth, Constantius put her aside in favor of Theodora, the daughter of Maximian. For more than a decade the formal group would function fine, though with an obvious weakening of the imperial fabric.
It was at the retirement of Diocletian and Maximian on May 1, 305 that the political situation would change. Maximian was not ready to give up his power, but Diocletian managed to pressure the other Augustus into retiring. It was at this point that Constantius became one of only two Augusti and that history would begin its move toward change. The search began for those who would replace the two retired Augusti and the political world got violent. Constantine fled to his father’s side in Boulogne, where he joined a planned campaign in Britain.
Constantine’s Rise to Power and Conversion to Christianity
On July 25, 306, at Eburacum (York) in Britain, Constantius died and his soldiers immediately proclaimed Constantine Augustus. Unfortunately, the last remaining senior Augusti, Galerius, was not about to recognize this young rebel as an Augustus and only offered Constantine the rank of Caesar. It was an offer that Constantine was happy to accept for the time being. Constantine would swiftly settle his own affairs in Britain and traveled to the city of Augusta Treverorum (Trier) where he would live for the next six years. In 307 AD, he married Fausta, the daughter of Maximian, thus giving him and even more rightful claim to the title of Augustus. Unfortunately, he was now forced to depart from his mistress Minervina, who had born Constantine a son, Crispus. Maximian himself had resumed his duties as one of the Augusti, and with his son Maxentius had taken control of Italy, making the marriage a major political coup for the young Constantine.
It is not clear how long Constantine would have waited for the rank of Augustus. In 310 AD, Maximian died, leaving a gaping hole in the power structure of the empire and allowing an already well-established hostility between Constantine and Maxentius to flare out of control. When, in April 311, the senior Augusti, Galerius, passed away, at Sirmium on the Sava River, the stage was set for a major power struggle. The empire was now scattered among various men of power; Licinius who ruled Illyria, Thrace and the Danube, Maximin Daia, who ruled the east, Maxentius, who now ruled Italy alone and Constantine. It was into this political turmoil that the young Constantine would find himself thrust.
Seeking support from one of the Augusti, Constantine offered his sister’s hand to Lucinius who, being busy fighting Maximin Daia already, was eager to accept. So it was that Constantine was now free to focus on his prime enemy Maxentius in an attempt to bring Italy firmly under his grasp.
Before the first battle between Constantine and Maxentius was joined, one of the most mythic events of Christian history and lore would occur. It would be before the fated battle though that Constantine would begin his journey towards the Christian Church. We are given two different versions of the event that began this journey:
The tutor of Constantine’s son, Lactantius, reported that Constantine was commanded, in a dream, to place the sign of Christ (the cross) on his soldiers’ shields before the battle, so that he may gain divine favor.
Another accounts, given 25 years later by one Eusebius states that while Constantine’s troops were marching towards battle they observed a strange happening. They are said to have observed a cross of light and the words “hoc signo victor eris” or “by this sign you will be victor”. It is further said by Eusebius that Christ himself appeared before Constantine on the next night and informed the emperor that he must place the sign of the cross upon his soldier’s battle standards. This would become the new battle standard that Constantine’s army was known by, the labarum.
Whatever one may believe about the truth of these accounts, the events that follow are forever undisputable. On the 28th of October 312 AD Constantine and Maxentius’ forces would meet in combat just a handful of miles outside Rome. At Saxa Rubra (Red Rocks), upon the Via Flamina, the two armies met and Constantine scored a decisive victory. Maxentius was forced to flee towards the Tiber River where he arranged his troops. There engineers constructed a second bridge next to the Milvian Bridge so that Maxentius’ troops could retreat easier, should the need arise. The need did arise, as Constantine’s troops decisively defeated Maxentius’ forces, but the retreat turned into a slaughter when the engineers pulled the pins to destroy the makeshift bridge too early. The remainder of Maxentius’ troops tried to flee across the narrow Milvian Bridge, but the disorder caused the bridge to clog up and Constantine’s troops slaughtered their enemies. Maxentius was completely defeated at the Battle at Milvian Bridge and Constantine became the undisputed ruler of Europe. Constantine in response to his vision would attribute his victory to the Christian God and commit himself to the new faith.
February of brought Constantine closer to his now only co-emperor Licinius, at a meeting in Milan, when the latter married Constantine’s sister Constantia and Lucinius agreed that Constantine could keep his conquered territory. Constantine and Licinius would also form an agreement on Christianity at this time and though Licinius was not Christian himself, he would honor the agreement. This led to Licinius and Constantine’s Edict of Milan, which granted religious freedom to Christians across the empire. Constantine would now begin his work of making the Christian Church irrevocably tied to the imperial tradition, forcing the early church to give up much of its independence, thought that drawback did very little to diminish the good Constantine did for the early church.
Constantine though would soon discover just how much of a lack of cohesion existed within the early church. Much to his dismay he found that different views and even sects existed all across the Eastern Roman Empire. The trouble was especially strong in Africa were the high-placed church members had a strong aversion to the lapsi, or those who had been unbelievers while Christianity was enduring the centuries of prosecution.
Under their leader Donatus, these Donatists became a rather strong sect and in the year 313 they struck against the bishop of Carthage, Caecilian. Constantine responded to this act by calling a synod to hear the grievances, which met in Rome’s Lateran Council. The synod would rule in favor of Caecilian, but that alone would not deter the Donatists who again appealed to Constantine who responded by convening an even larger council, this time of 33 bishops. Again the council ruled against the Donatists and again they refused to accept the ruling. Constantine now tried to suppress this sect, but was unable to force them out of power. The result was a separatist Donatist Church that would hold much of North Africa in its sway for the next two centuries.
When the tenth year of Constantine’s reign came around the traditional decennalia was held. This celebration included all manner of festivities but Constantine made absolutely sure that no sacrifices to the old gods would be held during it.
Though Constantine was never truly tied to Rome during his reign, he did leave his mark on the city during these years. He completed the Forum Romanum, which had been left unfinished by Maxentius as well as building a grand bath on the Quirinal Hill. Many Basilicas around Rome are attributed to Constantine; the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Basilica of St. Peter, the Basilica of St. Sebastian, as well as the Basilica of St. Marcellinus and Peter where Constantine had the mausoleum, which he intended for himself and his family, built (It would eventually only receive Constantine’s mother Helena).
Relations with Licinius Break Down
It is obvious that with two emperors still left in one empire that peace could not last forever. So it was with Constantine and Lucinius that in the year 316 AD hostilities finally broke out and war began. The first battle was fought in Cibalae in Pannonia, and is called the bellum Cibalense, and was a clear victory for Constantine, with Lucinius losing large amounts of his troops. In the second battle at Campus Ardiensis in Thrace no side came out as the clear victor. After these battles though Licinius was left in a much-weakened position, and while he was allowed to retain his position as Augustus, he was forced to cede all his European provinces outside of Thrace.
On March 1, 317, Constantine announced the appointment of three Caesars. These were his sons Crispus and Constantine and Licinius’ son Lucinius. Both Constantine and Lucinius were just babies, seven months and 20 months old respectively, while Crispus was only 12 years old. The peace between Lucinius and Constantine was growing frayed yet again though, much because the two had vastly different religious ideologies. In 324 wars would begin anew.
Again Constantine was the victor. In two battles, one at Adrianople and the other at Chrysopolis, Lucinius was soundly defeated. He would be captured after the second battle. Constantine would initially spare Lucinius’ life, solely on the behalf of his sister Constantia, but within a few months reconsidered his decision and Lucinius was executed. Constantine had achieved the position as sole ruler of the Roman world.
More Religious Troubles
It would not be long after he gained sole control of the Roman Empire that Constantine needed to again deal with a squabble within the Christian Church. A priest from Alexandria, one Arius, hypothesized that there was a time before Christ and that the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost were in fact distinct from one and the other. Arius’ teachings were met with strong resistance and Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria in 318 AD, excommunicated him from the church. Though Constantine tried to get the problem solved through a mediator, his attempts resulted in failure.
So it was the Constantine summoned the First Ecumenical Council, which began on, May 20, 325 in Nicaea. It would be Constantine himself who presided over the council and gave the opening speech. It was at this council that the Nicene Creed was originally created, in a means to affirm the homoousion (doctrine of consubstantiality). Unfortunately, though Arius was excommunicated, Constantine’s hope of seeing this issue dealt with once and for all was dashed. In fact, one of Arius’ main supporters became the chief theological advisor to Constantine himself witghin the next few years. This change in imperial policy being forced by the opposition of the next Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius.
Constantine Kills his Son
Sometime during the year 336, Constantine is said to have killed his eldest son Crispus. Though Crispus had greatly distinguished himself in the campaigns against Lucinius, he was also said to have been involved with his stepmother Fausta. Some sources state that the “involvement” was sexual in nature while others point to the more likely ideas that either it was purest paranoia on Constantine’s part or that they were involved in a plot to murder Constantine. Whatever it may have been, Constantine’s wife and the mother of his other three sons would follow Crispus to the grave less than a year later by another edict from Constantine.
It would not be long after these events that Crispus’ mother Helena, who herself was not free of scandal, undertook a pilgrimage to the holy land where she would uncover the True Cross.
The New Rome Is Established
During the first few centuries of the millennia after Christ, the stature of Italy had been gradually declining. With the opening of the Silk Road, the rise of a new, highly civilized and advanced, incarnation of Persia, and the shift of much of the nobility of Rome either northward towards Gaul or eastward towards the Balkans, Italy was becoming almost a backwater area. To add to this, the First Tetrarchy had used Trier, Milan, Thessalonica and Nicodemia as the center of Roman government, this served to further reduce Rome’s standing as the imperial city.
Even so, it was very much unexpected when Constantine began work at the site of the ancient Greek city of Byzantium and established it as the seat of the empire. The new capitol was much closer to the high populations of the Balkans, Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean. It was also situated at the center of much trade and old wealth, thus bringing income into the imperial coffers at a much better pace.
It had been on November 8, 324 that Constantine had first laid out the boundaries of the new city, even down to marking off the wall that would become the city’s main defense to the west for over a thousand years. These new boundaries would greatly increase the size of Byzantium, being about 3 times more than the original city’s land area.
Overall the city was modeled extensively on Rome. Not only with the social institutions that had existed in Rome since time immemorial such as the senate and the subsidies placed upon grain sales, but Byzantium was also built on seven hills and had its social buildings planned as to resemble Rome. Byzantium’s hippodrome was greatly enlarged and the palace for Constantine was given direct access to the kathisma or royal box at the hippodrome. Constantine also added the Column of Constantine (the Burnt Column), which depicted Helios with Constantine’s likeness for a head. This was located in the Forum of Constantine.
On the religious side, Constantine began the construction of Byzantium’s two major churches. These were the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) and the Hagia Eirene (Holy Place). The Church of the Apostles is also attributed to Constantine and most believe that he at least laid the foundations for the church. Overall the city, much unlike Rome, which clung tenaciously to its pagan traditions, was established as a thoroughly Christian capitol.
Under Constantine the government changed somewhat from the form that had existed for almost 400 years. Overall, they were not huge changes, but they did reflect the new age of the empire. The church was incorporated into the government, making it in some ways an arm of the imperial throne. The currency was revised and a new gold coin, the solidus, was introduced, which would become the base standard of trade for several centuries. The praetorian prefects were remodeled in their functions, becoming more like ministers and formed under Caesars or the Augusti.
Constantine’s Final Years
Constantine had a habit of spreading his power in establishing his succession. As the end of his life drew close there were no less than four Caesars in the empire. His sons Constantine (appointed 317), Constantius (appointed 324) and Constans (appointed 333), as well as his nephew Flavius Dalmatius (appointed 335) who was the son of Constantius I and Theodora. He never seemed to make arrangements for who would succeed him upon his death and it was almost guaranteed to be a bad situation.
As Constantine aged, he seems to have fully become a figure within the church. Both money and laws were sent from the imperial throne in support of the Christian Church. He went on to found numerous churches, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and the Golden Octagon in Antioch. Unfortunately at the same time he also began to actively suppress the pagan peoples of the empire and many cases can be made mentioned of in which temples were plundered and destroyed with their valuables being made part of the imperial treasury.
Shortly after Easter in 337 AD Constantine fell ill. He traveled during this time to Drepanum (Helenopolis) to pray to his mother’s patron saint, Saint Lucian. Afterwards he would proceed to Nicodemia wherein to be baptized by Eusebius of Nicodemia. Constantine would never leave Nicodemia again in life. On May 22 (Whit Sunday), 337 AD Constantine died.
Constantine’s body was moved to Byzantium and lay in state at the imperial palace. A few days later he was laid to rest in the Church of the Holy Apostles, with 12 other sarcophagi arranged about his own as a last attempt at stacking his claim as the 13th apostle.
There would be no Augustus succeeding him until September 9th. At that point, all three of his children assumed the exalted rank, but only after Flavius Dalmatius and any other rivals had been eliminated.
Constantine is considered a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church to this day. As well as sharing a feast day with his mother, St. Helena on May 21st, St. Constantine also has his own feast day on September 3rd.
Norwich, J. J. (1997) A short history of Byzantium. Vintage Books, a division of Random House. New York, New York.