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Constantine I (emperor)

Constantine.Head of the colossal statue. Musei Capitolini, Rome
Head of the colossal statue. Musei Capitolini, Rome

Flavius Valerius Constantinus (February 27, 272May 22, 337), commonly known as Constantine I or Constantine the Great, was proclaimed Augustus by his troops on July 25, 306 and ruled an ever-growing portion of the Roman Empire to his death. Constantine is famed for his refounding of Byzantium as "New Rome," which was always called "Constantine's City"— Constantinople. With the "Edict of Milan" in 313, Constantine and his co-Emperor removed all onus from Christianity. By taking the personal step of convoking the Council of Nicaea (325) Constantine began the Roman Empire's unofficial sponsoring of Christianity, which was a major factor in that religion's spread. His reputation as the "first Christian Emperor" was promulgated by Lactantius and Eusebius and gained ground in the succeeding generations.


Early life

He was born at Naissus, (today's Niš, Serbia) in Upper Moesia, to Constantius I Chlorus and an innkeeper's daughter, who at the time was only 16, Flavia Iulia Helena. Constantine was well educated and served at the court of Diocletian in Nicomedia as a kind of hostage after the appointment of his father, a general, as one of the two caesares or junior emperors in the Tetrarchy in 293. In 305, the Augustus, Maximian, abdicated, and Constantius succeeded to the position. However, he died in 306. Constantine managed to be at his deathbed in Eboracum (York), where troops loyal to his father's memory proclaimed him Emperor. For the next 18 years, he fought a series of battles and wars that left him first the emperor of the west, and then the supreme ruler of the Roman Empire.

Constantine and Christianity

Constantine is perhaps best known for being the first Roman Emperor to endorse Christianity, traditionally presented as a result of an omen — a chi and rho in the sky, with the inscription "By this sign shalt thou conquer" — before his victory in the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312, when Constantine is said to have instituted the new standard to be carried into battle, called the labarum, according to Eusebius.

Christian historians ever since Lactantius have adhered to the view that Constantine "adopted" Christianity as a kind of replacement for the official Roman paganism. Though the document called the "Donation of Constantine" was proved a forgery (though not until the 15th century, when the stories of Constantine's conversion were long-established "facts") it was attributed as documenting the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity for centuries. Even Christian skeptics have accepted this formulation, though seeing Constantine's policy as a political rather than spiritual move.

By the end of the 3rd century, Christian communities and their bishops had become a force to contend with, in urban centers especially. Christians were preferred for high government positions; the Church was granted various special privileges; and churches like the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem were constructed. Christian bishops took aggressive public stances that were unknown among other cult leaders, even among the Jews. Proselytism had had to be publicly outlawed, simply to maintain public decorum. In the essential legions, however, Christianity was despised as womanish, and the soldiers followed Mithras and Isis. Since the Roman Emperors ruled by "divine right" and stayed in power through the support of the legions, it was important for them to be seen to support a strong state religion. The contumely of the Christians consisted in their public refusal to participate in official rites that no one deeply believed in, but which were an equivalent of an oath of allegiance. Refusal might easily bring upon all the Roman people the loss of the gods' support; such were the usual justifications for occasional lynchings of Christians by Roman soldiers, the fare of many martyrologies .

Constantine and Licinius' Edict of Milan (313) neither made paganism illegal nor made Christianity a state-sponsored religion. What it did was legalize Christianity, return confiscated Church property, and establish Sunday as a day of worship. Though the church prospered under Constantine's patronage, it also fell into the first of many public schisms. He called the First Council of Nicaea to settle the problem of Arianism, a dispute about the personhood and godhood of Jesus. It produced the Nicene Creed, which favoured the position of Athanasius, Arius's opponent, and became official doctrine.

When the Altar of Victory was desecrated and removed from its place of honor in the Senate, the Senate deputized Symmachus to appeal to the emperor for its return. Symmachus publicly characterized the late Emperor Constantine's policy, in a plea for freedom of religion:

He diminished none of the privileges of the sacred virgins, he filled the priestly offices with nobles, he did not refuse the cost of the Roman ceremonies, and following the rejoicing Senate through all the streets of the eternal city, he contentedly beheld the shrines with unmoved countenance, he read the names of the gods inscribed on the pediments, he enquired about the origin of the temples, and expressed admiration for their builders. Although he himself followed another religion, he maintained its own for the empire, for everyone has his own customs, everyone his own rites. The divine mind has distributed different guardians and different cults to different cities. As souls are separately given to infants as they are born, so to peoples the genius of their destiny. (Possible Christian insertion in italics.)
  • Medieval sourcebook: The Memorial of Symmachus, prefect of the City. (The Memorial has been emended to address three emperors, Valentinian II (died 392), Theodosius I, and Arcadius. Arcadius was named co-ruler of his father and Augustus in January, 383. So the adress to the three Augusti could have been written anywhere between 383 and 392. There may be Christian adulterations of the text. The reply of Ambrose, bishop of Milan, is appended, which is highly revealing in the character of his argument in rebuttal.)

Persian reaction

Beyond the limites, east of the Euphrates, the Sassanid rulers of the Persian empire had usually tolerated their Christians. A Letter from Constantine to Shapur II, supposed to have been written in 324 urged him to protect the Christians in his realm… With the edicts of toleration in the Roman empire, the followers of Christ would be regarded as allies of Persia's ancient enemy. The persecutions began. Shapur II (ruled 310 - 379) wrote to his generals:

You will arrest Simon, chief of the Christians. You will keep him till he signs this document and consents to collect for us a double tax and double tribute from the Christians … for we Gods have all the trials of war and they have nothing but repose and pleasure. They inhabit our territory and agree with Caesar, our enemy. (quoted in Freya Stark, Rome on the Euphrates 1967, p. 375)

It was not an unreasonable demand in the circumstances. The Sassanids were perennially at war with Rome. Christians were now suspected for potential treachery. The "Great Persecution" of the Persian Christian churches occurred in a later period, 340–363, after the Persian Wars that reopened upon Constantine's death. In 344 came the martyrdom of Catholicos Shimun bar Sabbae, with five bishops and 100 priests.

Constantine's Christianity

The religion of Constantine the Great, while quite Christian in view of his many Christian qualities and acts later in life, is frequently attacked because of his sinful actions (not unlike St. Augustine, whose early life was debauched, and twisted by ambition).

Bronze coins struck for emperors often reveal details of their personal iconography. During the early part of Constantine's rule, representations first of Mars and then (from 310) of Apollo as Sun god consistently appear on the reverse of the coinage. Mars had been associated with the Tetrarchy, and Constantine's use of this symbolism served to emphasize the legitimacy of his rule. After his breach with his father's old colleague Maximian in 309–10, Constantine began to claim legitimate descent from the 3rd century emperor Claudius Gothicus, the hero of the Battle of Naissus. Gothicus had claimed the divine protection of Apollo-Sol. In 310 Constantine reportedly experienced a vision in which Apollo-Sol appeared to him with omens of success. Thereafter the reverses of his coinage were dominated for several years by his "companion, the unconquered Sol" -- the inscriptions read SOLI INVICTO COMITI. The depiction of his personal tutelary god represents Apollo with a solar halo, Helios-like, and the globe in his hands. According to a number of historians and researchers, this is the god Constantine embraced with the omen at the Milvian Bridge (the deity of this omen was not publicly identified at the time): a syncretic sun god, Sol Invictus, with relations to Mithraism, which had many common points with Christianity.

Another aspect of Constantine's life which these attacks employ is his execution of many, including his own wife and eldest son, in 326, actions due to his lofty ambition. Also due to this, he had Licinius, the East Roman emperor, strangled after his defeat, something he had publicly promised not to do.

Family influence is thought to account for a personal adoption of Christianity: Helena is said to be "probably born a Christian" though virtually nothing is known of her background, save that her mother was the daughter of an innkeeper and her father a successful soldier, a career that excluded overt Christians. Certainly Helena demonstrated extreme piety in her later life in her trip to Palestine, where she discovered the True Cross and established basilicas.

As the general custom, Constantine was not baptized until close to his death, when his choice fell upon the Arian bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, who happened, despite his being an overt, scheming ally of Arius, to still be the bishop of the region. Also, Eusebius was a close friend of Constantine's sister; she probably secured his recall from exile.

The great staring eyes in the iconography of Constantine (illustration above, right), though not specifically Christian, show how official images were moving away from early imperial conventions of realistic portrayal towards schematic representations: the Emperor as Emperor, not merely as this particular individual Constantine, with his characteristic broad jaw and cleft chin. The large staring eyes will loom larger as the 4th century progresses: compare the early 5th century silver iconic imperial representation at the entry Theodosius I.

Other achievements

His victory in 312 AD over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge resulted in his becoming Western Augustus, or ruler of the entire western half of the empire. He gradually consolidated his military superiority over his rivals in the crumbling Tetrarchy until 324, when he defeated the eastern ruler, Licinius, and became sole emperor.

Constantine rebuilt the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, naming it Nea Roma, providing it with a Senate and civic offices similar to the older Rome. After his death it was renamed Constantinopolis (or Constantinople), and gradually became the capital of the empire.

Constantine also passed laws making the occupations of butcher and baker hereditary, and more importantly, supported converting the coloni (tenant farmers) into serfs — laying the foundation for medieval European society.

Although he earned his honorific of "The Great" from Christian historians long after he had died, he could have claimed the title on his military achievements alone. In addition to reuniting the empire under one emperor, Constantine won major victories over the Marcomanni and Alamanni (306–08), the Vandals and Marcomanni (314–15), the Visigoths in 332 and the Sarmatians two years later. In fact, by 336, Constantine had actually reoccupied most of the long-lost province of Dacia, which Aurelian had been forced to abandon in 271. At the time of his death, he was planning a great expedition to put an end to raids on the eastern provinces from Persia by conquering that nation—something no Emperor since Trajan had contemplated.

Constantine's pro-Christian policies also led to anti-Jew policies, the forerunner of the mediaeval persecution of Judaism.

He was succeeded by his three sons, Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans, who secured their hold on the empire with the murder of a number of relatives and supporters of Constantine. The last member of his dynasty was his grandson, Julian, who attempted to restore paganism.

Geoffrey of Monmouth and a Constantine made British

The English chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth, who offered a genealogy of British kings that linked them to the Fall of Troy and whose 12th century history is not considered a reliable source by modern historians, claimed that the Helena, Constantine's mother, was actually the daughter of "King Cole", the mythical King of the Britons. A daughter for King Cole had not previously figured in the lore, at least not as it has survived in writing, and this pedigree is likely to reflect Geoffrey's desire to create a continuous line of regal descent. It was indecorous, Geoffrey considered, that a king might have less-than-noble ancestors. Monmouth also said that Constantine was proclaimed "King of the Britons" at York, rather than Roman emperor.

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