CONSTANTINE THE GREAT (A.D. 312-37): HIS LIFE, RISE TO POWER AND ACHIEVEMENTS

CONSTANTINE THE GREAT (A.D. 312-37)

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Constantine the Great (Constantine I, ruled A.D. 312-37) combined Christianity, Roman law and Greek culture and Christianized the Roman Empire. He ended the endemic civil wars of the later third century and founded the great city of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) at the Roman city of Byzantium. He slowly reunified the Roman Empire under a single rule, proclaimed a policy of toleration towards Christians, who had been brutally suppressed under the previous Roman Emperors Diocletian and Galerius.

Constantine I ruled jointly with Licinius (ruled A.D. 306-324) and as the sole ruler (ruled A.D. 324-337). He came to power after a victory in a Roman civil war and considered himself to be a successor of the "good emperors" of the second century. However he ruled as a despot, surrounding himself with pomp and spent a lot of money on military campaigns and monuments. Constantine did make some significant reforms, however, and was a great patron of the arts. He admitted bishops to his council and adopted Christian teachings on the treatment of slaves and prisoners. He changed the way the army was structured, shrinking the infantry and enlarging the cavalry, which some scholars claim changed the army as a whole and paved the way for the demise of Rome.

Hans A. Pohlsander of SUNY wrote: “The emperor Constantine has rightly been called the most important emperor of Late Antiquity. His powerful personality laid the foundations of post-classical European civilization; his reign was eventful and highly dramatic. His victory at the Milvian Bridge counts among the most decisive moments in world history, while his legalization and support of Christianity and his foundation of a 'New Rome' at Byzantium rank among the most momentous decisions ever made by a European ruler. The fact that ten Byzantine emperors after him bore his name may be seen as a measure of his importance and of the esteem in which he was held. [Source: Hans A. Pohlsander, State University of New York, (SUNY) Albany, Roman Emperors]

Professor Shaye I.D. Cohen told PBS: “One of the most surprising Christian heroes in the entire tradition, I think, is Constantine. He is, first of all, a successful general. He is also the son of a successful general and at the head of the army at the West. And he's fighting another successful general, struggling for who is going to be at the top of the heap of the very higher echelons of Roman government. What happens is that Constantine has a vision. Luckily for the Church, there's a bishop nearby to interpret what the vision means. Constantine ends not converting, technically, to Christianity, but becoming a patron of one particular branch of the church. It happens to be the branch of the church that has the Old Testament as well as the New Testament as part of its canon. Which means that since this branch of Christianity includes the story about historical Israel as part of its own redemptive history, it has an entire language for articulating the relationship of government and piety. It has the model of King David. It has the model of the kings of Israel. And it's with this governmental model that the bishop explains the vision to Constantine. [Source: Shaye I.D. Cohen, Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“In a sense Constantine becomes the embodiment of the righteous king. And once he consolidates his power by conquering, eventually, not only the West, but also the Greek East where there are many more Christians [who are] concentrated in the cities, which are the social power packets of this culture, [he] is in this amazing position of having a theology of government that he can use to consolidate his own secular power. And it works both ways. The bishops now have basically federal funding to have sponsored committee meetings so they can try to iron out creeds and get everybody to sign up.” <>

See Separate Article CONSTANTINE AND CHRISTIANITY

Book: “Constantine the Great” by Michael Grant

Eusebius on Constantine

Professor Harold W. Attridge told PBS: “Eusebius was the bishop of Caesarea in Palestine in the 4th century, and he played a very active role in church politics at the time. He was at the Council of Nicea, which was the first major ecumenical council. And he had contact with the Emperor Constantine. So he was a very prominent figure. He's most important to us, however, as the first church historian. He wrote several things during his long and active lifetime including a history of the martyrs of Palestine, a collection of prophetic texts. But the most important work is his ecclesiastical history, which describes the development of the church down through his own period, and then the persecutions which took place in the first decade of the fourth century. And finally the vindication of the church with the accession of Constantine and his rise to supreme power. ... [Source: Harold W. Attridge, Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“Eusebius is, first of all, valuable as an historian because he preserves a large number of sources that are not available in other forms. He clearly has an axe to grind and that axe has to do with the the status of Christians and their relationship with the imperial authorities. <>

“Constantine, whom Eusebius describes later in "A Life of Constantine" and also in an oration on an important occasion later in his career, is a magnificent ruler endowed by God with wisdom, insight and a divine mission to vindicate the church and to bring the church and the state into unity. And so Constantine is viewed by Eusebius as a figure of God's will in human history. <>

“And how does Eusebius portray Constantine? Constantine would have been conceived by Eusebius and portrayed by Eusebius in magnificent terms. And you have to understand that Constantine, when Eusebius portrays him, is someone who had just achieved total domination over the whole of the Roman Empire. And he was a figure of commanding stature, of commanding power and authority, a figure who by the year 324 had no rivals within the Roman world. And so clothed in imperial garments and radiating the splendor of the sun, he appears in the portraits of Eusebius in some ways as a quasi-divine figure.” <>

Constantine's Early Life

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Constantine coin
Flavius Valerius Constantinus — Constantine I or Constantine the Great — was the son of Constantius I and Helena. He was born in the Roman province of Mossia (present-day Serbia) sometime between A.D. 271 and 273. His father Constantinus was a member of an important Roman family. His mother Helen was the daughter of tavern-inn owner.

Hans A. Pohlsander of SUNY wrote: “Flavius Valerius Constantinus, the future emperor Constantine, was born at Naissus in the province of Moesia Superior, the modern Nish in Serbia, on 27 February...His father was a military officer named Constantius (later Constantius Chlorus or Constantius I), his mother a woman of humble background named Helena (later St. Helena). There is good reason to think that Constantius and Helena lived in concubinage rather than in legally recognized marriage. Having previously attained the rank of tribune, provincial governor, and probably praetorian prefect, Constantius was raised, on 1 March 293, to the rank of Caesar in the First Tetrarchy organized by Diocletian. On this occasion he was required to put aside Helena and to marry Theodora, the daughter of Maximian. Upon the retirement of Diocletian and Maximian on 1 May 305 Constantius succeeded to the rank of Augustus. [Source: Hans A. Pohlsander, SUNY Albany, Roman Emperors <|>]

Pat Southern wrote for the BBC: “ He grew up in a period of near anarchy, brought to an end by Diocletian at the close of the third century AD. Diocletian established the short lived Tetrarchy, consisting of two senior emperors (Augusti) and two junior emperors (Caesares), who each commanded a quarter of the Roman world. The system was designed to bring cohesion to the fragmenting empire, but instead it created rivalries and further civil wars in which Constantine played a considerable part. [Source: Pat Southern, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

Constantine appears to have murdered his father in law, wife and son. He is said to have killed his wife by locking her in a steam bath, after he suspected that she had been unfaithful. Why was Nero labeled a cruel tyrant and Constantine a saintly reformer even though both killed members of their own family and initiated significant reforms. “Today we condemn’ Nero’s “behavior,” archaeological journalist Marisa Ranieri Panetta told National Geographic. “But look at the great Christian emperor Constantine. He had his first son, his second wife, and his father-in-law all murdered. One can’t be a saint and the other a devil.... Not to suggest that Nero was himself a great emperor—but that he was better than they said he was, and no worse than those who came before and after him.” [Source: Robert Draper, National Geographic, September 2014 *~*]

Constantine's Rise to Power

In A.D. 293, during the Tetrarchy (ruled A.D. 284-305), when the Roman Empire was split into four parts, Diocletian made Constantinus (Constantine’s father) the emperor of Gaul and Britain. Young Constantine was kept in the court of Galerius, the eastern emperor, as a virtual prisoner. In 305, Constantine escaped the court of Galerius and joined his father, who died a year later, making Constantine the emperor. For five years Constantine ruled peacefully over Gaul. Prolonged civil wars that broke out after Diocletian's abdication and death were brought to an end when Constantine finally emerged as the supreme leader in A.D. 324.

Pat Southern wrote for the BBC: “Constantius was appointed Caesar and then Augustus, and died on campaign in Britain in 306 AD. His soldiers declared his son, Constantine, emperor. For nearly two decades, Constantine waged war to retain this position. In 312 A.D. he invaded Italy and defeated one of his rivals, Maxentius, at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge outside Rome. Here, so the legend goes, he saw a cross in the sky, and was told: "In this sign shall you conquer." [Source: Pat Southern, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

Hans A. Pohlsander of SUNY wrote: Constantine “had served with distinction under both Diocletian and Galerius in the East. Kept initially at the court of Galerius as a pledge of good conduct on his father's part, he was later allowed to join his father in Britain and assisted him in a campaign against the Picts. When Constantius died, on 25 July 306, at Eburacum (York), Constantine was at his side. The soldiers at once proclaimed him Augustus; Constantine henceforth observed this day as his dies imperii. Having settled affairs in Britain swiftly, he returned to the Continent, where the city of Augusta Treverorum (Trier) served as his principal residence for the next six years. There, too, in 307, he married Maximian's daughter Fausta, putting away his mistress Minervina, who had borne him his first son, Crispus. Trier's "Kaiserthermen" (Imperial Baths) and Basilica (the aula palatina ) give evidence to this day of Constantine's residence in the city. [Source: Hans A. Pohlsander, SUNY Albany, Roman Emperors <|>]

Constantine’s Road to Supreme Ruler of Rome

By a succession of victories over his different rivals,, Constantine became the sole ruler, and the whole empire was reunited under his authority in A.D. 324. But the road there was long. Hans A. Pohlsander of SUNY wrote: “At the same time the Senate and the Praetorian Guard in Rome had allied themselves with Maxentius, the son of Maximian. On 28 October 306 they proclaimed him emperor, in the lower rank of princeps initially, although he later claimed the rank of Augustus. Constantine and Maxentius, although they were brothers-in-law, did not trust each other. Their relationship was further complicated by the schemes and consequently, in 310, the death of Maximian. Open hostilities between the two rivals broke out in 312, and Constantine won a decisive victory in the famous Battle of the Milvian Bridge. This made Constantine the sole ruler of the western half of the empire. [Source: Hans A. Pohlsander, SUNY Albany, Roman Emperors <|>]

“To his dismay Constantine soon discovered that there was a lack of unity within the church. In the province of Africa, specifically, there were those who took a rigorist position towards the lapsi (those who had shown a lack of faith during the preceding years of persecution) and those who took a more moderate, forgiving position. The former eventually became known as the Donatists, after a certain Donatus, whom they elected as their bishop.<|>

“In April of 313 the rigorists presented to Constantine their grievance against Caecilian, the bishop of Carthage. Constantine convened a synod of bishops to hear the complaint; the synod met in Rome's Lateran Council and is known as the Synod of Rome. When the synod ruled in favor of Caecilian, the Donatists appealed to Constantine again. In response to the appeal Constantine convened a larger council of thirty-three bishops, who met at Arles in southern Gaul on 1 August 314. This council, too, ruled against the Donatists, and again they refused to submit. Constantine attempted, unsuccessfully, to suppress them. A separatist Donatist church possessed considerable strength in North Africa over the next two centuries. Rome's famous Arch of Constantine was completed in time for the beginning of Constantine's decennalia (the tenth anniversary of his acclamation). There were all manner of festivities, but Constantine pointedly omitted the traditional sacrifices to the pagan gods.”

Constantine's Christianization and Conversion

In 310, Constantine decided he was going to take Rome. He lead a small army to the Alps for an important battle outside Rome on the Tiber River against his rival Maxentius, the emperor of Rome. According to the historian Eusebius, while on his way to the battle, Constantine had a vision while staring up at the sky. He reportedly saw a flaming cross above the sun with the words " In hoc signo vinces " ("in this sign you will conquer"). The words " In hoc signo vinces " are featured on the label of Pall Mall cigarettes.

That night Constantine dreamed that Jesus told him to take the cross as his standard. Constantine ordered that new standards be made up, emblazoned with the cross. The next morning at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, on October 28, 312 he scored a victory against great odds against Maxentius, whose forces were swept into the Tiber, where Maxentius drowned.

Constantine attributed his military victory to the Christian faith and entered Rome with Maxentius's head on a pike. He erected the triumphal Arch of Constantine in Rome and took control of the western half of the Roman Empire. Maxentius had been the strongest member of the Tetrarchy. By 323, Constantine had unified the Roman Empire and brought it under his control by defeating another rival, the eastern co-emperor Licinius.

Hans A. Pohlsander of SUNY wrote: “When Diocletian and Maximian announced their retirement in 305, the problem posed by the Christians was unresolved and the persecution in progress. Upon coming to power Constantine unilaterally ended all persecution in his territories, even providing for restitution. His personal devotions, however, he offered first to Mars and then increasingly to Apollo, reverenced as Sol Invictus. [Source: Hans A. Pohlsander, SUNY Albany, Roman Emperors <|>]

“The next significant event in Constantine's religious development occurred in 312. Lactantius, whom Constantine appointed tutor of his son Crispus and who therefore must have been close to the imperial family, reports that during the night before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge Constantine was commanded in a dream to place the sign of Christ on the shields of his soldiers. Twenty-five years later Eusebius gives us a far different, more elaborate, and less convincing account in his Life of Constantine. When Constantine and his army were on their march toward Rome - neither the time nor the location is specified - they observed in broad daylight a strange phenomenon in the sky: a cross of light and the words "by this sign you will be victor" (hoc signo victor eris or ). During the next night, so Eusebius' account continues, Christ appeared to Constantine and instructed him to place the heavenly sign on the battle standards of his army. The new battle standard became known as the labarum. <|>

“Whatever vision Constantine may have experienced, he attributed his victory to the power of "the God of the Christians" and committed himself to the Christian faith from that day on, although his understanding of the Christian faith at this time was quite superficial. It has often been supposed that Constantine's profession of Christianity was a matter of political expediency more than of religious conviction; upon closer examination this view cannot be sustained. Constantine did not receive baptism until shortly before his death (see below). It would be a mistake to interpret this as a lack of sincerity or commitment; in the fourth and fifth centuries Christians often delayed their baptisms until late in life. <|>

“In February 313, probably, Constantine and Licinius met at Milan. On this occasion Constantine's half-sister Constantia was wed to Licinius. Also on this occasion, the two emperors formulated a common religious policy. Several months later Licinius issued an edict which is commonly but erroneously known as the Edict of Milan. Unlike Constantine, Licinius did not commit himself personally to Christianity; even his commitment to toleration eventually gave way to renewed persecution. Constantine's profession of Christianity was not an unmixed blessing to the church. Constantine used the church as an instrument of imperial policy, imposed upon it his imperial ideology, and thus deprived it of much of the independence which it had previously enjoyed.” <|>

Constantine’s Conflict with Licinius

Hans A. Pohlsander of SUNY wrote: “The ultimate goal pursued by both Constantine and Licinius was sole power. The agreement of 313 had been born out of necessity, not of mutual good will. Even Constantia's apparent devotion to Licinius did little to ease the strained relationship between the two rivals. Hostilities erupted in 316. In the course of this first war between the two emperors two battles were fought: the first at Cibalae in Pannonia, whence this war is called the bellum Cibalense, the second on the campus Ardiensis in Thrace. In the first battle Licinius' army suffered heavy losses; in the second neither side won a clear victory. [Source: Hans A. Pohlsander, SUNY Albany, Roman Emperors <|>]

“A settlement left Licinius in his position as Augustus, but required him to cede to Constantine all of his European provinces other than Thrace. On 1 March 317, at Serdica (modern Sofia), Constantine announced the appointment of three Caesars: his own son Crispus, about twelve years old, his own son Constantine, less than seven months old, and Licinius' son, also named Licinius, twenty months old. But the concordia Augustorum was fragile; tensions grew again, in part because the two Augusti pursued different policies in matters of religion, in part because the old suspicions surfaced again. <|>

“War erupted again in 324. Constantine defeated Licinius twice, first at Adrianople in Thrace, and then at Chrysopolis on the Bosporus. Initially, yielding to the pleas of Constantia, Constantine spared the life of his brother-in-law, but some months later he ordered his execution, breaking his solemn oath. Before too long the younger Licinius, too, fell victim to Constantine's anger or suspicions. Constantine was now the sole and undisputed master of the Roman world. <|>

Constantine as the Supreme Ruler of Rome

Pat Southern wrote for the BBC: “When he became sole emperor in 324 AD, he rewrote his own history with the help of Christian authors. He actively promoted the Christian Church, though he was baptised into the faith only on his death bed. Throughout his life he also acknowledged Sol Invictus - the 'Unconquered Sun' - as a god. He may have been a true convert, or he may have used the Church as a strong unifying force - the debate continues.” [Source: Pat Southern, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“In the military sphere, he realised that the emperor and his headquarters needed to be near to the Danube and also within reach of the eastern provinces - the two areas from which the most serious threats emanated. Acting upon geographical necessity, he created the new Rome at Byzantium, and renamed it Constantinople. His reign marked the end of the city of Rome as the capital of the empire. |::|

Constantine was a man of wider views than Diocletian, and had even a greater genius for organization. The work which Diocletian began, Constantine completed. He in fact gave to Roman imperialism the final form which it preserved as long as the empire existed, and the form in which it exercised its great influence upon modern governments. We should remember that it was not so much the early imperialism of Augustus as the later imperialism of Constantine which reappeared in the empires of modern Europe. This fact will enable us to understand the greatness of Constantine as a statesman and a political reformer. His policy was to centralize all power in the hands of the chief ruler; to surround his person with an elaborate court system and an imposing ceremonial; and to make all officers, civil and military, responsible to the supreme head of the empire. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\]

Constantine Moves the Roman Capital to Constantinople

Constantine moved the main capital of the Roman empire from Rome to Byzantium, a former Greek city on the Bosporus. With the move from Rome to Byzantium (later Constantinople and Istanbul) the pagan Roman empire was transformed into the Christian Byzantine empire. Byzantium was chosen as the capital of the Roman Empire because of its easily defended position, it nearness to the unstable borders along the Danube and the Middle East, and it strategic position on the major Oriental and Black Sea trade routes. Although the city was formally dedicated in A.D. 330, Constantine began making plan for the move soon after he became Supreme Leader in 324.

Constantine wanted to call the city New Rome but it became known as Constantinople (“the City of Constantine”). At considerable expense, Constantine began the process of transforming Constantinople into an imperial capital by building impressive buildings and monuments. The process was continued after his death by the Byzantine Emperors.

Constantine made the mover to break away from the traditions of the old empire. Rome was a city was filled with the memories of paganism and the relics of the republic. It Constantine’s desire to give the empire a new center of power, which should be favorably situated for working out his new plans, and also for defending the Roman territory. The old Greek colony of Byzantium lay at the threshold between Europe and Asia at a site that was favorable for defense, commerce, and establishment of an Oriental system of government. Constantine laid out the city on an extensive scale, and adorned it with new buildings and works of art. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\]

Constantine’s Founding of Constantinople

The historian William Stearns Davis wrote: “Nothing that Constantine the Great did shows his ability more clearly than his seizing upon the site of old Byzantium for the location for his new capital. The place was admirably sited for an imperial residence, being over against Asia which the Persians were threatening, and in easy touch with the Danube, where the Northern Barbarians were always swarming. Note that Constantinople was from the outset a Christian city; as contrasted with old Rome, where paganism still kept a firm grip, at least on much of the population, for nearly a century. [Source: William Stearns Davis, ed., “Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources,” 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West, 295-296

On Constantine Founding Constantinople, Sozomen (d. c. 450 A.D.) wrote in “Ecclesiastical History, II.3": “The Emperor [Constantine] always intent on the advancement of religion erected splendid Christian temples to God in every place---especially in great cities such as Nicomedia in Bithynia, Antioch on the Orontes, and Byzantium. He greatly improved this latter city, and made it equal to Rome in power and influence; for when he had settled his empire as he was minded, and had freed himself from foreign foes, he resolved on founding a city which should be called by his own name, and should equal in fame even Rome. With this intent he went to the plain at the foot of Troy on the Hellespont. . . and here he laid out the plan of a large and beautiful city, and built gates on a high spot of ground, whence they are still visible from the sea to sailors. But when he had proceeded thus far, God appeared to him by night and bade him seek another site for his city.

“Led by the divine hand, he came to Byzantium in Thrace, beyond Chalcedon in Bithynia, and here he desired to build his city, and render it worthy of the name of Constantine. In obedience to the command of God, he therefore enlarged the city formerly called Byzantium, and surrounded it with high walls; likewise he built splendid dwelling houses; and being aware that the former population was not enough for so great a city, he peopled it with men of rank and their families, whom he summoned from Rome and from other countries. He imposed special taxes to cover the expenses of building and adorning the city, and of supplying the inhabitants with food. He erected all the needed edifices for a great capital---a hippodrome, fountains, porticoes and other beautiful adornments. He named it Constantinople and New Rome---and established it as the Roman capital for all the inhabitants of the North, the South, the East, and the shores of the Mediterranean, from the cities on the Danube and from Epidamnus and the Ionian Gulf to Cyrene and Libya.

“He created another Senate which he endowed with the same honors and privileges as that of Rome, and he strove to render the city of his name equal in every way to Rome in Italy; nor were his wishes in vain, for by the favor of God, it became the most populous and wealthy of cities. As this city became the capital of the Empire during the period of religious prosperity, it was not polluted by altars, Grecian temples, nor pagan sacrifices. Constantine also honored this new city of Christ by adorning it with many and splendid houses of prayer, in which the Deity vouchsafed to bless the efforts of the Emperor by giving sensible manifestations of his presence.”

Constantine Makes Constantinople the New Rome

Hans A. Pohlsander of SUNY wrote: “During the First Tetrarchy Trier, Milan, Thessalonike, and Nicomedia had served as imperial residences, and the importance of Rome as a center of government had thus been considerably reduced. Constantine went far beyond this when he refounded the ancient Greek city of Byzantium as Constantinople and made it the capital of the empire. His decision to establish a new capital in the East ranks in its far-reaching consequences with his decision to adopt Christianity. The new capital enjoyed a most favorable location which afforded easy access to both the Balkan provinces and the eastern frontier, controlled traffic through the Bosporus, and met all conditions for favorable economic development. [Source: Hans A. Pohlsander, SUNY Albany, Roman Emperors <|>]

“On 8 November 324, less than two months after his victory over Licinius at Chrysopolis, Constantine formally laid out the boundaries of his new city, roughly quadrupling its territory. By 328 the new walls were completed, and on 11 May 330 the new city was formally dedicated. The New Rome, both in its physical features and in its institutions, resembled the Old Rome. It was built on seven hills, it had a senate, and its people received subsidized grain. Constantine completed and enlarged the city's hippodrome and placed in it the Serpent Column of Delphi. The palace which he built for himself afforded direct access to the kathisma, the royal box overlooking the hippodrome. A rather controversial monument is the Column of Constantine, in the Forum of Constantine, built of porphyry and 25 m. high; its remains are now known as the Burnt Column. It was crowned by a statue of Helios, its features suitably adapted so as to suggest Constantine himself. <|>

“Constantine without question began the construction of two major churches in Constantinople, Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) and Hagia Eirene (Holy Peace); the foundation of a third, the Church of the Holy Apostles, may be attributed to him with a measure of certainty. Unlike the Old Rome, which was filled with pagan monuments and institutions, the New Rome was essentially a Christian capital (and eventually the see of a patriarch), although not all traces of its pagan past had been eliminated. <|>

City of Rome Under Constantine

Ironically, Rome reached its greatest size under the reign of Constantine (A.D. 306-337), when it was a vast cosmopolitan walled city with more than one million people, including a variety of ethnic groups from the far corners of the empire. When Constantinople became the capital Rome itself began to decline. A sub-emperor remained in Rome for another century or so.

The Arch of Constantine (between the Colosseum and Palantine Hill) is the largest of ancient Rome's arches. Situated within the same traffic circle that contains the Colosseum, the 66-foot-high arch is one of the best preserved ancient Roman monuments in Rome. Resembling a decorated version of Paris's Arc de Triumph, it was built to honor Constantine's victory over his rival Maxentinus a the Battle of Milvian Bridge in A.D. 315.

Hans A. Pohlsander of SUNY wrote: ““Constantine left his mark on the city of Rome with an ambitious building program, both secular and religious. In the Forum Romanum he completed the basilica which Maxentius had left unfinished. On the Quirinal Hill, where the presidents of Italy now reside, he had a bath built. The Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Basilica of St. Peter, and the Basilica of St. Sebastian on the Appian Way all are Constantinian foundations. Of special interest is the Basilica of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter, on the ancient Via Labicana, because attached to it was the vaulted rotunda which Constantine originally had intended as a mausoleum for himself and his family but ultimately received only the body of his mother Helena; its considerable remains are known today as the Tor Pignattara. [Source: Hans A. Pohlsander, SUNY Albany, Roman Emperors]

Constantine's Government

Hans A. Pohlsander of SUNY wrote: “The prevailing character of Constantine's government was one of conservatism. His adoption of Christianity did not lead to a radical reordering of society or to a systematic revision of the legal system. Generally refraining fom sweeping innovations, he retained and completed most of the arrangements made by Diocletian, especially in provincial administration and army organization. One notable change pertained to the praetorian prefects; these now became civilian ministers assisting the Augustus or the Caesars. [Source: Hans A. Pohlsander, SUNY Albany, Roman Emperors <|>]

“In the course of a successful reform of the currency Constantine instituted a new type of coin, the gold solidus , which won wide acceptance and remained the standard for centuries to come. Some of Constantine's measures show a genuine concern for the welfare and the morality of his subjects, even for the condition of slaves. By entrusting some government functions to the Christian clergy he actually made the church an agency of the imperial government. Constantine did not neglect the security of the frontiers. He campaigned successfully in 306-308 and 314-15 on the German frontier, in 332 against the Goths, in 334 against the Sarmatians, and in 336 again on the Danube frontier. <|>

“The arrangements which Constantine made for his own succession were quite unsatisfactory. During the last two years of his reign there were four Caesars: his sons Constantine (II), Constantius (II), and Constans, having been appointed in 317, 324, and 333 respectively, and his nephew Flavius Dalmatius (whose father, of like name, was a son of Constantius I and Theodora), appointed in 335. It is not clear which of these Constantine intended to take precedence upon his death. <|>

Constantine Creates an “Oriental-Style” Monarchy

Constantine believed with Diocletian that one of the defects of the old empire was the fact that the person of the emperor was not sufficiently respected. He therefore not only adopted the diadem and the elaborate robes of the Asiatic monarchs, as Diocletian had done, but reorganized the court on a thoroughly eastern model. An Oriental court consisted of a large retinue of officials, who surrounded the monarch, who paid obeisance to him and served him, and who were raised to the rank of nobles by this service. All the powers of the monarch were exercised through these court officials. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\]

These Oriental features were now adopted by the Roman emperor. The chief officers of the court comprised the grand chamberlain, who had charge of the imperial palace; the chancellor, who had the supervision of the court officials and received foreign ambassadors; the quaestor, who drew up and issued the imperial edicts; the treasurer-general, who had control of the public revenues; the master of the privy purse, who managed the emperor’s private estate; and the two commanders of the bodyguard. The imperial court of Constantine furnished the model of the royal courts of modern times. \~\

Constantine’s Reforms

Constantine reorganized the Roman Empire’s territory in a systematic manner. This was based upon Diocletian’s division, but was much more complete and thorough. The whole empire was first divided into four great parts, called “praefectures,” each under a praetorian prefect subject to the emperor. These great territorial divisions were (1) the Praefecture of the East; (2) the Praefecture of Illyricum; (3) the Praefecture of Italy; (4) the Praefecture of Gaul. Each praefecture was then subdivided into dioceses, each under a diocesan governor, called a vicar, subject to the praetorian prefect. Each diocese was further subdivided into provinces, each under a provincial governor called a consular, president, duke, or count. Each province was made up of cities and towns, under their own municipal governments. Each city was generally governed by a city council (curia) presided over by two or four magistrates (duumviri, quattuorviri). It had also in the later empire a defender of the people (defensor populi), who, like the old republican tribune, protected the people in their rights. The new divisions of the empire may be indicated as follows: [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\]

Constantine’s “Edict on Employment” read: “Any person in whose possession a tenant that belongs to another is found not only shall restore the aforesaid tenant to his place of origin but also shall assume the capitation tax for this man for the time that he was with him. Tenants also who meditate flight may be bound with chains and reduced to a servile condition, so that by virtue of a servile condemnation they shall be compelled to fulfill the duties that befit free men.” [Source: Jones 1970: 312, Bruce Bartlett "How Excessive Government Killed Ancient Rome", Cato Institute Journal 14: 2, Fall 1994

On the surface it may have seemed that Constantine’s government was a great improvement upon that of Augustus. It gave new strength to the empire, and enabled it to resist foreign invasions. The empire was preserved for several generations longer in the West, and for more than a thousand years longer in the East. But the expenses necessary to maintain such a system, with its elaborate court and its vast number of officials, were great. The taxes were oppressive. The members of every city council (curiales) were held responsible for the raising of the revenues. The people were burdened, and lost their interest in the state. \~\

Constantine on Social Issues

In some ways, Constantine didn't change much, relative to social class at any rate, as evident in Codex Justinianus. Book IX, Title IX. “On the Lex Julia Relating to Adultery and Fornication reads: 29. The Emperor Constantine to Africanus: It should be ascertained whether the woman who committed adultery was the owner of the inn, or only a servant; and if, by employing herself in servile duties (which frequently happens), she gave occasion for intemperance, since if she were the mistress of the inn, she will not be exempt from liability under the law.[Lex Julia is an ancient Roman law that was introduced by any member of the Julian family. Most often it refers to moral legislation introduced by Augustus in 23 B.C., or to a law from the dictatorship of Julius Caesar]

“Where, however, she served liquor to the men who were drinking, she would not be liable to accusation as having committed the offense, on account of her inferior rank, and any freemen who have been accused shall be discharged, as the same degree of modesty is required of these women as of those who are legally married, and bear the name of mothers of families. Those, also, are not subject to judicial severity who are guilty of fornication or adultery, and the vileness of whose lives does not render them worthy of the attention of the law.... [A.D. 326]

“30. The Same Emperor to Evagrius: Although the crime of adultery is included among public offenses, the accusation of which is granted to all persons without distinction, still, in order that those who inconsiderately wish to cause discord in households may not be allowed to do so, it is hereby decreed that only the nearest relatives of the guilty party shall have the power to bring the accusation; that is to say, the father, the brother, and the paternal and maternal uncles, whom genuine grief may impel to prosecute. We, however, also give the said persons permission to revoke the accusation, by withdrawing it, if they should so desire.

The husband, above all others, should be considered the avenger of the marriage bed, for he is permitted to accuse his wife on suspicion, and he is not forbidden to retain her, if he only suspects her; nor will he be liable if he files a written accusation when he accuses her as her husband, a privilege which was established by former Emperors.... [326CE]”

Constantine Reorganizes the Roman Military

Constantine also re-organized the military. One of the chief defects of the early empire was the improper position which the army occupied in the state. This defect is seen in two ways. In the first place, the army was not subordinate to the civil authority. During the period of Military Anarchy and earlier the elite praetorian guards acted like kingmakers resulting in a military despotism. In the second place, the military power was not separated from the civil power. In the early empire, every governor of a province had not only civil authority, but he also had command of an army, so that he could resist the central government if he were so disposed. But Constantine changed all this. He abolished the Roman garrison or praetorian guard. He gave to the territorial governors only a civil authority; and the whole army was organized under distinct officers, and made completely subject to the central power of the empire. This change tended to prevent, on the one hand, a military despotism; and, on the other hand, the revolt of local governors. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\]

Constantine’s most elite forces were close to him. Dr Jon Coulston of the University of St. Andrews wrote for the BBC: Constantine’s “power-base was the highest calibre army close to Italy, that of the north-western provinces. This already recruited heavily from the barbarians across the Rhine in non-Roman Germany. New infantry regiments were formed alongside new cavalry formations, and both were closely attached to the emperor's entourage (comitatus). They became distinct from more static troops on the frontiers, both in status and strategic mobility.|[Source: Dr Jon Coulston, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“These entourage armies grew in size over the fourth century A.D. and had to be centrally supplied from state workshops. They were supposedly loyal, directly under the emperor's eye and formed a mobile reserve which could address military crises by moving quickly from region to region. Periodically, frontier units could be promoted to the higher status of comitatenses, and disloyal regiments could be punished with re-assignment to frontier (limes) duties with the lower tier limitanei. These trends of political centralisation but increased mobility can be traced through the reforms of Severus, Gallienus and Diocletian.” |::|

Constantine’s Final Years , Death, and Burial

Hans A. Pohlsander of SUNY wrote: “In the years 325-337 Constantine continued his support of the church even more vigorously than before, both by generous gifts of money and by specific legislation. Among his numerous church foundations the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and the Golden Octagon in Antioch deserve to be singled out. At the same time, he was more inclined to suppress paganism; we know of some specific pagan temples which were torn down upon his orders, while in other cases temple treasures were confiscated and the proceeds fed into the imperial treasury. [Source: Hans A. Pohlsander, SUNY Albany, Roman Emperors <|>]

“Shortly after Easter (3 April) 337 Constantine began to feel ill. He traveled to Drepanum, now named Helenopolis in honor of his mother, where he prayed at the tomb of his mother's favorite saint, the martyr Lucian. From there he proceeded to the suburbs of Nicomedia, and there he was baptized, as both Eusebius and Jerome report; but only Jerome adds another significant fact: the baptism was performed by the Arian bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia. <|>

“A few weeks weeks later, on the day of Pentecost, 22 May, Constantine died at Nicomedia, still wearing the white robes of a Christian neophyte. His body was escorted to Constantinople and lay in state in the imperial palace. His sarcophagus was then placed in the Church of the Holy Apostles, as he himself had directed; it was surrounded by the memorial steles of the Twelve Apostles, making him symbolically the thirteenth Apostle. Only on September 9 did Constantine II, Constantius II, and Constans each assume the rank of Augustus, after possible rivals, including the fourth Caesar, Flavius Dalmatius, had been eliminated in a bloody coup. This bloody purge of members of the Royal family, it has been argued, may have had its roots in the religious strife between the Arian and Orthodox factions at the imperial court.

In the Eastern Orthodox churches Constantine is regarded a saint; he shares a feast day, May 21, with his mother, and additionally has a feast day of his own, September 3. Constantine like Augustus, failed to make a proper provision for his successor. At his death (A.D. 337) his three sons divided the empire between them, and this division gave rise to another period of quarrels and civil strife. [Source: “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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