Constantine the Great
One of the great Roman emperors
Constantine the Great (272-237) is undoubtedly one of the greatest of all Roman emperors, and probably equal in importance to Diocletian — and rather better known. He converted himself and the Empire to Christianity; he founded Constantinople, a great city that bore his name and is still, renamed Istanbul, one of the great cities in the world; and he also stabilised the currency and provided stability for a further century of Roman greatness.
Constantine inherited his position from his father Constantius, though the story of his accession is extremely complex. Constantius was one of the great soldier emperors to emerge from the Balkans in the late third century. He was a fellow-countryman of Diocletian, who appointed him as one of the two Caesars, in charge of the north west provinces — Spain, Gaul and Britain. His son Constantine was clearly from the start extremely capable, and having at first accompanied his father in his wars, he then was summoned to the east, to the then capital at Nikomedia, theoretically to continue his education but in practice as a sort of hostage for his father’s good behaviour.
But eventually he managed to escape from Emperor Galerius: the story goes that he got Galerius drunk, and then escaped at night, riding fast on horseback, laming or killing his horses behind him so he could not be pursued, until eventually he joined his father in Britain.
His father, Constantius, had earned his spurs in Britain. In the late third century, Britain had broken away from the Roman Empire and Carausius had set himself up as an independent emperor, apparently rather successfully. However in 293 Carausius was murdered by his assistant Allectus, who ruled for three more years until Constantius invaded and conquered: British historians are always in two minds whether we should support Carausius and Allectus, or not
In 305 Constantius was again back in Britain, campaigning in Scotland against the Picts, then in 306 at York he fell ill. Constantine hurried to his bedside and arrived just in time before he died, and on his death, the troops proclaimed his son Constantine as Emperor — the only major Emperor to be proclaimed in Britain.
The next five years are extremely chaotic and in many points the sources are contradictory: it appears that at one time there were no less than six emperors. However in 311 Constantine defeated Maxentius, who was nominally the senior Emperor in the West, at the battle of the Milvian bridge, just outside Rome. Eusebius tells the story that just before the battle, Constantine saw a cross in the sky with the words, ‘In this sign you will conquer’, so he told his soldiers to paint a cross on their shields, and they duly conquered.
For the next 13 years, Constantine was senior Emperor in the West, but the Emperor in the east was Licinius. Licinius had married Constantine’s half sister Constantia, so the two had an on/off relationship of being friends and brothers in law at one time, and then switching to enmity; eventually in 324 war broke out between the two, and Constantine defeated Licinius first at the Battle of Adrianople and finally at the Battle of Chrysopolis, and from 324 till his death in 337, Constantine was sole emperor.
Constantine, like Diocletian, presents a problem to historians as the sources for his reign are all biased, though in the opposite direction to Diocletian, for whereas Diocletian is invariably painted black by the Christian writers, Constantine is painted white: both emperors could do with a slightly more judicious assessment. The main source is Eusebius who wrote a Church History that concludes in 313, and then a Life of Constantine which is more a panegyric than a life. Lactantius, who paints Constantine as white as he painted Diocletian black, ends his account in 312
There are three main topics to be discussed with Constantine. The innovation that has had the most profound effect on the history of the world, was his conversion to Christianity, so we ask why he converted to Christianity, the practical changes that he made, the privileges that he gave to the Christians, and his problems with the various heretics. The second major innovation was his founding of Constantinople, and we look at why he established a new capital, and the nature of the city that he founded or re-founded. And finally we look at Constantine CEO. If Diocletian was the supreme innovator, it was Constantine who tidied everything up and made the Empire work again, and we look at his reorganisation of money, the army and the administration.
In my first draft of this chapter, I then went off at this point to describe the rise of Christianity and then the life of Christ himself. Then, having got the bit between my teeth, I then went on to examine Judaism and how that great faith arose. Subsequently I realised that these chapters deserved to be reversed in order and placed in my description of the Bronze Age societies alongside Egypt and the Minoans: click here for the result. However, my pages on the Rise of Christianity, and on the Growth of Christianity and the persecutions that it suffered, are still, I think, of interest, so I have left them here. One day I will integrate them into the main text.
Note on the header: This is the famous colossal head of Constantine now in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. The head alone is 2.5 metres high, and the statue as a whole would have stood about 12 m high. Photo by Jean-Pol Grandmont, courtesy of Wikipedia