Flavius Valerius Constantinus, also known as Constantine the Great, was the first Roman emperor to adopt Christianity. He was educated in the imperial court of Rome and pursued to succeed his father. In 305 A. D. , his father became the emperor of the Western Empire. But, when he died in 306 A. D. , British troops declared that Constantine should replace his father. The Eastern emperor Galerius refused this claim and gave Constantine a lesser rank.
The Emperor Constantine I was the sole ruler of the Roman world between 324 and 337 A. D. His reign was one of the most crucial of all the emperors in determining the future course of western civilization. By making Christianity the religious foundation of his domain, he set the religious course for the future of Europe which remains in place to this very day. Because he replaced Rome with Constantinople as the center of imperial power, he made it clear that the city of Rome was no longer the center of power and he also set the stage for the Middle Ages.
His view of monarchy became the foundation for the concept of the divine right of kings. Constantine, the son of Constantius Chlorus and Helena, seems to have been born in Naissus in Serbia on 27 February ca. 272 or 273 C. E. When his father had become Caesar in 293 A. D. , Constantius had sent his son to the Emperor Galerius as hostage for his own good behavior; Constantine, however, returned to his father in Britain on July 25th, 306. Soon after his father’s death, Constantine was raised to the purple by the army.
The period between 306 and 324, during Constantines rule, was a period of constant civil war. Two sets of campaigns not only guaranteed Constantine a spot in Roman history, but also made him sole ruler of the Roman Empire. On October 28th, 312 he defeated Maxentius at The Battle of the Milvian Bridge. In 314, 316, and 324, he repeatedly defeated his last remaining rival Licinius. Once he had overcome him, he was the undisputed ruler of the Roman world. Incidentally, Maxentius and Licinius were both brothers-in-law of Constantine.
Of the two campaigns, however, it was the first against Maxentius which guaranteed Constantine an important place in the history of western civilization because he attributed his victory to Jesus Christ. On the evening of October 27th, 312, he had seen the Chi-Rho, the sign of Christ, in the heavens outside of the city of Rome. Starting in February, 313, Constantine began the process of making Christianity the official religion in place of paganism. He did this by passing laws which favored Christianity.
Although Constantine himself seems to have been sympathetic to the Christian faith, he only converted to Christianity shortly after April 3rd, 337. Because Constantine wanted to replace paganism with Christianity as the official state religion, he needed a unified faith which would serve as the religious backbone of the empire. He quickly found that persuasion was not enough to forge a solid, unified faith. In an attempt to resolve the Arian controversy, he assembled the first unified council in the history of the church, which assembled for its first session at Nicaea in Bithynia during June, 325.
This action was the most profound event of his reign because it set a precedent that remains in place today. When either the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Churches have major disciplinary problems to resolve, they would assemble a unified council to settle the matters in dispute. The nature of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity has long been a matter of dispute–primarily because the sources, all of them Christian, offer conflicting testimony. The outlines of his religious development, however, are clear enough.
Before 312, Constantine seems to have been a tolerant pagan, willing to accumulate heavenly patrons but not committed to any one deity. Between 312 and 324, however, he gradually adopted the Christian God as his protector and on several occasions granted special privileges to individual churches and bishops. His alliance with Christianity was strengthened by the political quarrel with Licinius. The death of Galerius in 311–and that of his successor in the East, Maximinus Daia, in 313–left Constantine and Licinius in control of both halves of the empire.
The two rulers were soon at odds. In the ensuing civil war, politics and religion became so entangled that contemporaries described Constantine’s conflict with Licinius (a pagan) as a crusade against paganism. Soon after his victory over Licinius at Chrysopolis, Constantine openly embraced Christianity and became more directly involved in the affairs of the church. In 324, after his defeat of Licinius, Constantine decided to rename Byzantium after himself and make it a governmental rival of the “Old” Rome.
The emperor’s building program was quite extensive and included the construction of churches and paganism was excluded from the city. Constantine had the city officially dedicated on May 11th, 330. The city itself became the official capital of the empire. Although Constantine used Licinius’ war chest, which he had captured there, to meet the expenses of the new construction in Constantinople, the cost to the imperial treasury had to be extensive in light of the emperor’s apparent lavishness in relation to finances.
Constantine’s taxes were so excessive that fathers were forced to hire out their daughters as prostitutes to pay debts. In any case, the emperor seems to have been an easy target for the immoral. Constantine died on May 22nd, 337 near Nicomedia on his way east to fight the Persians. Constantine II, Constantius II,Constans I, Constantina, and Helen, born of his union with Fausta, survived him, whereas Crispus, his son by Minervina, was executed along with Fausta for reasons that are not clear.
After a bloody purge of members of the Royal family which may have had its roots in the religious conflict between the Arian and Orthodox factions at the imperial court, the three sons of the late emperor were raised to the purple by the army on September 9th, 337. The civil war following Constantine’s death on May 22nd, 337, did not destroy the new order he had created. The victor in the struggle, his son Constantinus II, was an Arian, but he was no less committed to the Christianization of the empire than his father.
Paganism survived, but only during the short reign of Julian the Apostate was it again represented on the imperial throne. Constantine can rightfully claim the title of “Great”, for he turned the history of the world into a new course and made Christianity, which until then had suffered bloody persecution, the religion of the State. It is true that the deeper reasons for this change are to be found in the religious movement of the time, but these reasons were not important, as the Christians formed only a small portion of the population.
Constantine’s decision depended less on general conditions than on a personal act. He was a noble ruler, and a courageous warrior. He led his people to victory against worthy opponents, and was so successful in warfare, that his people praised him despite his high taxes. His morals and strength of character made him worthy of the love and respect his people lavished upon him, and they also make him worthy of the respect and admiration of todays people.