Flavius Valerius Constantinus, better known as Constantine the Great, was born on February 27, 273 or 274. His father was Constantius Chlorus, afterwards Caesar and Augustus, but at the time of Constantine’s birth merely a promising officer in the Roman Army. Constantius belonged to one of the leading families of Moesia and his mother was a niece of the capable and soldierly Claudius, the conqueror of the Goths. Helena is said to have been the daughter of an innkeeper of Drepanum, and Constantine’s enemies lost no opportunity of dwelling upon the obscurity of his ancestry upon mother’s side.
But that he was born in wedlock is beyond question. Helena, who later became St. Helena, is still remembered as the Christian Empress. There is, however, nothing to support the assertion sometimes made, that she was already baptized before Constantine’s birth and her early influence ultimately brought him to Christianity. Such facts about her life as are known would suggest the contrary – Eusebius of Caecarea declares that Constantine in fact converted his mother. There are, however, other indications that Helena was not a Christian during her son’s early years.
At what date Helena did embrace Christianity remains a mystery. Nor can anyone say with certainly what gods she worshipped during her son’s childhood. The uncertainty attaching to the year of Constantine’s birth attaches even more to its place. Where he was born is almost not known. The name of the places have been proposed: Colchester in Britain, Drepanum, a city on the shores of the Gulf of Nicomedia on the southern coast of the Bosphorus, and the town of Naissus, now Nish, in the province of Dacia in the Balkans.
None of them can certainly be excluded, but Colchester is the least likely of the three. No one now believes that he was born in Britain – a pleasing fiction which was invented by English monks, who delighted to represent his mother Helena as the daughter of a British King, though they were quite at a loss where to locate his kingdom. The only foundation for this was a passage in one of the Panegyrists, who said that Constantine had bestowed luster upon Britain. There is no evidence that Constantius visited Britain before he became Praetorian Prefect to Maximian in 286 or 287.
The evidence for Constantine’s birth at Drepanum in northern Asia Minor is not much convincing. It stands mainly on the facts that he renamed the city Helenopolis and its province Helenopontus in his mother’s honor, and that the emperor Justinian beautified the city because his illustrious predecessor had been born there. Justinian’s act of piety was, however, performed two hundred years after Constantine’s death and can scarcely be taken to prove anything. The weight of the evidence favors Naissus as Constantine’s native town.
His contemporary, Julius Firmicius, affirms it absolutely, and it is confirmed by the unnamed author quoted by Ammianus late in the fourth century. Naissus was an important city, and it would not be really remarkable that both Claudius should valiantly defend it and Constantius Chlorus’ son be born there. It would held to fix the date and place Constantine’s birth if there were hard evidence pointing to where Helena’s father kept his inn, when Constantius began his service in the south Danubian area, and how long after the start of Helena’s association with him her son was born.
It is tempting to speculate that the inn was at or near Naissus, that Constantius met Helena while serving in the Gothic campaign, and that Constantine was born within a few miles of the side of his alleged imperial relation’s greatest victory. Of Constantine’s early years we know almost nothing, though we may suppose that they were spent in the eastern half of the Empire. In 293 Constantine was betrothed to Fausta the daughter of Maximian, and in this year his father Constantius was made Caesar, and partially master of Gaul with the task assigned him of recovering Britain.
Constantine had no learned education and served both the Augustus Diocletian and the Caesar Galerius as a tribune of the bodyguard. Under Galerius, Constantine fought against the Persians (297-298). But Constantine decided to depart from the east and rejoin his father Constantius in the west. It may well be true that Constantius in asking Galerius for his son pleaded ill-health. Indeed, the Christian writers repeated the story that he was on his death-bed when Constantine reached him After a short campaign in Caledonia, Constantine died at York on July 25, 306.
The troops in Britain hailed Constantine as Augustus, perhaps in accordance with his dying father’s request and with the support of a German (Allamannic) king who was present as their ally. Galerius was not at all pleased with this application, but conceded him the rank of Caesar. We know just a little of Constantine’s administration during 306-312. The son of Maximian, Maxentius, had asserted himself by a rebellion on October 28, 306. His revolt was prompted, in part, by jealousy of Constantine. Even though jealous of Constantine, Maxentius soon appealed to him for help.
Maximian also proclaimed his alliance with Constantine whom he declared to be yet another Augustus. To stress further his friendship with Constantine, Maximian gave him his daughter Fausta in marriage and incited him to attack Galerius. After this Maximian temporarily quarreled with his son Maxentius. Then, Maximian sought refuge with Constantine. And Galerius, too, not unnaturally turned against Maxentius, when Severus invaded Italy. Severus was put to death at Tres Tabernae on the Via Appia by Maxentius. Galerius next proceeded to summon the various leaders to the Conference of Carnuntum.
At this conference Galerius suggested that Diocletian should return to the throne, but Diocletian refused. On December 26, 308, Galerius was to appoint Licinius in Serverus’ place, but it was a controversial appointment since Licinius had never served as Caesar. The last act of Galerius was an edict of toleration for the Christians in April 311. A few days after this Galerius died. There were now four emperors: Constantine held Gaul and Britain, Maxentius Italy, Spain and Africa, Licinius ruled Illyricum, Greece and Thrace, Maximian held everything beyond the Bosphorus.
Maxentius was to crush Constantine, and Maximian to deal with Licinius. Maxentius was Constantine’s most obvious and gravest enemy, but Constantine did not wait to be crushed. From his camp at Calmar, he struck across the Alps into Italy. Maxentius failed to occupy the Alpine passes in the hope of blocking Constantine’s invasion, but sent his prefect Pompeianus from Rome to the north of the peninsula. He defended Verona and was killed, moreover Verona surrendered and Constantine turned his face towards Rome. The next towns to fall were Aquileia and, after a short time, Mutina.
Maxentius decided to move out of the city to confront Constantine. It has been suggested that he first made a stand at Saxa Rubra. Maxentius felt that there was adequate justifications for taking this catastrophic step. The first was that October 28, the day of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge that followed, was the sixth anniversary of his accession and a lucky day to force an encounter. The second was the fact that the Sibylline Books declared that on that day the enemy of the Romans would perish. The engagement took place near the Milvian Bridge spanning the River Tiber.
Maxentius destroyed the bridge before Constantine arrived. But in its place he constructed another bridge of boasts, consisting of two halves linked by iron bolts which could be unfastened if the enemy tried to cross. However, Maxentius’ troops were forced back to the Tiber. The bridge broke under them and many soldiers, including Maxentius, fell into the river and were drowned. Thus Constantine became master of the West. This short campaign was an epoch for Constantine. To it belongs the story of the Shining Cross. The conversion of Constantine is usually connected with the famous story of the appearance of the cross in the sky.
However, the sources related to this event arouse much disagreement among historians, and we have two main authorities for the legend, Eusebius and Lactantius. According to Eusebius, the Emperor during the march on Maxentius lifting his eyes saw in the sky just above the sun the figure of a cross and attached to it was the inscription, “Conquer by This”. Constantine could not understand what it could mean, and, as he slept, Christ appeared to him in a dream bearing with Him the sign that had flamed in the sky, and bade the sleeper make a copy of it and use it as a talisman whenever he gave battle. What then is the version of Lactantius?
It is that just before the battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine was warned in a dream to have the sign of the cross inscribed on the shields of his soldiers before leading them to the attack. There is nothing about the cross in the sky, nothing of the inscription “Conquer by This”, nothing of the entire army being witness of the portent. Eusebius was particularly eager to refer to the labarum, because he himself had seen it in the emperor’s private apartment and he interpreted it as a sign of salvation. The labarum took the form of a long spear covered with gold and joined by a transverse bar which gave it the shape of the cross.
Such was the origin of the Byzantine labarum. Constantine had stayed in Rome for two months and left for Milan in 313 where he gave his sister Constantia in marriage to Licinius. The wedding festivities were interrupted by the news that Maximin made a sudden attack capturing Byzantium and pushing on towards Hadrianopole. There Licinius defeated him. Maximin did not publish the edict of Galerius, which was given in Nicomedia in November 311, but merely sent a letter to the officials that actual persecution was to be stopped for the present.
A few months later he resumed it with less bloodshed and more statesmanship. The defeat of Maximin ended the long contest of Church and State begun by Nero. In 313 Constantine met Licinius and they issued the document incorrectly called the Edict of Milan. This edict was a confirmation of Galerius’ edict, which wasn’t carried out before. Constantine and Licinius gave Christianity the same rights enjoyed by other faiths. However, the Edict of Nicomedia gave non basis for the claim made by some historians that during the reign of Constantine Christianity was placed above all other religions.
The Edict of Milan clearly favored the Christians repeatedly emphasizing that all official impediments to the practice of their religion were to be removed. Constantine returned all property seized from Christians during the Great Persecution to its previous owners, requiring the imperial treasury to compensate those who had bought the confiscated property at auction. He also gave the Lateran basilica to the bishop of Rome for his headquarters. Over time, Constantine provided Christianity with many advantages such as exempting its clergy from taxation and from service as curials.
He gave bishops the authority to decide legal cases on appeal from the civil judiciary system. When bitter doctrinal disputes broke out among Christians, he personally presided over council of bishops to try to settle them. In 321, the Lord’s Day (Sunday) was made a holy day on which no official business or manufacturing work could be performed. Constantine’s declaration of Sunday as a holiday led to the imposition of a calendar of seven-day weeks. Christian symbols gradually appeared on the imperial coinage, but they were placed alongside the images of pagan gods.
Many churches were constructed at Antioch, Nicomedia, North Africa; it is possible that Constantine led the foundations of St. Sophia; to him are ascribed: the basilica of St. Peter, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the Church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives; the Church of the Apostles and the Church of St. Irene in Constantinople. After his death three important Christian centers developed: the early Christian Rome, Christian Constantinople, and Christian Jerusalem. Constantine had an experience of Christian self-will in Africa soon after the defeat of Maxentius.
A large council of the Western Churches met at Arles in August 314. It destroyed the Donatist contention by deciding that Felix, bishop of Aptunga, was not a traitor. It also settled some controversies and the Roman custom of not repeating heretical baptism if it was given in the name of the Trinity. Although religious peace was assured, the unity of the Empire was not yet restored. Constantine and Licinius were ambitious and war between them was only a question of time. Constantine proposed to institute a middle domain for Bassianus, his brother in law. He gave Bassianus Italy, and Licinius had to give Illyrium.
Liccinius frustrated it by engaging Bassianus in a plot for which he was put to death. This meant war. On October 8, 314, a hard battle ended in the victory of Constantine. Licinius fled towards Hadrianople and collected a new army. In another battle on the Mardian plain Constantine also achieved the victory. The peace between Constantine and Licinius was for nearly eight years. Constantine drew nearer to the Christians, however Licinius drifted into persecution. There started a new war. Constantine won the first battle on July 3, 323, but stopped before the walls of Byzantium.
The battle of Chrysopolis in September 323 was decisive. Licinius fled to Nicomedia but he was put to the death in October 325. After the battle of Chrysopolis there was no more fighting, except with the Goths. The last fourteen years of Constantine’s life were the years of peace. After the defeat of Licinius Constantine found several disputes in the Eastern Churches. A severe argument ensued when a priest named Arius from Alexandria maintained that Jesus, as the Son of God, had not existed eternally; rather God created His Son from nothing and bestowed on His special status.
Thus, Jesus was not coeternal with God and not divine by His nature. Constantine convened the Council of Nicea in 325 to settle the dispute of Arius’ teaching. The council condemned the heresy of Arius voting to banish him to Illyria, and adopted the Creed in which Jesus Christ was recognized as the Son of God, unbegotten, and consubstantial with His Father. However, the Council of Nicea not only failed to put the end to Arian disputes, but caused many new similar movements. A few years after the council, Arius was recalled from exile.
After the Council of Nicea, there was a family tragedy. In a few months from October 325, Constantine put to death not only Licinius but his son Crispus and the younger Licinius, then his wife Fausta, and a number of his friends. Now Constantine was married twice: to Minervina. Two main events of Constantine’s reign were the official recognition of Christianity, which I already discussed, and the transfer the capital from Rome to Constantinopole. Rome was distasteful to Constantine because it reminded him of the son and the wife who had been fallen victims to his severe resentment.
He didn’t choose Byzantium at once, and before considered Naissus, Sardica, Thessalonica, and Troy. He decided upon the foundation of the new capital and in 325 the construction was begun. The capital adapted the municipal system of Rome and was subdivided into fourteen districts. It was inaccessible from the sea, and on land it was protected by walls. Economically, Constantine controlled the entire trade of the Black Sea with the Aegean and the Mediterranean seas, and was thus destined to become the commercial intermediary between Europe and Asia.
The work was completed by the spring of 330, and on May 11 was the official date for the foundation of Constantinopole. We know little of Constantine’s last years. His last war was with the Goths. In 331 the Sarmatians and the Vandals had somehow got mixed up together, and suffered a great defeat from the Goths. They asked Constantine for help. The younger Constantine gained a great victory over the Goths on April 20, 332, and when peace was made, the Goths returned to their old possessions as servants and allies of Rome.
As Constantine had won the Empire, so now he had to dispose of it. Constantine, Constantius and Constans, the son’s of Constantine the Great, were born in 316, 317, 320 and received their titles of Caesar in 317, 323, 333. In 335 their inheritance was marked out. The partition actually was made after the death of the Emperor. In 337, Constantine had himself baptized in a village near Nicomedia. Catholics became uncomfortable about baptism at the hands of Eusebius of Nicomedia — who was an Arian — and invented a story that he was baptized by Pope Silvester I.
After his baptism, Constantine proceeded to a state-owned villa at Archyrion. At all the events Persian war was plain in sight by the spring of 337, and a war with Persia was too serious a matter to be left to Caesars like a Frankish foray or a Gothic inroad, so the old emperor prepared to take the field in person. However, Constantine never set out. He fell sick soon after Easter and died on May 22, 337. Constantine was buried in the spot he had himself marked out in the cathedral of the Twelve Apostles in his own imperial city.
Constantine is best know as the first Christian Emperor, and it’s predominantly for his conversion of the Roman Imperial state to Christianity that he became famous; his energy was untiring, his observation keen, his decision quick. He was a splendid soldier and the best general since Aurelian, his general humanity stood out clear in his laws, for no emperor ever did more for the slave, the foundling and the oppressed. In private life he was chaste and sober, moderate and pleasant, his ambition was great, and he was very susceptible to flattery.