Constantine I

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Constantine I
Emperor of the Roman Empire
Head of Constantine's colossal statue at the Capitoline Museums
Reign 306 - 312 (hailed as Augustus in the West, officially made Caesar by Galerius with Severus as Augustus, by agreement with Maximian, refused relegation to Caesar in 309);
312 - 324 (undisputed Augustus in the West);
324 - 22 May 337 (emperor of the whole empire)
Full name Gaius Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus
Born 27 February 272 or 273
Naissus (modern Niš, Serbia)
Died 22 May 337
Buried Constantinople
Predecessor Constantius Chlorus
Successor Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans
Wife/wives Minervina, died or divorced before 307
Issue Constantina, Helena, Crispus, Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans
Dynasty Constantinian
Father Constantius Chlorus
Mother Helena
Bronze statue of Constantine I in York, England, near the spot where he was proclaimed Emperor in 306
Bronze statue of Constantine I in York, England, near the spot where he was proclaimed Emperor in 306

Gaius Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus ( February 27, 272– May 22, 337), commonly known as Constantine I, Constantine the Great, or (among Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Christians) Saint Constantine, was a Roman Emperor, proclaimed Augustus by his troops on July 25, 306 and who ruled an ever-growing portion of the Roman Empire until his death.

Constantine is best remembered in modern times for the Edict of Milan in 313, which fully legalized Christianity in the Empire, for the first time, and the Council of Nicaea in 325; these actions are considered major factors in the spreading of the Christian religion. His reputation as the "first Christian Emperor" has been promulgated by historians from Lactantius and Eusebius of Caesarea to the present day, although there has been debate over the veracity of his faith. This debate stems from his continued support for pagan deities and the fact that he was baptized very close to his death.


Early life

Constantine was born in Naissus (modern Niš, Serbia) in the province of Moesia Superior on 27 February 272 or 273, to Roman general, Constantius Chlorus, and his first wife Helena, an innkeeper's daughter who at the time was only sixteen years old. His father left his mother around 292 to marry Flavia Maximiana Theodora, daughter or step-daughter of the Western Roman Emperor Maximian. Theodora would give birth to six half-siblings of Constantine, including Julius Constantius.

Young Constantine served at the court of Diocletian in Nicomedia, after the appointment of his father as one of the two caesares (junior emperors) of the Tetrarchy in 293. In 305, both augusti (senior emperors), Diocletian and Maximian, abdicated, and Constantius succeeded to Maximian's position of western augustus. Although two legitimate sons of emperors were available (Constantine and Maxentius, the son of Maximian), both of them were ignored in the transition of power. Instead, Severus and Maximinus Daia were made caesares. Constantine subsequently left Nicomedia to join his father in Roman Gaul. However, Constantius fell sick during an expedition against the Picts of Caledonia, and died on July 25, 306 in Eboracum (York). The general Chrocus, of Alamannic descent, and the troops loyal to Constantius' memory immediately proclaimed Constantine an augustus.

Under the Tetrarchy, Constantine's succession was of dubious legitimacy. While Constantius as senior emperor could "create" a new caesar, Constantine's (or, his troops') claim to the title of augustus ignored the system of succession established in 305. Accordingly, Constantine asked Galerius, the eastern augustus, to be recognized as heir to his father's throne. Galerius granted him the title of caesar, confirming Constantine's rule over his father's territories, and promoted Severus to augustus of the West.

Ruler of the West

Constantine's share of the empire consisted of Britain, Gaul, the Germanic provinces, and Spain. He therefore commanded one of the largest Roman armies, stationed along the important Rhine frontier. While Gaul was one of the richer regions of the empire, it had suffered much during the Crisis of the Third Century. Many areas were depopulated, the cities ruined. During his years in Gaul, from 306 to 316, Constantine continued his father's efforts to secure the Rhine frontier and rebuild the Gallic provinces. His main residence during that time was Trier.

Immediately after his promotion to emperor, Constantine abandoned his father's British campaign and returned to Gaul to quell an uprising by Franks. Another expedition against Frankish tribes followed in 308. After this victory, he began to build a bridge across the Rhine at Cologne to establish a permanent stronghold on the right bank of the river. A new campaign in 310 had to be abandoned because of Maximian's rebellion (below). The last of Constantine's wars on the Rhine frontier took place in 313, after his return from Italy, and saw him again victorious. Constantine's main goal was stability, and he tried to achieve that by immediate, often brutal punitive expeditions against rebellious tribes, demonstrating his military power by conquering the enemies on their own side of the Rhine frontier, and slaughtering many prisoners during games in the arena. The strategy proved successful, as the Rhine frontier remained relatively quiet during the rest of Constantine's reign.

In the interior conflicts of the Tetrarchy, Constantine tried to remain neutral. In 307, the senior emperor Maximian (recently returned to the political scene after his abdication in 305) visited Constantine to get his support in the war of Maxentius against Severus and Galerius. Constantine married Maximian's daughter Fausta to seal the alliance and was promoted to Augustus by Maximian. He did not interfere on Maxentius' behalf, though. Maximian returned to Gaul in 308 after he had failed to depose his son. At the conference of Carnuntum, where Diocletian, Galerius and Maximian met later that year, Maximian was forced to abdicate again and Constantine reduced to caesar. In 309, Maximian rebelled against his son-in-law while Constantine was campaigning against the Franks. The rebellion was quickly quelled, and Maximian was killed or forced to commit suicide. Both Constantine and Maximinus Daia were disappointed over their relegation to caesar and Licinius' appointment, and subsequently defied that ruling and styled themselves Augustus, which was granted to them by Galerius in 310, thus officially creating four Augusti. With Galerius' death in 311, the last ruler with enough authority interested in continuing the tetrarchy left the stage, and the system rapidly declined. In the struggle for power that ensued, Constantine allied himself with Licinius, while Maximinus approached Maxentius, who was still officially regarded as an usurper.


Early in 312, Constantine crossed the Alps with his army and attacked Maxentius. He quickly conquered Northern Italy in the battles of Turin and Verona and then moved on to Rome. There he defeated Maxentius in the Battle of Milvian Bridge, which resulted in his becoming Western Augustus, or ruler of the entire Western Roman Empire. During the next years, he gradually consolidated his military superiority over his rivals in the crumbling Tetrarchy.

In 313, he met Licinius in Milan to secure their alliance by the marriage of Licinius and Constantine's half-sister Constantia. During this meeting, the emperors agreed on the so-called Edict of Milan, officially granting full tolerance to all religions in the empire, especially Christianity. The conference was cut short, however, when news reached Licinius that his rival Maximinus Daia had crossed the Bosporus and invaded Licinian territory. Licinius departed and eventually defeated Maximinus, gaining control over the entire eastern half of the Roman Empire. Relations between the two remaining emperors declined, though, and either in 314 or 316, Constantine and Licinius fought against one another in the war of Cibalae, with Constantine being victorious. They clashed again in the Battle of Campus Ardiensis in 317, and agreed to a settlement in which Constantine's sons Crispus and Constantine II, and Licinius' son Licinianus were made caesars.

In the year 320, Licinius reneged on the religious freedom promised by the Edict of Milan in 313 and began another persecution of the Christians. It became a challenge to Constantine in the west, climaxing in the great civil war of 324. Licinius, aided by Goth mercenaries, represented the past and the ancient faith of Paganism. Constantine and his Franks marched under the Christian standard of the labarum, and both sides saw the battle in religious terms. Supposedly outnumbered, but fired by their zeal, Constantine's army emerged victorious in the battles of Adrianople, the Hellespont, and at Chrysopolis. With the defeat and death of Licinius a year later (he was accused of plotting against Constantine and executed), Constantine then became the sole emperor of the entire Roman Empire.

Founding of New Rome

Constantine the Great, mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Constantinople, c. 1000.
Constantine the Great, mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Constantinople, c. 1000.

Licinius' defeat represented the passing of old Rome, and the beginning of the role of the Eastern Roman Empire as a centre of learning, prosperity, and cultural preservation. Constantine rebuilt the city of Byzantium, and renamed it Nova Roma (New Rome), providing it with a Senate and civic offices similar to those of Rome, and the new city was protected by the alleged True Cross, the Rod of Moses and other holy relics, though a cameo now at the Hermitage Museum also represented Constantine crowned by the tyche of the new city . The figures of old gods were replaced and often assimilated into Christian symbolism. On the site of a temple to Aphrodite was built the new Basilica of the Apostles. Generations later there was the story that a Divine vision led Constantine to this spot, and an angel no one else could see, led him on a circuit of the new walls. After his death, his capital was renamed Constantinopolis (in English Constantinople, " Constantine's City").


The Baptism of Constantine, as imagined by students of Raphael.
The Baptism of Constantine, as imagined by students of Raphael.

In 326, Constantine had his eldest son Crispus tried and executed, as he believed accusations that Crispus had an affair with Fausta, Constantine's second wife. A few months later he also had Fausta killed as the apparent source of these false accusations.

Eusebius reports that Constantine was baptized only shortly before his death in 337. With this, he followed one custom at the time which postponed baptism till old age or death. According to Jerome, Constantine's choice fell upon the Arian bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, who happened, despite his being an ally of Arius, to still be the bishop of the region.

Notwithstanding his conversion to Christianity, Constantine was deified, like several other Christian emperors after him. By this late stage of the Empire, deification had lost much of its original religious meaning, and had simply become little more than a posthumous honour.[ citations needed] His body was transferred to Constantinople and buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles there.


He was succeeded by his three sons by Fausta, Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans. A number of relatives were murdered by followers of Constantius. He also had two daughters, Constantina and Helena, wife of Emperor Julian.

Constantine and Christianity

Constantine is best known for being the first Roman Emperor to embrace Christianity, although he may have continued in his pre-Christian beliefs, and along with his co-Emperor Licinius was the first to grant Christianity the status of a legalized religion (religio licita) through the 313 Edict of Milan.

Constantine and the Jews

Constantine instituted several legislative measures regarding the Jews: they were forbidden to own Christian slaves or to circumcise their slaves. Conversion of Christians to Judaism was outlawed. Congregations for religious services were restricted, but Jews were allowed to enter Jerusalem on Tisha B'Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple. Constantine also supported the separation of the date of Easter from the Jewish Passover (see also Quartodecimanism), stating in his letter after the First Council of Nicaea: "... it appeared an unworthy thing that in the celebration of this most holy feast we should follow the practice of the Jews, who have impiously defiled their hands with enormous sin, and are, therefore, deservedly afflicted with blindness of soul. ... Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd; for we have received from our Saviour a different way." . Theodoret's Ecclesiastical History 1.9 records the Epistle of the Emperor Constantine addressed to those Bishops who were not present at the Council: "It was, in the first place, declared improper to follow the custom of the Jews in the celebration of this holy festival, because, their hands having been stained with crime, the minds of these wretched men are necessarily blinded. ... Let us, then, have nothing in common with the Jews, who are our adversaries. ... avoiding all contact with that evil way. ... who, after having compassed the death of the Lord, being out of their minds, are guided not by sound reason, but by an unrestrained passion, wherever their innate madness carries them. ... a people so utterly depraved. ... Therefore, this irregularity must be corrected, in order that we may no more have any thing in common with those parricides and the murderers of our Lord. ... no single point in common with the perjury of the Jews."


Constantine's iconography and ideology

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 309–310, Constantine began to claim legitimate descent from the 3rd century emperor Marcus Aurelius Claudius Gothicus, the hero of the Battle of Naissus (September, 268). The Augustan History of the 4th century reports Constantine's paternal grandmother Claudia to be a daughter of Crispus, Crispus being a reported brother of both Claudius II and Quintillus. Historians however suspect this account to be a genealogical fabrication to flatter Constantine.

Follis by Constantine. On the reverse, a labarum with the chi-rho.
Follis by Constantine. On the reverse, a labarum with the chi-rho.

Gothicus had claimed the divine protection of Apollo-Sol Invictus. In mid-310, two years before the victory at the Milvian Bridge, Constantine reportedly experienced the publicly announced vision in which Apollo-Sol Invictus 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 represents Apollo with a solar halo, Helios-like, and the globe in his hands. In the 320s Constantine has a halo of his own. There are also coins depicting Apollo driving the chariot of the Sun on a shield Constantine is holding and another in 312 shows the Christian chi-rho on a helmet Constantine is wearing.

An example of "staring eyes" on later Constantine coinage.
An example of "staring eyes" on later Constantine coinage.

The great staring eyes in the iconography of Constantine, 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 coinage of Theodosius I

Constantine's Courts and Appointees

Constantine respected cultivation and Christianity, and his court was composed of older, respected, and honored men. Leading Roman families that refused Christianity were denied positions of power, yet two-thirds of his top government was non-Christian.

"From Pagan temples Constantine had his statue removed. The repair of Pagan temples that had decayed was forbidden. These funds were given to the favored Christian clergy. Offensive forms of worship, either Christian or Pagan, were suppressed. At the dedication of Constantinople in 330 a ceremony half Pagan and half Christian was performed, in the market place, the Cross of Christ was placed over the head of the Sun-God's chariot. There was a singing of hymns."

Constantine's legal standards

Constantine 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 European society during the Middle Ages.

Constantine's laws in many ways improved those of his predecessors, though they also reflect his more violent age. Some examples:

  • For the first time, girls could not be abducted (this may actually refer to elopements, which were considered kidnapping because girls could not legally consent to the elopement).
  • A punishment of death was mandated to anyone collecting taxes over the authorized amount.
  • A prisoner was no longer to be kept in total darkness, but must be given the outdoors and daylight.
  • A condemned man was allowed to die in the arena, but he could not be branded on his "heavenly beautified" face, just on the feet (because God made man in His image).
  • Slave "nurses" or chaperones caught allowing the girls they were responsible for to be seduced were to have molten lead poured down their throats.
  • Gladiatorial games were ordered to be eliminated in 325, although this had little real effect.
  • A slave master's rights were limited, but a slave could still be beaten to death.
  • Crucifixion was abolished for reasons of Christian piety, but was replaced with hanging, to show there was Roman law and justice.
  • Easter could be publicly celebrated.
  • Sunday was declared a day of rest, on which markets were banned and public offices were closed (except for the purpose of freeing slaves). However, there were no restrictions on farming work (which was the work of the great majority of the population).

Constantine's legacy

Contemporary bronze head of Constantine.
Contemporary bronze head of Constantine.

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 and victories alone. In addition to reuniting the empire under one emperor, Constantine won major victories over the Franks and Alamanni (306–308), the Franks again (313–314), the Visigoths in 332 and the Sarmatians in 334. 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 the Persian Empire.

The Byzantine Empire considered Constantine its founder and also the Holy Roman Empire reckoned him among the venerable figures of its tradition. In both East and West, Emperors were sometimes hailed as a "new Constantine". Most Eastern Christian churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, consider Constantine a saint. In the East he is sometimes called " isapostolos" or the "13th apostle" .

Legend and Donation of Constantine

In later years, historical facts were clouded by legend. It was considered inappropriate that Constantine was baptized only on his death-bed and by a bishop of questionable orthodoxy, and hence a legend emerged that Pope Silvester I (314-335) had cured the pagan Emperor from leprosy. According to this legend, Constantine was baptized after that and donated buildings to the Pope. In the 8th century, a document called the " Donation of Constantine" first appeared, in which the freshly converted Constantine hands the temporal rule over Rome, Italy and the Occident to the Pope. In the High Middle Ages, this document was used and accepted as the basis for the Pope's temporal power, though it was denounced as a forgery by Emperor Otto III and lamented as the root of papal worldliness by the poet Dante Alighieri. The 15th century philologist Lorenzo Valla proved the document was indeed a forgery.

Constantine in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia

Because of his fame and his being proclaimed Emperor on Great Britain, Constantine was later also considered a British King. In the 11th century, the English writer Geoffrey of Monmouth published a fictional work called Historia Regum Britanniae, in which he narrates the supposed history of the Britons and their kings from the Trojan War to King Arthur and the Anglo-Saxon conquest. In this work, Geoffrey claimed that Constantine's mother Helena was actually the daughter of " King Cole", the mythical King of the Britons and eponymous founder of Colchester. 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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