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Constantine the Great of Rome - Famous and Infamous Rulers
2205    Dibyendu Banerjee    08/04/2018

Flavius Valerius Constantinus

Flavius Valerius Constantinus was born around the year 274 AD in the city Naissus, in the Roman province of Moesia, now in Serbia. The date of his birth is not certain, being given as early as 274 and as late as 288. He was the son of Flavius Valerius Constantius and Helena, his wife or concubine. Helena was from a modest family, but she was a lady with remarkable character and unusual ability, while Flavius was an officer in the Roman army. The circumstances changed in 289, with the promotion of his father to the rank of Caesar, or deputy emperor and his consequent transfer to the West, to serve under Augustus Maximian. He had to be separated from Helena in 289, as he was to marry a stepdaughter of Maximian, and Constantine was sent to the court of the senior emperor Diocletian, at Nicomedia (modern Izmit in Turkey).There Constantine got an excellent education, learning to read and write in both Latin and Greek. He also learned about Greek philosophy, mythology, and theatre. However, though he lived a privileged life, in many ways Constantine was a hostage held by Diocletian to make sure that his father remained loyal.

Maximian was a Co ruler of the Roman Empire with Emperor Diocletian. In 305 Diocletian and Maximian abdicated, and Chlorus became a co ruler, the administrator of the West, while Diocletian's son-in-law, Galerius, custodian of the East. Galerius kept Constantine at his court, apparently fearing that he might develop imperial ambitions, if left with his father. Constantine had, in the mean time, distinguished himself as a soldier. In 306, he managed to escape to the West and joined Chlorus in his campaigns in northern Britain. In the month of July 306, Chlorus died in York and his troops immediately proclaimed Constantine as his successor. Galerius also acknowledged Constantine as a Caesar.

Constantine defended his position against different Roman factions, including Maximian's son, Maxentius, during the period of civil war. In 312, Constantine fought in Italy, meeting Maxentius and his forces for the final showdown, the crucial Battle of Milvian Bridge on the Tiber River.

Maxentius is believed to have had a numerically stronger army, but Constantine had confidence in his heart. It is said that, the day before the battle, he saw a flaming cross superimposed over the sun, with the inscription ‘In Hoc Signo’, meaning, ‘in this sign thou shalt conquer.’ That night, in a dream, Christ appeared before him and told him to carry the sign of the cross into the battle. Accordingly, Constantine had his soldiers paint the symbol on their shields and in the ensuing battle he completely routed his opponent. As the bridge of boats, which was being used by the retreating army as the way to escape suddenly collapsed, Maxentius, along with thousands of his soldiers was drowned unceremoniously.

battle of the milvian bridg
Battle of the MilvianBridg

Amid festive public jubilation, Constantine entered Rome on 29 October 312, while the body of Maxentius was fished out, decapitated and his head was paraded through the streets. Victory over Maxentius gave Constantine undisputed control over the western half of the Roman Empirewith the eastern half ruled by Licinius, who became a brother in law of Constantine in 313 AD. During the same year they jointly issued the ‘ Edict of Milan’, which made Christianity an officially recognised and tolerated religion in the Roman Empire. It also granted the Christians the restoration of all their confiscated property that was seized from them during Diocletian’s persecution.


However, the lull of peace lasted for only ten years and around 322, Licinius, not content with openly professing paganism, started to persecute the Christians, and at the same time treated Constantine's undoubted rights and privileges with contempt. Thus, as the outbreak of a war became imminent, Constantine gathered an army to gain control of the Bosporus. He attacked Licinius in 324, routed him at Adrianople and Chrysopolis and became the sole emperor of the Roman Empire.

After unifying the Roman Empire, Constantine rebuilt his seat of power on the site of the Greek city of Byzantium, which was renamed Constantinopolis or Constantinople (modern Istanbul). In fact, he wanted to make it the second Rome. Special commemorative coins were issued in 330 to honor the event. The new city was protected by the relics of the True Cross, the Rod of Moses and other holy Christian relics. The figures of the old gods were either replaced or assimilated into a framework of Christian symbolism. At the instance of Constantine, the new Church of the Holy Apostles was built on the site of a temple dedicated to Aphrodite. The city became the largest and the wealthiest European city, and subsequently it was instrumental in the advancement of Christianity. It is said that, a divine vision led Constantine to this spot, and an angel led him on a circuit of the new walls.

The rebuilding of Constantinople as the new seat of power had far-reaching consequences. Rome was reduced in importance as the capital of the Roman Empire, and the western part of the empire continued to achieve increasing autonomy. Apart from that, the Roman Senate, hitherto been a powerful instrument of government, became little more than Rome's city council.

As the first Roman Emperor, Constantine stopped Christian persecutions and legalised Christianity along with all other religions and cults in the Roman Empire. Throughout his rule, Constantine supported the Church financially, built basilicas, granted privileges to clergy, promoted Christians to high office, and returned confiscated property of the Christians. He founded many famous churches, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Old Saint Peter’s Basilica. In 321, he legislated the ‘Sacred Sunday’ and declared it as a day of rest for all citizens. In the year 323, he issued a directive banning Christians from participating in state sacrifices. The images pagan gods disappeared from his coinage, and instead, Christian symbols appeared as Constantine's attributes, the ‘Chi Rho’.

In 325, Constantine summoned the Council of Nicaea, which led to the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed asserted the view of St Paul that, Christ was divine, and made other versions of Christianity, such as Gnosticism and Arianism as heretical.

The Arch of Constantine

Apparently Constantine did not patronize Christianity alone. To celebrate his triumph after the victory in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, a triumphal arch decorated with imposing images of the goddess Victoria, was built in 315. Known as the ‘Arch of Constantine’, the monument is an imposing 21 metre high and 25.6 m wide rectangular blocks of grey and white marble, consisting of three separate arches, one larger central arch with a shorter and narrower arch on either side. Sacrifices to the gods, including Apollo, Diana and Hercules were made at the time of its dedication. The Arch is surprisingly devoid of any depictions of Christian symbolism.

However, multiple financial problems surfaced due to the cost of construction and beautification of Constantinople, pay hike for the army and bureaucracy along with the lavish grants to the Church and to others. To meet financial exigencies, Constantine had to take some unpopular measures. He took hold of the accumulated wealth of Licinius and the confiscated treasures of pagan temples and imposed new taxes on merchants and craftsmen, surtaxes on the land, and a gradual increase of customs dues and other local levies. He became more and more authoritarian and in 313, ordered local senators (curiales) to be permanently fixed in their positions, as they were liable for the collection and guarantee of taxes. This resulted in their duties hereditary. The tenant farmers were further scared in 332, when they were threatened to slavery, if they left their districts. Nevertheless, these drastic and harsh measures rapidly dragged the Roman world from a regime of contract to a regime of status, wherein citizens were tied tightly from birth to their places of origin and their professions.

Constantine abolished the penalty of crucifixion and was the first to prohibit the abduction of girls. The abductor and those who aided him by influencing the girl were threatened with severe punishment. In harmony with the views of the Church, Constantine rendered divorce more difficult. A man can leave his wife for poisoning, adultery and pandering, and retain her dowry, but if he left her for any other cause, he would be compelled to return the dowry and would not be allowed to marry again. If, nevertheless, he remarried, the discarded wife would have the right to enter his house and take everything which the new wife had brought him.

However, Christian love or charity was not reflected in the family life of Constantine. He was a calculating man of suspicious nature, perhaps due to his struggle for survival at the court of Galerius in his younger days. He arranged for the death of his father-in-law, Maximian, and his two brothers-in-law, Maxentius and Licinius. To fulfill his political ambition, he left his first wife Minervina in 307 AD, and married Flavia Maxima Fausta, the daughter of Maximian. In 326 AD, Crispus, his eldest son with Minervina, was put to death by cold poison. It is said that, Constantine himself ordered a trial at the local court of Pola in Istria, where Crispus was condemned to death and executed. The same year he had his second wife Fausta killed by leaving her suffocated to die in an over-heated bath. The reason behind those dubious deaths is really unknown. They were most likely to be the part of a political game, though an illicit relation between the two was proposed.

Constantine's conversion, by Rubens

Constantine always wished to be baptised in the Jordan River, but due to unavoidable circumstances, it was delayed. Not long before his end, the hostile movement of the Persian king, Shâpûr, again summoned him into the field. As he was preparing for a campaign against Persia, he fell ill at Helenopolis. When treatment failed, he made to return to Constantinople, but was forced to take to his bed near Nicomedia. He was baptised there, putting off the imperial purple for the white robes of a neophyte, and died in 337. He was buried at Constantinople, in his church of the Apostles, whose memorials, six on each side, flanked his tomb.

Constantine and his mother were not officially canonized by the Orthodox Church and therefore, not recognized as saints of the Roman Catholic Church. However, both of them were regarded as saints in the Byzantine liturgical calendar, followed by the Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodox Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodox Church, some Lutheran Churches and the Eastern Catholics. Yet, Constantine the Great became famous in history for his contributions to Christianity. His feast day, as a saint of the Orthodox Christian Church, is celebrated with his mother on 21 May, as the ‘Feast of the Holy Great Sovereigns Constantine and Helena, Equal to the Apostles’.

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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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