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Constantine the Great

The Roman Emperor Constantine I

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Emperor Constantine With Sol Invictus From A.D. 313

Gold multiple medallion minted in Ticinum, 313 AD. Wt. 39.79 g. Busts of Constantine with Sol Invictus. Cabinet des Médailles (Bibliothèque nationale), Beistegui 233. Wt. 39.79 g.

PD Courtesy Marie-Lan Nguyen
Arch of Constantine

Arch of Constantine as seen from the Colosseum in Rome.

CC Flickr User Jake&Brady
Constantine_the_Great.jpg

Caption:Constantine the Great, Roman Emperor. Head from a gigantic statue, now fragmented. Constantine (c273-337) became emperor in 306. He rebuilt of the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, which was renamed Constantinople and became capital of the Roman Empire after his death. Head from a gigantic statue, now fragmented.

(Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Details on Constantine > Constantine Basics

Dates: Feb. 27, c. 272/273 - May 22, 337
Parents: Constantius I Chlorus and Helena
Place of Birth: Naissus, Moesia Superior
Name: Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus
Wife: Minervina, Fausta
Children: Crispus; Constantine II, Constantius II, Constans, Constantine, Helena
Occupation: Roman Emperor (A.D. 306-337)

Constantine's Importance:

  • Christianity
    Constantine was the first Roman emperor to support Christianity and become Christian. From the time of Constantine, Christianity became an accepted Roman religion, with a temporary setback when his nephew Julian tried to reinstate the old Roman polytheistic beliefs, which we refer to as paganism. In the late fourth century, the Roman Emperor Theodosius I finally put an end to popular pagan practices.

    Symbolism
    Constantine was victorious against Emperor Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge, which was significant for its Christian symbolism. (More below.)

    Read: Was Constantine a Christian?

  • Tolerance
    Constantine proclaimed the Edict of Milan, in 313, granting religious freedom to all. This was a departure from previous emperor's persecutions of the Christians.
  • Building a New Rome
    Constantine created a new Christian capital for the Roman Empire at Byzantium (named Constantinople for him [and later, Istanbul]). To make "New Rome" a truly alternative capital, he installed a second senate there.
    "He erected all the needed edifices for a great capital---a hippodrome, fountains, porticoes and other beautiful adornments. He named it Constantinople and New Rome---and established it as the Roman capital for all the inhabitants of the North, the South, the East, and the shores of the Mediterranean, from the cities on the Danube and from Epidamnus and the Ionian Gulf to Cyrene and Libya."
    ~ Sozomen (d. c. A.D. 450) Ecclesiastical History, II.3

In contrast to what may seem (to many) like advances brought about by Constantine are the downsides:

  • Rome's Decline
    The once great city of Rome was firmly on a decline in terms of power within the Roman Empire. In 286, Diocletian had moved the capital from Rome and established the capital of the western part of the Roman Empire at what we now call Milan (then, Mediolanum), but at least it was still at the heart of Roman territory, in Italy. This was the city in which Constantine issued that document of religious toleration. Establishing a competing capital in the East put another nail in Rome's figurative coffin.
  • Loss of Cultural Identity
    Since its founding, Roman civic events had been linked to religious rituals. The Vestal Virgins, priestesses of the Goddess Hestia, were thought to hold the fortune of Rome in their hands. New cults were started and temples built to the gods to ensure military victories. Religion suffused life. With the acceptance by even the emperor of the foreign cult of the Christians, Rome was doomed to radical, irreversible change.

Much controversy exists over the relationship between Constantine, Paganism, and Christianity. Positions range from the idea that he was never a Christian to the idea that he was a Christian before the death of his father. How far he went to sanction Christianity in the Empire is another, perhaps slightly less contentious issue.

Family and Birth of Constantine:

Flavius Valerius Constantinus, who became the Emperor Constantine the Great, was born on February 27, c. 280, in Naissus, in the province of Moesia Superior (Serbia) [see map of Macedonia, Moesia, Dacia, and Thracia]. Constantine's mother was named Helena, described as a barmaid, and his father was a military officer named Constantius. Constantius would become the Emperor Constantius I (Constantius Chlorus) and Constantine's mother would become famous as the canonized St. Helena. Helena is thought to have found a portion of the cross of Jesus.

Constantine had for siblings, three half-sister and three half-brothers, the products of his father's marriage to a second woman of less shady background than Helena's.

By the time Constantius became governor of Dalmatia, he required a pedigreed wife, Theodora (Flavia Maximiana Theodora). She was a daughter of Maximian [see Tetrarchy Emperors]. Constantius then shuffled his son Constantine and Helena off to the eastern emperor, Diocletian, in Nicomedia. [Paul Stephenson's Constantine; New York: The Overlook Press (2010).]

Constantine married twice. By the 1st, he had a son Crispus. By the 2nd, Constantine II, Constans, and Constantius II.

'In Hoc Signo Vinces':

The story goes that Constantine had a vision of the words "in hoc signo vinces" ('in this sign you will conquer', but in Greek: εν τούτῳ νίκα) upon a cross and that this vision prompted Constantine to pledge to convert should he actually win the battle at the Milvian Bridge. Since Constantine was the victor, the vision led to his conversion to Christianity. Constantine probably experienced his great "in hoc signo vinces" vision in 312. On December 25, 323, Constantine exempted Christians from pagan lustration rites [Stephenson], a move thirteen years later, in the direction of Christianizing the empire.

Constantine the Great Rules Alone:

Constantine had ruled jointly with Licinus, who was married to Constantine's half-sister Flavia Julia Constantia, but Constantine defeated Licinus, who was based on the Sea of Marmara, in 324. Licinus said Constantine had violated treaty terms with the Sarmatians, whom Constantine had fought, in 323, applying the title of Sarmatian conqueror (Sarmaticus Maximus) to himself.

The first battle between Constantine and Licinus, on July 3-4 of 324, was at Adrianople, in Thrace. Constantine won. Next they fought at sea, in the Hellespont. Constantine's son Crispus was victorious in this encounter with Licinius' admiral Amandus. Licinus surrendered at Chrysopolis on the 18th of September.

Constantine created Constantinople on the site of Byzantium to celebrate his victory. [Stephenson]

Constantine on Heresy:

Constantine was not yet a baptized Christian (although T.G. Elliot argues that he didn't need to convert to become a Christian since he already may have been one) when he settled matters of Christian dogma and the Arian Controversy at the First Nicene Council (First Council of Nicaea), which ended on August (or July) 25, 325. As a result of his initial decision against the Arians, Constantine exiled his friend Eusebius for holding an heretical position. Constantine later revised his opinion and recalled Eusebius.

It was from 325 that Constantine enjoyed sole reign in the Roman empire, having defeated and executed his co-emperor Licinius, who had reneged on the Edict of Milan.

Death of Constantine:

Constantine died in 22 May, 337 at Nicomedia, shortly after his baptism by the Arian bishop, his friend Eusebius of Nicomedia.

Constantine and Christianity:

Most people consider Constantine a Christian from the Milvian Bridge in 312, but he wasn't baptized until a quarter century later. Today, Constantine wouldn't count as a Christian in many forms of Christianity without the baptism, but it's even less clear in the period of Classical Christianity.

Was Constantine a Christian?

See:

"Religion and Politics at the Council at Nicaea," by Robert M. Grant. The Journal of Religion, Vol. 55, No. 1 (Jan., 1975), pp. 1-12

"Constantine's Conversion: Do We Really Need It?" by T. G. Elliott; Phoenix, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Winter, 1987), pp. 420-438

Go to other Ancient / Classical History pages on Roman men beginning with the letters:

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Constantine is on the list of Most Important People to Know in Ancient History.

 

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