- Born: 27 February 272, Naissus, Moesia, Roman Empire (modern-day Serbia)
- Died: 22 May 337 (aged 65), Achyron, Nicomedia, Bithynia, Roman Empire (modern day İzmit, Kocaeli, Turkey)
- Reign: 25 July 306 – 22 May 337
Constantine I, known as Constantine the Great or just Constantine, born Flavius Valerius Constantinus, was Roman emperor, reigning from 306 to 337. He was born in Naissus, Dacia Mediterranea (now Niš, Serbia) and was the son of Flavius Constantius (who had been one of the four emperors of the Tetrarchy) and Helena.
Following his father’s death in 306, Constantine became emperor, and emerged victorious in the civil wars against emperors Maxentius and Licinius to become the sole ruler of the Roman Empire by 324.
During his time as emperor, Constantine the Great helped to strengthen the empire by restructuring the government and separating civil and military authorities. He also pursued successful campaigns against the Franks, the Alamanni, the Goths and the Sarmatians.
One of Constantine the Great’s most significant acts, however, was being the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity. Although he didn’t convert to Christianity until he was in his 40s, he is credited with the beginning of Christendom through the way in which he supported the church and helped Christianity to become more accepted in the empire.
Early Life of Constantine The Great
Constantine the Great was born in Naissus (modern Niš, Serbia) in the province of Moesia Superior on 27 February 272 or 273. His parents were Constantius Chlorus and Helena, an innkeeper’s daughter who at the time was only sixteen years old. His father left his mother around 292 and married Flavia Maximiana Theodora, who was the daughter or step-daughter of the Western Roman Emperor Maximian. Theodora gave birth to six half-siblings of Constantine, including Julius Constantius.
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. Here he studied Latin literature, Greek, and philosophy and received a good education. He was able to mix with intellectuals both pagan and Christian.
At the time of Constantine the Great’s birth, the Roman empire was recovering from a period of civil war and was ruled by the Tetrarchy, a hierarchy of four emperors: the senior two were titled Augustus (as Constantine and his father) with two caesars answerable to them. The emperors were military men deployed with their armies less in Rome than in key points near the borders of the empire, governing the population and repelling external enemies. It was a system that brought stability and succession problems alike.
For example, when both augusti (senior emperors), Diocletian and Maximian, abdicated, Constantine’s father, Constantius, succeeded to Maximian’s position of western augustus. However, although two legitimate sons of emperors were available (Constantine and Maxentius, the son of Maximian), both of them were overlooked in this transition of power.
Instead, Flavius Valerius 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 with his army against the Picts of Caledonia (Scotland), and died on July 25, 306 in Eboracum (York). The general Chrocus and the soldiers loyal to Constantius’ memory immediately proclaimed Constantine an augustus.
Despite this, Constantine’s succession as augustus was of dubious legitimacy under the Tetrarchy. While Constantius as senior emperor could “create” a new caesar, Constantine’s claim to the title of augustus ignored the system of succession established in 305. Therefore, Constantine asked Galerius, the eastern augustus, to be recognized as heir to his father’s throne. Galerius granted him the title of caesar, allowing Constantine’s rule over his father’s territories, and promoted Severus to augustus of the West.
Early Rule of Constantine The Great
Ruling over his father’s territories gave Constantine Roman Britain, Roman Gaul, the Germanic provinces, and Hispania (Spain) to rule over, meaning he commanded one of the largest Roman armies stationed along the important Rhine frontier. His main goal was stability, and he tried to achieve that by immediate, often brutal punitive expeditions against rebellious tribes.
Gaul had suffered much during the Crisis of the Third Century, with many cities being ruined and areas being depopulated. From 306 to 316, Constantine resided in Trier and continued his father’s efforts to secure the Rhine frontier and rebuild the Gallic provinces. He abandoned his father’s British campaign and returned to Gaul to quell an uprising by Franks after becoming emperor, and in 308 led another expedition against Frankish tribes. Following 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.
Constantine also began a major expansion of Trier, strengthening the circuit wall around the city with military towers and fortified gates, and he began building a palace complex in the northeastern part of the city. To the south of his palace, he ordered the construction of a large formal audience hall and a massive imperial bathhouse.
Maxentius and Maximian
Maxentius, son of Maximian, was jealous of Constantine’s authority and seized the title of emperor on 28 October AD 306. Galerius refused to recognize him but failed to unseat him. Instead, Galerius sent Severus against Maxentius, but during the campaign, Severus’ armies, previously under command of Maxentius’ father Maximian, defected, and Severus was seized and imprisoned.
Maximian was then brought out of retirement by his son’s rebellion and left for Gaul to confer with Constantine in late AD 307. He offered to marry his daughter Fausta to Constantine and elevate him to augustan rank. In return, Constantine would reaffirm the old family alliance between Maximian and Constantius and offer support to Maxentius’ cause in Italy. Constantine accepted and married Fausta in Trier in late summer AD 307. Constantine now gave Maxentius his meagre support, offering Maxentius political recognition.
Despite this, Constantine did not interfere on Maxentius’ behalf. Having failed to overthrow his son, Maximian returned to Gaul in 308. On 11 November AD 308, Galerius called a general council at the military city of Carnuntum (Petronell-Carnuntum, Austria), where Diocletian, Galerius and Maximian met.
However, Maximian was forced to abdicate again and Constantine was reduced to caesar. Licinius, one of Galerius’ old military companions, was appointed augustus in the western regions. Constantine refused to accept the demotion, and continued to style himself as augustus. Maximinus was frustrated that he had been passed over for promotion while the newcomer Licinius had been raised to the office of augustus. He demanded that Galerius promote him. Galerius offered to call both Maximinus and Constantine “sons of the augusti”, but neither accepted the new title. By the spring of AD 310, Galerius was referring to both men as augusti.
Maximian rebelled against Constantine while Constantine was away campaigning against the Franks in AD 310. Maximian announced that Constantine was dead, and took up the imperial purple. Despite this, most of Constantine’s army remained loyal to their emperor, and Maximian was soon forced to leave. When Constantine heard of the rebellion, he strongly encouraged Maximian’s suicide. In July AD 310, Maximian hanged himself.
Battle of Milvian Bridge
In the summer of AD 311, Maxentius proclaimed that he wanted to take revenge for his father’s death. Therefore, he mobilized against Constantine while Licinius was occupied with affairs in the East. However, to stop Maxentius from forming an alliance against him with Licinius, Constantine forged his own alliance with Licinius over the winter of 311–12, and offered him his sister Constantia in marriage.
Constantine was very successful in defeating a large force of heavily armed Maxentian cavalry, including in Segusium (Susa, Italy) and Augusta Taurinorum (Turin, Italy). A few cities, Verona, Aquileia, Mutina (Modena), and Ravenna, surrendered shortly afterwards.
The Battle of Milvian Bridge allowed Constantine to claim the emperorship in the West. The battle was brief and Maxentius’ troops were broken before the first charge. Constantine deployed his own forces along the whole length of Maxentius’ line and ordered his cavalry to charge, breaking Maxentius’ cavalry. He then sent his infantry against Maxentius’ infantry, pushing many into the Tiber where they were slaughtered and drowned. Maxentius himself was pushed by the mass of his fleeing soldiers into the Tiber, and drowned.
Following the battle, Constantine became Western Augustus, or ruler of the entire Western Roman Empire.
Constantine entered Rome on 29 October AD 312. Maxentius’ body was fished out of the Tiber and decapitated, and his head was paraded through the streets for all to see.
Constantine visited the Senatorial Curia Julia, promising to restore its ancestral privileges and give it a secure role in his reformed government. There would be no revenge against Maxentius’ supporters. In response, the Senate decreed him “title of the first name”, which meant that his name would be listed first in all official documents, and they acclaimed him as “the greatest Augustus”.
Constantine issued decrees returning property lost under Maxentius, recalling political exiles, and releasing Maxentius’ imprisoned opponents. An extensive propaganda campaign followed, in which Maxentius’ image was systematically purged from all public places. Maxentius was written up as a “tyrant,” which allowed for an idealized image of the “liberator,” Constantine.
Edict Of Milan
In 313, Constantine 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.
This document had special benefits for Christians, as it legalized their religion and granted them restoration for all property seized during Diocletian’s persecution. Christianity had previously been decriminalized in April 311 by Galerius, who was the first emperor to issue an edict of toleration for all religious creeds, including Christianity, but the Edict of Milan removed all obstacles to the Christian faith.
However, the conference was cut short, 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.
Despite this, relations between Constantine and Licinius declined and either in 314 or 316, the two emperors 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.
Constantine The Great and Christianity
Constantine was the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity, having been introduced to Christianity by his mother, Helena. It is unclear whether he adopted his mother’s Christianity in his youth or whether he adopted it gradually over the course of his life.
He was over the age of 40 by the time he actually declared himself a Christian, but there has been much speculation as to whether his conversion was genuine or strategic. He may have thought that as Christians grew more numerous, that it made sense to gain their support. He also waited to be baptized on his deathbed, believing that the baptism would release him of any sins he committed in the course of carrying out his policies while emperor.
With Constantine’s succession came the beginning of Christendom. He supported the Church financially, built basilicas, granted privileges to clergy (such as exemption from certain taxes), promoted Christians to high office, and returned property confiscated during the long period of persecution. His most famous building projects include the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Old Saint Peter’s Basilica. He also made Sunday a holiday and day of rest throughout the empire.
Constantine considered himself responsible to God for the spiritual health of his subjects, and that he had a duty to maintain orthodoxy. He ensured that God was properly worshiped in his empire, establishing a precedent for the position of the Christian Emperor in the Church.
Constantine also made some laws that affected Jews. Jews were forbidden to own Christian slaves or to circumcise their slaves, and conversion of Christians to Judaism was outlawed. Congregations for religious services were also restricted.
Later Rule of Constantine The Great
In the year 320, Licinius, emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, went back on his decisions on the religious freedom promised by the Edict of Milan in 313 and began another persecution of Christians. This was a puzzling inconsistency since Constantia, half-sister of Constantine and wife of Licinius, was an influential Christian.
This became a huge challenge for Constantine in the west, and it climaxed in the great civil war of 324, in which the armies were so large that the size of them would not be seen again until at least the fourteenth century.
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 Constantine’s army emerged victorious.
While Constantine had publicly promised to spare Licinius’ life, a year later he accused him of plotting against him and had him executed by strangulation. The defeat and death of Licinius resulted in Constantine becoming the sole emperor of the entire Roman Empire.
With Licinius’ death came the passing of old Rome, and the beginning of the role of the Eastern Roman Empire as a center 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. The new city was protected by an alleged relic of the True Cross, the Rod of Moses and other holy relics.
After Constantine’s death, his capital was renamed Constantinopolis (in English Constantinople, “Constantine’s City”). Constantinople was a new, Christian city for the new, Christian empire. It was to be nobler than Rome because Rome’s foundation were pagan.
Council of Nicaea
In 325, Constantine summoned the Council of Nicaea, which was effectively the first Ecumenical Council. This was significant because it was the first effort to attain consensus in the church through an assembly representing all of Christendom. Christians within the empire were divided over what they believed about Jesus and the Trinity. In Alexandria there was a group who were followers of Arius with whom the majority of Christians disagreed, leading to threats to close the port and economic and political implications.
With the Council of Nicaea, Constantine invited and offered to sponsor all 1800 bishops. The result came out against Arianism and five dissenters were banished and Constantine threatened anyone who did not deliver Arius’ books up to be burned with death. Although Constantine was not baptized and held no position within the church, he had a lot of control over the church.
Constantine also enforced the prohibition of the First Council of Nicaea against celebrating Easter on the day before the Jewish Passover, which marked a definite break of Christianity from the Judaic tradition. It was thought this was motivated by bitterness towards Judaism.
Throughout his reign, Constantine passed numerous laws. While many of these reflected his Christian reforms, they also improved many of the laws set out by his predecessors. For example, he made laws that a prisoner was no longer to be kept in total darkness, but must be given access to the outdoors and daylight, and young females could not be abducted. Slave master’s rights were limited, although a slave could still be beaten to death, and a condemned man was allowed to die in the arena, but he could not be branded on his “heavenly beautified” face, just on his feet.
Constantine also made monetary reforms. He introduced the solidus, a new gold coin that became the standard for Byzantine and European currencies for more than a thousand years. This was to help battle inflation.
Executions of Crispus and Fausta
Between 15 May and 17 June 326, Constantine had his his eldest son Crispus tried and executed, by “cold poison” at Pola (Pula, Croatia), as he believed accusations that Crispus had an affair with Fausta, Constantine’s second wife. A few months later, in July, he also had Fausta killed in an overheated bath, as she was deemed to be the apparent source of these false accusations.
Their names were wiped from the face of many inscriptions, references to their lives were eradicated from the literary record, and their memory was condemned.
Later on in Constantine’s life, he spent most of his time in Constantinople. Construction was completed on Constantine’s Bridge at Sucidava, (today Celei in Romania) in 328, and in 332, Constantine campaigned with the Sarmatians against the Goths. However, Constantine then went on to lead a campaign against the Sarmatians and won, extending his control over the region.
Constantine the Great also made plans for a campaign against Persia and asserted his patronage over Persia’s Christian subjects in a letter. He called for bishops to accompany the army and commissioned a tent in the shape of a church to follow him everywhere.
It was at this time he also planned to be baptized in the Jordan River before crossing into Persia, but the campaign was called off when Constaint got sick in the spring of 337.
Illness and Death
Soon after the Feast of Easter 337, Constantine fell seriously ill and he left Constantinople for Helenopolis (Altinova). His mother had built a church there in honor of Lucian the Apostle, and Constantine prayed there but realized he was dying.
He summoned the bishops and told them that he wanted to be baptized in the River Jordan, where Christ was written to have been baptized. He asked for the baptism right away, promising to live a more Christian life should he live through his illness. He chose the Arianizing bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, bishop of the city where he lay dying, as his baptizer.
After being baptized, he died soon after at a suburban villa called Achyron. This was on the last day of the fifty-day festival of Pentecost directly following Pascha (or Easter) — on 22 May 337.
Following his death, Constantine was succeeded by the three sons he had with Fausta — Constantine II, Constantius II, and Constans. He also had two daughters Constantina and Helena, who was wife of Julian the Apostate.
Importance and Historical Significance of Constantine The Great
Constantine the Great is most significantly remembered for being the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity. His accession as emperor is generally considered the beginning of Christendom, and he made Sunday a holiday and day of rest throughout the empire. He also supported the church financially built various basilicas, granted privileges to clergy and promoted Christians to high ranking offices.
Constantine is also remembered for reuniting the empire under one emperor. He had many victories in his time as emperor, including over the Franks and Alamanni (306–308), the Franks again (313–314), the Visigoths in 332 and the Sarmatians in 334. He also reoccupied most of the long-lost province of Dacia, which Aurelian had been forced to abandon in 271.
What’s more, Constantine is historically significant for reviving the clean-shaven face fashion of earlier emperors, originally introduced among the Romans by Scipio Africanus and changed into the wearing of the beard by Hadrian. This new Roman imperial fashion lasted until the reign of Phocas.
Constantine The Great FAQs
Why does Constantine have “The Great” in his name?
Constantine was not known as Constantine the Great until years after his death. He is called this because of his successes, particularly for uniting the whole of the Roman Empire under one ruler, and for his many military victories.
Was Constantine The Great really a Christian?
Constantine The Great is remembered for being the first Roman Emperor to embrace Christianity, but there is still some speculation as to whether he was really a Christian. This speculation comes from the fact that he waited until he was on his death bed to be baptized, and the fact that Christianity was growing, so he may have decided to vocalize his faith to gain more supporters.
Despite this, his mother had introduced him to Christianity at a young age and over the course of his life he did a lot to support the Christians. Constantine’s succession is considered the beginning of Christendom, because he supported the Church financially, built basilicas, granted privileges to clergy, promoted Christians to high office, and returned property confiscated during the long period of persecution. He also made Sunday a holiday and day of rest throughout the empire.
How successful was Constantine The Great?
Constantine The Great was very successful in his time. Over his life, he defeated his main rival for the Western emperorship in 312 and defeated the Eastern emperor in 324, making him the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. He had many military victories during his time, including reoccupying most of the long-lost province of Dacia. One of his most successful acts, however, was being the first Christian Roman Emperor.
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