1902 Encyclopedia > Constantine I (Constantine the Great)

Constantine I (Constantine the Great)
(Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus)
Roman emperor from 306 to 307 AD




CONSTANTINE I. (274-337). Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus, surnamed Magnus, or the Great, was born at Naissus (Nissa) , in upper Mcesia, in February 274. He was the son of Constantius Chlorus and Helena, the wife of obscure origin (a stahidaria, or innkeeper, according to St Ambrose) whom her husband was com-pelled to repudiate on attaining the dignity of Caesar in 292. The part of the empire assigned to Constantius was the extreme West, including Spain, Gaul, and Britain ; but Constantine was detained in the East at the court of Diocletian, doubtless as a pledge for his father's loyalty. He served with such distinction under Diocletian in the campaign in Egypt which closed in 296. and subsequently under Galerius in the war with Persia, that he was appointed a tribune of the first rank. His majestic presence, his personal courage, and his skill in military exercises made him a great favourite with the army, and excited in a correspond-ing degree the jealousy of the naturally suspicious Galerius, who did not scruple, it is said, to expose him repeatedly to unusual hazards in the hope of getting rid of him. The effect of this was to strengthen in Constantine a constitu-tional wariness and discretion which were often of advantage to him in after life. In 305 Diocletian and Maximian abdicated, and were succeeded in the supreme rank of Augustus by the two Caesars, Constantius and Galerius. Constantine, who had naturally the strongest claim to a Caesarship, was passed over by Galerius, and Constantius could not venture to bestow the office while his son remained at what was virtually a hostile court. It was only after repeated letters from his colleague that Galerius gave a reluctant consent that Constantine should join his father. There was ground for supposing even then that the permis-sion was given only to be cancelled, and Constantine accordingly acted upon it with the utmost promptitude, making the journey across Europe from Nicomedia to Boulogne in an unusually short time. At Boulogne he found his father on the point of setting out for Britain, and accompanied him. The death of Constantius soon after at York (25th July 306) brought Constantine to the first great turning-point in his career. The circumstances were critical : it was necessary to avoid on the one hand losing the favour of the army by undue hesitation, and on the other incurring the active hostility of Galerius by undue self-assertion; and Constantine displayed just that union of determination and prudence that the occasion required. Accepting with well-feigned reluctance the enthusiastic nomination of the army to the vacant throne, he wrote at the same time a carefully worded letter to Galerius, expres-sing regret that circumstances had not permitted him to delay assuming the purple until the imperial approbation could be signified, and begging to be recognized as Augustus in succession to his father. On the reception of the news Galerius was greatly incensed, and threatened to give both the letter and its bearer to the flames ; but more prudent counsels prevailed, and he ventured to indulge his resent-ment only so far as to deny the title of Augustus, which was conferred upon Severus, Constantiue being acknowledged as Caesar. The latter acquiesced in this arrangement with apparent contentment, and at once set himself as the recog-nized inheritor of his father's power to carry out his father's wise and vigorous policy. The barbarians of the north sustained repeated defeats, and were permanently held in check by the building of a line of forts on the Rhine ; and the internal prosperity of the country was promoted by a confirmation of the tolerant policy adopted by Constantius towards the Christians, the persecuting edict of Galerius being treated as a dead letter.
The events of the next few years showed clearly the essential instability of the arrangement devised by Diocletian for the partition of the imperial power among Augustuses and Caesars. It was in the very nature of the plan that under it those who were nominally colleagues should be in reality rivals, constantly plotting and counter-plotting for the sole supremacy. Accordingly the history of the empire from the period of the division of the imperial power by Diocletian to that of its reconsolidation under Constantiue is mainly a record of the struggle for that supremacy. The narrative is necessarily intricate, and can only be fully given in a general historical article. The state of matters was complicated by a rebellion at Rome against Galerius, which had for its final result the contemporaneous reign of no less than six emperors,—Galerius, Licinius, and Maximin in the East, and Maximian, Maxentius, and Constantine in the West (308). Maxentius was the son of Maximian, and Constantine was his son-in-law, having married his daughter Fausta at Aries in 307, on which occasion he received the title of Augustus ; but this family relationship did not prevent a conflict of interests. Maxentius claimed to be the sole rightful sovereign of Italy, and being supported by the praetorian guards compelled his father to quit Rome. Maximian, after a brief residence in Illyricum, from which he was driven by Galerius, took refuge at the court of his son-in-law, Constantine, who received him with the respect due to his rank. For the second time he resigned the purple, and affected to have no longer any desire of power. Very soon after, however, he was tempted, during the absence of Constantine on the Rhine, to reassume the imperial dignity and to enter into a plot with Maxentius for the overthrow of his son-in-law. Constantine, on receiving the news, acted with the necessary promptitude. He appeared at once with his troops before Aries, and compelled Maximian to retreat to Marseilles, whither he followed him. The town might have stood a protracted siege, but it preferred to deliver up the usurper, who avoided the execution of the sentence of death pronounced upon him by committing suicide (February 310).
The death of Maximian was the first of a series of events which ended in the establishment of Constantine as the sole emperor of the West. It was seized upon by Maxentius as a pretext for hostile measures, which Constantine, unwilling to engage in war, ignored as long as he safely could. When the time came for action, however, he acted, as was his wont, with decision. Maxentius was preparing to invade Gaul, when Constantine, encouraged by an embassy from Rome, anticipated him by entering Italy at the head of a large and well-disciplined army. He had crossed the Cottian Alps (Mont Ceuis), and was in the plains of Piedmont before Maxentius knew that he had set out. A series of successes at Susa, Turin, and Verona culminated in the decisive victory of the Milvian Bridge, near Rome (28th October 312), which left the capital open to the invader. In the hurried retreat of the defeated army Maxentius was pressed by the throng over the bridge into the river, and was drowned. The conduct of the conqueror was marked on the whole by wisdom and moderation. The slaughter of the two sons and of the more intimate favourites of the fallen emperor was a measure deemed essential if the fruits of the victory were to be retained, and cannot be imputed to wanton cruelty, especially as Constantine seems to have abstained from the too common practice of an indiscriminate massacre. The final disbanding of the praetorian guards and the destruction of their camp, the imposition of a poll-tax on the senators, and the assumption of the title of Pontifex Maximus were the other chief events of Constantine's first residence in Rome, which lasted only a few weeks,—a fact in itself significant of the decaying importance of the capital, if not prophetic of the early rise of a Nova Roma.
It was in the course of the expedition that ended with the victory of the Milvian Bridge that the celebrated incident occurred, which is said to have caused Constan-tine's conversion,—the appearance of a flaming cross in the sky at noon-day with the motto 'Ev TOVTW V'LKO, (By this conquer). The story is told by Eusebius, who professes to have had it from the lips of the emperor himself, and also with considerable variation in the details by Lactantius, Nazarius, and Philostorgius. In order to understand the true relation of Constantiue to Christianity, however, it is necessary to consider all the incidents bearing upon that relation together, and this, therefore, along with the others. There is the less violence to chronological order in delaying the critical examination of the story, inasmuch as it was first communicated by Constantine to Eusebius several years later, and as the Labarum, or standard of the cross, made in obedience to the heavenly vision was not exhibited to the army, according to Gibbon, till 323. The conversion, whatever its nature and whatever its cause, was followed, indeed, by one more immediate result of a significant kind in the important Edict of Milan (March 313), issued by Constantine and Licinius conjointly, restoring all forfeited civil and religious rights to the Christians, and securing them full and equal toleration throughout the empire.
By the victory of the Milvian Bridge Constantine became the sole emperor of the West. Very soon after a like change took place in the East. Galerius had died in May 311, and a war ensued between the two surviving emperors in which Maximin was the aggressor and the loser, as Maxentius had been in the West. After a decisive defeat near Heraclea (April 313) he took to flight, and died at Tarsus, probably by his own hand, in August of the same year. Licinius thus attained the same place in the East as Constantine held in the West. The interests of the two who now divided between them the empire of the world had been apparently identified by the marriage of Licinius to Constantiue's sister Constantia, which was celebrated with great pomp at Milan in March 313. But in little more than a year they were engaged in a war, the origin of which is somewhat obscure, though it probably arose from the treachery of Licinius. After two battles, in which the Eastern emperor suffered severely, he was fain to sue for peace, which Constantine granted only on condi-tion that Illyricum, Pannonia, and Greece should be trans-ferred to his territory.
The peace lasted for nine years, a period during which Constantine's position grew stronger while that of Licinius grew weaker, wise and humane legal reforms and vigorous measures against the barbarians of the north marking the policy of the one, and caprice, indolence, and cruelty being the most conspicuous features in the conduct of the other. When the inevitable struggle for the supremacy came, though the army of Licinius was the larger, the issue was scarcely doubtful. The origin of the war which broke out in 323 is, like that of the previous one in 314, not quite clear; but it is probable that Constantine, having deter-mined to make himself the sole master of the world, did not think it necessary to wait for provocation. The campaign was short but decisive. Licinius was totally defeated in a battle fought at Adrianople on the 3d July 323. This was followed by the siege of Byzantium, in which Crispus, Constantine's eldest son, who was in com-mand of the fleet, co-operated with his father by entering the Hellespont and defeating Amandus, the admiral of Licinius, after a two days' engagement. In a final battle fought at Chrysopolis (now Scutari) Licinius was totally routed, and he fled to Nicomedia. On the intercession of his wife Constantia, the sister of Constantine, the emperor promised to spare his life ; but the promise was not kept. In 324 the defeated monarch was put to death by Constantine's orders at Thessalonica, which had been fixed as the place of his exile. A treasonable conspiracy was alleged against him, but there is no evidence in support of the charge ; and possible danger in the future rather than any plot actually discovered seems to have prompted Con-stantine to a deed which cannot escape the censure of bad faith, if not of wanton cruelty.
With the war against Licinius the military career of Constantine may be said to have closed. He was now the sole emperor of both East and West. His enlightened policy had made his power throughout the empire so secure that any attempt to usurp it would have been utterly vain. Accordingly the remainder of his reign was passed in undisturbed tranquillity. The period of peace was not inglorious, including among lesser events the convocation of the Council of Nicssa (325) and the foundation of Constantinople (328). But unfortunately it was disgraced by a series of bloody deeds that have left an indelible stain on the emperor's memory. In 326 Constantine visited Rome to celebrate the twentieth anniversary (vicennalia) of his accession. During the festivities his eldest son Crispus was accused of treason by Fausta, and banished to Pola, in Istria, where he was put to death. Licinius, the emperor's nephew, being included in the same charge, likewise fell a victim, and a number of the courtiers also suffered. According to another version of the story Fausta accused her step-son of attempting incestuous intercourse, and Constantine, discovering when it was too late that the accusation was false, caused her to be suffocated in her bath The whole circumstances of Fausta's death, how-ever, are involved in uncertainty owing to the contradictions of the different narratives. The bloody tragedy struck horror into the minds of the citizens, and it was amid ominous indications of unpopularity that Constantine quitted Rome for the last time.
It had probably been for some time clear to his mind that the empire required in its new circumstances a new political centre. A Nova Roma would mark in a visible and concrete form the new departure in imperial policy which it had been the main object of the emperor's life to initiate. At least two other places—Sardica in Mcesia, and Troy—had been thought of ere his choice was fixed upon Byzantium. No happier selection has ever been made. The natural advantages of the site are probably unsurpassed by those of any capital either in the Old or in the New World, and its political importance is evidenced by the frequency with which it has been the key to the situation in European diplomacy. The new capital, the building of which had been commenced in 328, was solemnly inaugurated on the 11th May 330, being dedi-cated to the Virgin Mary. The fact that the ceremonial was performed exclusively by Christian ecclesiastics, and that no pagan temple was permitted to be erected in the new city, marks in an emphatic way the establishment of Christianity as the state religion.
The closing years of Constantine's life were uneventful. One of his last schemes was that for the partition of the empire after his death among his three sons by Fausta,— Constantine, Constantius, and Constans; but it proved even less stable than the analogous scheme of Diocletian. In 337 Sapor II. of Persia asserted by force his claim to the provinces that had been taken from him by Galerius. Constantine was preparing to meet him at the head of an army, when he was taken ill, and after a brief and vain trial of the baths of Helenopolis retired to Nicomedia. Here he died on the 22d May 337. The significance of his baptism on his deathbed by the Arian bishop, Eusebius of Nicomedia, will be indicated afterwards. His body was taken to Constantinople, and buried according to his own instructions in the Church of the Apostles with imposing ceremony.
The most interesting and the most disputed subject in connection with the life of Constantine is the nature of his relation to Christianity. The facts bearing upon it are clear enough, and the controversy must therefore be entirely attributed to the manipulation and distortion of partisans. A brief statement of these facts will suffice to show how far his acceptance of Christianity was a matter of personal conviction, and how far, on the other hand, it was a matter of statesmanship. The generous conduct of Constantius towards the Christians betokens a certain measure of sympathy, and the term Xpio-TLa.vo<f>p<Dv (Christian-minded) applied to him by Theophanes gives some ground for supposing that the paternal influence may have acted as a sort of prceparatio evangelica in the mind of Constantine. But whatever may have been due to this, it did not bring him over to the new faith. His own narrative to Eusebius attributed his conversion to the miraculous appearance of a flaming cross in the sky at noon-day under the circum-stances already indicated. The story has met with nearly every degree of acceptance from the unquestioning faith of Eusebius himself to the incredulity of Gibbon, who treats it as a fable, while not denying the sincerity of the conver-sion. On the supposition that Constantine narrated the incident in good faith, the amount of objective reality that it possesses is a question of altogether secondary importance. There is nothing improbable in the theory that accounts for the appearance of the cross by the not infrequent natural phenomenon of a parhelion. It seems likelier, however, that Constantine gave external reality to what was nothing more than an optical delusion or a dream. Eusebius, it is true, narrates both the appearance at noon-day and a dream on the following night, in which the appearance was in-terpreted ; but the very strength of the impression made on Constantine's mind may have led him to magnify the incident without conscious misrepresentation. Whatever the nature of the appearance may have been, its effect upon the emperor, to judge from his subsequent conduct, fell far short of a true or thorough conversion; it probably did not amount to more than the creation of a superstitious belief in the symbol of the cross. This is sufficient to account for the edict of toleration and for all his legislation that seems to be based upon sympathy with Christian ideas. On the other hand, the notion of conversion in the sense of a real acceptance of the new religion, and a thorough rejec-tion of the old, is inconsistent with the hesitating attitude in which he stood towards both. Much of this may indeed be due to motives of political expediency, but there is a good deal that cannot be so explained. Paganism must still have been an operative belief with the man who, down almost to the close of his life, retained so many pagan superstitions. He was at best only half heathen, half Christian, who could seek to combine the worship of Christ with the worship of Apollo, having the name of the one and the figure of the other impressed upon his coins, and ordaining the observance of Sunday under the name Dies Solis in his celebrated decree of March 321, though such a combination was far from uncommon in the first Christian centuries. Perhaps the most significant illustration of the ambiguity of his religious position is furnished by the fact that in the same year in which he issued the Sun-day decree he gave orders that, if lightning struck the imperial palace or any other public building, " the haru-spices, according to ancient usage, should be consulted as to what it might signify, and a careful report of the answer should be drawn up for his use." From the time of the Council of Nicaea there are fewer signs of halting between two opinions, but the interest of the emperor in Christianity was still primarily political and official rather than personal. He summoned the council, presided over its first meeting, and took a prominent part in its proceed-ings both before and behind the scenes. The year before it met he had, in a noteworthy letter to the Alexandrian bishops, urged such a scheme of comprehension as might include Arians and orthodox in the one church ; and on this ground he has been claimed as the earliest of broad churchmen. When the result of its deliberations was the adoption, for the first time in the history of the church, of a written creed, he cordially approved of the pro-posal, and was thus the earliest to enforce uniformity by means of subscription. The two plans were incom-patible, but the conduct of Constantine in supporting first the one and then the other was perfectly consistent. Throughout he acted in the interest of the state. The splitting up of the church into a number of bitterly contending factions would be a constant source of danger to the unity of the empire, while on the other hand the empire might gain fresh strength from the growing power of Christianity if that power were embodied in a compact and united organization. It was by this con-sideration, probably, that Constantine was guided in deal-ing with the Arian controversy ; there are no traces of any engrossing personal interest on his part in the cardinal question of the homoousion. There are not wanting, indeed, several facts that show a real concern in the truths of Christianity as distinct from its social and political influence. Eusebius has recorded one of his sermons, and he seems to have preached frequently in refutation of the errors of paganism and in illustration and defence of the doctrines of the new faith. The same historian speaks of his taking part in the ceremonies of worship, and of his long vigils at the season of Easter. His delaying to receive baptism until he was on his deathbed does not imply that he delayed till then the full acceptance of Christianity, though it has frequently been so interpreted by those who were unaware that the doctrine that all sin committed before baptism was washed away by the simple observance of the rite not unnaturally made such procrastination very common. There is no historical foundation for the assertion of Baronius and other Catholic writers that the emperor received baptism from Pope Sylvester at Rome in 326. Equally baseless is the story of the so-called donation of Constantine, according to which the emperor after his baptism endowed the Pope with temporal dominion. It is to this that Dante alludes in his Inferno ;—
Ah, Constantine ! of how much ill was cr.use, Not thy conversion, hut those rich domains That the first wealthy Pope received of thee.
It has been remarked by Stanley that Constantine was entitled to be called Great in virtue rather of what he did than of what he was. Tested by character, indeed, he stands among the lowest of all those to whom the epithet has in ancient or modern times been applied. Fearlessness, decision, political sagacity, and religious tolerance he possessed from first to last; but the generous clemency of which there are traces in his earlier years cannot have any longer worked effectually in him when he sanctioned the treacherous treatment of Licinius and the atrocities that connected themselves with the murder of Crispus. Tried by achievement, however, he stands among the very first of those who have ever won the title. In fact, there are two grounds at least on which as important a place may be claimed for him as for any sovereign who has reigned during the Christian era. What he did as the founder of the complex political system which exists among all civilized nations down to the present day, and what he did as the first Christian emperor, had results of the most enduring and far reaching kind. It belongs to the historian of the empire to give a detailed account of the elaborate scheme ho devised by which the civil functions of the state were separated from the military, and both from the spiritual,-— the very idea of such distinctions having been previously unknown. The empire he by such means revived, though in the East it lasted a thousand years, was never again so strong as it was in his own hands ; but the importance of his scheme consisted in this that it gave to empire itself, regarded as a system of government, a new structure and a new power which still survive in the political constitu-tions of the various nations of Europe. As to Christianity the historically significant fact is not his personal accept-ance of it. It is rather that by his policy as a statesman he endowed the new religion for the first time with that instrument of worldly power which has made it—whether for good or for evil or for both is a subject of much discus-sion—the strongest social and political agent that affects the destinies of the human race.
The chief early sources for the life ot Constantine are Eusebius,
De Vita Constantini, which is strongly partial from the Christian
standpoint of its author, and Zosimus, Historia, lib. ii., which is
tinged by Pagan prejudice. Of secondary importance are Eutropius,
Aurelius Victor, Lactantius De Mortibus Persecutorum, and the
Panegyrici Veteres, vi.-x. The most valuable modern sources are
Manso's Leben Constantins cles Grossen (1817), Burckhardt's Die
Zeit Constantins cles Grossen (1853), and Broglie's VEglise et Vempire
romain du IV siecle. (W. B. S.)


Footnotes

The legend that Constantine was a native of Britain has long been generally abandoned. The passage in the panegyrist that speaks of his having ennobled Britain "illie oriendo" refers probably to his accession, as Gibbon suggests.
8 A later tradition, adopted with characteristic credulity by Geoffrey of Monmouth, that Helena was the daughter of a British king, is a pure invention.

According to Lactantius (De Mort. Persec, c. 29, 30.) Maximian was pardoned for this attempt, and the clemency of Constantine was enly exhausted by the discovery of a plot for his assassination in bed, which failed, owing to the conjugal fidelity of Fausta. Gibbon dis-credits this story.









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