Constantine became the first Christian Roman Emperor and founder of Constantinople, which brought about the beginning of the East Roman Empire known today as Byzantium. Constantine's exposure to imperial life began early when he was taken to the court of Diocletian. While serving in the imperial guard of emperor Numerian, Diocletian rose to the rank of commander. In 284 Numerian was found dead whereupon Diocletian proceeded to execute Numerian's father-in-law and praetorian prefect Lucius Flavius Aper, blaming him for Numerian's death. Diocletian then defeated Carinus, who was co-emperor with Numerian, and thereafter assumed imperial power. (3) Diocletian's first order of business was to establish what became known as the Tetrarchy, the division of the empire between two Augusti (emperors) and two Caesars (sub-emperors). Ultimately, he envisioned easier management of the Roman world, especially when dealing with the Germanic tribes in the northern frontier and the Persians in the eastern. Diocletian chose Maximiam as his fellow Augustus and assigned him the western half of the empire. Effectively Maximiam reigned in Milan while Diocletian ruled the eastern half from his capital in Nicomedia. (4) In 293 Constantius I Chlorus, Constantine's father, became Caesar under Maximian, while Galerius served under Diocletian.
The two Caesars were immediately married into the Augusti families, Constantius to Maximiam's stepdaughter Flavia Theodora and Galerius married off to Galeria Valeria, Diocletian's daughter. (5) Constantine remained with Diocletian, and life in the palace had a strong influence on his thinking and development. Furthermore, he received some education and traveled frequently with Augustus. Later on, he served in his bodyguard detachment and then in Galerius' and ultimately becoming a successful officer. While serving under Galerius he fought the Persians in 297-298. (6) The future emperor, as described by contemporary sources, wore his hair to the shoulder and loved to put on jewelry, including jeweled robes. Specifically, he wore a gemmed, high-crested helmet, later replaced with a pearl-decked diadem. However, this helmet was the prototype of the future Byzantine crown. (7) Besides being an outstanding general, Constantine also excelled as an organizer, leader, and administrator, possessing a wealth of energy. Imperatively, Constantine loved to chat with his troops, inspiring loyalty in return. Throughout his life, he worked hard to learn as much as possible. Also, he was ambitious, religious to the point of being superstitious, and very emotional, always striving for personal success at all costs. Although, because he wanted to be popular he was easily deceived and taken advantage of, suffering from fits of anger brought about by a highly suspicious and jealous mind, occasionally resorting to murder. (8) Constantine's main impact on history was his conversion to Christianity, becoming the first Christian Roman emperor. However, his conversion came as an adult and earlier his two favorite pagan gods were Mars and Apollo. Worship of the Sun- a very popular belief at the time throughout the empire, appealed to Constantine. (9)
The transition to Christianity was made easier on Constantine probably due to the similarities between the worship of Sol Invictus (Unconquered Son) and Christianity, such as the Sunday mass and the divine celebrations around Christmas. (10) Constantine also lived in an era when visions were a popular conviction, and he saw them throughout his life. The most famous vision of Constantine was of the cross in the sky bearing the inscription "Hoc signo victor eris" ('by this sign, you will conquer') just before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. (11) From this revelation Constantine fashioned the labarum- a long golden spear, joined by a traverse bar where a silk cloth hung, decorated in precious stones and with a monogrammed wreath of Christ's name at the top, which he took on all future military campaigns. The labarum later became the banner of the Byzantine Empire. (12) Diocletian expected the tetrarchy to become an enduring establishment, about every twenty years the two Augusti were to retire and their chosen Caesars were promoted to Augusti, who would then appoint two new Caesars. (13) With that in mind, he and Maximian abdicated their posts in 305. The new Augusti were now Constantius I Chlorus and Galerius. However, to the surprise and dissatisfaction of many in Galerius' army, he did not promote Constantine to the rank of Caesar.
The new Caesars were: Flavius Valerius Severus- friend and companion of Galerius, and Galerius Valerius Maximus II Daia- Galerius's nephew. (14) In 306 Constantine departed west to join his father. Shortly thereafter Constantius I Chlorus died. Constantius' troops immediately hailed Constantine as the new Augustus. Galerius, even if displeased by the news, granted him the title of Caesar. However, he was to report to Severus who was now promoted to Augustus and responsible for the western empire. Ultimately Constantine did not feel yet strong enough to protest so, he accepted the status quo. (15) In the meantime, Maxentius- the son of Maximian who also had been passed over for promotion, rebelled in the city of Rome on the 28th Oct 306. Maxentius asked Constantine for help. Maximian, who was not pleased with Diocletian's decision to force retirement, resumed the throne and joined forces with Constantine and Maxentius, proclaiming Constantine Augustus on the 31st of Mar 307, and marrying him to his daughter Fausta. (16) Severus and Galerius invaded Italy in an attempt to defeat Maxentius. Ultimately, the pair failed and Severus surrendered to Maximian and eventually was put to death by Maxentius. Galerius halted his invasion out of fear of Constantine and then retreated. Galerius summoned all the leaders (except for Maxentius) on the 18th of Nov 308 to a conference in Garmuntum, on the river Danube, attended by Diocletian. Galerius asked Diocletian to return to power, but he refused. A few years later Diocletian passed away. However, with Diocletian's approval, Galerius proceeded to appoint Licinius- his comrade-in-arms as Augustus of the east.
Once again Constantine was demoted from Augustus to Caesar. However, he and Daia refused to accept the new titles and soon after continued calling themselves Augustus. (17) Galerius had no choice but to accept their entitlements, as well as keep Licinius as Augustus but now only in charge of the Illyrian provinces. (18) Maximian rebelled against Constantine two years later but was easily defeated and forced to commit suicide. By now Constantine decided to eliminate the tetrarchy and establish one emperor basing his right to the throne on the claim that he was a descendant of emperor Claudius II Gothicus. Upon this, both Licinius and Maxentius also claimed imperial backgrounds, with Maxentius' assertion being the better one since he was the son of Maximian. Between the two, Maxentius posed the biggest threat to Constantine as he also ruled North Africa where in 310 he successfully ended an uprising. (19) Due to severe taxation and property confiscations, Maxentius lost much support in Rome where he ruled. In 311 Galerius passed away and Maxentius, to counteract the closer ties between Constantine and Licinius (Licinius married Constantine's half-sister) (20), joined forces with Maximinus II Daia. (21) In earnest because of Maxentius' jealousy of Constantine's successes in the north, his desire to pay back Constantine for Maximian's death, and Constantine's inability to accept another competitor in the Western empire, hostilities finally broke out. (22) The fear of an attack from the east by Licinius led Maxentiusto to keep a large garrison in Rome. In 311, Constantine came down from the Alps and began attacking the northern Italian cities. Maxentius ordered his praetorian prefect to fortify those cities. Constantine is believed to have had at his disposal around 90,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry, however, Maxentius greatly outnumbered him. (23) Constantine took Susa and Turin where he prohibited his soldiers from ransacking since he wanted the citizens to know he was a liberator, not a conqueror. Milan, Brescia, Verona (where the praetorian prefect was killed), Modena, and Aguileia fell. By Mid-October 312 the road to Rome lay open. The problem was, Maxentius was still there and in control of a heavily fortified city. Nevertheless, believing that good omens favored him, Maxentius left the safety of the fortified city to confront the invaders. The decision proved disastrous. The engagement took place near the Milvian Bridge, destroyed by Maxentius but hastily replaced with one made of boats. The battle ensued and Maxentius's left flank was turned. The weight of too many soldiers sank the bridge and countless drowned. One of the soldiers was Maxentius himself, and his body was recovered, his head removed, then mounted on a lance and paraded triumphantly by Constantine's men. (24) To the grievance and irritation of both Daia and Licinius, the Roman senate proclaimed Constantine Maximus Augustus. Not long after, in 313, Licinius fought Daia and defeated him- Daia died during the engagement. Licinius then assumed lordship over the entire Eastern Roman Empire. (25) Although, was inevitable that both Constantine and Licinius would fight each other.
By moving closer to Constantine's border, Licinius took with him a combined force of 35,000 infantry and cavalry against 20,000 for Constantine. Around October of 316, Constantine struck first, during the night, and forced Licinius to retreat. Licinius headed east with Constantine on his heels. From there, a second engagement took place; Licinius was again defeated and escaped, moving away from the city of Byzantium. Constantine captured the city and the war came to an end. After agreeing to a peace treaty Constantine ruled most of the Roman Empire. Licinius however, controlled a large segment of the army and the wealth of the East, making him a formidable opponent (26). Under the agreement between Constantine and Licinius, their respective first sons were named Caesar: Crispus, and Licianianus. (27) Crispus, ruling from Trier, governed Britain, Gaul, and Spain. (28) Now that he ruled most of the empire alone, the first problem to occupy Constantine from 318 to 320 was the dispute within the Christian church. The main reason for his conversion to Christianity had been his desire to bring unity to the Roman world and to do it by having just one religion, closely subordinated to the state. However, to his great disappointment- and the greatest of his life, Christianity broke up into several ideological groups. Two of those groups were the Donatists and the Arians. (29) On November 316 the Donatists, based in North Africa, were attacked after refusing to remove their sects from the churches. However, persecution continued until May of the following year when Constantine put an end to it. The violence failed to stop them and they flourished, outliving Constantine. (30) Arius, a presbyter in Alexandria, proposed that Jesus was less superior than God; and that while God always existed, Christ did not. (31) Arianism was thus born. Constantine issued several public statements in 323 and 324 to unite the Christian church. (32) In 325, the First Council of Nicaea was convened by Constantine to address church disunity. The main item on the agenda was Arianism. Arius, refusing to accept the divinity of Jesus Christ or the equality of Father and Son, was excommunicated. (33) Unfortunately for Constantine, Arianism did not go away. In 327, during the Second Council of Nicaea, Arius and his supporters were readmitted; to the detriment of the Bishop of Alexandria- Athanasius, who supported the orthodox view. (34) Besides dealing with a divided church, Constantine also dealt with the barbarian threat. He launched several campaigns against the Visigoths in 323, 328, and 332, after which they surrendered. Constantine and Licinius later employed many Visigoths as warriors in their respective armies. (35) While dealing with the Visigoths, Constantine confronted the Sarmatians, defeating them in 322. After conquering both groups, he allowed them to settle in his territories.
The Sarmatians immigrated in large numbers, approximately 300,000. For Constantine, there were several reasons for letting these tribes into Roman territory: more land was cultivated, the military was re-stocked with fresh recruits and potential enemies were disarmed. (36) As Constantine slowly brought calm to the northern frontier, peace with Licinius deteriorated. Hostilities resumed around 324. However, this time Licinius had at his disposal 150,000 infantry and 15,000 cavalry, while Constantine employed 120,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry. On July 3rd both forces engaged in combat and again Licinius was defeated. It is estimated that he lost 34,000 men. Licinius then moved to Byzantium and prepared the city for a siege. Crispus, Constantine's son, defeated Licinius's naval force, and the way to Byzantium was opened. Licinius abandoned the city and in mid-September, the last battle was fought in Chrysopolis. This time Licinius lost between 25,000 and 30,000 men. Ultimately, his wife, Constantia-half sister of Constantine, persuaded Licinius to surrender. He did and was promptly sent to exile in Thessalonica.After a year, Licinius and his son were executed. Now Constantine had sole, unchallenged control of the whole empire. (37) Once the threat of Licinius had been put to rest, Constantine returned to the northern frontier. The taxes were raised to shore up the river fleet on the Rhine and to build several fortresses along the Roman side of the river. In earnest, several years of peace followed due in part to the conflicts among the Germanic tribes and Constantine's fortifications. (38) Another military achievement by Constantine was the division of the army into two groups: the limitanei and the comitatenses. The limitanei guarded the frontiers, while the comitatenses remained in the rear. According to the criticism of some historians this division precipitated the downfall of the Western empire as the limitanei were too weak to resist Germanic invasions and the comitantenses infuriated and interfered with the general population. (39) Diocletian is credited with the organization of the empire and Constantine left it more or less alone. One task Diocletian started was the separation of military positions from civilian ones and Constantine continued to improve on it. (40) The provincial governors were rarely allowed to hold military posts in their provinces. Also, provinces were reduced in size and as a result, there were more of them.
By separating governors and generals made them weaker and unable to mount rebellions against the emperor. Effectively the Praetorian prefects could no longer command troops and were now in charge of fiscal, judicial, and administrative tasks. (41) Constantine abolished the Praetorian Guard and replaced it with the Scholae, a new cavalry unit deployed as his guard. (42) Other government officials under Constantine were: Men of Affairs (agents in rebus)- couriers and spies; chief legal officer (quaestor sacri palatti)- responsible for drafting edicts as well as petitions; Master of Officer (magister officideum)- in charge of the emperor's guard; revenue officers (comes rei privatae and comes sacranum largitio)- they handled revenues and expenditures in gold and silver; (43) and the grand chamberlain (praepositus sacri cubiculi)- a very powerful office holder responsible for the emperor and empress. The grand chamberlain, as well as most members of the imperial bodyguard, was a eunuch. (44) The senate was increased from 600 to 2000 members and many belonged to a new order of imperial companions called the comites consistorii. Although, a majority were landowners and earned their income from their properties. (45) The comites owed allegiance to the emperor. The sacrum consistorium was the emperor's advisory council with close ties to other officials but was always controlled by the emperor himself. (46) Constantine spent funds liberally on building programs, payoffs to the barbarians, the army, almsgiving to the poor, subsidies in grain and wine to several Italian cities for the services they provided, and excessive support to his associates. As a result, taxes- very high during the reign of Diocletian, rose even higher. The collatio lustralis, also known as the chrysargyron (the gold and silver tax, it could be paid with either metal) was the most severe. Ultimately, manufacturers and merchants carried the brunt of this tax and were assessed not only on their person but their family, staff, and capital equipment as well.
However, many were tortured, imprisoned or both trying to pay it. In the cities, tradesmen raised the fees, and the rural population, unable to afford their goods and services, was reduced to extreme poverty. (47) Aware of the privation the chrysargyron had on his people, Constantine took several measures to alleviate the suffering. First, he canceled some overdue taxes. Secondly, he disallowed the use of torture and those sentenced to prison should be taken to spacious and well-ventilated cells. Finally, he established the office of the per equator census to hear appeals on tax liability. (48) In 310 Constantine introduced a gold coin with a slightly lower weight called a solidus. The solidus was used to pay senior officials, five-year bonuses for the troops, and to pay off the barbarians. (49) The solidus retained the value given to it by Constantine for most of the history of Byzantium. (50) Although, payment to the regular troops and buying supplies were done using silver coins. The rest of the population had to live with the much-devalued bronze coins, pushing inflation ever higher. (51) In general, Constantine failed to improve the economic life of his citizens, especially the poor. (52) During his rule there were several edicts by Constantine that made matters worse for the poor. The impoverished were forced to remain in their occupations, whether butcher or farmer and severely punished if they escaped. As a result, more and more chose to get involved in criminal acts, mainly toward the empire. (53) Although just as bad as taxes and the economy, corruption in all sectors of government was widespread. Within the corrupt system, judges were bought, superiors cheated on soldiers, provincial governors sold jobs, postal administrators exploited travelers, and church offices were available to the highest bidder. Constantine passed several edicts against corruption, but for the most part, they were ignored. (54) One area where Constantine spent excessively was in the building trade, especially in his new capital- Constantinople. The selection of the old city of Byzantium was twofold: its strategic location and the place where he finally defeated Licinius in 324. Old Byzantium was not only easily defended by land and sea, but also centrally located to the cultural and industrial centers of Asia Minor. Furthermore, the grain supplies from Egypt were within easy reach. Constantine not only spent large sums on both secular and religious buildings but also on land grants and food rations to encourage immigration to the new capital. (55) On the 11th of May 330 Constantinople was dedicated, followed by forty days of celebration. (56) However, not only did Constantine bid on new buildings constructed in Constantinople, but also throughout the empire- from Rome and Naples to Carthage and Trier.
In earnest, many were Christian churches, with no new pagan temples built or repaired. The basilica was the most popular style chosen. In terms of construction, these buildings were oblong, with side aisles, and divided off from the central nave by arched colonnades. In earnest, many of these features were copied from former pagan basilicas. Architects, engineers, and surveyors enjoyed special privileges as there were few of them and the emperor hoped that these privileges would encourage more people to join the professions. (57) Another aspect of government distracting the emperor was religion. Constantine believed he ruled by the grace of God and as God's representative on Earth, any disobedience to him was sacrilege. Aside from his affection for God, he was also afraid of him if he did the wrong thing. The affection did not cross over to Jesus, as he took little interest in him. Constantine felt that the cross was more a magic symbol confirming his victories than one of suffering. Although the knowledge of the Bible was scant however he spent countless hours in theological study, especially as he grew older. The lack of know-how put him at the mercy of any theologian who caught his ear. (58) As much as Christianity was spreading, and as much as he would like to make it the sole religion of the state, Constantine advanced his new belief carefully and methodically since paganism remained the most popular religion. (59) Constantine remained friendly to pagans, often hosting debating get-togethers. Constantine gave Greek pagan names such as Eirene (Peace) and Sophia (Wisdom) to the churches in Constantinople. (60) The office of Pontifex Maximus, a very pagan and imperial title, remained not only with him but also with his successors up to the year 379. (61) However, he did not stay static as he slowly pushed the old religion aside in favor of the new one. Constantine gradually converted pagan symbols in coins to more neutral concepts. Around 331 he began to introduce measures against paganism, including the removal of treasures from pagan temples. (62) Although, some temples were destroyed and sacrifices were prohibited and consultations with pagan oracles terminated. The practice of Pagan worship was not recorded in the new city of Constantinople. In short, he strived to weaken pagan practices without disturbing their structure until it would crumble at its own pace. Constantine eventually succeeded. (63)
On the other hand, the Christian church benefited immensely from Constantine's generosity and devotion. Eventually, he decreed that those engaged in ecclesiastical duties received the same privileges accorded pagan priests. In earnest both clergymen, and the churches, were exempt from taxation. The Christian church also acquired the right of inheritance, meaning that anyone could entrust their possessions to the church. (64) Constantine kept to himself the power to appoint bishops. Effectively, they received special powers, such as judicial, and became advisers to the emperor. During the height of Constantine's reign, there were 1800 bishops. (65) Constantine, newly converted to Christianity, was unsympathetic to Jews and during his reign passed several anti-Semitic laws. Jews were severely punished when they tried to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. However, not being a powerful group, they did not interfere with imperial unity and were not a major concern of the emperor. (66) In earnest there were groups of people concerned with Constantine, the pagans in the northern frontier, and the Christians living in Persia. When dealing with the pagans in the north, the Germanic and Sarmatian tribes, he specified that conversion to Christianity is a part of any treaty agreements. As for the Christians living in Persia, he expressed personal interest to the Persian king regarding their welfare. (67) As much as Constantine tried to adhere to the principles of his new religion, his hands were to be stained with murderous blood. In 331 he 'executed' the pagan philosopher Sopater, key friend and advisor, when the praetorian prefect Ablabius turned the emperor against him, all on grounds of jealousy. Less than five years earlier he had executed his eldest son, Flavius Julius Crispus, on suspicions that he had committed a serious sexual crime. (68) Fausta, Constantine's wife, and Crispus's stepmother, promoted her sons, bringing about those suspicions. Constantine's guilt for the death of his son intensified and the target of that guilt fell on Fausta. Not long after Crispus's execution, Fausta was killed in the baths of Trier. (69) Soon after these events, his mother Helena left for Palestine on a pilgrimage and while there she built several churches and supposedly discovered remnants of the True Cross. (70) By 334 external pressures distracted Constantine's mind from domestic problems when the Persian king Shapur II invaded Armenia and toppled its king, breaking the peace agreements. Constantinus II killed one of Shapur's brothers as he attempted to take control of the crown. (71) A year later Constantine divided the empire among his sons and nephews.
The western provinces were given to Constantine II; Italy and North Africa to Constans; the east to Constantius II; Thrace, Macedonia, Achea, and Constantinople to his step-nephew Delamtius; and the easternmost provinces to Delmatius’s brother Hannibalianus. Delmatius and Hannibalianus were the sons of Delmatius the Elder, Constantine's stepbrother and son of Constantius I Chlorus and Theodora. (72) With the empire thus divided, Constantine concentrated on the coming war with the Persian Empire. In 336 he dismissed the delegates sent by Shapur. (73) He intended to place his step-nephew Hannibalianus king of Armenia. (74) A year later, just before he was ready for hostilities, he died. (75) Within that very year, knowing that the end was near, he was baptized in a village near Nicomedia by bishop Eusebius.
Many Christian adults at that time waited until late in life or when confronted with waning health to be baptized, mostly out of fear of sinning and thus ruining their chances of entering heaven. (76) Shortly after being baptized, Constantine moved to a villa near Nicomedia where he passed away on the 22nd of May 337. Constantine was laid in a golden coffin and the body was covered in purple attire. Afterward, he was taken to Constantinople where he lay in state as his subjects paid homage. After several days, his son Constantius II led the funeral procession through the streets of Constantinople to the Church of the Holy Apostles. At the church, his body was interned in the mausoleum he had built. Interestingly, part of his pagan past remained as he was later deified. (77) Constantine inherited an empire whose foundations were re-designed and re-shaped by the capable hands of Diocletian. Constantine built on it; for instance, changing the structure of the military and revising the economy. The insatiable expenditure of funds that Constantine had set a dangerous precedent for future rulers and some historians believe that his policies, militarily and administrative, precipitated the collapse of the western empire. Positively speaking, his adoption of Christianity changed society forever, and his decision to establish Constantinople as the new capital in the east brought about a new empire, today called Byzantium and which would last over a thousand years.
Notes: 1. A. A. Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire- Vol.1, p. 44 2. M. Grant, Constantine the Great, p. 16 3. Ibid, p. 17 4. W. Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine Society, 15-18 5. M. Grant, p. 19 6. Ibid, p. 19-20 7. Ibid, p. 82 8. Ibid, p. 105-107 9. Ibid, p. 134-135 10. Treadgold, p. 31 11. Grant, p. 140-142 12. Vasiliev, p. 50 13. G. Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State, p. 34 14. Grant, p. 21 15. Ibid, p. 23 16. Ibid, p. 23-24 17. Treadgold, p. 29 18. Grant, p. 25-26 19. Ibid, p. 26-31 20. Treadgold, p. 31 21. Grant, p. 32 22. Ibid, p. 34 23. Ibid, p. 34-35 24. Ibid, p. 38 25. Ibid, p. 40 26. Treadgold, p. 34 27. Grant, p. 43 28. Treadgold, p. 34 29. Grant, p. 161 30. Ibid, p. 167 31. Treadgold, p. 35 32. Grant, p. 170 33. Ostrogorsky, p. 48 34. Ibid, p. 48. Grant, p. 173-175 35. Grant, p. 57 36. Ibid, p. 64 37. Ibid, p. 46-48 38. Ibid, p. 53 39. Ibid, p. 74 40. Ostrogorsky, p. 34 41. Grant, p. 82-83 42. W. Treadgold, Byzantium and Its Army, p. 10 43. Grant, p. 84-85 44. Ostrogorsky, p. 37-38 45. Ibid, p. 39 46. Grant, p. 85-86 47. Ibid, p. 87-90 48. Ibid, p. 91 49. Ibid, p. 94 50. Treadgold, p. 40 51. Grant, p. 95 52. Ostrogorsky, p. 40 53. Grant, p. 99 54. Ibid, p. 100-102 55. Ibid, p. 120 56. Vasiliev, p. 59 57. Grant, p. 191-193 58. Ibid, p. 148-151 59. Ibid, p. 152 60. Ibid, p. 178 61. Ostrogorsky, p. 47 62. Grant, p. 179 63. Ibid, p. 181 64. Vasiliev, p. 53 65. Grant, p. 159-160 66. Ibid, p. 182 67. Ibid, p. 183 68. Treadgold, p. 44 69. Grant, p. 109-110 70. Treadgold, p. 44 71. Grant, p. 76 72. Ibid, p. 218 73. Ibid, p. 78 74. Treadgold, p. 48 75. Grant, p. 78 76. Ibid, p. 211 77. Ibid, p. 213-215
[Edited by Hannah Holbert, 2023]