The emperor Constantine has rightly been called the most important emperor of Late Antiquity. His powerful personality laid the foundations of post-classical European civilization; his reign was eventful and highly dramatic. His victory at the Milvian Bridge counts among the most decisive moments in world history, while his legalization and support of Christianity and his foundation of a ‘New Rome’ at Byzantium rank among the most momentous decisions ever made by a European ruler. The fact that ten Byzantine emperors after him bore his name may be seen as a measure of his importance and of the esteem in which he was held.
Constantine’s Rise to Power
Flavius Valerius Constantinus, the future emperor Constantine, was born at Naissus in the province of Moesia Superior, the modern Nish in Serbia, on 27 February of 271, 272, or 273. [] His father was a military officer named Constantius (later Constantius Chlorus or Constantius I), his mother a woman of humble background named Helena (later St. Helena). [] There is good reason to think that Constantius and Helena lived in concubinage rather than in legally recognized marriage. Having previously attained the rank of tribune, provincial governor, and probably praetorian prefect, Constantius was raised, on 1 March 293, to the rank of Caesar in the First Tetrarchy organized by Diocletian. [] On this occasion he was required to put aside Helena and to marry Theodora, the daughter of Maximian. [] Upon the retirement of Diocletian and Maximian on 1 May 305 Constantius succeeded to the rank of Augustus. []
Constantine, in the meanwhile, had served with distinction under both Diocletian and Galerius in the East. Kept initially at the court of Galerius as a pledge of good conduct on his father’s part, he was later allowed to join his father in Britain and assisted him in a campaign against the Picts. When Constantius died, on 25 July 306, at Eburacum (York), Constantine was at his side. The soldiers at once proclaimed him Augustus; [] Constantine henceforth observed this day as his dies imperii. Having settled affairs in Britain swiftly, he returned to the Continent, where the city of Augusta Treverorum (Trier) served as his principal residence for the next six years. There, too, in 307, he married Maximian’s daughter Fausta, [] putting away his mistress Minervina, who had borne him his first son, Crispus.[] Trier’s “Kaiserthermen” (Imperial Baths) and Basilica (the aula palatina ) give evidence to this day of Constantine’s residence in the city.
At the same time the Senate and the Praetorian Guard in Rome had allied themselves with Maxentius, the son of Maximian. On 28 October 306 they proclaimed him emperor, [] in the lower rank of princeps initially, although he later claimed the rank of Augustus. Constantine and Maxentius, although they were brothers-in-law, did not trust each other. Their relationship was further complicated by the schemes and consequently, in 310, the death of Maximian. Open hostilities between the two rivals broke out in 312, and Constantine won a decisive victory in the famous Battle of the Milvian Bridge. [] This made Constantine the sole ruler of the western half of the empire.
When Diocletian and Maximian announced their retirement in 305, the problem posed by the Christians was unresolved and the persecution in progress. Upon coming to power Constantine unilaterally ended all persecution in his territories, even providing for restitution. His personal devotions, however, he offered first to Mars and then increasingly to Apollo, reverenced as Sol Invictus.
The next significant event in Constantine’s religious development occurred in 312. Lactantius, whom Constantine appointed tutor of his son Crispus[] and who therefore must have been close to the imperial family, reports that during the night before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge Constantine was commanded in a dream to place the sign of Christ on the shields of his soldiers. [] Twenty-five years later Eusebius gives us a far different, more elaborate, and less convincing account in his Life of Constantine. [] When Constantine and his army were on their march toward Rome – neither the time nor the location is specified – they observed in broad daylight a strange phenomenon in the sky: a cross of light and the words “by this sign you will be victor” (hoc signo victor eris or ). During the next night, so Eusebius’ account continues, Christ appeared to Constantine and instructed him to place the heavenly sign on the battle standards of his army. The new battle standard became known as the labarum.
Whatever vision Constantine may have experienced, he attributed his victory to the power of “the God of the Christians” and committed himself to the Christian faith from that day on, although his understanding of the Christian faith at this time was quite superficial. It has often been supposed that Constantine’s profession of Christianity was a matter of political expediency more than of religious conviction; upon closer examination this view cannot be sustained. Constantine did not receive baptism until shortly before his death (see below). It would be a mistake to interpret this as a lack of sincerity or commitment; in the fourth and fifth centuries Christians often delayed their baptisms until late in life.[]
In February 313, probably, Constantine and Licinius met at Milan. On this occasion Constantine’s half-sister Constantia was wed to Licinius. Also on this occasion, the two emperors formulated a common religious policy. Several months later Licinius issued an edict which is commonly but erroneously known as the Edict of Milan. [] Unlike Constantine, Licinius did not commit himself personally to Christianity; even his commitment to toleration eventually gave way to renewed persecution. Constantine’s profession of Christianity was not an unmixed blessing to the church. Constantine used the church as an instrument of imperial policy, imposed upon it his imperial ideology, and thus deprived it of much of the independence which it had previously enjoyed.
Constantine as the Sole Ruler of the West
To his dismay Constantine soon discovered that there was a lack of unity within the church. In the province of Africa, specifically, there were those who took a rigorist position towards the lapsi (those who had shown a lack of faith during the preceding years of persecution) and those who took a more moderate, forgiving position. The former eventually became known as the Donatists, after a certain Donatus, whom they elected as their bishop. In April of 313 the rigorists presented to Constantine their grievance against Caecilian, the bishop of Carthage. Constantine convened a synod of bishops to hear the complaint; the synod met in Rome’s Lateran Council and is known as the Synod of Rome. When the synod ruled in favor of Caecilian, the Donatists appealed to Constantine again. In response to the appeal Constantine convened a larger council of thirty-three bishops, who met at Arles in southern Gaul on 1 August 314. This council, too, ruled against the Donatists, and again they refused to submit. Constantine attempted, unsuccessfully, to suppress them. A separatist Donatist church possessed considerable strength in North Africa over the next two centuries. []
Rome’s famous Arch of Constantine was completed in time for the beginning of Constantine’s decennalia (the tenth anniversary of his acclamation). [] There were all manner of festivities, but Constantine pointedly omitted the traditional sacrifices to the pagan gods.
Constantine left his mark on the city of Rome with an ambitious building program, both secular and religious. In the Forum Romanum he completed the basilica which Maxentius had left unfinished. On the Quirinal Hill, where the presidents of Italy now reside, he had a bath built. The Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Basilica of St. Peter, and the Basilica of St. Sebastian on the Appian Way all are Constantinian foundations. Of special interest is the Basilica of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter, on the ancient Via Labicana, because attached to it was the vaulted rotunda which Constantine originally had intended as a mausoleum for himself and his family but ultimately received only the body of his mother Helena; its considerable remains are known today as the Tor Pignattara. []
The Conflict with Licinius
The ultimate goal pursued by both Constantine and Licinius was sole power. The agreement of 313 had been born out of necessity, not of mutual good will. Even Constantia’s apparent devotion to Licinius did little to ease the strained relationship between the two rivals. Hostilities erupted in 316. [] In the course of this first war between the two emperors two battles were fought: the first at Cibalae in Pannonia, whence this war is called the bellum Cibalense, the second on the campus Ardiensis in Thrace. In the first battle Licinius’ army suffered heavy losses; in the second neither side won a clear victory. []
A settlement left Licinius in his position as Augustus, but required him to cede to Constantine all of his European provinces other than Thrace. On 1 March 317, at Serdica (modern Sofia), Constantine announced the appointment of three Caesars: his own son Crispus, about twelve years old, his own son Constantine, less than seven months old, and Licinius’ son, also named Licinius, twenty months old. [] But the concordia Augustorum was fragile; tensions grew again, in part because the two Augusti pursued different policies in matters of religion, in part because the old suspicions surfaced again.
War erupted again in 324. Constantine defeated Licinius twice, first at Adrianople in Thrace, and then at Chrysopolis on the Bosporus. [] Initially, yielding to the pleas of Constantia, Constantine spared the life of his brother-in-law, but some months later he ordered his execution, breaking his solemn oath. Before too long the younger Licinius, too, fell victim to Constantine’s anger or suspicions. [] Constantine was now the sole and undisputed master of the Roman world.
The Arian Controversy, the Council of Nicaea, and its Aftermath
Early in the fourth century a dispute erupted within the Christian church regarding the nature of the Godhead, more specifically the exact relationship of the Son to the Father. Arius, a priest in Alexandria, taught that there was a time when Christ did not exist, i.e. that he was not co-eternal with the Father, that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were three separate and distinct hypostaseis, and that the Son was subordinate to the Father, was in fact a “creature.” These teachings were condemned and Arius excommunicated in 318 by a council convened by Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria. But that did not by any means close the matter. Ossius (or Hosius) of Cordova, Constantine’s trusted spiritual advisor, failed on his mission to bring about a reconciliation.
Constantine then summoned what has become known as the First Ecumenical Council of the church. The opening session was held on 20 May 325 in the great hall of the palace at Nicaea, Constantine himself presiding and giving the opening speech. The council formulated a creed which, although it was revised at the Council of Constantinople in 381-82, has become known as the Nicene Creed. It affirms the homoousion, i.e. the doctrine of consubstantiality. A major role at the council was played by Athanasius, Bishop Alexander’s deacon, secretary, and, ultimately, successor. Arius was condemned. []
If Constantine had hoped that the council would settle the issue forever, he must have been bitterly disappointed. The disputes continued, and Constantine himself vacillated. Eusebius of Nicomedia, a supporter of Arius exiled in 325, was recalled in 327 and soon became the emperor’s chief spiritual advisor. In 335 Athanasius, now bishop of Alexandria and unbending in his opposition to some of Constantine’s policies, was sent into exile at far-away Trier. []
The Crisis in the Imperial Family
At some time in 326 Constantine ordered the execution of his oldest son Crispus, who had been appointed Caesar in 317, had three times served as consul, and had distinguished himself in the recent campaign against Licinius. In the same year, soon after the death of Crispus, Constantine also brought about the death of Fausta, the mother of his other three sons. A connection between the two deaths is likely. Zosimus reports that Crispus had come under suspicion of “being involved” with his stepmother Fausta. [] The Epitome of Aurelius Victor reports that Constantine killed Fausta when his mother Helena rebuked him for the death of Crispus. [] It is impossible now to separate fact from gossip and to know with certainty what offenses Crispus and Fausta had committed. Both of them suffered damnatiomemoriae and were never rehabilitated. Some involvement of Helena in this family tragedy cannot be excluded, but there is no reason to shift the responsibility from Constantine to her. []
Shortly after these sad events, probably in 326-28, Helena undertook a pigrimage to the Holy Land. It has been suggested that this pilgrimage was an act of expiation, either for her own sins or for those of her son. [] In the course of her journey Helena impressed Eusebius of Caesarea and others by her piety, humility, and charity. She played a role in the building of the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem and the Church of the Eleona on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives; [] but the Church of the Holy Sepulcher seems to have been an undertaking of Constantine alone. [] A tradition more cherished than trustworthy credits Helena with the inventio of the True Cross. []
The New Rome
During the First Tetrarchy Trier, Milan, Thessalonike, and Nicomedia had served as imperial residences, and the importance of Rome as a center of government had thus been considerably reduced. Constantine went far beyond this when he refounded the ancient Greek city of Byzantium as Constantinople and made it the capital of the empire. His decision to establish a new capital in the East ranks in its far-reaching consequences with his decision to adopt Christianity. The new capital enjoyed a most favorable location which afforded easy access to both the Balkan provinces and the eastern frontier, controlled traffic through the Bosporus, and met all conditions for favorable economic development.
On 8 November 324, less than two months after his victory over Licinius at Chrysopolis, Constantine formally laid out the boundaries of his new city, roughly quadrupling its territory. By 328 the new walls were completed, and on 11 May 330 the new city was formally dedicated. The New Rome, both in its physical features and in its institutions, resembled the Old Rome. It was built on seven hills, it had a senate, and its people received subsidized grain. Constantine completed and enlarged the city’s hippodrome and placed in it the Serpent Column of Delphi. The palace which he built for himself afforded direct access to the kathisma, the royal box overlooking the hippodrome. A rather controversial monument is the Column of Constantine, in the Forum of Constantine, built of porphyry and 25 m. high; its remains are now known as the Burnt Column. It was crowned by a statue of Helios, its features suitably adapted so as to suggest Constantine himself.
Constantine without question began the construction of two major churches in Constantinople, Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) and Hagia Eirene (Holy Peace); the foundation of a third, the Church of the Holy Apostles, may be attributed to him with a measure of certainty. Unlike the Old Rome, which was filled with pagan monuments and institutions, the New Rome was essentially a Christian capital (and eventually the see of a patriarch), although not all traces of its pagan past had been eliminated. []
The prevailing character of Constantine’s government was one of conservatism. His adoption of Christianity did not lead to a radical reordering of society or to a systematic revision of the legal system. Generally refraining fom sweeping innovations, he retained and completed most of the arrangements made by Diocletian, especially in provincial administration and army organization. One notable change pertained to the praetorian prefects; these now became civilian ministers assisting the Augustus or the Caesars. In the course of a successful reform of the currency Constantine instituted a new type of coin, the gold solidus , which won wide acceptance and remained the standard for centuries to come. [] Some of Constantine’s measures show a genuine concern for the welfare and the morality of his subjects, even for the condition of slaves. By entrusting some government functions to the Christian clergy he actually made the church an agency of the imperial government. Constantine did not neglect the security of the frontiers. He campaigned successfully in 306-308 and 314-15 on the German frontier, in 332 against the Goths, in 334 against the Sarmatians, and in 336 again on the Danube frontier. []
The arrangements which Constantine made for his own succession were quite unsatisfactory. During the last two years of his reign there were four Caesars: his sons Constantine (II), Constantius (II), and Constans, having been appointed in 317, 324, and 333 respectively, and his nephew Flavius Dalmatius (whose father, of like name, was a son of Constantius I and Theodora), appointed in 335. It is not clear which of these Constantine intended to take precedence upon his death. []
Final Years , Death, and Burial
In the years 325-337 Constantine continued his support of the church even more vigorously than before, both by generous gifts of money and by specific legislation. Among his numerous church foundations the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and the Golden Octagon in Antioch deserve to be singled out. At the same time, he was more inclined to suppress paganism; we know of some specific pagan temples which were torn down upon his orders, while in other cases temple treasures were confiscated and the proceeds fed into the imperial treasury. []
Shortly after Easter (3 April) 337 Constantine began to feel ill. He traveled to Drepanum, now named Helenopolis in honor of his mother, where he prayed at the tomb of his mother’s favorite saint, the martyr Lucian. From there he proceeded to the suburbs of Nicomedia, and there he was baptized, as both Eusebius and Jerome report; but only Jerome adds another significant fact: the baptism was performed by the Arian bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia. []
A few weeks weeks later, on the day of Pentecost, 22 May, Constantine died at Nicomedia, still wearing the white robes of a Christian neophyte. His body was escorted to Constantinople and lay in state in the imperial palace. His sarcophagus was then placed in the Church of the Holy Apostles, as he himself had directed; it was surrounded by the memorial steles of the Twelve Apostles, making him symbolically the thirteenth Apostle. [] Only on September 9 did Constantine II, Constantius II, and Constans each assume the rank of Augustus, after possible rivals, including the fourth Caesar, Flavius Dalmatius, had been eliminated in a bloody coup. [] This bloody purge of members of the Royal family, it has been argued, may have had its roots in the religious strife between the Arian and Orthodox factions at the imperial court.[]
In the Eastern Orthodox churches Constantine is regarded a saint; he shares a feast day, May 21, with his mother, and additionally has a feast day of his own, September 3. []
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Attempts to place Constantine’s birth in the 280’s have been refuted by Timothy D. Barnes, The New Empire of Diocletian and Constantine (Cambridge, Mass., 1982) 40-42.
Jan Willem Drijvers, Helena Augusta: The Mother of Constantine the Great and the Legend of Her Finding of the True Cross (Leiden 1992).
Hans A. Pohlsander, Helena: Empress and Saint (Chicago 1995).
Heinz Heinen, “Konstantins Mutter Helena: de stercore ad regnum,”TriererZeitschrift 61 (1998) 227-40.
On the other hand a reference in Pan. Lat. 10.11.4 (edd. Baehrens, Mynors) or 2.11.4 (ed. Galletier) has prompted a number of scholars to conclude that Constantius and Theodora were married already by 289.
On Crispus see Hans A. Pohlsander, “Crispus: Brilliant Career and Tragic End,” Historia 33 (1984) 79-106.
Klaus Kremer, “Laktanz: Erzieher von Konstantins Sohn Crispus zu Trier,” Kurtrierisches Jahrbuch 25 (1985) 35-59.
Michael DiMaio, Jörn Zeuge, and Natalia Zotov, “Ambiguitas Constantiniana: The Caeleste Signum Dei of Constantine the Great,” Byzantion 58 (1988) 333-60, have argued that it is Lactantius’ account which represents the true course of events, because the emperor saw a conjunction of the planets Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, and Venus in the constellations Capricorn and Sagittarius, something which was extremely negative astrologically and would have undermined the morale of Constantine’s mainly pagan army. By putting a Christian interpretation on the astronomical event, they suggest, the emperor converted the sign into a positive force which would be useful to him.
Another, more recent, attempt to explain Constantine’s vision as a natural phenomenon was made by Peter Weiss, “Die Vision Constantins,” in Jochen Bleicken, ed., Colloquium aus Anlass des 80. Geburtstages von Alfred Heuss (Frankfurter Althistorische Studien 13; Kallmünz 1993) 143-69.
Linda Jones Hall, “Cicero’s instinctu divino and Constantine’s instinctu divinitatis: The Evidence of the Arch of Constantine for the Senatorial View of the ‘Vision’ of Constantine,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 6 (1998) 647-71.
Richard Krautheimer, Rome: Profile of a City, 312-1308 (Princeton 1980), Chapters 1-2.
Charles M. Odahl, “The Christian Basilicas of Constantinian Rome,” Ancient World 26 (1995) 3-28.
Aurelius Victor, Caes. 41.1-2 and 6; Anonymus Valesianus or Origo Constantini 5.16-19; Zosimus 2. 18-20; and the Consularia Constantinopolitana or Fasti Hydatiani (Ed. Mommsen [MGH, AA IX = Chron. Min. I] 231).
The conventional date of 314 is found in much of the secondary literature:
Otto Seeck, Regesten der Kaiser und Päpste für die Jahre 311 bis 476 n. Chr. (Stuttgart 1919) 162.
Joseph Vogt, “Constantinus der Grosse,” in RAC III (1957) 306-79 at 337.
A. H. M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire 284-602 (Oxford 1964; repr. Baltimore 1986) I 82.
Ramsay MacMullen, Constantine (New York 1969) 107.
Maria R. Alföldi, “Die Niederemmeler ‘Kaiserfibel’: Zum Datum des ersten Krieges zwischen Konstantin und Licinius,” BJ 176 (1976) 183-200 at 186-87.
Dietmar Kienast, “Das bellum Cibalense und die Morde des Licinius,” in Michael Wissemann, Roma renascens: Beiträge zur Spätantike und Rezeptionsgeschichte: Festschrift für Ilona Opelt (Frankfurt 1988) 149-71.
Id., Römische Kaisertabelle, 2nd ed. (Darmstadt 1996) 299.
The date of 314 was first challenged and 316 proposed instead by Patrick Bruun (The Constantinian Coinage of Arelate (Helsinki 1953) 15-21; Studies in Constantinian Chronology (New York 1961) 10-22; RIC VII (1966) 66, n. 1, and 76); this dating has been accepted also by others (André Chastagnol in RN, 6th ser., 4 (1962) 323-33 at 326-30; Christian Habicht, “Zur Geschichte des Kaisers Konstantin,” Hermes 86 (1958) 360-78 at 360-70; Joseph Vogt, Constantin der Grosse und sein Jahrhundert, 2nd ed. (Munich 1960) 172; Timothy D. Barnes, “Lactantius and Constantine,” JRS 63 (1973) 29-46 at 36-38; Id., Constantine and Eusebius (Cambridge, Mass., 1982) 65-67; Id. New Empire 72-73; Thomas Grünewald, Constantinus Maximus Augustus: Herrschaftspropaganda in der zeitgenössischen Überlieferung (Historia Einzelschriften 64; Stuttgart 1990) 109-12; Christopher Ehrhardt, “Monumental Evidence for the Date of Constantine’s First War against Licinius,” Ancient World 23 (1992) 87-94)
Roberto Andreotti has proposed that the bellum Cibalense was fought in two phases, in 314 and 316 respectively (“Licinius (Valerius Licinianus),” in Dizionario Epigrafico IV.1 (1959) 079-1040 at 1001 ff., esp. 1004; id.,”Recenti contributi alla cronologia costantiniana,” Latomus 23 (1964) 537-55 at 548-52). More recently Andreotti’s argument has been taken up in a joint article by Michael DiMaio, Jörn Zeuge, and Jane Bethune: “Proelium Cibalense et Proelium Campi Ardiensis: The First Civil War of Constantine I and Licinius I,” Ancient World 21 (1990) 67-91. This, in turn, has been challenged by Hans A. Pohlsander, who defends 316: “The Date of the Bellum Cibalense: A Reexamination,” Ancient World 25 (1995) 89-101.
Harold Allen Drake, “Athanasius’ First Exile,” GRBS 27 (1986) 193-204.
For the sources and further literature see Hans A. Pohlsander, “Maximinus und Paulinus: Zwei Trierer Bischöfe im vierten Jahrhundert,” Trierer Zeitschrift 59 (1996) 119-80 at 121, n. 5.
Pohlsander, “Crispus” 99-106. At 106 he deems it “quite believable that Helena had a hand in Fausta’s death.” More cautious Pohlsander, Helena 23.
Jan Willem Drijvers, “Flavia Maxima Fausta: Some Remarks,” Historia 41 (1992) 500-506.
John Wilkinson, Egeria’s Travels to the Holy Land, rev. ed. (Jerusalem and Warminster, England, 1981) 39-46 and 164-71.
Virgilio C. Corbo, Il Santo Sepolcro di Gerusalemme: Aspetti archeologici dalle origini al periodo crociato (Jerusalem 1982).
Dan Bahat, “Does the Holy Sepulchre Church Mark the Burial of Jesus?” BiblicalArchaeology Review 12 (1986) 26-45.
G. S. P. Freeman-Grenville, ” The Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, History and Future,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 1987, pp. 187-207.
Joseph Patrich in Yoram Tsafir, Ancient Churches Revealed (Jerusalem and Washington, D.C., 1993) 100-17.
Martin Biddle, The Tomb of Christ (Sutton Publishing 1999) 65-70.
Richard Krautheimer, Three Christian Capitals: Topography and Politics (Berkeley 1983).
Cyril Mango, Le développement urbaine de Constantinople (IVe-VIIesiecles) (Travaux et Mémoires du Centre de recherche d’Histoire et Civilisation de Byzance, College de France, Monographies 2; Paris 1985).
The solidus, weighing 1/72 of a pound, replaced the aureus.
Heinrich Chantraine, Die Nachfolgeordnung Constantins des Großen, Stuttgart 1992.
Agathe Kaniuth. Die Beisetzung Konstantins des Großen. Breslau 1941.
Glanville Downey. “The Tombs of the Byzantine Emperors at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople.” JHS 79 (1959) 27-51.
Philip Grierson. “The Tombs and Obits of the Byzantine Emperors (337-1042).” DOP 16 (1962) 1-60, esp. 5, 21-29, and 39-40.
Richard Klein, “Die Kämpfe um die Nachfolge nach dem Tode Constantins des Großen,” Byzantinische Forschungen 6 (1979) 101-50.
[] For a discussion of the purge of 337, the succession of the sons of Constantine, and the sources that treat these matters, see DiMaio and Duane Arnold, “Per Vim, Per Caedem, Per Bellum: A Study of Murder and Ecclesiastical Politics in the Year 337 A.D.,” Byzantion, 62(1992), 158ff.
[] Pohlsander, Helena 194-96.