ORB Online Encyclopedia

Overview of Late Antiquity--The Fourth Century

Section 3: Constantine

Steven Muhlberger



Constantine and his pro-Christian policy emerged out of the chaos that ended the rule of the Tetrarchs. On May 1, 305, while persecution was still going on in the eastern provinces, Diocletian and his senior partner, Maximian, retired from the emperorship -- the first time this had ever happened. Galerius and Constantius became senior emperors, and appointed two junior emperors to replace themselves. This was meant to be the first of a series of orderly imperial successions.

But there were people who were dissatisfied with the arrangement. Constantine, the thirty-year-old son of Constantius, had not been given a place in the imperial succession. When his father died in 306 at York, the headquarters of the British garrison, Constantine got himself elected emperor by the troops. Maxentius, another excluded son of an emperor, did the same at Rome. Diocletian's Tetrarchy quickly broke down, and civil war raged. The collapse of his system even destroyed the old emperor, who was forced to commit suicide.

The ultimate winner was Constantine, who, beginning with the support of the powerful British army, fought and intrigued until he had eliminated all rivals. By 324, he had eliminated his last opponent, and re- established a dynastic style of government based on him and his family.

Well before 324, however, Constantine had taken the step for which he is best remembered. He had proclaimed himself a believer in the Christian God and the champion of the churches. The crucial event, according to contemporaries, was a vision he saw while marching to Rome in 312. In the coming contest with the emperor Maxentius, Constantine felt the need for divine help. The recent failures of pagan emperors contrasted with the long success of his own father, who had worshipped the "one Supreme God." Who was this god, and how could he be petitioned? Constantine prayed for a revelation, and a sign of favor. According to Eusebius, a contemporary Christian historian, this was the result:

And while he was thus praying with fervent entreaty, a most marvelous sign appeared to him from heaven...He said that about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, Conquer by this.

He adopted the cross as his banner, and went on to defeat Maxentius. Thereafter he was convinced that the God of the Christians was the only true one, and that God had chosen him for a special role on earth. The sincerity of his conversion has often been questioned, especially since he does not fit the conventional image of a saint: besides killing many opponents in war or through assassination, Constantine also murdered his eldest son and his wife. It has been said that "Constantine believed in Constantine" and in his own destiny. But this is nothing unusual in ambitious rulers of any era. In the fourth century, it was taken for granted by everyone that real power derived from divine dispensation. By seeing himself as the special son of heaven, Constantine was in no way different from Diocletian or the persecutor Galerius. His self-proclaimed goals, "to bring the diverse judgements formed by all nations respecting the Deity to a condition of settled uniformity and to restore a healthy tone to the system of the world," would not have seemed strange to the Tetrarchs. Only the identity of God, his servants, and his preferred form of service had changed.

ILLUSTRATION: Colossal head of Constantine.

Christian leaders did not hesitate to accept the new emperor at his own estimation. It is easy to be cynical about this, too, because the churches gained immense benefits from Constantine. He not only restored their confiscated properties -- he gave churches wealth, the clergy tax exemptions, and bishops judicial power within their cities. But the enthusiasm for Constantine is entirely understandable. We must remember that his emergence as a Christian champion, just when a champion was most needed, appeared to be a miracle. The great persecution of Diocletian had been a traumatic ordeal: the defeat and death of the persecutors by a Christian emperor could be nothing less than a sign from God. The Christians who had survived the persecution were not inclined to look this gift horse in the mouth. Indeed, they shared Constantine's conviction that he represented a divine authority, and asked his aid in settling internal disagreements, even though he was merely a layman, and like other laymen of the time, not yet baptized.

The single most important aspect of Constantine's career is his patronage of the churches, which helped them make headway in a society still largely pagan. (That he left three piously Christian sons to continue his policy is also important.) But a few words should be said about one other act of significance: the founding of a new imperial capital called New Rome or Constantinople, the "city of Constantine." The emperor had several motives: the common desire of rulers to leave a lasting monument; the conceit of having a new, thorougly Christian city as his residence; and finally, a strategic motive. It had become apparent in recent decades that an emperor must control the lower Danube valley, which was both threatened by barbarians and a crucial recruiting ground. At the same time, the most important military threat to Rome was the newly- centralized Persian empire. The narrow seas connecting the Mediterranean with the Black Sea and countries north and east fell nicely between these two fronts. Diocletian had recognized the advantages of the area and made Nicomedia his capital. Constantine picked a close-by city with an excellent harbor and a superbly defensible site, the ancient Greek colony of Byzantium, to be rebuilt as his New Rome, the "city of Constantine," Constantinople.

It was a brilliant choice. From this location future emperors would, in good times, be able to control the wealthiest regions in the empire, especially Syria, Egypt, and Anatolia (modern Turkey); in bad times, the capital would serve as an impregnable fortress where emperors could ride out invasion. Constantine had shifted the focus of imperial interest from the Latin west to the mainly Greek east; eventually, when emperors had to chose between the two, it would be the ancient home of the Romans that would be sacrificed in favor of the city on the Bosphorus.


Next Section.

Index, Overview of Late Antiquity.


Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

ORB Homepage About ORB Who is ORB? ORB Library ORB Reference Shelf Index