(Flavius Valerius Constatinus)


Although the Roman Empire lasted for more than 400 years, few of its leaders rose near to the stature of Constantine the Great. During his thirty year reign, the empire was once again prosperous, stable, and disciplined, after over one hundred years of decline and chaos. While most of the other good emperors of Rome inherited a government in reasonably good order, Constantine came to power when the empire was in dire straits, and presided over a sharp turn in its fortunes. Although Diocletian, the predecessor of Constantine, deserves much credit for restoring order to a government in chaos, it was Constantine who ushered in a new era of vigor and prosperity.

Constantine was a young man when his father Constantius was raised to the position of caesar, or co-ruler of the western empire. Constantine served in the court of Diocletian during most of his father's reign, but was at his bedside when he died in 305 A.D., and was hailed as augustus  by his father's troops. By this time, Constantine was in his early thirties and was already a capable general, a skill which was critical to his future survival. When he rose to power there were six contending caesars, augusti, and retired emperors, in addition to threatening barbarian tribes on every border. The first half of his reign, therefore, was dominated by civil wars and campaigns against encroaching tribes. Constantine's first victories were over the Marcomanni and Alamanni tribes in Germany, but his most famous battle was in 312 A.D. at "Milvian Bridge", where he fought Maxentius, his rival for control of the Western Empire. The night before the battle Constantine had his famous dream, assuring him victory if he fought under the sign of Christ. Constantine was at this time still a pagan, but he allowed his soldiers to carry the Greek symbol for Christ (the letters chi and rho) on their shields, and he achieved a major victory against great odds. This symbol, called the Labarum, later became the military standard of the empire. Although Constantine is not thought to have genuinely converted to Christianity until many years later, from this point on, he was positively disposed toward Christianity. In 313, he issued the Edict of Milan, which allowed Christians to worship legally, and restored property that had been confiscated under the persecutions of Galerius.

After prevailing in the struggle with Maxentius, Constantine was in firm control of the entire western empire, but he still had many battles to fight. He warred against the Vandals and the Visigoths, and, finally, in 324 defeated Licinius, emperor of the East, and became sole ruler of the empire. He was an excellent administrator as well as a soldier and did much to improve commerce, taxation, and reduce general corruption. The empire under his leadership was peaceful and prosperous for the first time in nearly a century. Yet his reign was only half over, and there were still to come several important deeds that had long term significance.

First, during the reign of Constantine, the Arian Heresy  was the cause of a great rift within the Christian community. Constantine was not concerned with the theological issues, but there was of course, a political dimension, and Constantine called all the bishops together in the First Council of Nicaea, and instructed them to resolve the controversy. This council was an important turning point in the evolution of church government and doctrine. Second, Constantine decided to move the central administration of the empire to Byzantium, (later renamed Constantinople), on the shores of the Black Sea. He spent lavishly to rebuild the entire city before permanently moving his court there in 330 A.D. Although Rome fell only one hundred years after the death of Constantine, his new capital survived for another millennium.

Another incident of great personal significance was the death of his eldest son Crispus, and wife Fausta, who were executed for some form of treachery. Although the precise details are not known, the incident was a great blow to the emperor. It was for sins such as these that Constantine was said to have made his death bed confession and conversion. After juggling both pagan and Christian loyalties for years, Constantine truly did become the first Christian emperor, and in doing so, changed the character, both of the Christian church, and of the empire itself. He died in 337 A.D. and was succeeded by his three remaining sons, Constantine II, Constantius II, and Constans.

Key events during the life of Constantine:

Constantius I appointed Caesar by Diocletian. His son Constantine served in imperial court.
Constantius succeeds to rule the western empire, when Maximian retires.
Constantine proclaimed Augustus  by the troops, on the death of his father.
Won great victories over the Marcomanni and Alamanni German.
Death of Galerius, co-emperor and persecutor of Christians.
At Battle of Milvian Bridge, Constantine fought under the sign of the cross.
Edict of Milan, assured Christians would be free to worship all over empire.
Won a great victory over the Vandals.
Defeated eastern ruler Licinius, and became sole emperor.
First Council of Nicaea, condemned the Arian Heresy.
Executed his son Crispus and second wife Fausta.
Constantine moved his court to Byzantium (later Constantinople.)
Defeated the Visigoths.
Reoccupied Dacia, abandoned by the empire since 271.
Died a natural death, after 30 year reign. Succeeded by sons Constantine, Constantius, and Constans.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
First Christian Emperor  in  The Story of the Romans  by  H. A. Guerber
Constantine the Great in  Famous Men of Rome  by  John H. Haaren & A. B. Poland
Deeds of Constantine  in  Historical Tales: Roman  by  Charles Morris
New Rome  in  The Discovery of New Worlds  by  M. B. Synge
Constantine the Great  in  Old World Hero Stories  by  Eva March Tappan

Image Links

Constantine elected Emperor
 in The Count of the Saxon Shore

 in The History of Russia

Arch of Constantine
 in The Story of the Romans

Battle between Constantine and Maxentius, Romano
 in Famous Men of Rome

The Arch of Constantine
 in Famous Men of Rome

Arch of Constantine
 in Old World Hero Stories

Short Biography
Diocletian Restored order to the empire after fifty years of chaos. Broke empire into four regions.
St. Helena Wife of Constantius Chlorus and mother of Constantine. Influenced her son to become Christian.
Crispus Eldest son of Constantine. Executed by his father for treachery.
Fausta Wife of Constantinue. Executed for treachery.
Galerius Ruler of Eastern Empire until death in 311. Notorious persecutor of Christians.
Licinius Ruler of Easter Empire until defeated by Constantine in 324.
Maxentius Rival ruler of Western Empire; defeated by Constantine in 312.
Arius Founder of the Arian Heresy, which insisted that the Son was not eternal, but created by the Father.
Athanasius Bishop of Alexandria. Opposed the Arian heresy.