Constantine the Great - by Peter Xiao

Few monarchs have brought the same level of change as Constantine the Great. He transformed history by legalising Christianity during his reign (the Edict of Milan in 313 CE) and paved the way for the eventual take-over of Christianity under the reign of Theodosius I (379-395 CE). Constantine unified classical antiquity and Judeo-Christian ethics and rang the bell for the end of the Classical Age.

Colossal head of Constantine
Colossal head of Constantine

Constantine was born in the chaotic third century BCE and grew up under the Tetrarchy established by Diocletian. His father Constantius was a Caesar (the junior emperor) in the Tetrarchic system in the western part of the Roman Empire. When Constantine was young he was sent to the eastern part of the empire as a hostage under the supervision of Galerius who was the eastern Augustus at the time. Many scholars interpreted this as a strategy adopted by Galerius in order to secure the loyalty and obedience of Constantius. However, in 306 CE Constantine and his father Constantius successfully deceived Galerius and Constantine himself managed to escape the supervision of Galerius and joined his father in the military campaign in Britain. Constantius died in the same year and Constantine was crowned emperor by his father’s legions in York. This inheritance by Constantine was later ratified unwillingly by Galerius and he only gave Constantine the title Caesar rather than the more powerful title Augustus.


After entering the centre of the political stage, Constantine began to fit himself within the existing structures of the Tetrarchy. He understood well that his power was inadequate to dominate the whole Roman world. Galerius was still alive and Maxentius, the son of the former Augustus Maximian, had also established himself in Rome. Political youngsters like Licinius and Maximianus both rose to power in the East. And, therefore, Constantine decided to fit himself within the Tetrarchy temporarily and waited for possible opportunity to seek an alliance with other rulers. During the period from 306 CE to 310 CE, Constantine mainly adopted titles such as Caesar, Nobilissimus and Princeps Iuventutis (the leader of the youth). These were all considered to be the marks of junior status used in varying combinations alongside the title Augustus. Constantine understood the importance of using marriage as a way to secure political alliances. In 307 CE, he married Maximian’s daughter Fausta who later restored the title of Augustus to Constantine. This arrangement effectively put Constantine on a par with Maximian and Galerius who were both Augustus at the time. However, Constantine’s relationship with Maximian eventually deteriorated just like the relationship between Julius Caesar and Pompey and he later defeated Maximian in 310 CE. This eventually led to the inevitable conflict between Constantine and Maxentius who labelled himself as an inheritor of his father’s legacy.


Before Constantine marched into Italy with his legions in Gaul, he secured an alliance with Licinius who was also struggling for power and control in the East. It was also in this period that Constantine began to emphasise his special relationship with Sol Invictus (the Sun God). However, it was the Christian God who gave Constantine the inspiration and spiritual guidance to defeat Maxentius the night before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Constantine defeated the forces of Maxentius and the leader himself was drowned in the Tiber river. The two best sources that reported the battle and Constantine’s divine revelation were Lactantius and Eusebius. Both historians had a private personal connection with the emperor in their lives and Eusebius himself even claimed that he heard Constantine recited this divine revelation to him at the imperial court. Eusebius reported that ‘about midday, when the day was already on the wane, he said he saw with his very eyes the victorious cross composed of light situated above the sun and linked to it the writing: by this conquer!’ Eusebius wrote it was the sign of the cross and the words ‘by this conquer’ that gave Constantine divine intervention and he later asked his troops to draw the sign of the cross on their shields and the words ‘by this conquer’ on their banners. Eusebius believed it was this divine revelation that helped Constantine to defeat Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. Meanwhile, Lactantius reported that Constantine was visited by the Christian God in his dream before the battle and was told to place Greek letters Chi and Rho on his legions’ shields. Chi and Rho symbolised the first two Greek letters that spelt Christ’s name in Greek. In conclusion, both sources gave Christianity and the Christian God the ultimate credibility on helping Constantine to defeat Maxentius in 312 AD.


Mosaic image of Constantine
Mosaic image of Constantine

After defeating Maxentius in the west, Constantine issued the famous Edict of Milan with his eastern counterpart Licinius in 313 CE, which gave Christianity the freedom of religion. Before the issue of the Edict of Milan, Christianity had always been considered by the Romans as a religion against the Roman virtue and mais maorum (the customs of our ancestors). Christianity was often considered as a religion that ignored the traditional Roman ancestral cults and sacrifices and the power of Christian exclusivism was detested by many. Many influential Roman politicians believed that the conflict and struggle between Romanitas (Roman qualities) and Christianity was inevitable and this particular belief gave them the legitimacy of persecution. There were severe Christian persecutions under the reign of Nero (54-68 CE), Septimus Severus (193-211 CE), Decius (249-251 CE) and Valerian (253-259 CE). The most severe persecution of Christians and Christianity came under the reign of Diocletian (284-305 CE), in which many churches in Nicomedia and other parts of the Roman Empire were demolished. By issuing the Edict of Milan, Constantine gave Christians the freedom to preach their religion and also allowed Christians to serve in public offices of Rome. This policy eventually led to the rise in the number of Christian senators who served in public office. In Lactantius’ report of the Edict of Milan, he wrote that ‘it is our view that opportunity of worship should not be denied to anyone who wishes to devote himself to the observance of Christians or to that religion which he feels most suited to him, in order that the Supreme Divinity, whose worship we follow with free hearts, should in all things afford us his favour and goodwill.’ After the issue of the Edict of Milan, the persecutions of Christianity were all terminated.


The defeat of Maxentius in 312 CE secured Constantine’s dominant position. However, for an ambitious monarch like Constantine, his aspiration was to bring the whole Roman world under his control by unifying the empire. And Licinius clearly was his last obstacle. Conflicts also arose between the two Augusti over the issues of succession and the reformation of the Tetrarchy. The use of propaganda had always been considered as an effective way to damage the reputation and public image of one’s political rival in Roman history. Augustus successfully portrayed Mark Antony as a degraded Roman who was under the control and manipulation of Cleopatra. Constantine also utilised on propaganda to achieve his political objectives. By defeating Maxentius, he labelled himself as the liberator of the res publica (republic) and portrayed Maxentius’ regime as a tyranny. This propaganda helped Constantine to consolidate his position in the west. He also used propaganda to label Licinius as a persecutor of the Christian faith and this gave him the legitimacy to attack Licinius’ dominion in the east. After the Battle of Milvian Bridge, he successfully labelled himself as the defender and benefactor of Christianity. Constantine eventually defeated Licinius in 324 AD and secured the ultimate domination of the Roman world. Another significant contribution made by Constantine for Christianity was the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. This council eventually determined the Nicene Creed which is of fundamental importance for Christianity. Socrates reported in his ‘History of the Church’ that ‘We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, God from God, the only-begotten Son. We believe also in one Holy Spirit.’ This was the famous Trinity principle adopted by later Christians.


Many scholars view the relationship between Constantine and Christianity as a gradual integration. He was certainly not born as a Christian but he eventually became a Christian. It was a gradual transformation which the emperor himself later admitted. After the Battle of Milvian Bridge, he publicly presented himself as a generous benefactor and also a determined defender of the faith. It was only a few days before his death in 337 AD that he received baptism from Eusebius on his death bed. It was unquestionable that the emperor was a devoted friend of the Christian faith and it was under his legacy that Christianity eventually became the dominant religion in Rome and beyond.


Sources

Fig. 1 By I, Jean-Christophe BENOIST, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2535488

Fig. 2 By Byzantine mosaicist, ca. 1000 - The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=148609

The Ecclesiastical History - Loeb Classical Library Eusebius, J. E. L Oulton Hardback (01 Jul 1989) | English,Greek, Ancient (to 1453) Eusebius, HE 9.1-9.a1

Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died, Addressed to Donatus

Lactantius PublisherCreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (25 Jun. 2015)

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