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Constantine I the Great

(27 February 280 - 22 May 337 CE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Constantine I the Great
Names

Gaius Flavius Valerius Constantinus

Ruled as

Imperator Caesar Flavius Constantinus Pius Felix Invictus Augustus

Reign

25 July 306 – 22 May 337 CE

Born

27 February 280 CE

Died

22 May 337 CE

Coin of Constantine I

Constantine I was born on February 27, around 280 CE, in the Roman province of Moesia Superior in the city of Naissus, today’s Serbian Niš.
A great reformer and at the same time an emperor who was baptized. He was the son of Emperor Constantius I Chlorus, co-ruler of Maximian in the western part of the empire, and of Helen. He was called by his contemporaries: Constantine I (among Western Christians), Constantine the Great or Saint Constantine (among Eastern-Orthodox Christians).

Youth

As a well-born child with great prospects, he received a thorough and extensive education. He learned to express himself perfectly in Greek and Latin and was very well versed in philosophy. He served in the Diocletian court in Nicomedia. In 306 CE, young Constantine left the court of Galerius in Nicodemia to join his father, who was planning a campaign against the Picts in today’s Scotland. He met him at Gesoriacum in northern Gaul.
The unexpected death of Father Constantine on June 25, 306 at Eburakum caused unrest in the British army. The soldiers of the beloved commander and commander showed loyalty to his son, calling him successor and august of the western part of the empire. This event was a contradiction of the stabilized and confirmed tetrarchy in 305 CE, because the successor or Caesar could only be appointed by Augustus, who was Constantius. Constantine, realizing the not entirely legal power, asked Augustus in the east, Galerius, to recognize him as his father’s successor. However, Galerius guaranteed him only the title of Caesar of the West, and he named Augustus Severus II.

As the new lord of Gaul and Britain, he left the island and crossed the mainland to face the Franks in 306 CE, who wanted to take advantage of the fragile domestic situation of the empire. Their troops, however, were quickly routed and pushed across the Rhine, and the kings of the Franks: Askaris and Merogaises were captured, which proved Constantine’s outstanding military skills. The young commander, in order to tame the barbarians, led another campaign the same year, this time against the Brukters, on today’s German-Dutch border. The quick and well-conducted action allowed him to achieve another extraordinary victory. All fighting in this region was fought until the beginning of 307 CE, when Constantine was recalled from the Rhine and had to take one side in the internal conflict.

Constantine made every effort to remain neutral and not take sides. In the spring of 307 CE he was visited by the former Augustus of the western part of the country, Maximian, the father of the self-proclaimed Caesar in Rome, Maxentius. On his behalf, he made an alliance offer against Severus and Galerius. Under it, Constantinemarried Maximin’s daughter Fausta and was awarded the title of Augustus. However, the newly received rank ceased to apply as early as 308 CE, when the Diocletian, Maximin and Galerius conferences took place in Carnuntum on the Danube. There, Maksymin was forced to abdicate and pledged not to try to gain power once again.
In 309 CE, Constantine set off on an expedition across the Rhine against the Franks, but the unexpected, another usurpation of Maximino in the city of Arelate, in the south of Gaul, forced him to react. At the head of the army, he headed south to Masilia (Massilia) where he managed to capture the city and capture Maximinus. The one, hungry for power, planned the murder of Constantine, which, however, was avoided in advance. Maksymin, as a provocateur, was killed.

Bronze statue of Constantine in York, England, near the place where he was proclaimed emperor in 306 CE.
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

Immediately after the events in southern Gaul, he set off north in order to eliminate the threat posed by the Germans, which, however, turned out to be false. Instead, he went to the temple of an old Celtic deity. There, in 310 CE, according to reports, the god himself was to appear to him.

Civil war

Political weakness and hostility of the Roman people to Maxentius in Rome encouraged Constantine to enter into an alliance with Licinius, the emperor of North Africa, and to eliminate an inconvenient rival. In the spring of 312 CE he crossed the Alps at the head of his army and launched an offensive against Italy. He quickly took the northern territories of the Apennine Peninsula and defeated Maxentius in the battles of Turin and Verona. After these victories he headed for Rome, where he finally defeated his rival near the walls of the capital in the battle of the Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312 CE. Legend has it that before the battle, Constantine had a dream in which a burning cross appeared to him and the inscription “under this sign you will win” (In hoc signo vinces). In the morning before the battle, he had a vision in which he saw the mark which he should have painted on the shields of his soldiers. The battle itself, however, had a decisive influence on the shape of the entire state.

The day after the battle, Constantine ceremoniously entered the capital, greeted enthusiastically by the population and the Senate. He received the title of Maximus Augustus (“The Greatest Augustus”) from the Senate, which made him formally the head of state. He stayed in the city for only three months, during which he carried out many reforms and introduced many new laws. For example, he disbanded the praetorian cohorts, a unit that was for nearly 300 years the motive deciding the fate of the rulers of the empire many times. In addition, he published an edict stigmatizing the informers in the country who had a bad influence on relations within the country.

Contemporary bronze head of Constantine.
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

In February 313 CE in Milan there was a meeting between Constantine and Licinius, who wanted to agree on a further policy and conclude an alliance. It was agreed that after defeating the remaining ruler in the east, Maximinus Daji, both would divide the state in two: what was west of Italy was to fall to Constantine, and to the east to Licinius, Italy in turn was to be under their common rule. Meanwhile Licinius married Constantine’s half-sister, Constance, who had been his fiancée for three years. The most important event, however, was the announcement in June at the convention of the Edict of Milan giving freedom to Christians and other cults of all kinds. This year ends an era of persecution of Christianity by the state, which lasted intermittently for almost 250 years, and opens a period of what was said to be “blessed religious peace.” However, as it turned out, this document contributed to the outbreak of violent conflicts between Christians and pagans, mainly on the material background. Many monuments and sculptures fell to the ground, and many temples were ruined. Religious fanaticism was born. Paradoxically, the promise of tolerance brought a further period of persecution, this time, however, at the hands of Christians. Surely, in summary, this event was a step towards the establishment of the Christian faith as the official religion in the Roman state.
Immediately after meeting Licinius, Constantine traveled to Trier, Gaul, where he was legislating, fending off attacks by the Franks, and dealing with violent disputes in the Christian Church in Africa.

Since the power in the state was in the hands of only Constantine and Licinius, i.e. after the defeat of Maximinus II Daja in 313 CE, the situation between the two rulers began to deteriorate.
The unbridled suspicion of both rulers eventually led to a civil war, the timing of which is not precisely defined, as it could have been either 314 CE or 316 CE. A great battle took place on October 8 in Pannonia, in what is now Yugoslavia. It was the Battle of Cibalae in which Constantine gained the advantage by forcing Licinius to withdraw. They fought once again in Thrace, where Constantine was the winner this time.

Baths built for Constantine in Trier. They were 100 meters wide and 200 meters long.
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

The symbol that Constantine was supposed to put on the shields of his soldiers.
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

Ultimately, a peace was concluded, under which all the Illyrian (i.e. Balkan) provinces, with the exception of Thrace and Moesia, were in the hands of Constantine. In CE 315, Constantine celebrated the tenth anniversary of his reign in Rome, in honor of which Arch of Constantine the Great and together with Licinius he was a consulate.

In September he left the city and went to Milan and then to Trier. He stayed there until the fall of 316 CE. In Arelate, his wife Faust gave him a son, Constantine II (the Younger). Later, the emperor went to the Balkan provinces and stood in Serdyce, where there were further fights with Licinius. As a result, Constantine obtained acquisitions in Western Thrace. It was in Serdyce on March 1, 317 CE that the emperor established a new system of co-ordinates. His two sons were elevated to the rank of Caesars: Crispus (age-old) and Constantine II (several months old) and the son of Licinius: Licinian (age-old). Constantine stayed in the Balkans until 324 CE, and the time he spent there devoted mainly to administrative and legislative activities. During this time, nearly 150 legal acts were created concerning the administration of justice, property law, civil law, criminal law and administrative procedure.

Self reign

Constantine the Great, mosaic in Hagia Sophia.

Licinius’ troubles with Christians in his part of his rule and Constantine’s zealous pro-Christianity led to another civil war in the spring of CE 324. One of the bloodiest skirmishes took place on July 3 in the Battle of Adrianople. The defeated Licinius retreated to Byzantium, then escaped to the Asian coast. Another and final battle was fought there, the battle of Chrysopolis, which determined the conquest of the empire by Constantine.

After defeating the last rival, Constantine ordered to rebuild the destroyed Byzantium and renamed the city to New Rome (Nova Roma). The city introduced the Senate and all civil servants modeled on Rome. The new Byzantium was four times larger, moreover, more decorated and more beautiful. In order to increase the city’s population, Constantine introduced many concessions to the inhabitants, and released the city’s territory from burdens and tributes. After his death, the city was called Constantinople.

It is worth adding on the side that praised by Christian sources (baptized) Emperor Constantine the Great in 326 CE ordered to kill his own wife – Fausta. The cause of her death has been interpreted in various ways; either as a result of the eldest son’s (Crispus) rivalry for power, which Faustus supported, or as a consequence of the adultery of the emperor’s wife, probably with the said Crispus. Faust was strangled in an overheated bathhouse.
The emperor ordered damnatio memoriae to his wife, so we do not have sources from that time describing her fate. Interestingly, her sons, when they assumed power after Constantine’s death, did not invalidate this ordinance.

Death

The last years of the ruler’s life were not the most peaceful. The most problematic for him was the eastern territories where there were internal conflicts: the famine riots in Syria, the self-proclaimed man in Cyprus, and external: strained relations with the Persians. Constantine, however, counteracted the problems with all his strength and tried to strengthen the state.

Unexpectedly, the emperor felt bad. He moved to a bathing resort near Constantinople, then to Bithynia, and eventually to the suburbs of Nicomedia. There, just before his death, he received from the local bishop, Eusebius, baptism. He died on May 22, 337 CE.

Summary

Constantine I was nicknamed “the Great” by Christian historians long after his death for his contribution to the profession of Christ. However, this nickname can also be given to him for victories in battles with Franks and Alamns in 306-308, Franks in 313-314, Goths in 332 and Sarmatians in 332 CE. Moreover, Constantine managed to regain in 336 CE most of the lost in 271 years by the Aurelian Province of Dacia. The military successes of the emperor should not be underestimated either.

Before his death, Constantine planned a great expedition against the Persians to end the threat on the eastern frontiers of the Empire. Moreover, Constantine (31 years old – including co-rule) was the longest-reigning emperor since Octavian Augustus. During his reign, the trend returned to a clean-shaven face, which persisted in Byzantium until the 7th century.

Sources
  • Kozłowski Jakub, O wizji Konstantyna uwag kilka, "Histmag", 23 February 2009
  • Krawczuk Aleksander, Konstantyn Wielki, Warszawa 1987
  • Krawczuk Aleksander, Poczet cesarzy rzymskich, Warszawa 2004
  • Ziółkowski Adam, Wizja Konstantyna. Reinterpretacja, "VOX PATRUM 3", 1984, s. 200-215

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