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Sunday, 13 July 2014

Constantine The Great

Constantine the Great (272-337), also known as Constantine I or Saint Constantine was the son of Flavius Valerius Constantius, a Roman army officer, and his consort Helena.

His father became Caesar, the deputy emperor in the west in 293. Constantine was sent east, where he rose through the ranks to become a military tribune under the emperors Diocletian and Galerius.

In 305, Constantius was raised to the rank of Augustus, senior western emperor, and Constantine was recalled west to campaign under his father in Britain.

Constantine married Flavia Maxima Fausta (289–326), the  daughter of the Roman Emperor Maximianus, in the summer of 307.

Empress Fausta was held in high esteem by Constantine, and proof of his favour was that in 323 she was proclaimed Augusta. However three years later Fausta died in suspicious circumstances, when she was suffocated while taking a steam bath following the execution of Crispus, Constantine's eldest son by his previous wife, Minervina, in 326.

In his early life, Constantine was a solar henotheist, believing that the Sun god, Sol, was the visible manifestation of an invisible “Highest God”, who was the principle behind the universe. This god was thought to be the companion of the Roman emperor.

Acclaimed as ruler of Britain, Gaul and Spain after his father's death on July 25, 306, Constantine was battling with Maxentius over control of the entire Roman Western Empire. He decided to settle the matter by force and on the evening before the October 28, 312 Battle of the Milvian Bridge, as he was about to cross the Alps, Constantine observed a cross of light superimposed on the sun. On it were the words “In this sign you shall conquer.” The emperor related this to the Christian God and ordered his men to go into battle with the sign of the cross painted on their shields and standards. The battle was won, Constantine’s conversion was sealed.


The day after his victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, Constantine the Great entered Rome, staged a grand adventus in the city, and was met with popular jubilation. Maxentius' body was fished out of the Tiber and beheaded.

The Arch of Constantine was completed on July 25, 315 near the Colosseum in Rome to commemorate Constantine's victory over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge.

Arch of Constantine

Constantine decreed on March 7, 321 the dies Solis Invicti (sun-day) as the day of rest in the Roman Empire.(Codex Justinianus 3.12.2):
"On the venerable day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country however persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits because it often happens that another day is not suitable for grain-sowing or vine planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost."

Coin of Emperor Constantine I depicting Sol Invictus with the legend SOLI INVICTO COMITI, c. 315. By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia Commons

Constantine I emerged victorious in a series of civil wars against the emperors Maxentius and Licinius. After the Battle of Chrysopolis, which was fought on September 18, 324 at Chrysopolis (modern Üsküdar, Turkey), between Constantine and Licinius, he became sole ruler of both the West and Eastern Roman Empires.

Constantine introduced a new gold coin, the solidus, to combat inflation. It would become the standard for Byzantine and European currencies for more than a thousand years.

In 326 Constantine's mother, Helena of Constantinople, undertook a trip to the Holy Places in Palestine. On September 14, 326 Helena discovered the True Cross (the name for physical remnants which, by a Christian tradition, are believed to be from the cross upon which Jesus was crucified) in Jerusalem. She returned to Rome, bringing with her large parts of the True Cross and other relics, which were then stored in her palace's private chapel, where they can be still seen today. Her palace was later converted into the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. This has been maintained by Cistercian monks in the monastery which has been attached to the church for centuries.

Helena of Constantinople by Cima da Conegliano

It was Constantine the Great that brought the use of scents into the Christian church. He had oils and incense burned in the church of St. John-in-Lateran, which was the home to the early Popes for thousands of years.

Marble heid o Emperor Constantine the Great, Roman, 4t century

The priests among the early Roman Christians used their everyday clothing for Mass and only gradually began to reserve more costly clothing for that use. The first recorded use of vestments in the Christian church was when Emperor Constantine (who liked to wear splendid robes himself) presented the Bishop of Jerusalem with an attractive set which compared with he best vestments of the pagan high priests.

The Emperor Constantine began the building of Constantinople in 326 on the site of the ancient Greek city of Byzantium. The city was completed in 330 (later expanded), given Roman institutions, and beautified by ancient Greek works of art. He moved the Roman capital from Rome to Constantinople.

Initially there was little change in Constantine's behavior after his conversion. He had  his wife and eldest son murdered and contained to some extent to worship the sun god. However, as time went on, he became increasingly pious, regularly attending church services, standing all the time that the bishops were preaching however long their sermons lasted.

Despite knowing little of Christian doctrine himself, Constantine was very fond of conversing with bishops about religion and in his later years he personally preached sermons, presenting them in his imperial palace before his court and invited guests.

Constantine the Great Statue in York, commissioned in 1998 and sculptured by Philip Jackson, Eboracum, York

Soon after the Feast of Easter 337, Constantine fell seriously ill. He left Constantinople for the hot baths near his mother's city of Helenopolis (Altinova), on the southern shores of the Gulf of İzmit. There, in a church his mother built in honor of Lucian the Apostle, he prayed, and there he realized that he was dying. Seeking purification, the Emperor attempted a return to Constantinople, making it only as far as a suburb of Nicomedia. Constantine summoned the bishops, and told them of his hope to be  baptized in the River Jordan, where Christ was baptized. He requested the baptism right away, promising to live a more Christian life should he live through his illness. The bishops performed the sacred ceremonies according to custom.

Constantine died soon after at a suburban villa called Achyron, on the last day of the fifty-day festival of Pentecost directly following Pascha (or Easter), on May 22, 337.

Following his death, Constantine's body was transferred to Constantinople and buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles there. He was succeeded by his three sons born of Fausta, Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans on September 9, 337. The Roman Empire was divided between the three Augusti.

Sources Wikipedia, Encarta Enyclopedia

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

    ReplyDelete