Constantine I (the Great)


The life of the emperor Constantine I has been the subject of countless books and articles, many of which seek to place Constantine among either the "good" or the "bad" emperors. The reality of this is that it is difficult to do so with any real degree of certainty. Various authors throughout the years have written from their own perspectives, and depending on their particular views, have portrayed him as a saintly leader of the Roman people, or as a blood-thirsty tyrant, bent on using the church only to consolidate his power over the empire. The truth, as in many cases, most likely lies somewhere in between the two extremes.

The First Tetrarchy

In order to gain some understanding of Constantine, it is important to know something of the complex and often confusing times into which he was born and raised.

In AD 284, a commander of the protectores domestici (the "household cavalry") named Diocles (Diocletian) was elevated to the rank of emperor by his troops. Early in his reign, most likely around the end of 285, Diocletian appointed Maximian as Caesar, and gave him responsibility for the western part of the empire, especially for the security of the Rhine frontier. In April of 286, he elevated Maximian to the rank of Augustus, and appointed Galerius as his Caesar. He selected his own Praetorian Prefect, Constantius Chlorus to serve as Caesar under Maximian. Constantius married Theodora, the daughter (or perhaps the step-daughter) of Maximian.

This division of power did not divide the empire, but rather helped to strengthen the defense of Roman authority, as each of the four emperor's had specific responsibilities, but were not restricted by territorial boundaries. This was intended to provide greater security along the boarders of the empire, and also to provide for an orderly succession of power. It was expected that each of the Caesars would one day take over as Augustii, and would in turn appoint two new Caesars, hopefully preventing the blood-letting that had brought many of the emperors of the third century to power.

The Reforms of Diocletian

Two of the significant reforms that Diocletian initiated were increasing the size and composition of the army. He roughly doubled the number of troops and also divided them into two branches: the mobile field army (the comitatenses) and the border garrison troops (the limitanei). He also issued his famous Edict on Prices in 301, which was an attempt to curb inflation by setting maximum prices for many goods and services. It also created measures to freeze people in their occupations.

Diocletian and the persecution of the Christians

In AD 303, the Christian church in Nicomedia, on the orders of Diocletian, was torn down. The first edict of persecution was issued the next day. This edict ordered Christians to turn over their scriptures to be burned, and ordered all Christian churches to be torn down. A second edict was issued that summer, ordering the arrest of all Christian bishops. The third edict, later that year allowed imprisoned Christians to secure their release by sacrificing to pagan gods.A forth edict ordered all Christians everywhere to make sacrifices, or to face execution.

These edicts were not enforced evenly throughout the empire. While the enforcement seems to have been quite severe in the eastern part of the empire, it was less strictly followed in the areas governed by Constantius.

It was into this time of persecution that the future emperor Constantine was born.

Constantine I

Constantine I was born to Constantius Chlorus and his (possible) concubine Helena, who some historians relate was a bar-maid. The exact year of his birth is unknown, but is usually placed between AD 271 and 277.

In AD 305, Diocletian and Maximian retired to private life, and Constantius and Galerius were raised to the rank of Augustii. Two new caesars were chosen: Severus II in the west, and Maximinus II Daia in the east.

There was a great deal of tension between the four emperors, expecially between Constantius and Galerius. Constantine, who had been sent to live at the court of Diocletian (some historians make the claim that he was sent as a hostage), joined his father for a campaign against the Picts in modern day Scotland, and upon the death of Constantius in AD 306, was proclaimed Augustus by his troops.

When Galerius heard about this, he offered Constantine a compromise by allowing him to become Caesar, as the title Augustus belonged to himself. Constantine agreed to this, but the peace was not to last for long.

Constantine's rise to power

In AD 306, the Praetorian Guard, which resented their loss of power and prestige, declared the son of Maximian, Maxentius, to be emperor. Also at that time, Maximian came out of retirement to reclaim the title of Augustus. Together, they set out to wrest power from Severus who was forced to withdraw to Ravenna, where in the spring of AD 307, he surrendered to Maximian, soon after which he was forced to commit suicide. During this time, Constantine and Maximian had apparently made a pact of sorts, which kept Constantine from coming to the aid of Severus. Constantine also married Fausta, the daughter of Maximian, after putting aside his mistress Minervina, the mother of Constantine's first son Crispus.

The conference at Cartuntum

After a falling out between Maximian and Manxntius, Maximian sought refuge with Constantine while the latter was in Gaul. While Constantine agreed to provide shelter for Maximian, he was careful not to allow him any authority or power.

In the mean time, in spite of his efforts, Galerius had been unable to dislodge Maxentius from power, and in AD 307, Maxentius claimed the rank of Augustus for himself.

In 308, Diocletian emerged from retirement to attend a meeting with Maximian and Galerius at Carnuntum. Although he was invited to assume his former position of senior Augustus, Diocletian declined. He is said to have commented that he would prefer to remain at his palace and raise cabbages.

An agreement was reached among the three emperors: Maximian would return to retirement, Maxentius was declared an usurper, and Galerius appointed a new Augustus, Licinius. This, of course, did not please the two present caesars, Maximinus Daia and Constantine. They were offered the title of filius Augusti, but were soon raised, instead, to the rank of Augustii.

The struggle for power While under the protection of Constantine, Maximian made another attempt to reclaim power. In AD 310, while Constantine was busy on the Rhine frontier, Maximian seized the treasury at Arles, and once again declared himself Augustus.

Constantine swiftly moved against him, defeating him at Massilia (modern Marseilles), and forcing him to commit suicide.

There were now five left in the struggle for ultimate power: Constantine, Maxentius, Galerius, Licinius, and Maximinus Daia. The first to fall was Galerius. He died at Nicomeida, possibly of bowel cancer, in AD 311, leaving the remaining four, who were all (rightfully, most likely) suspicious of the intentions of the other three.

In AD 312, the forces of Constantine and Maxentius met in battle at the site of the famous Milvian bridge over the Tibur. His troops were routed, and many of them, including Maxentius himself, were drown in the river, leaving Constantine the sole ruler in the West.

Constantine and Licinius unite

With the defeat of Maxentius, only contenders for power were left: Maximinus at Nicomedia, Licinius at Thessalonica, and Constantine in the West.

In AD 313, Constantine and Licinius formed an alliance. Licinius was married to Constantine's half-sister Constantia. The news of this alliance was alarming to Maximinus, and he most likely believed that the two would unite against him. He set off with his army, and invaded Licinius' territories in Thrace and Macedonia, where he was soundly defeated by Licinius. Maximinus escaped and fled. He later committed suicide in Asia Minor.

The defeat of Licinius

With the death of Maximinus, Constantine assumed power in the West, and Licinius in the East. While they ruled jointly, it is likely that they both remained suspicious of each other. Licinius named a co-ruler, Valens, to assist him in fighting against Constantine, who had invaded Licinius' territory. They fought several rather inconclusive battles, after which Constantine and Licinius once again made peace between themselves. Valens was put to death, and the two emperors ruled over what was essentially two Roman empires.

The final break between the two occurred in AD 324 when Constantine was pursuing the Sarmatian army, when he crossed once again into Licinius' territory. Licinius responded by appointing Martinian his co-Augustus, and once more, civil was broke out between the two. Constantine invaded Thrace in force, and defeated the forces of Licinius, who, along with Martinian, surrendered, and agreed to abdicate. The following year, both were executed on charges of treason.

Constantine was now the sole ruler of the entire Roman Empire.


HOME

Question, comments, and corrections are always welcome. Please E-mail me