The emperor Constantine has been called the most important emperor of the late antiquity. The many great events of his reign laid foundations that would affect the future of Europe and Western Civilization for centuries to come. His recognition and support of Christianity was one of the most important moments in world history. Moving the government of the Roman Empire to Constantinople and founding ?New Rome? was one of the most significant decisions ever made by a Roman ruler. Ten emperors who reigned after Constantine took his name. This is just one more indication of his importance in history and the honor in which he was held by his people.
The one known as the emperor Constantine was born Flavius Valerius Constantinus in Naissus, a town in Serbia, on February 27 probably sometime in the 270?s CE. His mother was a woman of humble background named Helena who would later become a Christian. Because of her good works, she was made a Christian saint after her death. Constantine?s father was a career military officer named Constantius. Constantine was married at least twice and had four sons: Crispus, Constantine II, Constantius, Constans.
Constantius, his father, was in charge of the Roman Province of Britannia. When Constantius died at York in 306 CE, Constantine, who was at his side, was immediately proclaimed emperor by the army. However, it took many years of political struggle and actual civil war before he could consolidate his power. Constantine finally became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire in 323 CE when he defeated the eastern Emperor Licinius.
Of Constantine?s major accomplishments, the most important was his recognition of the Christianity. In 311 CE, he ordered the end of the persecution of Christians. On October 28, 312 CE, Constantine faced one of his greatest battles as he tried to consolidate his power. He was greatly outnumbered by the forces of Maxentius, who also wanted to be emperor. In a dream the night before the battle, Constantine saw the initials for the name of Christ as well as the cross and was told, ?By this sign you will conquer.? The next morning, he had the initials painted on his helmet and ordered them to be painted on the shields of all his soldiers. Constantine?s forces won the day and he credited the Christian God with the victory. He was closer to his goal of absolute power as sole emperor of Rome was now, for all practical purposes, a Christian.
In 313 CE, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan which allowed full freedom for Christians to practice their faith. The edict made Christianity equal to the religion of the Roman Empire. The Edict of Milan also ordered the return of all church and personal property that had been taken during past persecutions of Christians. Constantine now gave imperial property to the church including the Lateran in Rome. On this site, one of the great cathedrals of Rome, St. John Lateran, still stands today.
Constantine not only recognized Christianity but made many contributions and enacted laws that helped it spread. He also became involved in Christianity. He felt that, as emperor, he had a responsibility to help and protect the faith. He also believed that all Christians should have the same beliefs. These concerns led to another of Constantine?s great accomplishments, the Council of Nicea in 325 CE. The Council produced a statement of Christian faith known as the Nicene Creed. The creed defined the beliefs about Jesus for all Christians. It said that Jesus was not created by God but actually was God. There were some who did not accept these beliefs about Jesus. This disagreement was the beginning of what eventually would becomde a split in Christianity between the western church and the eastern or Orthodox church.
Constantine?s most important political accomplishment was moving the permanent capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Byzantium. He claimed that God had told him to move the capital which he renamed in his own honor as Constantinople. He also ordered the city to be rebuilt so it would be a worthy capital for the empire. The new city, which was dedicated in May of 330 CE, provided Constantine with a better location for ruling the empire. The new capital gave him easy access to the Balkan provinces and to the eastern frontier and controlled traffic through the Bosporus, the strait that separates the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. Constantine also believed the move to Constantinople would help economic development in the Empire. The move left Rome as one of the wealthiest and greatest cities of the world and the capital of the western empire.
Constantine was a conqueror who was very popular with the army because he had been an officer and worked his way up through the ranks. The soldiers knew that their emperor understood them and what they went through. Constantine used the army to win many great victories over the Franks, the Samartians, and the Goths. His victories show that he was a master of military strategy.
Constantine?s strong support of Christianity and the church can also be seen as one of the great failures of his reign. Because of this support, Constantine became an influence and even a power in the church. This set a dangerous precedent that actually put Christianity under the power of the government. Once the emperor became a Christian, his involvement in the activities of the Christian church was inevitable. There would be times in the future, though, when involvement by governments and rulers in the activities of the Christian church would hurt the church?s reputation and its ability to do its work.
Another failure of his reign was also caused by Constantine?s acceptance of Christianity. It was his persecution of those who stayed faithful to the old pagan religion of Rome. When he became a Christian, Constantine turned against the pagan religion of the empire. Pagan images were removed from coins. Persecution that Christians had faced not long before were now faced by pagans. Temples were ordered closed and destroyed and those who remained pagans had their property taken away.
Constantine was not a good financial leader. He spent a great deal of money on his special projects and on his supporters. Moving the capital to Constantinople was very costly and no expense was spared in rebuilding the city to imperial standards. Unfortunately, many of the new buildings were poorly constructed which added to their cost. Constantine also spent a great deal to maintain the army and to fight the wars that kept the Empire strong and safe. Like many politicians throughout history, Constantine generously rewarded his friends and supporters. To pay for everything, he used money that had been confiscated from pagan temples and enacted new taxes that were oppressive.
Constantine?s new and oppressive taxes and other laws he enacted could also be considered part of his failure. Constantine struggled and fought to be sole emperor. Once he had this power, he did whatever was necessary to keep it. He enacted laws that would help him do this and those who disobeyed these laws and threatened Constantine and his power were severely punished by confiscation of property, banishment, and even death. While it was very good to be one of the emperor?s friends and many of his friends were richly rewarded, the emperor?s enemies were not so fortunate.
Some say that Constantine was successful because he had three sons and was able to leave the empire to them as his successors. Unfortunately, this was a political and personal failure for Constantine because he did not make any plans or name anyone to be emperor after him. Constantine actually had four sons. His eldest son, Crispus, was murdered by order of the Emperor. Constantine believed Crispus was involved with his own wife, Fausta. He also ordered Fausta murdered. When Constantine died, and after more political murders, his remaining sons took power and divided the empire: Constantine II ruled in the west, Constantius in the east, and Constans in the middle ground of Italy, Syria, and Africa. Rome was no longer unified under one government.
Shortly before Constantine died he was baptized and officially became a Christian. He waited until just before he died because he had hoped to be baptized in the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized. This never happened. He may also have believed that some of what he had to do as Emperor was considered wrong or sinful by Christians. By waiting to be baptized, he believed that all his sins would be forgiven. Constantine died on May 22, 337 CE was buried at Constantinople in the Church of the Apostles. Statues of the twelve Apostles stood around his tomb, six on each side. Constantine believed that he was also an Apostle because he had used his life and his office as emperor to spread the Christian faith.
Overall Constantine was a successful emperor who did many good things. Most important was his relationship to Christianity. With the Edict of Milan, he made Christianity the major religion of the empire and began a time of amazing growth for the faith. He made many gifts of land and money to build churches and support the leaders of the church. With his support of the Council of Nicea, he helped to define what Christians believed. Because of Constantine, Christianity became the major religion of the Roman Empire and of western civilization. He also moved the permanent capital of the empire from Rome to Constantinople, had many military victories that made the empire stronger, and had sons to follow him as emperor that could help keep the empire stable.
Constantine was one of the greatest of all the Roman emperors. His work, his decisions and his laws changed the Roman Empire and western civilization. Even today, the effects of his reign are felt since Christianity is still the major religion of the western world. There are very few people in history who did as much as he did and had such a major impact on the world. He was not a perfect human being and made many mistakes. His contributions, though, were much more important than his mistakes.
?Constantine and the Gradual Decline of Rome.? 15 November 1999.
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