Today we celebrate the birth of Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus, better known as Constantine the Great or Saint Constantine. Constantine was a ruler of major historical importance. He has always been a controversial figure since there are no surviving histories or biographies dealing with Constantine’s life and rule. The closest text comes in the period of Eusebius of Caesarea’s Vita Constantini written between 335 and 339 AD.
On 27 February 272 AD, Flavius Valerius Constantinus, as he was originally named, was born to an Illyrian family. It was in the city of Naissus, part of the Dardania province of Moesia, that the Roman Empire would unknowingly change forever.
The boy’s father was Flavius Constantius, a native of Dardania province of Moesia. Constantius, as he was referred to, was an officer in Emperor Aurelian‘s Imperial Bodyguard. This respected position kept Constantius always on the move, so Constantine saw very little of his father. Constantius advanced through the ranks, earning the Governorship of Dalmatia from Emperor Diocletian in 284 or 285 AD.
Constantine’s mother was Helena, a Bithynian/Thracian woman who is often referenced as a stable-maid. It is uncertain whether she was legally married to Constantius or if it was simply a common law marriage. Historians have said Helena met Constantius as he served in the Asia Minor. They were said to both be wearing identical silver bracelets as they met, which made Constantius believe Helena was a god-given gift to him. What is known for certain is that Helena would be a wonderful mother to Constantine, and would hold a position of influence throughout her son’s life.
In 288 AD, Maximian appointed Constantius to serve in Gaul as his Praetorian Prefect. Constantius left Helena to marry Maximian’s stepdaughter in 288 or 289 AD. Diocletian had again divided the Empire in 293 AD, thus appointing two Caesars to rule over further subdivisions of East and West. Each would be subordinate to their respective Augustus but would act with supreme authority in his assigned lands. This system would later be called the Tetrarchy. Diocletian’s first appointee for the office of Caesar was Constantius.
On 1 March, Constantius was promoted to the office of Caesar, and dispatched to fight the rebels Carausius and Allectus. In spite of the political philosophy which holds that power should be vested in individuals almost exclusively according to merit, the Tetrarchy retained vestiges of hereditary privilege. This made Constantine the prime candidate for future appointment as Caesar as soon as his father took the position. Thus Constantine went to the court of Diocletian, where he lived as his father’s presumptive heir.
In the East, at Diocletian’s court, Constantine received a formal education of Latin literature, Greek, and philosophy. He may have attended the lectures of Lactantius, a Christian scholar of Latin in the city. Because Diocletian did not completely trust Constantius, none of the Tetrarchs fully trusted each other, Constantine was held as something of a hostage to ensure Constantius’s best behavior. Constantine was nonetheless a prominent member of the court. Constantine fought for Diocletian and Galerius in Asia, and served in a variety of offices. He campaigned against barbarians on the Danube (296 AD), fought the Persians under Diocletian in Syria (297 AD), and under Galerius in Mesopotamia (298–99 AD).
By late 305 AD, Constantine had become a Tribunus Ordinis Primi, or Tribune of the First Order. Constantine had returned to Nicomedia from the Eastern Front by the spring of 303 AD. He was witness to the beginnings of Diocletian’s “Great Persecution”, the most severe persecution of Christians in Roman history. It is unlikely that Constantine played any role in the persecution. In his later writings he would attempt to present himself as an opponent of Diocletian’s bloody violence against the “worshippers of God”.
In the West, Constantine recognized the danger in remaining at Galerius’s court as a virtual hostage. His career depended on returning to his father in the West. Constantius was quick to intervene. In the late spring or early summer of 305 AD, Constantius requested leave for his son to help him campaign in Britannia.
After a long evening of drinking, Galerius granted the request. Constantine later described how he fled the court in the night, before Galerius could change his mind, riding from post-house to post-house at high speed till he wore out each horse. When Galerius finally awoke, Constantine had covered too much ground to be caught. Just as planned Constantine joined his father in Gaul, at Bononia before the summer of 305 AD.
From Bononia they crossed the Channel to Britannia and made their way to Eboracum. This was the capital of the province of Britannia Secunda, as well as home to a large military base. Constantine spent a year by his father’s side, campaigning against the Picts beyond Hadrian’s Wall. Constantius’s campaign, like that of Septimius Severus before him, advanced far into the north but achieved very little for the Empire.
Over the course of his reign Constantius had become severely sick, and died on 25 July 306 AD in Eboracum. Before dying, Constantius declared his support for Constantine raising his son to the rank of full Augustus. The Alamannic King Chrocus then proclaimed Constantine as Augustus. The troops loyal to Constantius’s memory followed him in acclamation, in typical fashion. Gaul and Britannia, areas ruled by Constantius, quickly accepted Constantine’s rule.
Constantine sent Galerius an official notice of his father’s death and his own acclamation to Augustus. Along with the notice, Constantine sent a portrait of himself in the robes of an Augustus. Constantine requested recognition as heir to his father’s throne, and passed off responsibility for his unlawful ascension on his army, claiming it had been forced upon him. Galerius was put into a fury by the portrait and message.
His advisers calmed him, and argued that outright denial of Constantine’s claims would mean certain war. Galerius compromised by granting Constantine the title Caesar rather than Augustus. Wishing to make it clear that he alone gave Constantine legitimacy, Galerius personally sent Constantine the emperor’s traditional purple robes. Constantine accepted knowing that the decision of Galerius would remove doubts as to his own legitimacy.
Constantine’s share of the Empire consisted of Britannia, Gaul, and Hispania; therefore commanding one of the largest Roman armies. After his promotion Constantine remained in Britannia, driving back the tribes of the Picts and secured control in the northwestern dioceses. He completed the reconstruction of military bases begun under his father’s rule, and ordered the repair of the region’s roadways.
Following Galerius’s recognition of Constantine as Caesar, Constantine’s portrait was brought to Rome, as was customary. Maxentius mocked the portrait’s subject as the son of a harlot, and lamented his own powerlessness. Maxentius, envious of Constantine’s authority, seized the title of Emperor on 28 October 306 AD. Galerius refused to recognize him, but failed to unseat him. Galerius sent Severus against Maxentius. During the campaign, however, Severus’s armies defected, and Severus was seized and imprisoned.
Maximian left for Gaul to confer with Constantine in late 307 AD. He offered to marry his daughter Fausta to Constantine, and elevate him to Augusta. In return, Constantine would reaffirm the old family alliance between Maximian and Constantius, and offer support to Maxentius’s cause in Italy. Constantine accepted, and married Fausta in Trier in late summer 307 AD. Constantine now gave Maxentius his meager support, offering Maxentius political recognition.
Over the spring and summer of 307 AD, Constantine left Gaul for Britannia to avoid any involvement in the Italian conflict. To further distance himself from the Italian turmoil, Constantine sent his troops against Germanic tribes along the Rhine. In 308 AD, he raided the territory of the Bructeri and made a bridge across the Rhine at Colonia Agrippinensium.
When not campaigning, he toured his lands advertising his benevolence, and supporting the economy and the arts. His refusal to participate in the war increased his popularity among his people, and strengthened his power base in the West. Maximian returned to Rome in the winter of 307-308 AD, but soon fell out with his son. In early 308 AD, after a failed attempt to usurp Maxentius’s title, Maximian returned to Constantine’s court.
On 11 November 308 AD, Galerius called a general council at the military city of Carnuntum to resolve the instability in the western provinces. In attendance were Diocletian, Galerius, and Maximian. Maximian was forced to abdicate again and Constantine was again demoted to Caesar. Licinius, one of Galerius’s old military companions, was appointed Augustus of the West. The new system did not last long for Constantine refused to accept the demotion, and continued to style himself as Augustus on his coinage.
In 310 AD, Constantine marched to the northern Rhine and fought the Franks. The Frankish kings and their soldiers were fed to the beasts of Trier’s amphitheater in the adventus celebrations that followed. It was now that a dispossessed Maximian rebelled against Constantine while Constantine was away campaigning against the Franks. Maximian announced that Constantine was dead, and took up the Imperial Purple. In spite of a large pledge to any who would support him as emperor, most of Constantine’s army remained loyal him, thus causing Maximian to leave.
Constantine soon heard of the rebellion, abandoned his campaign against the Franks, and marched his army up the Rhine. Maximian fled to Massilia to withstand a long siege but it made little difference, however, as loyal citizens opened the rear gates to Constantine. Maximian was captured and reproved for his crimes.
Some clemency was granted by Constantine, but Maximian was strongly encouraged suicide. It was July 310 AD when Maximian hanged himself. Along with using propaganda, Constantine instituted a damnatio memoriae on Maximian, destroying all inscriptions referring to him and eliminating any public work bearing his image.
The death of Maximian required a shift in Constantine’s public image. He could no longer rely on his connection to the elder emperor Maximian for legitimacy. Breaking away, Constantine focused on his ancestral choice to rule, rather than principles of imperial equality. Constantine was said to have experienced a divine vision of Apollo and Victory granting him laurel wreaths of health and a long reign. This religious shift is paralleled by a similar shift in Constantine’s coinage. In his early reign, the coinage of Constantine advertised Mars as his patron. From 310 AD on Sol Invictus was seen. This proclamation strengthened Constantine’s claims to legitimacy and increased his popularity among the citizens of Gaul.
Constantine had risen like his patron Sol Invictus. The light of his strength had not yet reached its peak, but was gaining strength. Please join us tomorrow and see how Constantine was about to change the Roman Empire forever. Till then, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!