- Born on 27th February 272AD -
A lot has been written about the importance of this Emperor and his effect on the Roman Empire and the Christian religion, amongst other areas. Was he the key to the spread of Christianity or did he use it to help him control his Empire?
Constantine the Great, or Falvius Valerius Aurelius Constantius Augustus, to give him his full Latin name, was born on 27thFebruary c272AD in the city of Naissus, part of the Dardania province of Moesia in what is now Nis, Serbia. His father was a senior Roman Army officer.and emerged as a key man in Emperor Diocletian’s reorganisation of the Empire into East and West in 285AD. In 293 further changes were made and the Empire was further divided into smaller units under Caesars (Junior Emperors) who were responsible to their Augustus or Senior Emperor. The young Constantine received an education in Diocletian’s court learning among other things Greek and philosophy. He was also witness to the anti-Christian leanings of the Emperor.
Gradually working his way up through the ranks Constantine was called West to serve under his father in Britannia. He served for year under him near Hadrian’s Wall and his father became Augustus after the resignation of Diocletian only to die a year later in Eboracum, York, in 306ADand Constantine was declared Augustusin succession.
Eusebius, one of Constantine’s biographers who was widely regarded Roman historian and Bishop, tells the story of Constantine praying about how to defeat one of his enemies for the unified lands, Maxentius. He claims he saw a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, with the inscription, Conquer By This. To whom Constantine was praying is not clear at all but both he and his army were struck by this. In his sleep that night the Christ of God appeared to him with the same sign, telling him to make a likeness of that same sign.
The soldiers were reluctant to do so as the sign of the cross wwas still very much associated with the punishment meted out to slaves. However they put this sign of the cross on their Labarum, standard, and went into battle against Maxentius in Rome. The enemy army was defeated and the city captured. Constantine was declared Emperor of the West. He went on to unify the two Empires by 324AD and set about restructuring the government separating the military and civil authorities. He also introduced a new gold coin, Solidus,that was the backbone for currency for nearly a thousand years.
Constantine was the first Emperor to claim conversion to Christianity and to adopt a tolerance of Christians that was to allow it to spread and flourish. It is quite possible that he feared that disputes over religion would cause disorder within the empire whereas a unified religion would bring unity, structure and a particular place for him within this order. He ordered a church to be built on the site was Christ was purported to have been buried in Jerusalem, known as Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is now one of, if not the, most holy sites in the Christian world.
The Council of Nicea in 325 helped to structure this idea. It led to what is known as the Nicene Creedabout beliefs and tried to resolve the thorny issue of the exact nature of the son to the father with the words, “God from True God…from the Father…not made.” In other words Christ was homoousia – one substance with the Father.
It is not true however that this council created the Bible as we know it. This happened later in Catharge in 397 and beyond. However there were 21 books that were acknowledged as being pivotal to the Bible – the Gospels, Acts and Revelation among them – but this was also the case before Constantine.
We also know that Constantine was tolerant of Paganism and indeed may have wanted to support it as many of his subjects will have followed the various Gods and Goddesses. For example he retained the pagan title of Pontifex Maximus to retain popularity and set aside the 25thDecember as the birthday of the Pagan Unconquered Sun God. He founded the great City of Constantinople in 324 (although it was not dedicated until 330) as his new headquarters in the East. This city was built on the old City of Byzantium and included an impressive arch that depicted a number of Pagan Gods, including Victoria, the goddess of attainment but no Christian imagery.
Interestingly some historians claim that Constantine was actually converted fully to Christianity on his deathbed. He was saddened by the execution of his eldest son, Crispus that he had ordered at the bequest of his wife and Crispus’ step-mother Fausta. She was said to be extremely jealous of him and wanted her own children to take over. Enlightened that one man could take away all his sins he became a convert to the meaning of the word “Gospel”. He was baptised by Eusebius in Nicomedia possibly to be absolved from as much sin as possible and died on 22 May 337. He was then taken to Constantinople to be buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles. He was succeeded, ironically enough, by his three sons born of Fausta, who herself was killed at the behest of his mother, Helena, by being left in an overheated bath.
So Constantine – an arch political operator – using religion as the glue to hold a disparate empire together or a true Christian? The answer probably lies somewhere between the two but his legacy endures and his name is remembered nearly 2000 years later.