Flavius Valerius Constantinus, also known as Constantine, Constantine I, and Constantine the Great, was Roman emperor from 306 to 337 AD. He converted to Christianity in 312 CE and is known for his subsequent Christianization of the Roman Empire. He also created Constantinople, which later became the most powerful city in the world.
After almost 80 years and three generations of an unbalanced political ecosystem, Constantine united the whole Roman Empire under one ruler. If you’re a history enthusiast, keep reading as we’ll dig deep into the life events of the greatest Roman ruler, Constantine the Great.
1. Early Life of Constantine
Constantine I was born on February 27 in Naissus, Moesia. The exact year is not confirmed and according to many sources, it is somewhere between 272 and 284 AD. His father, Flavius Valerius Constantius, was a Roman army officer. There is little to no information about his mother, Helena. According to some sources, it is also unknown whether she was the wife or concubine of Constantius.
The early life of Constantine was filled with unfortunate events. Following these events, in 289, Constantine’s father left Helena and tied the knot with the stepdaughter of Maximian, the Western Roman emperor. In 293, Constantius was promoted to Deputy Emperor under Maximian, also known as Herculius. Constantine was also sent to the court of Diocletian, the Eastern Roman emperor, where he got an education in Greek and Latin and might’ve witnessed the persecution of Christians.
Constantine Took Over his Father’s Throne
In 305, when Maximian renounced his throne, Constantine’s father also became Emperor Constantius I. Constantine then joined his father and fought alongside him in a military campaign in Britain. The next year, Constantius died at Eboracum, and his son, Constantine, was declared emperor by his troops. After that, he tried to make the designation official and started his fight for power.
Constantine sent Galerius (then Roman emperor) an official notice of Constantius’s death and his acclamation. He also sent a portrait of himself in the robe of Augustus (first Roman emperor), along with the notice. He asked for recognition as an heir to his father’s throne and passed the responsibility of this action (asking for the throne) to his army, claiming that they “forced it upon him”.
Galerius Accepted Constantine’s Request
Galerius (Roman emperor from 305 to 311) was infuriated by Constantine’s message and almost set the messenger and portrait on fire. His advisers calmed him, saying that outrightly denying Constantine’s demands would mean war. He had no choice but to compromise and ultimately granted Constantine the title “Caesar” rather than “Augustus” (the latter office went to Severus instead).
He also sent Constantine the emperor’s traditional purple robe and made it clear that he alone gave Constantine legitimacy. Constantine accepted the decision, knowing that it would remove doubts regarding his legitimacy.
2. Early Rule of Constantine
Constantine’s share of the Empire consisted of Gaul, Britain, and Spain. He also commanded one of the largest Roman armies, stationed along the Rhine frontier. After his promotion to the emperor, Constantine remained in Britain and used to drive back the tribes of Picts and secure his control in the northwestern dioceses.
How Constantine Outnumbered Franks
Constantine completed the reconstruction of many military bases of his father’s rule and ordered the repair of the region’s roadways. After that, he left for Augusta Treverorum (Trier) in Gaul, the Tetrarchic capital of the northwestern Roman Empire. The Franks somehow got the knowledge about Constantine’s acclamation and invaded Gaul across the lower Rhine over the winter of AD 306–307. Constantine, called the Great for a reason, drove them back beyond the Rhine and captured Kings Merogais and Ascaris. These kings, along with their soldiers. were fed to the beasts of Trier’s amphitheater.
Constantine started a major expansion of Trier, strengthened the circuit wall around the city with fortified gates and military towers, and began the construction of a palace complex in the northeastern part of the city.
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The Projects Sponsored by Constantine
Constantine ordered the construction of a giant formal audience hall and a massive imperial bathhouse to the south of his Palace. Throughout his tenure as emperor of the West, Constantine sponsored many building projects in Gaul, especially in Arelate (Arles) and Augustodunum (Autun).
Constantine and Christianity
Constantine and Christianity go a long way. Throughout his reign, Constantine funded many church-building projects to encourage the growth of Christianity.
- Churches were erected at Trier, Rome, Jerusalem, Nicomedia (Izmit, Turkey), and Cirta (Constantine, Algeria). All of these projects were a direct or indirect result of Constantine’s patronage.
- Some of his most spectacular commissions, including the Megale Ekklesia (“Great Church”), were installed in Constantinople.
- He also supported many monumental works less confessional in character, including the Arch of Constantine in Rome.
According to Lactantius, Constantine was not a Christian but adopted a tolerant policy towards Christianity. He probably considered it a more sensible policy than open persecution and a great way to distinguish himself from the giant persecutor, Galerius. He also declared a formal end to the persecution and returned the Christian community with everything they had lost previously.
In his early propaganda, Constantine significantly relied on his father’s reputation. According to many panegyrists, his military skills and building projects are often similar to his father. A Greek historian of Christianity, Eusebius, also remarked that Constantine was a “renewal, as it were, in his person, of his father’s life and reign”.
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3. Civil Wars in the Era of Constantine the Great
By the middle of AD 310, Galerius got extremely ill and couldn’t involve himself in imperial politics. On 30 November, his final action was a letter sent to provincials, proclaiming an end to the persecutions and the resumption of religious toleration. He destroyed what was left of the tetrarchy and died soon after the edict’s proclamation.
Maximinus (Roman emperor from 235 to 238) mobilized against Licinius (Roman emperor from 308 to 324) and seized Anatolia. As a result, a hasty peace agreement was signed on a boat in the middle of the Bosphorus. At the same time, Constantine was touring Gaul and Britain, and Maxentius (Roman emperor from 306 to 312) was preparing for war. Constantine fortified Northern Italy and strengthened his position in the Christian community by allowing it to elect a new Bishop of Rome, Eusebius.
Maxenius’s Abuse of Power and War Against Constantine
Maxentius’s rule was always insecure. His early support did not stay for long, because of heightened tax rates and depressed trade. Resultantly, riots broke out in Carthage and Rome, and for a short time, Domitius Alexander illegally abused his authority in Africa. By AD 312, he became a man who was barely tolerated and not actively supported. He even lost the support of Christian Italians.
In AD 311, when Licinius was occupied with affairs in the East, Maxentius mobilized against Constantine. To avenge his father’s murder, Maxentius declared war on Constantine. To prevent Maxentius from teaming up with Licinius, Constantine partnered up with Licinius over the winter of AD 311–312 and offered him his sister Constantia in marriage. Threatened by the alliance of Constantine and Licinius, Maximinus sent ambassadors to Rome. He offered political recognition to Maxentius, in exchange for military support, which was accepted by Maxentius.
Constantine’s Army Taking Over Segusium
According to Eusebius, there was military buildup everywhere and inter-regional travel became impossible. Although Constantine’s advisers cautioned him about the preemptive attack on Maxentius, he didn’t listen to anyone and in AD 312, crossed the Cottian Alps with a quarter of his army, numbering about 40,000.
- The first town that Constantine’s army encountered was Segusium (Susa, Italy), a fortified town that shut its gates to him. Following Constantine’s order, his army set fire to the town’s gates and scaled its walls. Soon after entering the town, he ordered troops to not loot the town and guided them into Northern Italy.
- When they approached the West of the Augusta Taurinorum, (Turin, Italy), Constantine met a large number of Mexentius’s soldiers fighting on armored vehicles. He was not affected one bit and his army encircled Maxentius’ cavalry, dismounted them with several hard-hitting blows from iron-tipped clubs, and emerged victorious.
The city of Turin did not give refuge to Maxentius’s retreating forces and opened its gates to Constantine instead. After receiving congratulatory messages from other cities of the North Italian Plane, Constantine moved on to Milan, where he was welcomed with open arms and gates!! He resisted his army in Milan until the mid-summer AD 312 and then moved on to Brixia.
Edict of Milan
Shortly after the defeat of Maxentius, Constantine met Licinius at Mediolanum, to confirm various dynastic and political arrangements. A product of this meeting, known as the Edict of Milan, extended toleration to the Christian community. It also restored any corporate and personal property that had been confiscated during the persecution.
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4. Departure of Constantine the Great
Constantine fell ill in Helenopolis, planning a campaign against Persia. He was determined to head back to Constantinople but his condition worsened over time and was forced to halt his journey. He had also delayed his baptism (a Christian religious rite of sprinkling water over the forehead of a child, accompanied by name giving) but underwent the rite at that time. On May 22, 337, Constantine died in Ancyrona near Nicomedia at the age of 57. Being a great advocate of the Christian community, Constantine was buried in Constantinople, at the church of the Apostles.