Description of Emperor Constantine the Great and his times

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Emperor Constantine of RomeAncient roman leaders in chronological order and in alphabetical order:

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Emperor Constantine

In AD284 Diocletian took power and instituted a series of reforms which culminated in division of the Empire and Diocletian's sharing of power with three others, this was called the Tetrarchy. Diocletian and Maximian called themselves "Augusti" and each had a "Caesar" below him to take over. Diocletian thought this solution would ensure a greater stability for the empire as it would be extremely difficult to organise a successful coup d'etat.

This solution proved to be overly expensive, generated extra taxation and not surprisingly brought about rebellion. In great contrast with the austerity of Augustus, the emperor had become something high and mighty well above the reach of most men. The emperor would be dressed in robes of silk and gold and numerous officials were in the way before one could hope for and audience. Perhaps most significantly the emperor wore a crown - something which not even the great Caesar had dared to do.

The Christians and some other religions were persecuted partly as an excuse to confiscate wealth and partly because they were seen as being destabilising imperial authority. Diocletian's Caesar (Galerius) had a particular dislike for the Christians and as a consequence their persecution lasted a full seven years. Diocletian and Maximian eventually abdicated their thrones, as per Diocletian's plans and at the death of the Augusti who followed them the armies put aside Diocletian's system and proposed Constantine and Maxentius as Emperors.

Constantine was not only an able commander but also certain of his destiny to put order to the empire. He marched for Rome to meet Maxentius in battle and when he reached the outskirts of the city he had a vision of the Christian cross and heard the words "in hoc signo vinces" (by this sign shalt thou conquer). Eusebius tells us that "…. while he was thus praying, a most marvelous sign appeared to him from heaven. He said that about noon he saw with his own eyes a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun….". That night Constantine had a vision of Christ instructing him to use the cross as the sign of his standard in battle. The following day, October 26th 312AD, he met his rival in battle at the Milvian bridge, which he won. Constanine had thus managed to unite the whole Western half of the empire under his own rule and became sole emperor for the next 25 years.

It is an interesting anecdote that this was not Constantine's first vision: years earlier in Gaul he had had a vision of Apollo, the sun god. At any rate Constantine took the cross as his standard. Through the "edict of Milan", also known as the "edict of Christian tolerance" Constantine granted religious freedom to all citizens, including the Christians, and thus put an end to violent Christian persecution. The odd bit of anti Christian discrimination did reappear now and then but not for long.

Constantine's victory over Maxentius is remembered through a triumphal arch known as the "arch of Constantine" which still stands by the Colosseum. The arch is extremely imposing as well as interesting: by this time artistic skill was on the decline in line with economic decline of the empire and many pieces which make up part of the arch were in fact removed from other monuments.

Little by little the Christians gained increasing rights and the number of followers rose as more and more people lost faith in the old gods. Constantine saw his own authority as encompassing affairs of the church (of Christ). Constantine's edict of Milan put Christianity on an equal footing with all other legitimate religions. It did not proclaim Christianity to be the official religion of the empire although subsequent enactments favoured the Christian cult greatly: The clergy were exempt from a number of municipal duties, providing an incentive for the richer social classes to become priests and bishops. The church also benefited from regular payments from state funds and Sunday was declared as a day of rest which for the non Christians was seen as the feast of the sun god. Constantine and his family gave great sums of money so that new churches and basilicas might be built throughout the empire. Constantine also donated his own palace on the Lateran to the church and built a great basilica nearby (San Giovanni in Laterano). The extent of Constantine's secular bequeath to the church formed much of the basis for the Pope's later claim to secular power and rule during the middle ages and renaissance.

Through time different factions of the church split and fell into disagreement whether over reasons of conduct or interpretations of faith. Constantine provided a unitary influence by organising synods and councils and through these placed great pressure for common agreement to be found. It appears that in extreme situations he would resort to his civil power in order to force solutions to be found. This took on particular significance with the council of Nicaea in 325AD at which Constantine himself presided in order to heal a split in the church.

Another change of great significance followed Constantine's realisation that Rome was too far removed from some of the greatest threats of the empire which came from the East: the Persians and the barbarians north of the Danube. Moving to Constantinople also removed Constantine from the interference of the senate for which he had little regard. Byzantium was also ideally placed to control trade between East and West which would have to go through the Bosphorus. Last but not least the new capital was closer to the mass of the empire's citizens in Greece and Asia Minor and these populations were more used to bowing to their leaders.

So it was that Byzantium, or Constantinople, became the new capital of the empire and was richly adorned in line with its new standing. Sumptuous buildings and infrastructure were built in a short period of time. Most importantly Constantinople was built as a Christian city and as such had no pagan temples within it. Constantine ordered many magnificent churches to be built in it. An interesting anecdote is to be found in the church of Santa Constanza in Rome which was originally built as a mausoleum for Constantine's sister Constanza but was later adapted as a church and probably provided an architectural influence for the churches built in the East.

In order to prevent rebellions and ensure his absolute power Constantine divided the army into smaller units and the provinces into small districts therefore creating weaker units. As with Diocletian's scheme of subdividing rulership, Constantine's subdivision of political power across two cities through the creation of a new capital city was also expensive and taxes had to be raised yet further. The land near the outer borders of the empire was increasingly abandoned because barbaric raids coupled with increasing taxes made it uneconomical to care for. But to counteract this Constantine made new conquests and used the bullion to create new gold coinage - the Solidus. This and the newly found stability of the empire brought inflation to a temporary halt. Constantine also changed the administration of the empire, clearly dividing civil and military powers.

Constantine was baptised on his death bed and was followed by his sons who unfortunately were not as inspired as their father before them. They became co-emperors and eventually one of them became sole ruler until the year 361AD.

A subsequent Emperor, Julian the Apostate (Constantine's nephew) tried to reinstate the pagan gods but this was short lived and Christianity entrenched itself increasingly as the state religion. Julian was the last emperor to worship the old pagan gods.

Constantine is often referred to as the thirteenth Apostle. He claimed to have divine authority given to him directly by Christ and this was recognised by the Pope in Rome. Constantine's move from Rome to Constantinople and the unresolved demarcation between his roles as Pontifex Maximus and Emperor provided the basis for a long and hitherto unresolved split in between the Christian churches of the West and East, generally referred to as the Orthodox and Catholic churches. Constantine's building of Constantinople provided a home for Hellenistic culture and Roman legislation throughout the ages as well as ensuring protection for the West from the threat of the East, even after the fall of Rome.

Much of our modern culture, systems of education, law and philosophy has been shaped by Constantine's vision during his march on Rome.

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You might also have a look at what it was to be emperor or "imperator". A list of roman emperors.  A general look at famous romans such as scaevola "the left handed".

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"Emperor Constantine" was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for - Rome apartments