Constantine the Great

Constantine the Great (about AD274-337), Roman emperor (306-37), the

first Roman ruler to be converted to Christianity. He was the founder of
Constantinople

(present-day Istanbul), which remained the capital of the Eastern Roman
(Byzantine)

Empire until 1453.

Constantine the Great was born Flavius Valerius Constantinus at Nis, in

what is now Serbia, son of the commander Constantius Chlorus (later
Constantius I)

and Helena (later Saint Helena), a camp follower. Constantius became
co-emperor in

305. Constantine, who had shown military talent in the East, joined his
father in

Britain in 306. He was popular with the troops, who proclaimed him emperor
when

Constantius died later the same year. Over the next two decades, however,

Constantine had to fight his rivals for the throne, and he did not finally
establish

himself as sole ruler until 324.

Following the example of his father and earlier 3rd-century emperors,

Constantine in his early life was a solar henotheist, believing that the
Roman sun god,

Sol, was the visible manifestation of an invisible "Highest God",
who was the principle

behind the universe. This god was thought to be the companion of the Roman

emperor. Constantine\'s adherence to this faith is evident from his claim of
having had

a vision of the sun god in 310 while in a grove of Apollo in Gaul. In 312, on
the eve of

a battle against Maxentius, his rival in Italy, Constantine is reported to
have dreamed

that Christ appeared to him and told him to inscribe the first two letters of
his name

on the shields of his troops. The next day he is said to have seen a cross

superimposed on the sun and the words "in this sign you will be the
victor".

Constantine then defeated Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, near
Rome.

The Senate hailed the victor as savior of the Roman people. Thus,
Constantine, who

had been a pagan solar worshiper, now looked upon the Christian deity as a
bringer of

victory. Persecution of the Christians was ended, and Constantine\'s
co-emperor,

Licinius, joined him in issuing the Edict of Milan (313), which mandated
toleration of

Christians in the Roman Empire. As guardian of Constantine\'s favored
religion, the

church was then given legal rights and large financial donations.

A struggle for power soon began between Licinius and Constantine,

from which Constantine emerged in 324 as a victorious Christian champion. Now

emperor of both East and West, he began to implement important administrative

reforms. The army was reorganized, and the separation of civil and military
authority,

begun by his predecessor, Diocletian, was completed. The central government
was

run by Constantine and his council, known as the sacrum consistorium. The
Senate

was given back the powers that it had lost in the 3rd century, and new gold
coins

were issued, which remained the standard of exchange until the end of the
Byzantine

Empire.

Constantine intervened in ecclesiastical affairs to achieve unity; he

presided over the first ecumenical council of the church at Nicaea in 325. He
also

began the building of Constantinople in 326 on the site of ancient Greek
Byzantium.

The city was completed in 330 (later expanded), given Roman institutions, and

beautified by ancient Greek works of art. In addition, Constantine built
churches in

the Holy Land, where his mother (also a Christian) supposedly found the True
Cross

on which Jesus was crucified. The emperor was baptized shortly before his
death, on

May 22, 337.

Constantine the Great unified a tottering empire, reorganized the

Roman state, and set the stage for the final victory of Christianity at the
end of the

4th century. Many modern scholars accept the sincerity of his religious
conviction. His

conversion was a gradual process; at first he probably associated Christ with
the

victorious sun god. By the time of the Council of Nicaea (325), however, he
was

completely Christian, but still tolerated paganism among his subjects.
Although

criticized by his enemies as a proponent of a crude and false religion,
Constantine the

Great strengthened the Roman Empire and ensured its survival in the East. As
the first

emperor to rule in the name of Christ, he was a major figure in the
foundation of

medieval Christian Europe.

Category: Biographies