He’s called “the Great”…the first Christian emperor…and the bridge between ancient history and the Middle Ages…but whatever you want to call him, Constantine remains a legend amongst the Roman emperors of history.
And yet his path to power was not just given as birthright, but born from chaos. Civil wars, invasions, disease, corruption, and would-be emperors were everywhere in his time. It was going to take a lot of guts and a lot of glory for Constantine to unite the Roman Empire of the 4th Century and bring it out of the ancient era.
But most importantly, Constantine found himself on the edge of a leap of faith that would shape the world for years to come. We all encounter choices in our lives that affect our futures, when we don’t know where to look. But when we look at Constantine, it’s important to realize that the virtue of his Christian faith not only transformed the Roman Empire, but the ideas of freedom and morality that have perpetuated into the modern world.
This episode is brought to you by Famous Men of Rome. A collection of stories gathered from the chronicles of history and myth; it’s perfect for parents and teachers looking for a better experience for their younger students of classical history.
Prelude to Chaos
The Pax Romana, or “Roman Peace,” that started in 27 BC with the first Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus began its decline around 180 AD. Soon Rome became overwhelmed by the Crisis of the Third Century, with Germanic peoples invading Roman territory, the economy declining, plagues spreading, and a series of short-lived emperors that all failed to fix these problems.
Eventually, Emperor Diocletian attempted to quell the chaos by creating the First Tetrarchy, or “rule of four,” splitting the Roman Empire into four territories in 293. One of the four rulers of the Tetrarchy was Constantine’s father, Constantius.
Constantine was only a young man when his father became an emperor. He was born in the east and spent most of his youth as a member of Diocletian’s imperial court while his father was fighting in western wars. And it was in the east that Constantine first encountered Christianity.
Since the days of Emperor Nero, Christians had endured consistent persecution at the hands of Roman authority. Mobs, assaults, robberies, stonings, and executions were rampant.
But it’s also important to understand that, by the time of Constantine, the practice of Roman religion was on the decline. The recurring chaos of invasions and wars and crises had generally weakened the Romans’ faith in ancient gods – “gods” who were more than ever used by leaders as political vehicles for power, rather than as salvation for followers.
Constantine recognized that this was a period of moral insecurity, and that everyday Romans were looking for a release from the misery that their culture had brought on them. They just needed someone “great” to give it to them.
Collapse of the Tetrarchy
When Constantine reached ruling age he traveled to the west to command troops under his father, though their reunion was short-lived. Constantius died in 306, directly in the midst of a military campaign.
This left Constantine without a father, but not without supporters. His father’s army immediately embraced Constantine as their leader and, most importantly, self-anointed Constantine emperor of the west in his father’s place in the Tetrarchy. The problem was, Constantine wasn’t the only emperor vying for a spot in this rule of four.
Over the next 20 years, seven men would wrestle for control of the Roman Empire. These men were Galerius, Severus, Maximinus, Maximian, Maxentius, Licinius, and Constantine (say that three times fast).
Each of these men fought for their place in the Tetrarchy, and some for total rule as sole emperor, but for the purposes of our story, we’re going to focus on the rivalry of Constantine and Maxentius.
In many respects, Constantine and Maxentius were two sides of the same coin, each with fathers who had ruled in the Tetrarchy. But while Constantine was the image of patience and wisdom, Maxentius would prove to be quite the opposite.
At the time, Constantine ruled over modern-day Britain, France, and Spain. He was completely willing to bide his time in the west and allow the other Roman claimants to grow weaker by fighting each other for positions of power.
Maxentius ruled over Italy, including the city of Rome and its African territories. And through a complex series of events, the pair would soon become enemies.
Battle for the West
The father of Maxentius, Maximian, attempted to assassinate Constantine in a daring move of betrayal. This plan failed, and Maximian killed himself upon his capture. This led Maxentius to declare war on Constantine, vowing to avenge his father’s death.
But Maxentius had his own problems to deal with. A rebellion in Africa cut off a crucial supply of grain to Rome, leading to famine and protest under his rule. He also exhausted his resources with a series of massive building projects, which led him to raise taxes to even more public outcry.
Constantine realized that now was the time to strike and capitalize on popular feeling. He crossed the Alps into northern Italy with 40,000 men – no small feat – and though Maxentius’ army outnumbered his own, Constantine remained a far-superior military commander.
Rather than attack Maxentius head on, Constantine traveled town to town to whittle down the supporters of his enemy. He received a warm welcome from all the towns he conquered, each one tired of the failing rule of Maxentius, and he gained even further acclaim by forbidding his troops to plunder the place of any victory.
Moreover, Constantine had an important “ally” on his side.
The Triumph of Faith
Legend says that on the day before his decisive battle against Maxentius, Constantine received a vision from God. While marching with his army he looked into the sky and saw a shining cross of light above the sun, with writing next to it that said, “By this sign thou shalt conquer.”
This wonderful vision astonished Constantine, and he knew now what he had to do.
Many Roman rulers before Constantine had used the gods as proof of their divine right to rule, but with no regards given as to how this would affect the common man. Here, Constantine’s shift in perspective not only gave him the conviction to act for the good of himself, but for the good of all Roman people who were unable to practice their faith.
The next morning, Constantine declared himself a Christian and made the Chi-Ro his battle standard. From now on, his army would march into battle with the Christian symbol on their armor and on their shields.
The board was now set for Constantine’s divine triumph.
In the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312, Constantine crushed the forces of Maxentius once and for all. Though outnumbered, Constantine outmaneuvered Maxentius and forced the enemy soldiers backwards into a bottleneck, where Maxentius had built a temporary bridge to cross the Tiber River.
The bridge collapsed into the water under the heavy weight of retreating troops, and the enemy soldiers were all either captured or killed. Maxentius was found amongst the dead, and Constantine took total control over the Western Roman Empire.
The Edict of Milan
The remaining claimants to the Roman throne either died or were killed in separate civil wars, until finally all that remained was Constantine in the west and Licinius in the east.
In 313 the two remaining rulers agreed to a truce after so much strife, and Constantine seized this opportunity to issue the Edict of Milan. This decree officially denounced and forbade the persecution of Christianity within the Roman Empire, among many other sweeping declarations, and thus gave birth to a new era of freedom for Christians.
Soon enough Constantine and Licinius resumed their struggle for total control of the Empire, which culminated in the Battle of Chrysopolis in 324. In the end, Constantine’s military prowess gave him total victory of his final rival. He had finally reunited the two halves of the Roman Empire, east and west, and so declared himself the sole Augustus.
Constantine accomplished many other feats during his 31-year reign. He supported the Christian Church financially, constructed basilicas, promoted Christians to high office, and called the First Council of Nicaea in 325, at which the Nicene Creed was first professed by Christians.
He also accomplished the milestone of moving the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople, which still stands today as the city of Istanbul. And though the western Roman Empire would eventually collapse after Constantine’s death 337, his city – and the ideals it stood for – would endure for more than a thousand years and remain a home for Christianity.
A New Era for Christianity
But whether through architecture, infrastructure, or ideas, it’s certain that the influence of Constantine has flourished throughout history. He took a leap of faith and, upon landing, discovered he wasn’t alone. His ideas of benevolence and freedom were revolutionary for his day, and his belief allowed millions of other believers to pass on their faith through the threads of time. Perhaps Eusebius, a fourth-century Christian bishop, best describes the leadership and life of Constantine the Great.
“As the sun, when he rises upon the earth, liberally imparts his rays of light to all, so did Constantine…impart the rays of his own beneficence to all who came into his presence.”