From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The head of the Colossus of Constantine.
Tomorrow is a mystery,
but yesterday is

Icon history.svg
Secrets of times gone by

Constantine I (a.k.a. Constantine the Great) (272–337 CE) was a Roman emperor in the early fourth century and depending on which historian you ask, was either a good pious Christian or a cynical power grabber. His reign of 31 years would be a major turning point for both Christianity and the entire world.


The Roman Empire had endured a series of civil wars and invasions during the 200s CE, known as the "Crisis of the Third Century." This period is generally agreed to have begun with the assassination of the emperor Septimius Alexander in 235 CE by his troops and their proclamation of Maximinius Thrax, a nearby general, as Emperor. Maximinius, first of the barracks emperors, kicked off a series of emperors whose only qualification was that their troops liked them and who could feasibly back their claims with their legions. Emperor Valerian was, in the year 260 CE, defeated at the Battle of Edessa by the Sassanian Persians and became the first emperor to be captured in battle. The Roman Empire briefly broke into three pieces before the reign of Aurelian, who brought the recalcitrant Gallic and Palmyrene Empires back into the fold and built the Aurelian Walls, the first fortifications around the city of Rome itself since the Republic. This would foreshadow the Late Imperial and Byzantine strategy that acknowledged that the borders of the Empire could not be fully garrisoned and defended, thus necessitating the fortification of key urban centers.

Map of the Roman Empire under the Tetrarchy.

The Crisis ended with the victory of Diocletian in 284 CE. Diocletian instituted a series of reforms designed to make the Empire easier to run, including the reorganization of the empire into administrative dioceses, the more autocratic rules of the dominate, and the Tetrarchy. Diocletian promoted Maximian to Augustus (the title given to Roman emperors) alongside Diocletian in 286 CE, and let Maximian essentially run everything west of Illyria (modern Croatia, Slovenia, etc.). In 293, each bestowed the title Caesar upon their intended successors. This was standard practice in the Roman world (such as during the Nervan-Antonine dynasty), but the key difference was that each Caesar was allowed semi-autonomy in their corners of the Empire. Diocletian chose Galerius as his Caesar, while Maximian chose a man named Constantius.[note 1] This period of the Roman Empire was known as the Tetrarchy, or "Rule of Four." The Tetrarchy was designed to allow the co-emperors greater ability to repel border threats and suppress rebellions. In 305, both Augusti abdicated (an unprecedented step) and were succeeded by their Caesars. [1]


As Caesar[edit]

Constantine began his reign in 306 CE after his father Constantius I died in Eboracum (now called York). He was proclaimed by his father's troops as Augustus of the Western half of the Roman Empire. This did not sit well with Galerius, the Augustus of the Eastern half of the Empire as it was already planned for another person named Valerius Severus to take the position of Augustus of the Western half of the Empire as he was already the Caesar of the Western half under Constantine's father. The issue was resolved when Galerius came up with a compromise in which he decided to "... recognize Constantine as Caesar of the West, while Severus became Augustus." [2] Constantine accepted this compromise at the time, and peace was restored to the Tetrarchy.

However, trouble soon came from yet another son of an original Tetrarch, Maximian's son Maxentius. Maxentius revolted against Severus, and Severus's army (formerly under Maximian's command) opted to join the son of their former emperor. After a brief siege, Severus was captured and killed (whether he was executed, assassinated, committed suicide, or "committed suicide" is still a matter of debate). The chaos in the West caused a new Tetrarchy to be formed with Constantine still as Caesar. However, Maxentius's rule as Augustus quickly disintegrated; the citizens of Rome became displeased both with his expensive building projects devoted to himself and his brutal suppression of a riot. Seeing his greatest rival losing his grasp on power, Constantine took 40,000 men[note 2], crossed the Alps, and invaded Italy.[3]

Milvian Bridge[edit]

God decides to meddle in politics and the world changes forever.

Constantine's forces easily overran Northern Italy where they scored two victories at Turin and Verona in the spring of 312 CE. In the autumn of 312 CE Constantine led an army of 25,000 troops to take Rome from Maxentius. On the evening of October 27, 312 CE with his army right outside of Rome, Constantine supposedly had a vision which is described by Eusebius the main historian of Constantine's reign as being "... the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, Conquer by this".[4][note 3]

Constantine ordered all his troops to paint the chi-ro (a Christian symbol of the first two letters of Christ in the Greek alphabet) on their shields before fighting Maxentius's forces. The battle itself was very short and unremarkable as far as ancient conflicts go. According to historian Ramsay MacMullen,[5]

Maxentius's troops broke before the first charge, stampeded back to the river, were slaughtered in their passage, jammed the two lines of retreat, sank the bridge of boats, and died in the water. Maxentius also...drowned. His body floated in an eddy, was noticed, and his head was cut off to decorate a pike-staff on [Constantine]'s entry into Rome.

Milvian was much more significant in its aftermath, however. Constantine would now rule the West with little more resistance than grumbling from the emperors in the East, Maximinus Daia and Licinius (who were themselves jockeying for supremacy). After his victorious procession into Rome, the Senate conferred upon Constantine the title of Maximus Augustus, or "Greatest Augustus," angering the other emperors.[6] While civil war would follow years later against Licinius, Milvian clearly established Constantine as one of the foremost members of the rapidly collapsing Tetrarchy, and also paved the way for Christian supremacy in the Empire. With the exception of Julian "the Apostate" from 355-363, every Roman emperor for the next thousand years would be Christian.

Oh, one other significant part of the battle was the last stand of our favorite perennial regicides, the Praetorian Guard. Because they had backed Maxentius, Constantine ordered their disbandment and the demolition of their barracks, the castra praetoria.[7] They were replaced by the Scholae Palatinae.

As Augustus[edit]

Almost as soon as he became Augustus of the west, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan (see below), while the East was won by Licinius, another renegade Caesar. The two would share power in an uneasy peace until 314, when the two Augusti went to war. This conflict was ended, and a series of sporadic civil wars between Constantine and Licinius would continue until he was captured in a siege at Byzantium, and hanged in 324. As the Tetrarchy had collapsed by that point, Constantine was the sole Augustus of the Roman Empire.[8] His reign was marked by the strengthening of Christianity as an official religion, the beginnings of the fusion of Church and state seen in the later Byzantine period, the construction of the new capital Constantinople as a reflection of the gradual shift of Roman power to the east, and his attempts to unify the Church (see below).

Constantine died in 337, and was succeeded by his sons Constans, Constantius II, and Constantine II. His Constanian dynasty would rule Rome until 363, with the death of (ironically enough) Emperor Julian the Apostate.

Family values[edit]

Crispus and Fausta[edit]

Constantine was married twice. The first time was to a woman named Minerva, who bore a son named Crispus in 305. Two years later, Constantine married Maximian's daughter Fausta, the mother of the rest of Constantine's imperial descendants. Crispus was named Constantine's Caesar in Gaul soon after Milvian bridge when he was 12. Crispus grew up to be a successful administrator and general and was assumed to be Constantine's heir-presumptive, particularly after the destruction of Licinius's fleet at the Hellespont.[9] However, beyond this, not much is known of either person, because they were both subjected to damnatio memoriae (damnation of memory) after their executions on Constantine's orders.[10][note 4] While the exact details are scarce, it is generally believed that the Empress and Crispus were suspected of carying on an affair. However, stories range from Fausta manipulating Constantine with false accusations of rape in order to secure her sons' successions, to a legitimate affair going on between the two resulting in their deaths. The precise details remain unknown.

This demonstrates that historiography in the Roman world can be complicated by practices such as the damnatio memoriae that remove valuable historical evidence for the lives of key figures such as Crispus and Fausta. Furthermore, history can be further muddied by unreliable primary sourcing, particularly by court historians who had an incentive to describe the Emperor in as favorable a manner as possible, until a new Emperor said otherwise.

Religious policies[edit]

Edict of Milan[edit]

One of Constantine's major religious policies in the Roman Empire when he and the Eastern Emperor Licinius enacted the Edict of MilanWikipedia in 313 CE which would guarantee that Christians would be allowed to worship their religion freely. Although Emperor Galerius officially ended the persecution of Christians in 311 CE in the Edict of Serdica,Wikipedia the Edict of Milan went a step further by giving compensation to Christians whose property was confiscated in the earlier Diocletianic Persecutions.

First Council of Nicaea[edit]

In the early fourth century, there was a major dispute among church theologians about the divinity of Christ. The biggest controversy that came out of these disputes was Arianism which is a theology promoted by the theologian Arius which maintained "…that Christ was not of one substance with the Father, but a creature raised by the Father to the dignity of Son of God."[11] This controversy caused both support and condemnation for Arius, from church leaders. Constantine seeing this rift between church leaders decided to hold a council to try and solve this controversy. The council would be held in 325 CE. the Bithynian city of Nicaea, which is located in northern Anatolia. For 3 months church scholars debated about theological nature of Christ and his relationship to God the Father. In the end Arianism was condemned by the council and Arius was banished. The principles that came out of the First Council of Nicaea became known as the Nicene Creed which would become one of the foundational principles of Christianity.


  1. The father of a certain Constantine. More on him later.
  2. While Constantine could raise many more men, most had to be left at the borders of Gaul and Britannia to protect against barbarian incursions
  3. Eusebius' Life of Constantine was a PanegyricWikipedia about Constantine, and as a result should be read with skepticism.
  4. Damnatio memoriaeWikipedia, for anyone interested in reading more about the practice.


  1. MacMullen, Ramsay. Constantine. London: Routledge, 2015. p. 19-21
  2. Treadgold, Warren T. A History of the Byzantine State and Society. Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 1997. p. 28
  4. Pamphilus, Eusebius. The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine, in Four Books, from 306 to 337 CE. London: Samuel Bagster & Sons, 1845. PDF e-book. p.27.
  5. MacMullen, Ramsay. Constantine. London: Routledge, 2015. p. 78
  6. Grant, Michael. Constantine the Great: the Man and His Times. Scribners, 1993.
  10. Flavia Maxima Fausta: Some Remarks, Drijvers, Jan Willem page 508: "Finally, shortly after Constantine had celebrated his Vicennalia in Rome, like her step-son Crispus, she was for obscure reasons put to death by her husband in 326, after which she was banned from official memory."
  11. Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014. S.v. "Arianism." Retrieved April 8 2019 from