Thursday, February 27, 2014

Constantine the Great

As a Knight Companion of the Red Cross of Constantine, we learn about the background of Emperor Constantine and the story behind his famous conversion to Christianity. He was the first Emperor to convert to Christianity and was a major turning point in the history of Christianity. Please be aware that some points of his life may vary depending on the source.

Emperor Constantine was also known as Constantine the Great, Constantine I, and Saint Constantine, but his full name in Latin was Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus. Constantine and would serve as a Roman Emperor from 306 AD until his death in 337 AD. He was born into an unstable and divided empire. He was born on the 27th of February in 272 AD in what is now Niš, Serbia. His father, Constantius, was a Roman officer as part of Emperor Aurelian's imperial bodyguard and would eventually be elevated to Governor of Dalmatia from Emperor Diocletian. Diocletian in 285 declared that Maximian, a friend, would serve as "co-emperor" (or Augustus) and each Emperor would have his own court, military, and administration. Maximian ruled from what is now Milan (Italy) or Trier (Germany) while Diocletian served from Nicomedia (or what is now Izmit, Turkey). This Empire was still considered as one, but needed two Emperors to control the vast expanse.

In 293, Diocletian further complicated the matter by appointing two Caesars, or lesser Emperor's, to rule under the Augusti (plural form of Augustus). This system would become to be known as the "Tetrarchy" or "Leadership of Four". Diocletian's reasoning behind this was that the Roman Empire had grown so large that it needed to be divided up to better control and manage the lands as they had of late started falling into ruin from lack of control and maintenance. The two Caesars chosen were Galerius and Constantius. Even though the Caesar title was an appointed position not hereditary, Constantine was already being eyed to take his father's place upon his death.

Constantine was sent to the Court of Diocletian where he received a formal education in Latin literature, Greek, and philosophy. While this life was beneficial to Constantine he was probably hostage of Diocletian to ensure the loyalty of his father to Augustus. Constantine would prove himself by fighting in Asia, the Danube region, Syria, and Mesopotamia. By 305 AD he was established as a prominent member of the court and had become a Tribune of the First Order. Diocletian resigned in the spring of 305 AD because of lingering sickness and around the same time, Maximian resigned as well. There is debate as to the real motivation of their resignations, but we cannot know for sure by any current records. Constantius and Galerius were promoted to Augusti and everyone believed that Constantine and Maxentius (some of Maximian) would be promoted to Caesar, but they were not and Severus and Maximin took the positions; some believe that Galerius feared Constantine and made attempts on his life and forced Diocletian not to promote him. Eventually, his father would ask for Constantine to lead a campaign in Britain and remove him from the grip of Galerius. During this campaign in Britain, Constantine's father became sick and died in the summer of 306 AD at Ebucarum (known today as York). Prior to his death, he had given his support to his son being elevated to Augustus and those troops loyal to his father consented.

Upon notice, though Galerius stated that he would only elevate Constantine to Caesar and Constantine accepted, probably realizing that his legitimacy may be questioned if he rocked the boat and thus started his career as a Roman Emperor. His original share consisted of Britain, Gual, and Spain, and commanded one of the largest armies in the Roman Empire. After completing some military projects he headed for Trier and help drive the Franks back who recently had invaded the lands. He fortified Trier and built a palace for himself there. He would also start many construction projects around Gaul. He also implemented more tolerant policies to the Christian within his lands, though he was not yet Christian.

During this time, Maxentius grew jealous of Constantine and in the fall of 306 AD took upon himself the title of Emperor. Galerius did not recognize Maxentius' authority and sent Severus against him, but most of the troops defected to Maxentius as they had previously served under his father. Maximian came out of retirement to meet with Constantine in 307 and offered him his daughter, Fausta, as well as the promise to promote him to Augusta. In return, Constantine would give his support to Maxentius. To all of this he accepted. His support was purely political as he was not directly involved in the conflict for power and remained on his lands, which increased his popularity with the people. Galerius tried to use coercion to demote Constantine from his newly granted Augustus to Caesar, but Constantine held onto the title.

As a sign of the turbulent times, in 310 AD, Maximian would turn on Constantine and tried to convince people he was dead so he could retake up the mantle as Emperor, but most didn't believe him and he was forced to flee. Constantine learning of the conspiracy marched on what is now Marseille to capture Maximian. He accomplished this goal as the citizens were loyal to Constantine and opened the gates when the army approached. Maximian would, with some supposed encouragement, hang himself in the summer of 310 AD. The death of Maximian would fuel the propaganda fires for Maxentius and also posed a problem of legitimacy for Constantine as it was by Maximian that he derived his title of Augustus from. Whether true or not, stories started to spread that Constantine could tie his family line back to Emperor Claudius II. Orators started saying that Constantine was divinely inspired by Apollo, versus previous uses of either Jupiter or Hercules. The orations worked and his popularity with the people increased, particularly in Gaul.

In 311 AD, Galerius died and soon successors were mobilizing against each other, but Licinius is the victor. Maxentius was preparing for war, but even though he had been tolerant of the Christians of Italy his rule was not very stable. In the Summer Maxentius and Constantine moved against each other. Maxentius didn't move as quickly as Constantine did as the omens spoke against it, but soon Constantine crossed the Alps, at the pass of Mt. Cenis, with a fourth of his army and would soon face a large cavalry force of Maxentius near Turin, but would defeat them and taking the city. Other cities gave no fight and let Constantine pass by and soon he moved upon Milan where he rested for a time. They defeated Maxentius' troops at Verona, Aquileia, Modena, and Ravenna. It was time for Constantine to march on Rome.

Maxentius prepared for a siege which left the rest of the country relatively undefended and easy to take for Constantine. The siege took its toll on Rome and soon Maxentius decided to face Constantine at what would be known as the Battle of Saxa Rubra or the Battle of Milvian Bridge.

It was the nights prior to this battle that Constantine is said to have had his vision which caused him to adopt the cross and gain the protection of the Christian God. In the vision, he said to look into the sky and saw a cross of light with it the words "In Hoc Signo Vinces" which translates into "in this sign, you shall conquer." The next night Christ is said to have appeared before him saying to use this sign against the enemies of Constantine and that he would be victorious. Constantine then ordered that the labarum (the military standards or banners) be decorated with the Chi-Rho

On October 28th, 312 AD, Maxentius led his forces believing he had the blessings of his gods. He stood his army in front of Milvian Bridge which today is known as Ponte Milvio near a village along the Flamian road called Saxa Rubra, and in Constantine's time was used to carry Via Flaminia across the Tiber River. The two armies battled and it was Constantine who came out the victor as it is said that Maxentius had placed his troops too close to the river and thus prevented them from regrouping. In comparison, Constantine's army was experienced and disciplined from its time-fighting in the outer provinces while Maxentius' troops were not. The army of Maxentius retreated with heavy losses with Maxentius among those who had died, having drowned trying to escape across the river. The head of Maxentius was sent to the lands loyal to him and they gave no resistance. He entered Rome with the pomp and pageantry that one would assume to see with a major victory landed, and made the necessary reforms to solidify his rule and denounce Maxentius as a tyrant. In the East, the allies of Maxentius were defeated by Licinius.

In 313, Licinius and Constantine met in Milan where the "Edict of Milan" was established which granted full tolerance for the Christian faith as well as all religions in the Empire. Licinius left the meeting early to deal with a rival and after defeating him, gained full control over the entire eastern half of the Roman Empire. The friendship or alliance of Constantine and Licinius would fall apart and would lead to the Battle of Cibalae. The alliance would degrade after Constantine finds out that his Caesar, Bassianus, has conspired against him. Bassianus is the brother of Senecio, a close friend of Licinius. After Licinius refused to hand over Senecio, Constantine marched against Licinius.

The two met near the town of Cibalae (now Vinkovci, Croatia) and the battle lasted the entire day. Constantine led a charge of cavalry that broke the ranks of Licinius' troops. Licinius and those who survived fled during the night to Sirmium before heading to Thrace. After a failed peace talk, the two met against at the Battle of Mardia in 317 AD which ended with large losses on both sides. An agreement was made and more land was given to Constantine. From this new deal, he gained control of Macedonia and the Balkans which gave him the ability to wage wars against the Goths and Sarmatians.

In 320, Licinius violated the Edict of Milan and started oppressing Christians again which led to instability and civil war in 324 AD between Licinius and Constantine. At the Battle of Adrianople (near what is now the border of Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey), Constantine was outnumbered, but came out victorious. He won the Battles of Hellespont and Chrysopolis which included a naval battle where Crispus commanded, and by the end of September of 324 AD Licinius and his followers surrendered to Constantine with the promise that their lives would be spared if they lived out the rest of their lives as peaceful citizens. The next year Licinius was accused of plotting against Constantine and was hanged. It was from this defeat and death of Licinius that Constantine reunited the Empire under one Augustus.

Licinius' defeat was symbolic of Christianity's victory over the pagan religions. Plans started to be designed to create a new capital in the East that should represent the reunited Empire and be a center of enlightenment, trade, and culture. Many places were suggested, but Constantine finally decided to build this capital on the Greek city of Byzantium (known today as Istanbul). Byzantium already had the infrastructure and structure brought there by previous Roman Emperors. The city was renamed Constantinopolis or Constantinople in English.

Today Constantine stands as a preeminent figure in history with his conversion to Christianity, his defeat over Maxentius, and reuniting the Empire under one ruler being his most famous calling cards. What is also remembered is his role in the Council of Nicaea.

In early Christianity, there was no central authority and many disputes arose among priests and bishops. In 325, Constantine seeing the problems called an ecumenical council, known as the First Council of Nicaea, which is most famous for its opposition to Arianism, settling the issue of the nature of the Son of God and his relationship to God the Father, the promulgation of early Canon law, the observance of Easter, and for implementing the Nicene Creed.

After the Nicaean Council, he would enact other laws protecting Christians throughout the realm. One such law forbade Jews from owning Christian slaves or circumcising their slaves. He also enacted economic and trade reforms, military reform, and infrastructure projects.

In 326, Constantine put his wife Fausta and his eldest son from another woman, Crispus, to death because it was believed they were having an affair with each other and thus guilty of adultery.

He continued to battle barbarian forces in the outer provinces, but towards the end of his reign, he planned on attacking the Persians who were persecuting the Christians in the Middle East. His goal was to liberate the Christian people of the land as well as be baptized in the River Jordan. Though Constantine had helped the Christians there was nothing to suggest he fully embraced the faith himself, but towards the end of his life, he desired to be baptized. In the spring of 337 AD, the campaign would be called off as Constantine grew sick and knew his time was short. While in Nicomedia he summoned Eusebius to perform the sacred ceremony. He died soon after the baptism was performed on May 22nd, 337. His body was taken to Constantinople where it was laid to rest at the Church of the Holy Apostles. With the death of Constantine, his sons Constantine II, Constantius II, and Constans split the empire. Even though he had converted to Christianity on his deathbed, the Roman Republic still deified him as pagan Emperors had been in the past.

Constantine was a great warrior and by many of his projects is remembered as a great leader, but he was also very controversial as we can see with his life. He left a lasting mark with Constantinople and with reuniting the Empire for a short time. He would be venerated by the Byzantine Empire as well as the Holy Roman Empire as he helped pave the way for Christian dominance and culture in Europe and the Byzantine Empire.


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