The Roman Dominate: The Constantinian (Neo-Flavian) Dynasty
by: P. Dionysius Mus


(This article on Constantinus has been completely taken from Copyright (c) 1999, Hans A. Pohlsander. Also visit this excellent site for more information on Roman emperors and maps.)

Emperor Constantinus has rightly been called the most important emperor of Late Antiquity. His powerful personality laid the foundations of post-classical European civilization; his reign was eventful and highly dramatic. His victory at the Milvian Bridge counts among the most decisive moments in world history, while his legalization and support of Christianity and his foundation of a 'New Rome' at Byzantium rank among the most momentous decisions ever made by a European ruler. The fact that ten Byzantine emperors after him bore his name may be seen as a measure of his importance and of the esteem in which he was held.

Flavius Valerius Constantinus, the future emperor Constantinus, was born at Naissus in the province of Moesia Superior, the modern Nish in Serbia, on 27 February of 271, 272, or 273. His father was a military officer named Constantius (later Constantius Chlorus or Constantius I), his mother a woman of humble background named Helena (later St. Helena). There is good reason to think that Constantius and Helena lived in concubinage rather than in legally recognized marriage. Having previously attained the rank of Tribune, provincial governor, and probably Praetorian prefect, Constantius was raised, on 1 March 293, to the rank of Caesar in the First Tetrarchy organized by Diocletian. On this occasion he was required to put aside Helena and to marry Theodora, the daughter of Maximian. Upon the retirement of Diocletian and Maximian on 1 May 305 Constantius succeeded to the rank of Augustus.

Constantinus, in the meanwhile, had served with distinction under both Diocletian and Galerius in the East. Kept initially at the court of Galerius as a pledge of good conduct on his father's part, he was later allowed to join his father in Britain and assisted him in a campaign against the Picts. When Constantius died, on 25 July 306, at Eburacum (York), Constantinus was at his side. The soldiers at once proclaimed him Augustus; Constantinus henceforth observed this day as his dies imperii. Having settled affairs in Britain swiftly, he returned to the Continent, where the city of Augusta Treverorum (Trier) served as his principal residence for the next six years. There, too, in 307, he married Maximian's daughter Fausta, putting away his mistress Minervina, who had borne him his first son, Crispus. Trier's Kaiserthermen (Imperial Baths) and Basilica (the aula palatina) give evidence to this day of Constantinus's residence in the city. At the same time the Senate and the Praetorian Guard in Rome had allied themselves with Maxentius, the son of Maximian. On 28 October 306 they proclaimed him emperor, in the lower rank of princeps initially, although he later claimed the rank of Augustus.

Constantinus and Maxentius, although they were brothers-in-law, did not trust each other. Their relationship was further complicated by the schemes and consequently, in 310, the death of Maximian. Open hostilities between the two rivals broke out in 312, and Constantinus won a decisive victory in the famous Battle of the Milvian Bridge. This made Constantinus the sole ruler of the western half of the empire.

When Diocletian and Maximian announced their retirement in 305, the problem posed by the Christians was unresolved and the persecution in progress. Upon coming to power Constantinus unilaterally ended all persecution in his territories, even providing for restitution. His personal devotions, however, he offered first to Mars and then increasingly to Apollo, reverenced as Sol Invictus. The next significant event in Constantinus's religious development occurred in 312. Lactantius, whom Constantinus appointed tutor of his son Crispus and who therefore must have been close to the imperial family, reports that during the night before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge Constantinus was commanded in a dream to place the sign of Christ on the shields of his soldiers. Twenty-five years later Eusebius gives us a far different, more elaborate, and less convincing account in his Life of Constantinus. When Constantinus and his army were on their march toward Rome - neither the time nor the location is specified - they observed in broad daylight a strange phenomenon in the sky: a cross of light and the words "by this sign you will be victor" (hoc signo victor eris or en toutči nikči). During the next night, so Eusebius' account continues, Christ appeared to Constantinus and instructed him to place the heavenly sign on the battle standards of his army. The new battle standard became known as the labarum.

Whatever vision Constantinus may have experienced, he attributed his victory to the power of "the God of the Christians" and committed himself to the Christian faith from that day on, although his understanding of the Christian faith at this time was quite superficial. It has often been supposed that Constantinus's profession of Christianity was a matter of political expediency more than of religious conviction; upon closer examination this view cannot be sustained. Constantinus did not receive baptism until shortly before his death (see below). It would be a mistake to interpret this as a lack of sincerity or commitment; in the fourth and fifth centuries Christians often delayed their baptisms until late in life. In February 313, probably, Constantinus and Licinius met at Milan. On this occasion Constantinus's half-sister Constantia was wed to Licinius. Also on this occasion, the two emperors formulated a common religious policy. Several months later Licinius issued an edict which is commonly but erroneously known as the Edict of Milan. Unlike Constantinus, Licinius did not commit himself personally to Christianity; even his commitment to toleration eventually gave way to renewed persecution.

Constantinus' profession of Christianity was not an unmixed blessing to the Church. Constantinus used the Church as an instrument of imperial policy, imposed upon it his imperial ideology, and thus deprived it of much of the independence which it had previously enjoyed. To his dismay Constantinus soon discovered that there was a lack of unity within the Church. In the province of Africa, specifically, there were those who took a rigorist position towards the lapsi (those who had shown a lack of faith during the preceding years of persecution) and those who took a more moderate, forgiving position. The former eventually became known as the Donatists, after a certain Donatus, whom they elected as their bishop. In April of 313 the rigorists presented to Constantinus their grievance against Caecilian, the bishop of Carthage. Constantinus convened a synod of bishops to hear the complaint; the synod met in Rome's Lateran Council and is known as the Synod of Rome. When the synod ruled in favor of Caecilian, the Donatists appealed to Constantinus again. In response to the appeal Constantinus convened a larger council of thirty-three bishops, who met at Arles in southern Gaul on 1 August 314. This council, too, ruled against the Donatists, and again they refused to submit. Constantinus attempted, unsuccessfully, to suppress them. A separatist Donatist church possessed considerable strength in North Africa over the next two centuries.

Rome's famous Arch of Constantinus was completed in time for the beginning of Constantinus's decennalia (the tenth anniversary of his acclamation). There were all manner of festivities, but Constantinus pointedly omitted the traditional sacrifices to the pagan gods. Constantinus left his mark on the city of Rome with an ambitious building program, both secular and religious. In the Forum Romanum he completed the basilica which Maxentius had left unfinished. On the Quirinal Hill, where the presidents of Italy now reside, he had a bath built. The Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Basilica of St. Peter, and the Basilica of St. Sebastian on the Appian Way all are Constantinian foundations. Of special interest is the Basilica of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter, on the ancient Via Labicana, because attached to it was the vaulted rotunda which Constantinus originally had intended as a mausoleum for himself and his family but ultimately received only the body of his mother Helena; its considerable remains are known today as the Tor Pignattara.

The ultimate goal pursued by both Constantinus and Licinius was sole power. The agreement of 313 had been born out of necessity, not of mutual good will. Even Constantia's apparent devotion to Licinius did little to ease the strained relationship between the two rivals. Hostilities erupted in 316. In the course of this first war between the two emperors two battles were fought: the first at Cibalae in Pannonia, whence this war is called the bellum Cibalense, the second on the campus Ardiensis in Thrace. In the first battle Licinius' army suffered heavy losses; in the second neither side won a clear victory. A settlement left Licinius in his position as Augustus, but required him to cede to Constantinus all of his European provinces other than Thrace. On 1 March 317, at Serdica (modern Sofia), Constantinus announced the appointment of three Caesars: his own son Crispus, about twelve years old, his own son Constantinus, less than seven months old, and Licinius' son, also named Licinius, twenty months old. But the concordia Augustorum was fragile; tensions grew again, in part because the two Augusti pursued different policies in matters of religion, in part because the old suspicions surfaced again.

War erupted again in 324. Constantinus defeated Licinius twice, first at Adrianople in Thrace, and then at Chrysopolis on the Bosporus. Initially, yielding to the pleas of Constantia, Constantinus spared the life of his brother-in-law, but some months later he ordered his execution, breaking his solemn oath. Before too long the younger Licinius, too, fell victim to Constantinus's anger or suspicions. Constantinus was now the sole and undisputed master of the Roman world.

Early in the fourth century a dispute erupted within the Christian church regarding the nature of the Godhead, more specifically the exact relationship of the Son to the Father. Arius, a priest in Alexandria, taught that there was a time when Christ did not exist, i.e. that he was not co-eternal with the Father, that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were three separate and distinct hypostaseis, and that the Son was subordinate to the Father, was in fact a "creature." These teachings were condemned and Arius excommunicated in 318 by a council convened by Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria. But that did not by any means close the matter. Ossius (or Hosius) of Cordova, Constantinus's trusted spiritual advisor, failed on his mission to bring about a reconciliation. Constantinus then summoned what has become known as the First Ecumenical Council of the church. The opening session was held on 20 May 325 in the great hall of the palace at Nicaea, Constantinus himself presiding and giving the opening speech.

The council formulated a creed which, although it was revised at the Council of Constantinople in 381-82, has become known as the Nicene Creed. It affirms the homoousion, i.e. the doctrine of consubstantiality. A major role at the council was played by Athanasius, Bishop Alexander's deacon, secretary, and, ultimately, successor. Arius was condemned. If Constantinus had hoped that the council would settle the issue forever, he must have been bitterly disappointed. The disputes continued, and Constantinus himself vacillated. Eusebius of Nicomedia, a supporter of Arius exiled in 325, was recalled in 327 and soon became the emperor's chief spiritual advisor. In 335 Athanasius, now bishop of Alexandria and unbending in his opposition to some of Constantinus's policies, was sent into exile at far-away Trier.

At some time in 326 Constantinus ordered the execution of his oldest son Crispus, who had been appointed Caesar in 317, had three times served as consul, and had distinguished himself in the recent campaign against Licinius. In the same year, soon after the death of Crispus, Constantinus also brought about the death of Fausta, the mother of his other three sons. A connection between the two deaths is likely. Zosimus reports that Crispus had come under suspicion of "being involved" with his stepmother Fausta. The Epitome of Aurelius Victor reports that Constantinus killed Fausta when his mother Helena rebuked him for the death of Crispus. It is impossible now to separate fact from gossip and to know with certainty what offenses Crispus and Fausta had committed. Both of them suffered damnatio memoriae and were never rehabilitated.

Some involvement of Helena in this family tragedy cannot be excluded, but there is no reason to shift the responsibility from Constantinus to her. Shortly after these sad events, probably in 326-28, Helena undertook a pigrimage to the Holy Land. It has been suggested that this pilgrimage was an act of expiation, either for her own sins or for those of her son. In the course of her journey Helena impressed Eusebius of Caesarea and others by her piety, humility, and charity. She played a role in the building of the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem and the Church of the Eleona on Jerusalem's Mount of Olives; but the Church of the Holy Sepulcher seems to have been an undertaking of Constantinus alone. A tradition more cherished than trustworthy credits Helena with the inventio of the True Cross.

During the First Tetrarchy Trier, Milan, Thessalonike, and Nicomedia had served as imperial residences, and the importance of Rome as a center of government had thus been considerably reduced. Constantinus went far beyond this when he refounded the ancient Greek city of Byzantium as Constantinople and made it the capital of the empire. His decision to establish a new capital in the East ranks in its far-reaching consequences with his decision to adopt Christianity. The new capital enjoyed a most favorable location which afforded easy access to both the Balkan provinces and the eastern frontier, controlled traffic through the Bosporus, and met all conditions for favorable economic development.

On 8 November 324, less than two months after his victory over Licinius at Chrysopolis, Constantinus formally laid out the boundaries of his new city, roughly quadrupling its territory. By 328 the new walls were completed, and on 11 May 330 the new city was formally dedicated. The New Rome, both in its physical features and in its institutions, resembled the Old Rome. It was built on seven hills, it had a Senate, and its people received subsidized grain. Constantinus completed and enlarged the city's hippodrome and placed in it the Serpent Column of Delphi. The palace which he built for himself afforded direct access to the kathisma, the royal box overlooking the hippodrome. A rather controversial monument is the Column of Constantinus, in the Forum of Constantinus, built of porphyry and 25 m. high; its remains are now known as the Burnt Column. It was crowned by a statue of Helios, its features suitably adapted so as to suggest Constantinus himself. Constantinus without question began the construction of two major churches in Constantinople, Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) and Hagia Eirene (Holy Peace); the foundation of a third, the Church of the Holy Apostles, may be attributed to him with a measure of certainty. Unlike the Old Rome, which was filled with pagan monuments and institutions, the New Rome was essentially a Christian capital (and eventually the seat of a patriarch), although not all traces of its pagan past had been eliminated.

The prevailing character of Constantinus's government was one of conservatism. His adoption of Christianity did not lead to a radical reordering of society or to a systematic revision of the legal system. Generally refraining from sweeping innovations, he retained and completed most of the arrangements made by Diocletian, especially in provincial administration and army organization. One notable change pertained to the Praetorian prefects; these now became civilian ministers assisting the Augustus or the Caesars. In the course of a successful reform of the currency Constantinus instituted a new type of coin, the gold solidus, which won wide acceptance and remained the standard for centuries to come.

Some of Constantinus's measures show a genuine concern for the welfare and the morality of his subjects, even for the condition of slaves. By entrusting some government functions to the Christian clergy he actually made the Church an agency of the imperial government. Constantinus did not neglect the security of the frontiers. He campaigned successfully in 306-308 and 314-15 on the German frontier, in 332 against the Goths, in 334 against the Sarmatians, and in 336 again on the Danube frontier.

The arrangements which Constantinus made for his own succession were quite unsatisfactory. During the last two years of his reign there were four Caesars: his sons Constantinus (II), Constantius (II), and Constans, having been appointed in 317, 324, and 333 respectively, and his nephew Flavius Dalmatius (whose father, of like name, was a son of Constantius I and Theodora), appointed in 335. It is not clear which of these Constantinus intended to take precedence upon his death. In the years 325-337 Constantinus continued his support of the Church even more vigorously than before, both by generous gifts of money and by specific legislation. Among his numerous church foundations the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and the Golden Octagon in Antioch deserve to be singled out.

At the same time, he was more inclined to suppress paganism; we know of some specific pagan temples which were torn down upon his orders, while in other cases temple treasures were confiscated and the proceeds fed into the imperial treasury. Shortly after Easter (3 April) 337 Constantinus began to feel ill. He traveled to Drepanum, now named Helenopolis in honor of his mother, where he prayed at the tomb of his mother's favorite saint, the martyr Lucian. From there he proceeded to the suburbs of Nicomedia, and there he was baptized, as both Eusebius and Jerome report; but only Jerome adds another significant fact: the baptism was performed by the Arian bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia. A few weeks later, on the day of Pentecost, 22 May, Constantinus died at Nicomedia, still wearing the white robes of a Christian neophyte. His body was escorted to Constantinople and lay in state in the imperial palace. His sarcophagus was then placed in the Church of the Holy Apostles, as he himself had directed; it was surrounded by the memorial steles of the Twelve Apostles, making him symbolically the thirteenth Apostle.

Only on September 9 did Constantinus II, Constantius II, and Constans each assume the rank of Augustus, after possible rivals, including the fourth Caesar, Flavius Dalmatius, had been eliminated in a bloody coup. This bloody purge of members of the Royal family, it has been argued, may have had its roots in the religious strife between the Arian and Orthodox factions at the imperial court.

Constantinus II, Constans, Constantius II and Magnus Magnentius Usurpator: When Constantinus the Great died in 337, Constantinus II and his brothers, Constans and Constantius II, each adopted the title Augustus. Constantius then divided the empire with his brothers, taking the Eastern provinces (Thrace, Macedonia, Greece, Asia, and Egypt) for himself (between 338 and 350 he was engaged in inconclusive but extremely bloody warfare with the Persian king Shapur II). Constantinus II became ruler of Britain, Gaul, and Spain. Constans took control of Italy, Africa, and Illyricum (in the northwestern Balkans).

In 340 Constantinus II - ruler of Spain, Gaul, and Britain - invaded northern Italy but was defeated and killed by Constans' army at Aquileia. This victory gave Constans, who at the time of the battle was at Naissus, control over the entire western half of the empire. He defended his realm successfully against the Franks in 341 and two years later visited Britain. In 350 he was overthrown and killed in Gaul by the usurper Magnus Magnentius. Magnentius was a pagan of German descent who had achieved distinction as a soldier before having himself proclaimed emperor early in 350. Immediately he engineered the murder of Constans (sole ruler in the West from 340 to 350) and assumed control of the western half of the empire. In June 350 he crushed Nepotianus, who had declared himself emperor at Rome.

But his chief opponent was Constantius II, ruler of the Eastern Empire. Failing to win recognition from Constantius, Magnentius allied himself with the commander of the Danubian troops, Vetranio, who had proclaimed himself emperor on March 1, 350. This arrangement ended quickly with the abrupt overthrow of Vetranio by Constantius. In 351 Magnentius repulsed Constantius at Atrans, and advanced into the province of Pannonia Inferior. Constantius rallied and, on Sept. 28, 351, severely defeated Magnentius at the Battle of Mursa (modern Osijek, Croatia). He then invaded Italy, whereupon Magnentius fell back to Gaul and, to avoid capture, committed suicide.

During the struggle with Magnentius and Vetranio, Constantius appointed his cousin, Gallus Caesar, administrator of the East. But Caesar proved to be a despotic ruler, and in 354 Constantius recalled him and had him executed. After campaigning against the Sarmatians and the Suebi and Quadi tribes on the Danube in 357-358, Constantius returned east to fight Shapur, who had renewed his attacks on the eastern frontier (359). In 361 Constantius was recalled to the West by the revolt of Iulianus, his Caesar in Gaul, but became ill on the way and died.
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