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Who exactly was the Ancient Roman Emperor, Constantine I, The Great? What was it, precisely, that he did to make such a great impact on Roman history itself? - Stevie McQueen

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6/8/13 RodgersN2013


6/8/13 information sourced from page 52 of notebook


This inquiry topic interests me due to the wealth of information available on such an influential and historically appealing man, who managed to have such a significant impact on the Ancient Roman world. The historical information associated with Constantine I, The Great, is of a fascinating nature due to his introduction of Christianity as a state religion. I think this topic will hold my interest for the duration of the period of inquiry due to the sheer level of excellence of Constantine’s achievements over the period of his rule, and the level of ease with which he seemed to have performed them. This topic links closely to the inquiry theme as Constantine was most certainly a man who lived a ‘remarkable ancient life’. I am certain this topic is a good choice for this particular task due to the consistent information available from various sources, both primary and secondary, still surviving. These sources document almost everything from his life achievements and personal writings to his family history. I have ensured there will be sufficient information due to the amount of historical writing from one particular historian, in whose works still survive. Although there are not several different historical writers who managed to document Constantine’s life in full detail, Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, wrote vast amounts of information, giving insight into his everyday life. The key research question that has been developed in order to best explore the relationship of the topic of this theme is: That Constantine’s rule can be defined as one of extreme significance through his impact on the Roman Empire by his introduction of the Christian Religion.

Who was Constantine?

Flavius Valerius Constantinus, or more commonly known as Constantine I, The Great, was an influential Roman Emperor from A.D 314 to the time of his death in A.D 337 (b. A.D 272). Many historians and theologians recount events of his impressive life, but none other is documented more than his conversion and introduction of Christianity into the existing Roman Empire. There are many questions that arise on this issue, and many different opinions are expressed. Was Constantine a Christian purely for political reasons? Was his conversion genuine, or was he just power hungry? Was he a man who lived a life that was worthy of his faith? When we delve deeper into the fascinating facts and discussions about Constantine himself, it is easy to make several assumptions about his motives and their genuineness. Whether he was truly a man of his faith is somewhat irrelevant when put into perspective of his impressive rule, including moving his entire Empire to a new, more suitable location. Constantine’s rule can definitely be defined as one of extreme significance through his impact on the Roman Empire, by his introduction of the Christian religion.

Zosimus, a Byzantine historian from the late fifth century once shared his opinion on Constantine,

“Now that the whole empire had devolved on Constantine, his arrogance increased and he was carried away with his success” (Goldsworthy, A, 2009)

(Video) CONSTANTINE AND THE CROSS | Constantine the Great | Full Movie | English | HD | 720p

What was Rome like at the time of Constantine’s inheritance?

In A.D 300, the Roman Empire was in steep decline. The empire was being affected from the outside due to wars in the east and trouble with the barbarians in the north, while a division of rule weakened it from within. Social classes were very distinct, and moral standards were almost non-existent. Paganism was still a very important part of life and government (Willems, K, 1993). On the first day of May A.D 305, two impressive parades were being held simultaneously, on opposite sides of the Empire. In Nicomedia, Diolectian and Galerius were residing, and Milan held both Constantius and Maximian (Goldsworthy, A, 2009) Diolectian, the current Roman Emperor, now around 60 years of age and suffering from poor health, officially resigned from his position in office. Maximian also did the same for his office in Milan, although there is now historical evidence supporting that he did so unwillingly (Goldsworthy, A, 2009). These four men, in two different cities stood by each other. The existing Caesars were promoted to the title of Augustus, and to aid them, two new Caesars were appointed. It is said that there was no surprise from the senior officers and officials in regards to this carefully planned power change, for it was strategically planned for months. All anticipated the promotion of Constantius and Galerius, and so there were now four rulers of Rome. There was however some shock over the two junior ranks in the army, as Constantius and Maximian both had adult sons who proved more promising candidates. The Christian writer Lactantius claimed that Galerius pressured Diolectian into resigning, and then chose the new Caesars himself (Goldsworthy, A, 2009).

With all historical writings, there lies a problem of reliability of sources. It is known that Lactantius regularly slandered non-Christians in his writings, and during their rules, both men had persecuted the church. This could have resulted in Lactantius portraying these men in a negative way, due to his dislike. Regardless, after Diocletian’s resignation, the empire now held four rulers. There was now an existing rivalry between all men, each a potential rival trying to fight for sole leadership. Constantius was a powerful leader and held great respect from not only the people of Rome, but also the people of Gaul and Britain. He managed to make all of his fortunes in the army, as he was a very capable soldier. He only held his position of Augustus for about a year, dying in York in A.D 306. Many people believe that if he had survived more than one year in this title, he may have been announced as Diocletian’s true successor (Kean, R, 2009).

Constantine, Constantius’ son, was approximately 30 when he witnessed the acclamation of Galerius and Maximinus Daia in Nicomedia. He had already proved himself as a capable soldier, fighting on the Danube and against the Persians. It is said that in approximately A.D 305, Constantine was residing in the East alongside Galerius, but was being held as a virtual hostage to ensure Galerius would hold his position as dominant Augustus, and Constantius would not try to overpower him (Cornell, T, 1982). In A.D 306, Galerius was now sure of his position, and allowed Constantine to leave. It is said that Constantine carefully snuck out of Nicomedia and met his father to accompany him on a campaign to Britain (, 2013). During the last few months he spent with his father, he managed to build up support with his father’s officers and officials, in order to prepare him to ascend the throne after his fathers passing. In A.D 306, his father Constantius died in York, leaving a leaderless empire. The system of succession at the time stated that another Caesar was to become emperor, but Constantius’ soldiers in York immediately proclaimed Constantine as their leader (York Museum, 2006). He was then awarded with the title of Augustus from his father’s army, although he initially claimed the title of Caesar from Galerius (Cornell, T, 1982). Galerius refused to allow him to accept the title of Augustus, granting him with the title of Caesar only (Kreis, S. 2000).

Essentially, at the time of Constantine’s Inheritance of his father’s position, not much had changed. Until A.D 308, there were still no less than six emperors ruling different sections of Rome, all involved in a constant power struggle. These were Galerius, Licinius and Maximin in the east, and Maximian, Maxentius (his son) and Constantine in the west (Kreis, S. 2000). Constantine managed to decide he was going to make a brutal, but effective change. He immediately embarked on the civil wars alongside his father’s army, willing to stop anyone or anything that got in his way of total power. However, this job suddenly became much easier for him when things began to fall apart on their own. Maxentius drove his father from Rome, causing his father to commit suicide in A.D 309. In A.D 311 Galerius, Constantine’s once emperor also died, and in A.D 313 Maximin also passed away (Kreis, S. 2000). However, this doesn’t mean that Constantine let the other two opponents off lightly. Constantine was definitely an enigmatic character, and it is very hard to resolve some aspects of his brutal, yet considerate nature.

The Battle of the Milvian Bridge - Constantine’s Conversion Story

28 October A.D 312 marked an extremely significant and remarkable moment in ancient history. It can be defined as the turning point of ancient Roman religion, and as the conversion of Constantine’s faith. After having naturally lost four of his current opponents, Constantine had his mind set on complete power over the Roman Empire. Alongside his father’s army he embarked on a journey to the Tiber River, which held the Milvian Bridge. Here he was preparing to face the Western Roman Emperor, Maxentius (National Geographic Society, 2013). Constantine’s army of 40,000 was loyal and extremely capable, just as their general Constantine proved to be (, 2008). They hastily marched towards northern Italy, defeating Maxentius’ subordinates, and then approached Rome itself. He led his army towards the bridge, prepared to fight Maxentius despite his army being outnumbered by four to one. Neither Maxentius nor his army was a match for Constantine and all of his men, including Maxentius, were defeated and drowned after the collapse of the bridge (Goldsworthy, A, 2009).

As well as the great victory this battle holds, it is also of extreme significance for it was essentially the turning point in ancient Roman religion. Fourth century historian and bishop, Eusebius of Caesarea stated in his works that the night before the battle, Constantine had a great vision. He saw a flaming cross in the sky bearing the words, “conquer by this.” An expert from his biography of Constantine states,

(Video) Constantine: The Mystery Of Rome's Christian Emperor | Secrets Of Christianity | Parable

“He saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, CONQUER BY THIS. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle.” (, 2005)

Constantine reportedly was confused about what he had witnessed, and decided to “ponder and reason on it’s meaning” (, 2005). As night fell, the Christ of God came to him in a dream, instructing him to use the sign that he had seen as a “safeguard in all engagements with enemies.” (, 2005). The next day as he awoke, he instructed all of his men to paint the sign he had visioned onto their battle shields, believing God would be with him. This battle marked perhaps the most important moment in the history of the Empire. Many Emperors find a common enemy of the people in order to gain power. In the ancient world, facing an enemy from outside drew people together. Constantine successfully managed to begin to dispose of everyone in his way to absolute power. Many people struggle to make a judgement on Constantine’s motivation to convert to Christianity after this battle, but from that time on, all people recognised him as a Christian.

Was his conversion to Christianity genuine?

Like all other powerful and influential figures, it is hard to examine the level of truth or genuineness in ones choices. Many people debate whether or not Constantine’s choice to convert the entire Roman Empire to Christianity was purely for political reasons. If Constantine were following purely political motivations, he would have been able to blatantly control and dominate the church, while purely religious motives would have allowed the church to control him. Most evidence indicates that Constantine’s motives were mixed. As his mother Helena was a saint, and a fellow Christian, he had some religious background, making him fairly compassionate to Christianity. His father was also a man who treated the Christians with respect and ensured their policies were tolerated. Therefore, it wasn’t completely out of the ordinary for Constantine to convert and accept the Christian religion (Willems, K, 1993). Historians now debate whether the first ‘Christian Emperor’ was really a Christian at all. Many regard him as a power seeker, defining his religion as a mix of paganism and slight Christianity purely for political advantage. It has been said that, “He knew nothing of religion without politics, or politics without religion.” (, 2008).

After the success in the battle, he returned home and announced his new faith. He continued with his previous toleration of Christians and their possessions, but began giving generous gifts and donations to the Churches and their bishops. He also began to refer to the Bishops as his ‘Brothers’. He began to become more involved in the Christian church, and developed more on his own personal faith and devotion to God (, 2008) Constantine was Emperor before he became a man of faith, so it is hard to separate his personal life from his political life. Many people truly believe that Constantine did in fact become a religious man in order to defeat his enemies, succeed as emperor, and unify his empire. It is also believed that he retained some Pagan traditions for years after his conversion. However, it is extremely important that “we do not project modern world views on a man from the ancient world.” (, 2008)

Constantine was also a brutal man, and was not unwilling to murder opponents. He relentlessly murdered his son and wife over an adultery charge, shocking the people with his lack of compassion towards his own family. It is also highly argued whether Constantine was a polytheist or a monotheist. It is well documented that after his conversion, he was a Christian who continued to worship the pagan gods (Nicholls, D, 2013). Another reason that has been used as an explanation for Constantine’s conversion is that he was a superstitious man. Constantine thought about many battles in which people opposed to Christians had suffered, and lost all power. Constantine desired all power, and was not willing to take any risks that might result in him losing it.

Some later historians have referred to Constantine as a political genius, who used Christianity in order to easily unify his empire (, 2012) Historians also find it difficult to justify his choice to be baptised on his deathbed, as most information looks negatively upon this practice. It is believed that Constantine decided to be baptised on his deathbed, as he was remorseful for the many sins he had committed, and wished to die a true Christian. However, this means that throughout his whole brutal life, in which he killed many people, including his own family members, he was now rid of due to his washing of the sins. This practice makes his faith look extremely insincere. This evidence makes the popular image of Constantine being Christianity’s saviour look blatantly false (Nicholls, D, 2013). In A.D 314, Constantine sent a message to the bishops at the Council of Arles. It read,

“God does not allow people to wonder in the shadows, but reveals to them salvation. I have experienced this in others and in myself, for I walked not in the way of righteousness…But the almighty God, who sits in the court of heaven, granted what I did not deserve.” (, 2008)

This statement shows evidence of remorse from Constantine, for not having always been a devout Christian. However, for over a decade, his opinion wavered. The monumental Arch of Constantine, which was built in honour of the Milvian Bridge victory, displays imagery of the Sun God, but honours no Christian symbols. Constantine seemed to have a similar view to that of his father. He was essentially a monotheist opposed to idols, and was tolerant of all Christians; only over the years did his devotion to them grow (, 2008) It seems that Constantine may have been a very tactical man, even when it came to his faith. He decided to be baptised just hours before his death, enabling himself to essentially rid of any sins he had committed, despite the severity. Did Constantine pretend to be a man of faith in order to gain power and respect? (, 1999)

Constantine saw Christianity as a way of forcing unity on the people of Rome. At the time, there were approximately 150-170 different Roman Gods, and Constantine wanted to introduce only one. Was his religious conversion for the greater good of the religious community, or to exceed politically? The traditional western separation of power states that no religious/political authority is to be invested in any one person at one time. Constantine was essentially the first person in history to have had such a great input in both categories at any one time, helping to support the question of his faith being purely for political reasoning.

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1. Constantine the Great
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2. Milvian Bridge 312 - Rise of Christianity DOCUMENTARY
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3. Constantine the Great | GameChanger – Part 1: The Birth of Two Empires
(The Incredible Journey)
4. Rome: Battle of the Milvian Bridge - Constantine vs Maxentius - Extra History
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5. Meet Constantine, the noble Christian Emperor who killed his son and wife.
6. Why Christianity Owes a Lot to the Roman Emperor Constantine
(Smithsonian Channel)
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