Constantine the Great
Why did the Church give Constantine the title
of “ Great”? Does a ruthless ruler of the empire deserve such a title?
The emperor Constantine has 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.
Rise to Power
Constantine, was born at Naissus in the province
of Moesia Superior, the modern Nish in Serbia, on 27 February, 272.
His father was a general named Constantius, his mother a woman of
humble background named Helena (later St. Helena). Upon the retirement
of Dilcletian and Maximian on 1 May 305 Constantius succeeded to
the rank of Augustus. When Constantius died, on 25 July 306, Constantine
was at his side. The soldiers at once proclaimed him Augustus. For
the next 18 years, he fought a series of battles and wars that left
him first as emperor of the west, and then as supreme ruler of the
At the same time the Senate and the Praetorian Guard
in Rome allied themselves with Maxentius, the son of Maximian proclaimed
him emperor. Open hostilities between the two rivals broke out in
312, and Constantine won a decisive victory in the famous Battle
of the Milvian Bridge, making Constantine the sole ruler of the western
half of the empire.
During the night before the Battle
of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine was commanded in a dream to place
the sign of Christ on the shields of his soldiers. Lactantius and
Eusebius record that he saw a brilliant light, in which he saw the
cross or the monogram of Christ. Strengthened by this he advanced
courageously to battle and defeated his rival. When the emperor afterwards
reflected on the event it was clear to him that the cross bore the
inscription: “In this sign wilt thou conquer”. A monogram combining
the first letters, X and P, of the name of Christ (CHRISTOS), a form
that cannot be proved to have been used by Christians before, was
made one of the tokens of the standard and placed upon the Labarum
. In addition, this ensign was placed in the hand of a statue of
the emperor at Rome, the pedestal of which bore the inscription: "By
the aid of this salutary token of strength I have freed my city from
the yoke of tyranny and restored to the Roman Senate and People the
ancient splendor and glory."
Was this conversion a matter of
political expediency rather than a religious conviction? Constantine
attributed his victory to the power of "the God of the Christians" and
committed himself to the Christian faith from that day on. When examined
carefully there is no basis to assume this was a political act. The
Christians formed only a small portion of the population, being a
fifth part in the West and the half of the population in a large
section of the East. Constantine's decision depended less on political
or social conditions than on a personal act. Even though Constantine
did not receive baptism until shortly before his death, 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.
Edict of Toleration
In the following year, February 313, Constantine and Licinius (Emperor
of the East) met at Milan. On this occasion the two emperors formulated
a common religious policy. Several months later Licinius issued
an edict, which is commonly known as the Edict of Milan or Toleration
of Faith. This declared that Christians and all others have freedom
in the exercise of religion. Everyone might follow that religion
which he considered the best. They hoped that "the deity enthroned
in heaven” would grant favor and protection to the emperors and
Constantine showed equal favor to both religions.
He watched over the heathen worship and protected its rights. The
one thing he did was to suppress divination and magic. Without
realizing the full import of his actions, Constantine granted the
Church one privilege after another. As early as 313 the Church
obtained immunity for its clergy, including freedom from taxation
and compulsory service, and from obligatory state offices. The
Church further obtained the right to inherit property, and Constantine
moreover placed Sunday under the protection of the State.
did much for children, slaves, and women, those weaker members of
society whom the old Roman law had treated harshly. But, in this
he only continued what earlier emperors had begun before him.
was the first to prohibit the abduction of girls. In harmony with
the views of the Church, Constantine rendered divorce more difficult.
Constantine was generous in almsgiving, and adorned
the Christian churches magnificently. There is no doubt that he was
endowed with a strong religious sense, was sincerely pious, and delighted
to be represented in an attitude of prayer, with his eyes raised
to heaven. In his palace he had a chapel where he read the Bible
and prayed. "Every
day", Eusebius tells us, "at a fixed hour he shut himself
up in the most secluded part of the palace, as if to assist at the
Sacred Mysteries, and there commune with God alone ardently beseeching
Him, on bended knees, for his necessities". He obeyed as strictly
as possible the precepts of Christianity, observing especially the
virtue of chastity, which his parents had impressed upon him; he
respected celibacy, freed it from legal disadvantages, sought to
elevate morality, and punished with great severity the offenses against
morals, which the pagan worship encouraged. He brought up his children
as Christians. Thus his life became more and more Christian.
He avoided any direct interference with dogma, and only sought to
carry out what the synods decided. When he appeared at an ecumenical
council, it was not so much to influence the deliberation and the
decision as to show his strong interest and to impress the heathen.
He banished bishops only to avoid strife and discord, that is, for
reasons of state.
Reunification of Empire
The ultimate goal pursued by both Constantine and Licinius was sole
power. The agreement of 313 had been born out of necessity, not
of mutual good will. Hostilities erupted in 316. In the course
of this first war between the two emperors two battles were fought.
Neither side won a clear victory. A settlement left Licinius in
his position as Augustus, but required him to cede to Constantine
all of his European provinces other than Thrace. War erupted again
in 324. Constantine defeated Licinius twice, first at Adrianople
in Thrace, and then at Chrysopolis on the Bosporus. Constantine
was now the sole and undisputed master of the Roman world.
First Ecumenical Council
The Arian Controversy, the Council of Nicaea
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, Constantine's
trusted spiritual advisor, failed on his mission to bring about a
Constantine 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, Constantine
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.
Pilgrimage to the Holy
In 326-28, Helen undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In the
course of her journey Helen 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 Constantine alone.
Helen also is the one who recovered the True Cross.
The New Rome
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. Constantine
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, Constantine 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. Constantine 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 see of a patriarch).
Final Years , Death, and Burial
In the years 325-337 Constantine 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
Shortly after Easter (April 3, 337) Constantine 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
A few weeks later, on the day of Pentecost, May 22,
Constantine 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.
In the Orthodox Church Constantine
is regarded a saint; he shares a feast day, May 21, with his mother
Helen, and additionally has a feast day of his own, September 3.
So does he deserve the title of Great? He liberated the Christians
from persecution and gave the empire a Christian set of values. He
moved the capital of the empire to a more defensible location, which
quickly became the center of Christianity and the wealthiest city
in the world. He called the First Ecumenical Council of the Church
establishing the pattern by which the Church formally dealt with
deviations from the teachings of the Apostles. The first council
formulated the creed, which we still use to this day. By treating
the Church clerics with the status of imperial administrators, a
union between Church and state was established that was to last throughout
the Byzantine Empire. He also established the weekly cycle with Sunday
designated for the worship of Jesus. In addition to his conversion
to Christianity he was a great ruler uniting the Roman Empire and
looking after the welfare of all the peoples of the empire.
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