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Constantine the Great, c.274-337

constantine.jpg (3008 bytes)The Roman emperor, Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus, or Constantine I, was born at Naissus, in Upper Moesia. He was the eldest son of Constantinus Chlorus and Helena, and first distinguished himself as a soldier in Diocletian's Egyptian expedition (296), and then under Galerius in the Persian war. In 305 the two emperors Diocletian and Maximian abdicated, and were succeeded by Constantine Chlorus and Galerius. Constantine joined his father, who ruled in the west, at Boulogne on the expedition against the Picts, and before Constantinus died (306) he proclaimed his son his successor. Galerius did not wish to quarrel with Constantine, yet he granted him the title of Caesar only, refusing that of Augustus. Political complications now increased, until in 308 there were actually no less than six emperors at once -- Galerius, Licinius and Maximin in the east, and Maximian, Maxentius his son, and Constantine in the west. Maxentius drove his father from Rome and Maximian committed suicide (309). Maxentius threatened Gaul with a large army. Constantine, crossing the Alps by Mont Cénis, defeated Maxentius, who was drowned after the last great victory at the Milvian Bridge near Rome (312).

Before the battle a flaming cross inscribed "In this conquer" was said to have caused Constantine's conversion to Christianity. In 313, the edict of Milan, issued conjointly with Licinius, gave civil rights and toleration to Christians throughout the empire. Constantine was now sole emperor of the west; and by the death of Galerius in 311 and of Maximin in 313, Licinius became sole emperor of the east. After a war (314) between the two rulers, Licinius had to cede Illyricum, Pannonia and Greece, and Constantine for the next nine years devoted himself to the correction of abuses, the strengthening of his frontiers and the chastising of the barbarians.

Having in 323 again defeated Licinius, and put him to death, Constantine was now sole ruler of the Roman world. He chose the ancient Greek city of Byzantium for his capital, and in 330 inaugurated it under the name Constantinople. Christianity became a state religion in 324 although paganism was not persecuted. In 325 was held the great Church Council of Nicaea, in which the court sided against the Arians. Yet it was only shortly before his death that Constantine received baptism. The story of his baptism at Rome by Pope Sylvester in 326, and of the so-called Donation of Constantine, long treated as an argument and justification for the temporal power of the papacy, is completely unhistorical. His later years were stained with bloodshed, especially the execution of his eldest son Crispus (326) for treason and of his own second wife Fausta (327) on some similar charge. He proposed to divide the empire between his three sons by Fausta -- Constantius, Constantine and Constans -- but in 340 Constantine II lost his life in war with Constans. Constantine the Great died May 22, 337.

You will find an excellent biography of Constantine at the Catholic Encyclopedia. A lengthy selection from Eusebius' Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine can be found at the Medieval Source Book and the On-Line Reference Book for Medieval Studies (ORB) contains an well-annotated article on Constantine.

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