Constantine I, also known as Constantine the Great (27 Feb 272 – 22 May 337), ruled the Roman Empire from 306 until 337. He was the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity and played an essential role in the proclamation of the Edict of Milan in 313, which declared tolerance for Christianity in the Empire.
Constantine was born in Naissus, Moesia Superior (modern-day Serbia) on 27th February 272. His parents were Constantius, an officer in the Roman army, and Helena, a Greek woman of low social standing. In 292, Constantius left Helena and married Flavia Maximiana Theodora, the daughter of Western Roman Emperor Maximian. After his father was appointed as one of the two caesars of the Tetrarchy in 293, Constantine was brought to the court of emperor Diocletian, where he studied Latin, Literature, Greek and Philosophy. In 305, Constantine joined his father's military campaigns in Britain but the latter died shortly afterwards. As a result, Constantine was declared Augustus.
Still, his succession as Augustus was put into question by the Tetrarchy, as his claim to the title ignored the system of succession established in 305. In view of this, Constantine asked Galerius, the eastern Augustus, to grant him the title of caesar and thus allow him to rule over his father’s territories.
Besides having control of Britain, Gaul, the Germanic provinces and Hispania, Constantine achieved several victories over the Franks, the Alamanni, the Visigoths and the Sarmantians. This strengthened his political power and he came to be viewed as a leader who could unite the fracturing Roman Empire.
However, Maxentius, son of Maximian, questioned Constantine’s authority and seized the title of emperor. Maximian then decided to intervene in the dispute and agreed with Constantine to offer him his daughter Fausta’s hand in return for his support of Maxentius’ cause. Nevertheless, Constantine did not interfere on Maxentius’ behalf and Maximian was forced to abdicate. Consequently, Maximian rebelled against Constantine and took up the imperial purple. Despite this, Constantine’s army remained loyal to him and Maximian was forced to commit suicide.
Aiming to avenge his father’s death, Maxentius mobilized against Constantine. On 28 October 312, both Emperors fought in the Battle of Milvian Bridge. The battle led to Constantine’s victory and his becoming the sole ruler of the entire Western Roman Empire, thus ending the Tetrarchy. On his return to Rome, the Senate acclaimed him as the “greatest Augustus”.
In 313, Constantine married Eastern Roman emperor Licinius’s half-sister Constantia to secure their alliance. They also agreed on the so-called Edict of Milan, which officially granted tolerance to all religions in the Empire, especially Christianity. This document had special benefits for Christians since it granted them restoration for all property seized during Diocletian’s persecution. However, the relationship between Constantine and Licinius declined in 320, when the latter went back on his decision on religious freedom and began another persecution of Christians. This led to the great civil war of 324, where Constantine’s army emerged victorious. The defeat of Licinius resulted in Constantine becoming the sole ruler of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the role of the Eastern Roman Empire as a centre of prosperity and cultural preservation. The emperor then rebuilt the city of Byzantium, and renamed it New Rome, following the model of Rome.
In 325, Constantine summoned the Council of Nicaea to attain consensus in the church through an assembly representing all of Christendom. In this council, Christians within the empire were divided over what they believed about Jesus and the Trinity. Moreover, Constantine enforced the prohibition against celebrating Eastern on the day before the Jewish Passover, marking a definitive break of Christianity from the Judaic tradition.
Death and Legacy
In 337, Constantine fell seriously ill and asked to be baptised in the River Jordan. He passed away soon afterwards, on 22 May 337, and was succeeded by the three sons he had with Fausta: Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans.
Constantine the Great is mainly remembered for being the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity and the beginning of Christendom is considered to have started with his succession. Still, it is unclear whether he adopted this religion in his youth or throughout his life. By the time he declared himself a Christian, he was over the age of 40 and there has been much speculation about whether his conversion was genuine or strategic. Even so, he supported the Church financially, carried out famous building projects such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Old Peter’s Basilica, and granted privileges to the clergy.
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