Colossus of History: Constantine the Great
Updated: Feb 17
Rarely do we come across a figure whose life itself changed the tectonic plates of history, but this is the case with Constantine the Great. He is by far one of the most successful and powerful rulers in antiquity, masterminding his way to the very zenith of the Roman world. But once there, he professed Christianity - the religion of the disenfranchised and persecuted.
His life became the pivotal moment when the Roman civilization was uprooted and replanted again, yielding a new 1,000 years of civilization. The pagan Empire slowly transformed into a Christian one. The sword that was once used to execute martyrs, was turned to defend them. All this was reflected in new cities, military banners, and laws that sprung up during and after his tumultuous reign.
But behind the purple robes was a complex man. Accustomed to brutality, he waged fierce wars against his enemies and was often merciless in doing whatever was needed to maintain power. To the modern eye, Constantine is also a mystery. A contradictory story, a man of extremes, whose dramatic life deserves to be studied.
An Empire Divided
In the mid-3rd century A.D., the Roman Empire was on the brink of total collapse. Civil war, economic decline, and invasions by bordering enemies, pushed it to a breaking point. It was obvious that the Empire had become too vast and complex for one Emperor to rule alone.
Therefore, Emperor Diocletian (reign 284-305) enforced the division of the Empire into four parts: two in the West and two in the East, each ruled by a co-emperor (see map). This made governance easier but made the Romans susceptible to more frequent civil wars between East and West.
One of Diocletian's confidants was a young Roman aristocrat called Constantine. He was the son of Flavius Constantius, the co-emperor governing Gaul and Britain. Constantine participated in several military campaigns under Diocletian and proved to be a capable military strategist.
Persecution of Christians
On 28 February 303, Diocletian initiated the most severe persecution of Christians in Roman history. Churches were seized and destroyed, scriptures burned, and countless Christians were massacred. All public servants were forced to sacrifice to pagan gods, and those who refused were tortured and executed. Constantine witnessed all this from the court of Diocletian.
The Romans believed that proper religio, meaning proper rites to the gods, was crucial to please the gods and accrue fortune to the State. Refusal to sacrifice to the gods was therefore interpreted as treason because it risked incurring misfortune on the State. After the Great Fire of Rome in 64 A.D., Emperor Nero blamed the Christians and instigated the first mass persecution against them. Such waves of repression continued for centuries. But despite their efforts to end Christianity, the opposite happened: it grew exponentially.
Man of Power
Diocletian resigned in 305, and under the new political uncertainty, Constantine fled to his father. They met in Italy, and then campaigned together in Britain, fighting the Picts. However, his father was dying. In 306, on his deathbed in York, Constantius declared his son, Constantine, to be his full heir. At his passing, the veterans assembled around Constantine and hailed him, Emperor. Soon, all of Britain and Gaul were under the young ruler's administration.
Constantine's sudden, and unexpected, entry onto the Imperial stage triggered a dangerous political game amongst the other co-Emperors. They wanted him removed. But he handled the tense climate well, and instead focused on building his provinces and campaigning against Frankish tribes. In 311 however, a line was crossed. After surviving an assassination attempt by the aristocrat Maximian, he arranged his suicide, which triggered Maximian's son Maxentius, the Emperor of Italy & Africa, to wage war. Constantine decided to attack pre-emptively and confront Maxentius directly in Italy.
By This Sign You Shall Conquer
Constantine won the initial skirmishes in Northern Italy, even capturing Milan. But in October 312, Maxentius assembled a superior force and invited Constantine for battle on the Milvian Bridge. This would be the fateful clash that would determine which of the two rulers would inherit all of the Western Roman Empire.
Before the battle, Constantine suddenly made a very unexpected command. He ordered all his troops to paint the Christian Chi-Rho (☧) symbol on their shields and banners (a cipher for the first two letters of the name Christ, or in Greek, ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ). According to his confidant Lactantius, and contemporary writer Eusebius, he had experienced an extraordinary vision: "he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, In Hoc Signo Vinces" ("In this sign thou shalt conquer") (Eusebius). "Having this sign (☧), his troops stood to arms." (Lactantius). It must have been regarded as a bizarre, almost insane, command by a Roman ruler to use a Christian symbol as the martial banner before such a fateful battle, when just six years earlier, all Christians were purged from the army.
Under this banner, the soldiers marched forth and completely vanquished the enemy. Maxentius drowned in the river. On 29 October 312, Constantine triumphantly entered the city of Rome. He promised forgiveness to Maxentius' supporters, the release of political prisoners, and the return of confiscated properties by the state. Furthermore, he restored the authority and honors of the Senate, which had been systematically dismantled by power-hungry bureaucrats since the 3rd century.
This made him appear as a benevolent liberator, and he quickly became very popular. The Senate even commissioned a Triumph Arch in his honor (that still stands today in Rome). Their only concern was Constantine's odd refusal to participate in the traditional pagan rites expected of an Emperor. Instead, he preferred to be depicted with Christian symbols, often with the inscription: "By this sign, Constantine had freed Rome from the yoke of the tyrant."
The Battle of the Milivian Bridge changed Rome forever. By Roman custom, refusal to sacrifice to the gods spelled certain misfortune - but Constantine had now triumphed using Christian, not pagan, symbols. This shattered the ancient paradigm that had kept Christians persecuted for three centuries.
Edict of Milan: Freedom of Religion and the End of the Persecution of Christians
The Roman Empire was now shared between just two men: Constantine in the West and Licinius in the East. To ensure peace, the two met in Milan in 313 and formed an alliance. Their meeting also saw the signing of the famous Edict of Milan. It read:
"When we, Constantine Augustus and Licinius Augustus, met so happily at Milan, and considered together all that concerned the interest and security of the State, we decided ... to grant to Christians and to everybody the free power to follow the religion of their choice."
This was a historic turning point. Christianity was finally legalized. Furthermore, Constantine ensured that all property seized or damaged by Diocletian's persecution was returned and restored to the Christians. Then, he made the clergy exempt from public service so as not to distract them from their spiritual practices. He also exempted clergy from various taxes.
It became increasingly clear that Constantine regarded himself as the protector of the Christians - and that he, personally, was a Christian. He wrote countless letters to bishops reflecting on doctrinal queries and ecclesial policy. Funds earmarked for pagan temples were redirected to build churches, and when budgets were strained, he sponsored their construction from his own purse. He made vast donations to the Church, even instructing finance directors to grant all funds requested by bishops. In 319, Constantine commissioned the construction of St. Peter's Basilica to be the home of the Bishop of Rome. This, of course, later became the Vatican.
His counterpart, Licinius, did not share his enthusiasm for Christianity, and there was a steady flow of reports of persecution in the Eastern provinces, violating the Edict of Milan. Constantine married off his sister to Licinius to bolster the peace effort, but despite this, relations between them soured. In 324, the hostilities climaxed, and war erupted.
At the Battle of Adrianople in 324, Constantine commanded 130,000 men to face Licinius' 165,000. Despite being outnumbered, his soldiers fought with grim determination under the Chi-Rho banner and won the day. He went on to defeat Licinius again at the naval Battle of the Hellespont, and finally at the Battle of Chrysopolis. Licinius surrendered on the promise that he would be spared. However, some weeks later, Constantine accused Licinius of plotting against him and had him and his son (who was also Constantine's nephew) executed.
With these campaigns, Emperor Constantine restored the unity of the Empire. He was now the sole, undisputed master of the Roman world. This ushered the Empire into a New Age of peace and stability.
A New Rome
Constantine began his unified reign with a bold decision: for the first time in 1,000 years, Rome was not to be the capital of the Empire. Instead, it was moved to the town Byzantium on the Bosphorus strait. Here, Constantine envisioned a New Rome - a melting pot of civilization, a bridge between the East and West.
Construction on the transformation of Byzantium went on for six years until it was ready in 330. Apart from new palaces, basilicas, churches, and forums, it boasted a Hippodrome with a seating capacity of 80,000 fans. The Emperor named the new capital Constantinople (meaning Constantine's city). This city would flourish for centuries. It became a sanctuary for holy relics, an intellectual powerhouse, and the new cultural heart of the Roman world.
The Emperor also introduced a new currency to stifle inflation and dissolved the infamous Praetorian Guard (which had become a source of great political volatility). Militarily, he conquered new lands in Persia and reclaimed the lost provinces of Dacia (Romania), returning the Empire to its greatest extent.
Without a doubt, the Roman Empire now enjoyed a Second Golden Age.
Tragedies of the Diadem
Although he seemed invincible in the eyes of the public, a tragic calamity was brewing within his inner circles. Suddenly, in 326, Constantine had his son and heir, Crispus, judged in a court of law and sentenced to death. Shortly after, his own wife, Fausta, was strangled in her hot tub. They were then erased from history: every written mention of them was hacked off or burned.
What was the scandal? To this day, no one knows. The State kept no record of what had happened. Rumors spread that they were adulterous together. Some contemporary writers allege that Crispus and Fausta had tried to kill Constantine and usurp him. Others claimed that Fausta, in seeking to remove Crispus as heir and replace him with one of her own biological sons, staged a false rape charge against Crispus. Since Constantine had just recently issued a law punishing such acts with death, he gave his son up to the court in a fit of rage. Then, when Constantine learned of the deceit which led him to execute his son, he had Fausta executed for her treachery. It remains an unsolvable mystery.
Whatever the case may be - it certainly was a traumatic chapter that would go on to haunt Constantine for the rest of his complicated life.
The Holy Land
In all this madness, there was one person in whom Constantine found peace: his mother Helen. She had been the first and lesser wife of Constantius and was a humble, pious Christian. She had always had a tight relationship with her son and was now a permanent presence at his court.
Shortly after the death of Fausta and Crispus, Helen embarked on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In a remarkable sequence of events, Helen and her laborers found the True Cross upon which Christ was crucified. This was a miraculous discovery that would embolden Christians for centuries.
Constantine then ordered the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the spot where Christ was crucified. This would become perhaps the holiest site in all of Christendom. A thrilled Constantine wrote in ca. 326 to his project manager Macarius, the following:
"Such is our Saviour's grace, that no power of language seems adequate to describe the wondrous circumstance to which I am about to refer...Indeed, the nature of this miracle [the Passion of Christ] as far transcends the capacity of human reason as heavenly things are superior to human affairs....I have no greater care than how I may best adorn with a splendid structure that sacred spot...[so that] not only the church itself as a whole may surpass all others whatsoever in beauty, but that the details of the building may be of such a kind that the fairest structures in any city of the empire may be excelled by this...And as to the columns and marbles, whatever you shall judge, after actual inspection of the plan, to be especially precious and serviceable, be diligent to send information to us in writing, in order that whatever quantity or sort of materials we shall esteem from your letter to be needful, may be procured from every quarter, as required, for it is fitting that the most marvelous place in the world should be worthily decorated."
His mother, Helen, also founded scores of famous sites of worship: the Church of Nativity (where Christ was born), Church of Eleona (where Christ ascended), Stavrovouni in Cyprus, and a chapel on the believed spot where Moses experienced the Burning Bush, which later became St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai.
The Council of Nicea, 325
In 325, Constantine summoned the largest assembly of bishops ever up to that point. 312 bishops were in attendance, including St. Nicholas and St. Spyridon. This is known as the First Ecumenical Council. In it, they dealt with the heresy of Arianism, the visible organization of the Church (singling out three great centers: Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria), declared Sunday as the Lord's day (as opposed to the Sabbath on Saturday), and established guidelines for the date of Easter. This Council is also the origin of the Nicene Creed - an easily memorable, succinct declaration of faith. It was to be used liturgically in all Christian Churches and provide a solid defense against heresy. To this day, the Nicene Creed is the official summary of the main doctrines of the Christian faith.
This Council was very significant because it reaffirmed the unity of the Church in a formal manner. It set the precedent for the way the Church would deal with theological and ecclesiastical issues. The unanimous voice of the Church Fathers became the mouth of the Holy Spirit. Constantine wrote the following to the Church in Alexandria: "While more than three hundred bishops, remarkable for their moderation and intellectual keenness, were unanimous in their confirmation of one and the same faith...Let us, therefore, embrace that doctrine which the Almighty has presented to us..."
Beginning of Monasticism
Constantine elevated many Christians to the highest offices of the State and opened his Treasury to empower them. This was a radical transformation. Christians - who just two decades earlier were under oppression, were now suddenly in positions of power and wealth. Many Christians, therefore, began to withdraw to the desert, living as hermits and dedicating their lives to constant prayer and solitude. By renouncing wealth and power, they found a new path to martyrdom. This was the beginning of monasticism.
Perhaps the most notable pioneer of this way of life was St Anthony of Egypt, to who Constantine personally wrote letters and asked for Spiritual guidance. St. Anthony, while resisting to respond at first, finally advised the Emperor in 332: "'not to think much of the present, but rather to remember the judgment that is coming, and to know that Christ alone is the true and Eternal King." (St. Athanasius).
Baptism & Death
In 337, Constantine fell severely sick and was clearly dying. He, therefore, requested to finally go through Baptism. It is believed that he had put off Baptism until his dying days in order to be absolved for as much sin as possible and to ensure he could live in a Christlike manner after Baptism. The 65-year-old was submerged in the Waters and then died a few days later.
What is there to say about this colossus of history?
Constantine changed the course of history at an enormous scale that he, himself, could never predict. Not only did he reunify the broken Empire, but he executed fundamental shifts in policy that had radical effects on the very roots of the Roman civilization. The constitutional clean-up to politically stabilize the State; the empowerment of the Church; the creation of a new capital, Constantinople, which thrived with innovation and life - all added new life to the dying Empire, prolonging its existence for another millennium.
Of course, it was his personal faith that provided the most radical impact. By being Emperor, he was the most influential person in the Roman world (and beyond). His adoption of Christianity, therefore, had a tremendous effect on the culture. Christianity did no longer belong to just the disenfranchised and segregated - it belonged to the highest offices of the State. After him, all future Emperors, save one, adhered to Christianity.
For these very reasons, Constantine has often been the subject of cynical skepticism by modern scholars. Most common is the allegation that he simply pretended to be Christian because he saw synergies between monotheism and imperial unification. After all, how could a person who had his son and wife executed, and engaged in brutal warfare, be considered Christian, academics ask?
This is the terrible question that Constantine himself had to figure out. We must remember that in ancient Rome, being the Supreme Emperor was akin to being a god. All the world's desires lay at the feet of the Emperor. He decided the fates of men. And jealous enemies were everywhere, ready to exploit any sign of weakness to topple him. In the Roman world that Constantine knew so well, it was expected of the Emperor to show brutality against enemies and rule with a heavy-handed fist.
Yet, Constantine had decided to adhere to Christianity. He had no role model to emulate, for he was the first of its kind. The world's most powerful man, facing intricate dilemmas on justice, war, conspiracies, and power dynamics - boldly attempting to follow Christ.
As Very Rv. Fr. Thaddeus Hardenbrook puts it: "Constantine was forced by circumstance to balance the complexities between a newly legalized Christianity, that he adamantly supported, and the well-established, pagan expectations of the imperial throne that were in direct conflict with Christian moral ideology...His goal was not spiritual self-satisfaction or even purification (the idea of withdrawal from the world had not yet even developed), it was the conversion of a pagan, multi-national empire."
When academics point to Constantine's faults and accuse him of being a hypocrite, they expose their poor knowledge of Christianity. One also wonders how many of these academics are Christians themselves. Our monk in the desert, St. Anthony, was once invited by Constantius II (Constantine's successor) to visit Constantinople. St. Anthony asked his friend, St. Paul, if he should go. St. Paul replied: "If you go, you will be known as Anthony. If you stay here, you will be known as St. Anthony." If this rang true for St. Anthony, what does that tell us of the complex and burdensome life of Constantine, who wanted to pursue Christ's path as Emperor of a pagan civilization?
The man had faults, as all men have. But the details of his sins are not only impossible for us to judge - but it is highly immoral to do so. Let us instead celebrate his remarkable achievements. He had the second-longest reign in all of Roman history (32 years). Alongside Augustus, he was undoubtedly the most accomplished and powerful Emperor in Roman history. And with this power, he succeeded in bringing new life into the declining world, leading to another 1,000 years of civilization. Great was the calling, and so was the man.
Letters of Constantine:
On the faith of Constantine and discussion on his impact:
On the Battle of the Milvian Bridge:
On Constantine's commitment to Christianity:
On the mystery of Crispus' and Fausta's deaths:
On the Council of Nicea, 325 (First Ecumenical Council):
The Nicene Creed:
On St. Constantine and his mother St. Helen:
Return of stolen or damaged property (313, Letter to a governor):
"...do thou make haste to restore to [the Christians], as quickly as possible, everything which formerly belonged to the said churches,-whether gardens or buildings or whatever they may be - that we may learn that thou hast obeyed this decree of ours most carefully."
Exemption of public service (313, Letter to a governor):
"Wherefore it is my will that those...who give their services to this holy religion, and who are commonly called clergymen, be entirely exempted from all public duties, that they may not by any error or sacrilegious negligence be drawn away from the service due to the Deity."