Constantine I (Hellenes)

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Constantine I

Constantine I (ca. 274-337) was a Roman emperor. He is frequently called "the Great" because of his successes as a general, administrator, and legislator and because of his support of the Christian Church and efforts to maintain Christian unity.

Born Flavius Valerius Constantinus at Naissus (in modern Yugoslavia), Constantine was the son of Constantius Chlorus and his concubine Helena. In 293 his father became the son-in-law and caesar (successor-designate) of Emperor Maximian, who was coruler of the Roman Empire with Emperor Diocletian. In 305 Diocletian and Maximian abdicated, and Chlorus became coruler, having superintendence of the West, while Galerius, Diocletian's son-in-law, superintended the East. The new emperors chose caesars (Maximinus Daia and Falvius Valerius Severus) who were not their relatives. Galerius kept Constantine, who had distinguished himself as a soldier, at his own court, apparently fearing that he might develop imperial ambitions if left with his father. In 306, however, Constantine managed to escape to the West and joined Chlorus in campaigns in northern Britain. Chlorus died at York in July 306, and his troops immediately proclaimed Constantine his successor. Galerius acknowledged Constantine as a caesar, and he raised Severus to the role of emperor (augustus) in the West.

Struggles for Empire

Constantine's dynastic elevation set a bad example. Thereupon Maxentius, old Maximian's son, proclaimed himself augustus in Italy, killed Severus, and obtained Africa as well. He quarreled with his father, however, and Maximian fled to Constantine, gave him his daughter Fausta in marriage, and supported Constantine's pretensions as an augustus. From 307 to 311 five men claimed the rank of augustus: Galerius, Maxentius, Maximinus Daia, Licinius (Severus's successor), and Constantine. But in 310 Maximian entered into a conspiracy against Constantine, and upon its discovery Constantine had his father-in-law strangled. This event was immediately followed by war with Maxentius, who was defeated and drowned at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312. In the East, Galerius had died in 311; and in 313 Maximinus Daia died after being defeated by Licinius.

By 313 Constantine and Licinius were established as corulers of the Roman world. Their relationship was cemented in that year by the marriage of Licinius to Constantine's half sister Constantia; but jealousy and ambition generated friction and suspicion between the emperors, and in 323 war broke out after Constantine had violated Licinius's territory. Licinius was defeated and deposed, but his life was spared at the intercession of Constantia. The following year, however, Constantine found it expedient to execute him.

Constantine and Christianity

Constantine's conversion to Christianity has generated much discussion. In later years he told the historian Eusebius that before his encounter with Maxentius he had seen a cross of light superimposed on the sun with the inscription above it: in hoc signo vinces (in this sign you shall conquer). Since the cross was the Christian symbol, he had his troops inscribe the monogram of Christ on their shields before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, and his subsequent success in battle convinced him that he had the protection of the Christian god. Theretofore Constantine had probably been a worshiper of the Unconquered Sun, and in the beginning he appears to have thought that Christ and the Sun were identical. Constantine's coinage for some time continued to celebrate the Sun, and as late as 321 his order for the observation of Sunday gave as a reason that the day was solemnized "by the veneration of the Sun."

But Constantine's early involvement in the theological disputes of the Christians soon disabused him of any syncretistic notions. Early in his reign a group of puritanical followers of Donatus in Africa charged that the orthodox Catholics were too lenient toward penitent apostates, and their quarrels reached the Emperor. He tried for years to reconcile or suppress the dissidents but ultimately gave up his efforts in despair. More serious were the quarrels concerning the nature of the godhead. A heresy called Arianism, which maintained that Christ was not coeternal with the Father, scandalized many churchmen. Roman emperors, as heads of the state religion, had always been responsible for keeping the gods at peace with men (pax deorum). Now it appeared that the Emperor must secure a pax dej, lest God be offended at His people's view of His nature. Therefore, in May 325 Constantine convened a council of bishops at Nicaea in Bithynia. This convocation created the Nicene Creed, which established the orthodox view that Christ was of the same substance (homoousios) as the Father but was a separate individual. The decisions of the council by no means pleased everyone, and Constantine was engaged in attempts to heal theological schisms right up to his death. Indeed, he was baptized on his deathbed by an Arian.

Constantine's personal religious views have been a puzzle to historians. He continued throughout his life to hold the post of pontifex maximus of the old religion. And he allowed the continued celebration of ancient cults and even the erection of temples in honor of his family, though he specified that worship in them must not include "contagious superstition." The Edict of Milan (313) by Constantine and Licinius conferred toleration on all religious sects but did not establish a state church.

But as time went on, Constantine showed increasing favor to the Christians. He built and endowed magnificent churches at Constantinople and Rome and in the Holy Land, Asia Minor, and Africa. He established allowances of grain for the support of the clergy and the poor. He legalized bequests to churches and gave bishops the right to free slaves as well as the right to judge quarrels between Christians without the right of appeal to civil courts. Many of his favorite officials were Christians, and the education of his sons was put in Christian hands. While the celebration of pagan rites continued, a few temples were ordered closed, and others were destroyed by Christian mobs without subsequent imperial punishment. Indeed, Constantine himself had some temples plundered, and only the wooden frames of chryselephantine cult statues were left for the worshipers. Here the decisive factor seems to have been the need for the gold and silver sheathing of the statues to help finance the Emperor's elaborate building program.

Constantine's Administration

Constantine continued and elaborated the army reforms begun by Diocletian. He created a large central and mobile army which could be quickly dispatched to any troubled frontier. Civil and military authority in the provinces was carefully divided; and the new army appears to have been under the command of a master of infantry and a master of cavalry. The number of barbarians in the army increased, and Constantine is said to have favored Germans.

Constantine also followed Diocletian in the elaboration of court ritual. He instituted the order of imperial companions (comites) and classified them by grades, depending on the offices they held. Grandiloquent titles abounded, and recipients were favored by reduced tax burdens and fewer civic duties. He also gave the ancient title of patrician to close friends and high officials.

Building of Constantinople

After his defeat of Licinius, Constantine was inspired to found a new imperial residence on the Bosporus at the site of ancient Byzantium. Constantinople had a magnificent harbor, the site was easily defensible, and strategically it was more or less equidistant from the dangerous Danubian and Persian frontiers. Constantine ransacked the pagan world for treasures with which to adorn his city, and he spirited a population to it by offering estates in Asia Minor to nobles who would build palaces there and, in an analogy to the Roman dole, by inaugurating rations of food for humbler immigrants.

The founding of Constantinople had far-reaching consequences. Rome was reduced in importance as the capital of the Roman Empire, and the western part of the empire continued to achieve increasing autonomy. The Roman Senate, hitherto a powerful instrument of government, became little more than Rome's city council. The establishment of Constantinople as a de facto second capital hastened the bipartition of the Roman Empire.

Financial Policy

The cost of Constantinople, increased pay for the army and bureaucracy, and lavish grants to the Church and to favorites combined to create multiple financial problems. To meet these Constantine had the accumulated wealth of the parsimonious Licinius and the confiscated treasures of pagan temples. These were supplemented by new taxes on merchants and craftsmen, surtaxes on the land, and a gradual increase of customs dues and other local levies. Constantine's most constructive financial contribution was the creation of the gold solidus, struck at 72 to the pound, which maintained its purity until the 11th century.

But the economy remained weak and the burdens of government heavy. To ensure the performance of essential services, Constantine became more and more authoritarian. As early as 313 he had ordered local senators (curiales) bound to their positions because they were liable for the collection and guarantee of taxes. By the end of his reign their duties had become hereditary. Similarly, shipmasters were compelled to remain on their jobs, for the transport of food to cities was not financially attractive. And in 332 tenant farmers were threatened with a reduction to slavery if they left their districts, thus swiftly moving agricultural workers to serfdom. These measures of Constantine rapidly moved the Roman world from a regime of contract to a regime of status, wherein citizens were tied from birth to their places of origin and their professions.

Constantine's relations with his family were not marked by Christian love or charity. He was a calculating and suspicious man, perhaps as a result of his struggle to survive as a youth among the intrigues at the court of Galerius. In any case, during his career he contrived the death of his father-in-law (Maximian) and of two brothers-in-law (Maxentius and Licinius); in 326 he suddenly, and for obscure reasons, executed his eldest and much admired son, the Caesar Crispus, and apparently at the same time he killed his nephew Licinianus, who was only 11 years old. It is widely believed that Crispus's fall may have been due to the jealous ambition of his stepmother, Empress Fausta, in behalf of her own three sons. If so, there was an early revulsion of feeling, for she was drowned in her bath in less than a year. By her Constantine had three sons, Constantine II, Constantius, and Constans. They, along with Dalmatius and Hannibalian, sons of Constantine's brother Dalmatius, were made caesars and given the administration of various parts of the empire as though it were Constantine's personal estate. Except for these three sons and two infant nephews (Gallus and Julian) all of Constantine's close relatives, including his half brothers Dalmatius and Julius Constantius, were lynched by the army at Constantine's death, leaving Fausta's brood to fight over the inheritance. The one person that Constantine seems consistently to have trusted was his mother, Helena. Indeed, her grief at her grandson's execution may have been instrumental in Fausta's subsequent fall.

Constantine's effect on subsequent history through his rigorous systemization of society and his foundation of Constantinople was profound, and probably the success of the Christian Church can most reasonably be credited to him. In other lands where Christianity was tolerated but not embraced by the rulers, it remained a minority sect; but Constantine's partiality for Christians during a long reign, and the education of his sons as Christians, gave the Church a half century of such advantages and strengths that the efforts of Julian the Apostate to return to the old ways some 30 years later probably were doomed to failure even had he lived to press his program. Constantine died near Nicomedia on May 22, 337.

Further Reading

There is no continuous ancient account of Constantine and his reign, but material may be found in Eusebius's 4th-century History of the Church and the Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine, a biased panegyric, and in the works of Zosimus, a Greek historian of the late 5th century. Biographies include Lloyd B. Holsapple, Constantine the Great (1942), and John Holland Smith, Constantine the Great (1971). Discussions of Constantine's Christianity may be found in A. Alföldi, The Conversion of Constantine and Pagan Rome (trans. 1948), and A. H. M. Jones, Constantine and the Conversion of Europe (1948; new rev. ed. 1962). A good account of the administrative, social, and economic aspects of the reign is in A. H. M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire, 284-602 (2 vols., 1964). □

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Constantine I or Constantine the Great (kŏn´stəntēn, –tīn), 288?–337, Roman emperor, b. Naissus (present-day Niš, Serbia). He was the son of Constantius I and Helena and was named in full Flavius Valerius Constantinus.

Rise to Power

When his father was made caesar (subemperor), Constantine was left at the court of the emperor Diocletian, where he was under the watchful eye of Galerius, who was caesar with Constantius. When Diocletian and Maximian resigned in 305, Constantius and Galerius became emperors.

Constantius requested that Constantine be sent to him in Britain, and Galerius reluctantly complied. Constantius died at York the next year. There, his soldiers proclaimed Constantine emperor, but much rivalry for the vacated office ensued. In Italy, Maxentius, supported by the Romans and by his father Maximian, vied with Severus and Galerius. Constantine, accepting the lesser title of caesar from Galerius, remained aloof while Maxentius and Maximian defeated Severus and Galerius.

Constantine made an alliance with Maximian, marrying his daughter Fausta and recognizing Maxentius after a fashion. When Maximian, in dispute with his son, fled to Constantine, Constantine received and sheltered him until Maximian, in an attempt to regain the throne, undertook (310) a revolt against Constantine's rule in Gaul. Unsuccessful against Constantine, Maximian was forced to commit suicide.

Constantine, having already declared against Maxentius and ignoring the fact that Galerius had recognized Licinius in the East, now considered himself emperor. When Galerius died in 310, still another claimant to the imperial throne appeared in Maximin (d. 313), who allied himself with Maxentius against the alliance of Licinius and Constantine. While Licinius attacked Maximin, Constantine moved into Italy against Maxentius. The rivals for Italy met (312) at the Milvian or Mulvian Bridge over the Tiber near Rome. Before the battle Constantine, who was already sympathetic toward Christianity, is said by Eusebius of Caesarea to have seen in the sky a flaming cross inscribed with the words, "In this sign thou shalt conquer." He adopted the cross and was victorious. Maxentius was routed and killed. The battle is regarded as a turning point for Christianity.

In 313 Constantine and his fellow emperor, Licinius, met at Milan and there issued the so-called Edict of Milan, confirming Galerius' edict of 309, which stated that Christianity would be tolerated throughout the empire. The edict in effect made Christianity a lawful religion, although it did not, as is sometimes believed, make Christianity the official state religion.

No longer having Maximin to contend with, Licinius challenged Constantine, and a brief struggle followed. Constantine, victorious, took (315) control over Greece and the Balkans, and the uneasy peace that followed lasted until 324, when Licinius again vied with Constantine. This time Licinius lost his throne and ultimately his life.

A Christian Empire

Constantine was now sole ruler of the empire, and in a reign of peace he set about rebuilding the strength of old Rome. Constantine continued to tolerate paganism and even to encourage the imperial cult. At the same time, however, he endeavored to unify and strengthen Christianity.

In 314 he convened a synod at Arles to regulate the Church in the West, and in 325 he convened and presided over a council at Nicaea to deal with the troubles over Arianism (see Nicaea, First Council of). Thus Constantine evolved the idea of the ecumenical council. In 330 he moved the capital to Byzantium, which was rebuilt as Constantinople, a city predominantly Christian and dedicated to the Virgin. He seems to have favored compromise with Arianism, and in 335, in defiance of the Council of Tyre, he exiled St. Athanasius.

As the founder of the Christian empire, Constantine began a new era. He was an absolute ruler, and his reign saw the culmination of the tendency toward despotic rule, centralized bureaucracy, and separation of military and civil powers evolved by Diocletian. Constantine's legal reforms were marked by great humanity, perhaps a result of Christian influence. Though he had done much to unify the empire, at his death Constantine divided it again, providing for his three surviving sons and also to some extent for the sons of his half-brother. These nephews were soon killed (though others, notably Julian the Apostate, survived), but complex contests ensued between Constans I, Constantine II, and Constantius II.

Historians differ greatly in their assessments of Constantine's motives and the depth of his Christian conviction. Early Christian writers portray him as a devout convert, although they have difficulty explaining his execution in 320 (on adultery charges) of Crispus, his son by his first wife, and Fausta, his wife. Some later historians see him as a political genius, expediently using Christianity to unify his empire. An intermediate interpretation pictures him as a pagan gradually converted to Christianity (he was baptized on his deathbed), using his new belief for personal ends much as earlier emperors had used the imperial cult.


The chief contemporary historians of Constantine's reign are Lactantius and Eusebius. See also biographies by N. H. Baynes (1931, repr. 1972), L. B. Holsapple (1942), A. H. M. Jones (rev. ed. 1962), J. H. Smith (1971), F. G. Slaughter (1972), M. Grant (1993), and D. Potter (2012); C. B. Coleman, Constantine the Great and Christianity (1914); G. P. Baker, Constantine the Great and the Christian Revolution (1930, repr. 1967); J. Bardill, Constantine, Divine Emperor of the Christian Golden Age (2011).

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Constantine I (d. 877), ‘king of the Picts’ (862–76), anachronistically regarded as third king of Scotland. Son of Kenneth I, he succeeded his uncle Donald I. Only for the second time in Pictish history had a family retained the kingship without a break beyond one generation. Constantine's ancestry in the male line was Gaelic, like most Pictish kings in the 9th cent. His career was chiefly consumed in a desperate struggle for survival against Scandinavian incursions. In 866 the Norwegian king of Dublin devastated Pictland (probably concentrating on Perthshire), and in 870–1 returned and took away many, including Picts, as slaves. In 875 Halfdan the Danish king of York inflicted a crushing defeat on Constantine at Dollar (9 miles east of Stirling), driving him back to the Highlands. Constantine was killed two years later by the Danes at ‘Inverdufata’ (unidentified). The only record of Constantine as an aggressor beyond his kingdom was as sponsor of the assassination of Arthgal, king of Strathclyde, in 872.

Dauvit Broun

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Constantine I, 1868–1923, king of the Hellenes, eldest son of George I, whom he succeeded in 1913. Married to Sophia, sister of the German emperor William II, he opposed the pro-Allied policy of the Greek premier, Eleutherios Venizelos, and was forced to abdicate in 1917 under Allied military pressure. His second son, Alexander, succeeded to the throne. Recalled (1920) on Alexander's death, he continued the war against Turkey, although the Allies withdrew their support from Greece. The Turkish victory at Izmir caused a military rebellion, and Constantine in 1922 was again deposed and exiled. His eldest son, George II, succeeded. Constantine is also known as Constantine XII.

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Constantine I(the Great) (c.285–337) Roman Emperor (306–37) and founder of the Christian empire. A series of feuds for control of Italy ended when Constantine adopted Christianity and defeated Maxentius (312). Constantine and Licinius signed the Edict of Milan (313), which extended tolerance to Christians throughout the Empire. In 324 Constantine defeated Licinius and became sole ruler of the Empire. He presided over the first council of the Christian Church at Nicaea (325), which condemned Arianism. Constantine rebuilt (330) Byzantium as his capital and renamed it Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). Constantine centralized imperial power, but divided the empire on his death. Historians debate whether his Christianity was born of conviction or political expediency.

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Constantine I or Constantine the Great (c.288–337). First Roman emperor to accept Christianity. On the eve of the battle of the Milvian Bridge, in 312, he saw in a dream, according to Eusebius, a cross bearing the inscription, ‘In hoc signo vinces’: ‘In this sign you will conquer’. Following his victory, he gave favoured status to the Church, but whether this was formalized (in, e.g., the Edict of Milan, 313) is disputed.