Constantine I, The Great, Roman Emperor
CONSTANTINE I, THE GREAT, ROMAN EMPEROR
Reigned July 15, 306, to May 22, 337; b. Naissus (Nish) in modern Yugoslavia, c. 280; d. Nicomedia. Flavius Valerius Constantine was the son of an Illyrian soldier who became emperor as Constantius I (293–306) and a tavern maid (St.) helena. Under political pressure Constantius repudiated this clandestine alliance (289), and Constantine was raised at the court of diocletian in Nicomedia as a hostage, while his father ruled Gaul, Britain, and Spain. Constantine may have met lactanti us in Nicomedia and probably took part in military operations in the East.
On the abdication of Diocletian (May 1, 305), Constantine joined his father at York in Britain; and on the death of Constantius, he was proclaimed emperor by the army. He led a successful campaign against the Franks on the Rhine and was acknowledged as Caesar in Gaul and Britain by Galerius. At Treves (March 31, 307) he married Fausta, the daughter of the former Emperor Maximian, and was proclaimed Augustus (see roman em pire). The panegyric pronounced on this occasion indicated Constantine's withdrawal from the political theology of the tetrarchy; and in keeping with his father's policy, Constantine claimed dynastic descent from the Emperor Claudius the Goth (268–270). In 310 his panegyrist proclaimed Mars in association with the Sol Invictus as Constantine's divine protector, and the Hercules of the tetrarchy disappeared from his coinage.
Constantine refused to accept the rank of caesar given him by Galerius and Licinius (Nov. 11, 308). He practiced forbearance in regard to the Christians; and in 310 at Marseilles he suppressed a rebellion of his father-in-law, whom he executed but declared a suicide. Evidence on a gold coin struck at Tarragona (July 25, 310) indicates a campaign in Spain, which occasioned his brother-in-law, Maxentius, to return from a successful campaign in Africa and to declare Constantine a public enemy. Shortly before death, the Emperor Galerius published (April 30, 311) an edict of religious tolerance for
Christians signed by Constantine. However, the caesar, Maximin Daia, proclaimed himself emperor in the East, began a propagandist war against the Christians, and attempted to organize the pagan priesthood on ecclesiastical lines (Lact., De mort. 36.4–5). Constantine came to an agreement with the co-Emperor Licinius and suddenly marched into Italy with 30,000 soldiers. He defeated Maxentius on the right bank of the Tiber near the Milvian bridge (Oct. 28, 312) and had himself proclaimed senior augustus by the Roman Senate. In 313 he met Licinius at Milan, gave him his sister Constantia in marriage, and agreed to grant equality of rights to all religions; but they issued no edict, probably in order not to interfere prematurely with Maximin Daia. Each emperor issued mandates restoring rights and property to Christians (Lact., De mort. 48; Euseb., Ecclesiastical History 10.5.1–14), and after two indecisive battles for supremacy (314) reestablished peace and adopted a policy of mutual respect.
Conversion. The religious convictions of Constantine have been the object of numerous controversies. His conversion to Christianity in 312 is now almost universally acknowledged, although the quality of his adherence to the Christian faith is still disputed. That he postponed Baptism until his deathbed is no criterion, for the practice was common, and he late insisted that he had hoped to be baptized in the Jordan.
In reporting Constantine's preparation for the battle of the Milvian bridge, Lactantius claimed (De morte 44) that the emperor saw Christ in a dream and was told to paint on his army's shields an inverted "X" with one stem curved over (transversa X littera summo capite circumflexo ). This formed the Christian monogram (see chi rho). In the Vita Constantini, Eusebius maintains that at noon, before the battle, Constantine and his army, while he was praying to the god of his father, saw a cross over the sun with the inscription "In this sign, conquer" (τούτῳ νίκα). That night Christ appeared to him and told him to paint the cross on the shields of his soldiers (Vita 1.27–32). Eusebius described this sign as the Labarum (used after 325), or staff surmounted with globe, and capped with the Chi-Rho monogram. Eusebius said Constantine told him of the incident. H. Grégoire and W. Seston deny the historicity of the event. However the version of Lactantius (written, probably in Gaul c. 318) seems to be authentic: Constantine did have a vision, whether actual, or dictated by anxiety. In later years his convictions gave the story the proportions narrated by Eusebius. The authenticity of the Vita (written c. 335 or 338) is generally admitted, though its historicity is still open to challenge.
Religious Policy. On entering Rome in 312, Constantine accepted the honors of the Senate but refused a religious ceremony in the temple. He wrote to Maximin Daia opposing the persecution of Christians and gave the palace of Fausta at the Lateran to Pope miltiades for a synod, and then, as the papal residence. He completed the building of a civil basilica, constructed new public baths, and erected a Christian church at the Lateran, which he later completed with a baptistery. He published the decree of Galerius giving religious freedom in his realm, and ordered Anullinus, the prefect in Africa, to restore Christian property and aid the bishops. He dedicated a statue of himself in the Forum with the inscription "Through this salutary sign … I have freed your city from the yoke of the tyrant" (Euseb., Ecclesiastical History 10.4.16; Vita 1.40). The vexillum, the first known on the statue of an emperor, apparently was decorated with the Chi-Rho monogram. Silver coins struck at Treves in 312 or 313 depict the emperor's crown with a starstudded helmet on which the Christian monogram appears: the latter caps the decoration of his helmet on a gold medallion from Tivoli (312 or 315). Although the Sol Invictus and other pagan signs did not disappear until after 321, the vexillum and monogram appeared regularly after 320; and the Labarum, after 326.
Arch of Constantine. Erected by the Senate and dedicated in 315, the Constantinian arch depicting his victory over Maxentius contains pagan symbols: the attributes of the gods, the crown with sun rays, and the emperor with his right hand held open and upright. But no gods are named; and victory is attributed to an instinctu divinitatis (an impulse of divinity), an expression acceptable to both Christians and pagans. But the emperor's involvement in Christian affairs immediately became acute.
In 313 he attempted to settle the Donatist schism in Africa. On an appeal against his recognition of the Catholic Bishop Caecilian, he had Pope Miltiades hold a Roman synod that condemned the Donatist Majorian (Euseb., Ecclesiastical History 10.5.18–20). On a second appeal, he ordered a synod in Arles (314) and wrote to the bishops, asking them to achieve unity lest they give occasion to critics to dishonor the Christian religion. Despite several letters in which he demonstrated his increasing adherence to the Christian faith and his desire to follow the decision of the bishops, he decided to use force against the Donatists (316), but in 321 he granted them amnesty.
Not only did he recognize the bishops as counselors of state, but gradually he extended to them juridical rights. He gave legal force to their solution of civil suits in 318 (Codex Theodosianus 1.27.1), permitted the emancipation of slaves in church (321), and recognized bequests to the Church (ibid. 16.2.4). He seems to have considered himself a colleague of the bishops; Eusebius used the term bishop of those outside ([symbol omitted]πισκοπος τ[symbol omitted]ν ἐκτóς), meaning either non-Christians or the things outside the Church. Constantine seems to have felt himself divinely prompted to handle situations beyond the power of the bishops, and he gradually became involved in all the Church's affairs. He wrote to the Persian King Sapor in favor of the Christians in his realm, and supported the Christian kingdom of Armenia.
He did not enroll among the catechumens, evidently believing he had a divinely guided vocation; but he did read the Scriptures and organized religious ceremonies for the Christian community in his palace. He made Sunday a civil holiday and freed Christian soldiers for religious services (Codex Theodosianus 2.8.1). While he retained the office of pontifex maximus and continued the Sol Invictus and lux perpetua legends on his coinage and monuments, these were expressions of the eternal quality of the Roman state, which was inconceivable to contemporaries without a religious basis; and the majority of his citizens were pagans. Besides, the Sol Invictus had been adopted by the Christians in a Christian sense, as demonstrated in the Christ as Apollo-Helios in a mausoleum (c. 250) discovered beneath St. Peter's in the vatican.
Byzantium and Jerusalem. After the overthrow of Maximin Daia (313), Licinius had favored the Christians in the Orient. But from 317 the Constantinian coinage indicates conflict between the two emperors, and Licinius gradually resorted to repressive measures against the Christians. War broke out in 324, and Constantine defeated Licinius at Adrianople, then in a naval battle at Chrysopolis (Nov. 18, 324), near Byzantium. To commemorate this victory, Constantine rebuilt Byzantium and changed its name to constantinople. He then decided to make it the new Rome, discarding a plan to locate his city at the ancient Ilion or Troy in accord with the Homeric and Vergilian legends. In a letter to the Orient, whose authenticity has been supported by the recent discovery of papyri fragments, Constantine spoke of his experience of God's providence (Vita 2.24–42) and claimed a divine vocation to protect Christians in the Orient and in the West. In a second letter to the provinces he exhorted pagans to convert to "God's holy law," but proclaimed religious liberty for all (ibid. 2.48–60). In an appendix to book 4 of the Vita, Eusebius edited an Oration to the Assembly of Saints that he attributed to Constantine; its authenticity is disputed, but it is a model of contemporary apologetics.
Despite the enmity of the Roman Senate, whom he offended by refusing religious honors on his anniversaries (Decennalia and Vicennalia ) in 316 and 326, Constantine leveled a cemetery on the Vatican hill and built a vast martyr basilica on the spot where tradition located the grave of St. Peter. He had induced his mother, Helena, to become a Christian, and she built a church on her property near the Lateran known as the Sessorianum, later called Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. On a model of the old hero temples, he also constructed the churches of St. Agnes, St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls, and SS. Peter and Marcellinus in conjunction with Helena's mausoleum. A double church was built in Treves; and in Antioch (328), an octagonal edifice close to the imperial palace. Following the lead of Helena, he aided in the construction of the Nativity basilica in Bethlehem (Vita 3.41–43), the Eleona church of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives (ibid. 3.41–43), the basilica on the site of Abraham's sacrifice (3.51–53), and the basilica of the Resurrection in Jerusalem (3.25–40), to whose dedication he called the bishops from a synod at Tyre in 335 (Vita 4.43–46).
Council of Nicaea. Cognizant of the meletian schism and the outbreak of arianism in alexandria, Constantine sent Bishop Hosius of Córdoba with a letter to Bishop Alexander and Arius (323), urging them to make peace for the unity of the realm. After a synod of Oriental bishops at Antioch (324) published a confession of faith (see creed) and suspended Eusebius of Caesarea, Constantine called a general council to meet in Nicaea (June 325); he allowed the bishops to use public transport and housed them in Nicaea (Vita 3.6). He opened the Council of nicaea i with a discourse and presided over its deliberations as if it were a session of the Senate. Accepting the term homoousios (con-substantial) as key to the problem of the divinity of Christ, he sanctioned the formulation of the Nicene Creed; the settlement of the paschal controversy with the computation of Alexandria and Rome as normative; and the administration of the Church according to civil provinces. He closed the Council with an exhortation to peace and unity in Church and Empire, and in letters of promulgation proclaimed himself as "one of you [Christians] who took part in the deliberations" (Vita 3.17–20). He considered the decisions of the bishops as the "judgment of God" (Socrates, Ecclesiastical History 1.9.17–25).
The Emperor banished Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea, who had been condemned by the Council, and published (probably in 326) an edict against heretics. But he sent a benevolent letter to Arius offering a personal interview (Athanasius, Decr. Nic. syn. 40) and in 327 pardoned Eusebius of Nicomedia and Arius. In 328, following a synod, he banished marcellus of an cyra and eustathius of antioch. When difficulties developed over the election of a new bishop in Antioch, Constantine wrote a letter urging unity on the bishops, and praised Eusebius of Caesarea, who had refused the see because he was already attached to Caesarea (Palestine).
When the Meletians attacked athanasius of alex andria, Constantine had the matter investigated (Athan., Apol. 2.68) and called a synod at Caesarea that Athanasius refused to attend. Summoned to Tyre (335) by the Emperor, Athanasius found the synod there hostile and fled to the imperial court, but was banished to Treves in 336, apparently for his intransigence. Constantine then called the bishops to Jerusalem for the dedication of the basilica of the Savior and informed them that, in view of an acceptable profession of faith, he had restored Arius and his followers.
Constantinople. The decision to found a new city in the East had been dictated by political and military necessity. In the foundation ceremonies (consecratio Deo ) on November 26, 328, Constantine allowed the imperial astronomers and pagan priests to perform their ancient rites. In the forum Constantini, the center of the city, a statue of the Emperor depicted as the Sol Invictus was erected on columns; beneath it Constantine had Christian relics and precious objects placed along with the tokens of the ancient city. The new city was dedicated on May 11, 330, in honor of the Christian martyrs (Vita 3.48); and although the Emperor allowed the construction of temples to the goddess Rhea and to Fortune (Tyche) brought from Rome, he proscribed bloody sacrifices and did not allow the introduction of the Vestal cult or the colleges of pagan priests.
The new city of seven hills and 14 regions was given a senate; enjoyed the annona, or distribution of food; and was designated as the "Second Rome." On taking residence, Constantine made an effort to give the city a Christian character, built the church of St. Irene on the acropolis, and laid plans for the basilica of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia). While the emperor cult was continued, it was given a Christian interpretation and surrounded with Christian ceremonial. Of Constantinople itself (Codex Theodosianus 13.5.7), Constantine proclaimed, "we have endowed [it] with an eternal name at God's bidding" (quam aeterno nomine Deo iubente donavimus ).
Constantine continued the toleration of paganism. His laws, however, were gradually influenced by the Christian ethic, although frequently a concurrence with Stoic moral thinking is also evident. The Emperor mitigated the laws dealing with slaves (Codex Theodosianus 9.2.) and allowed a mild Christian influence in legislation affecting marriage, celibacy, and the protection of widows and orphans. He prohibited crucifixion, restricted the gladiatorial games, and in part humanized the code of penal law. Yet, generally speaking, he introduced no radical changes.
In keeping with the custom of his predecessors, Constantine built his own mausoleum at Constantinople, and in conjunction with it, a martyr basilica in honor of the Twelve Apostles near a populated area on the highest of the city's hills. He confessed his desire to be remembered by the faithful who came to pray at the shrine of the Apostles (Vita 4.60) and so arranged his tomb that on two sides it was flanked by six memorial pillars dedicated to the Apostles. There is question as to whether this tomb was located at first within the church and only removed elsewhere at a later time (R. Krautheimer).
In preparation for death, Constantine had himself baptized by Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, and his body was brought to Constantinople, where it received imperial honors. After religious services in the new church, just nearing completion, he was buried in his mausoleum (Vita 4.65–73). His burial beside the memorial earned him the title of Isapostolos (like an apostle) in the early tradition; and since he had been baptized on his deathbed, he was honored in the Orient as a saint. The Roman calendar never acknowledged him, partly because Eusebius was considered an Arian; but during the Middle Ages, particularly in England and France, churches were dedicated in his honor.
The Eusebian Image. eusebius of caesarea had gained the emperor's friendship before the Council of Nicaea and seems to have been one of his close advisers thereafter. He preached at the emperor's Tricennalia, or 30th anniversary, and in the Vita set out to create a new theology of politics with Constantine as the new Moses, a notion current as early as 313. Eusebius portrayed Constantine as consciously inspired by the conviction that he had a divine mission to unify the empire as a manifestation of the kingdom of God on earth. Constantine had expressed this idea in his letter to the bishops at Arles (314; reported by Eusebius) when he pointed to his own life as an example of God's providence leading men ad regulam justitiae (to the rule of justice) and punishing evildoers, particularly those who persecuted the Church (Euseb., Ecclesiastical History 10.17.1–2; this is also the theme of Lactantius's De morte persecutorum ).
As a colleague, then as guide of the bishops, the emperor felt he had a vocation to lead all men to unity in honoring the divinity within the Christian Church (Vita 2.65.1). In the Scriptures Constantine found justification for his idea of the Church as the peace-bringing house of truth, the unifying element of the state as the kingdom of God (Vita 2.56, 67). He respected the decisions of the bishops in synod, particularly the decrees of the Council of Nicaea, and considered all further theological dispute as nugatory. Hence his policy hardened toward pagans and Jews as time wore on. Although he employed pagan terms in speaking of the "divinity," "the highest god," and "divine providence," he had in mind the unique God of the Christians, the creator and judge of all, who saved fallen man through His Son.
Eusebius said nothing about the execution of Fausta and Constantine's eldest, illegitimate son, Crispus, who were accused of mutual adultery (327), or about the violence and barbarity of which julian the apostate later accused the emperor. But the evidence in regard to Fausta is so confused that it is impossible to sort out the facts. As a soldier and ruler, Constantine was ruthless in practical affairs and resorted to harsh legislation in punishing, for example, adultery on the part of the woman, though, in respect for Helena, he tried to ease the situation of servant girls. In dealing with heretics and in his policy toward the pagans, he exercised astute forbearance. There can be no doubt that he was a convinced Christian, whatever may have been the limitations in his understanding of the full significance of that faith.
Legends. Although there is little indication in the evidence of a relationship between Constantine and Pope sylvester i (314–335), a legend evidently originating in Rome before 500 (W. Levison) credited the Pope with baptizing Constantine in the baths of the Lateran and curing him of leprosy. The story was further elaborated to include the legendary conversion of Helena, who had allegedly been influenced by Jews in Bithynia and went to Rome in 315 to save her son from Christianity; but on a confrontation between Sylvester and Jewish champions, she was converted. Together with the Symmachan forgeries, this story in Latin form, as the Actus Silvestri, was incorporated into the Vita Silvestri in the Liber pontificalis. It was probably partly motivated by a mistranslation of the inscription on the triumphal apse in St. Peter's: "Quod duce te mundus surrexit in astra triumphans, /Hanc Constantinus Victor tibi condidit aulam" (Since under Your guidance a triumphal world has risen toward the stars, /The Conqueror Constantine founded this hall in Your honor). The word mundus (world) also means "pure" in Latin.
The Sylvester legend seems also to be at the base of the donation of constantine. It gave rise to many wondrous tales during the Middle Ages in which Constantine was considered a great, wise man and the model of the Christian knight.
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