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Roman Emperor - Constantine I

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272 - 337 A.D.

Constantine the Great, born Flavius Valerius Constantinus, at Naissus, in Upper Moesia (now Nish, Yugoslavia), 272 A.D. He was the illegitimate son of Emperor Constantius I and his mother was Flavia Helena. On his father's death was acclaimed emperor in 306 A.D.

Photo by Jean-Christophe Benoist

Photo by Jean-Christophe Benoist

Early Life

From 302 Constantine spent his youth in the service of the court of Eastern emperor Diocletian, virtually as a hostage to insure the good behaviour of his father, and later served under Galerius on the Danube.

In 305, immediately after the abdication of Diocletian and Maximian, he escaped and joined his father Constantius I, then the Emperor of the West, who was about to leave on an expedition to Britain.

Upon the death of Constantius in 306 A.D., Constantine was proclaimed emperor by his troops. However, Constantine declined the office, preferring to consolidate his position before entering the struggle for power precipitated by his father's death. He took instead the title of Caesar, or subemperor, offered him by Galerius, the Emperor of the East, and remained in the Western provinces.

In 312 A.D., Constantine allied himself with Licinius, Galerius' successor in the East, and marched against Maxentius, who controlled Italy and Africa and claimed the title of Western emperor. He met the army of Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge on the Tiber River. In the battle, Maxentius' army was defeated and Maxentius was killed.

On the day before the battle, it is said, Constantine saw a flaming cross in the sky and under it Greek words meaning "by this sign shall you conquer." Constantine, already interested in Christianity, accepted this vision as an omen of triumph and ordered his troops to display on their standards the first two letters of the name of Christ in Greek. The victory at the Milvian Bridge strengthened Constantine's faith in the Christian religion, and his conversion is often dated from this time.

Constantine continued to call himself Augustus (after 310 by virtue of his descent from Claudius II). The death of Galerius in 311 was followed by a coalition of Maxentius and Maximin, which caused Licinius to ally himself with Constantine. In 312 Constantine defeated Maxentius at the Mulvian Bridge.

In 313 Constantine gave his half-sister Constantia in marriage to Licinius, and by the Edict of Milan (issued in his own name and that of Licinius) granted toleration to Christianity throughout the Empire. Licinius had been Augustus of the East since 311; Constantine held the West. There was a short period of war between them in 314, but reconciliation only postponed the inevitable conflict. In 324 A.D., Licinius challenged Constantine. He was decisively defeated at Chrysopolis (now Uskiidar, Turkey), and Constantine became absolute ruler in both the East and West.

Roman Emperor

Constantine was now sole master of the Roman Empire.

Constantine was an able and enlightened administrator. He established Christianity as the dominant religion within the Roman Empire and founded Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) as the new capital of the empire. His decision to move the capital eastward from Rome to a site on the Bosporus, where the continents of Europe and Asia meet, marked the decline of the influence of Rome and the beginning of the Eastern, or Byzantine, Empire.

Although not baptized until shortly before his death, Constantine showed a preference for Christianity during most of his adult life. In 311 A.D. the emperor Galerius had decreed the legal recognition of Christianity, and in 313 A.D., Constantine and Licinius had issued an edict assuring religious freedom throughout the empire. It remained for Constantine, however, definitely to ally the empire with the Christian Church.

In 325 A.D. he personally convoked the first ecumenical council of the Church to deal with certain problems of doctrine and religious practice. This council, which met at Nicaea, not only was the forerunner of other Church meetings, but also set the precedent for the emperor's participation in church administration. In his new capital at Constantinople, dedicated in 330 A.D., Constantine excluded all religions but Christianity.

Constantine unified the empire under his absolute authority and carried forward the civil and military reforms begun by Diocletian. He separated the civil from the military administration and organized a corps of inspectors to check and report on conditions throughout the empire. Constantine's military reform had two basic purposes: to establish a strong force on the frontiers to repel barbarian invasions and to maintain a mobile force to suppress internal disorders. These innovations were paid for by oppressive taxation that gradually impoverished the empire and reduced many of its subjects to the level of serfs.

Constantine is considered to be one of the most enlightened of the later Roman emperors. Nevertheless, he remained a firm believer in absolutism. Although generally benevolent toward his subjects, he was responsible for the death of his wife and one of his sons for obscure political or personal reasons.

He died near Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) in 337 A.D. aged 65.

At his death, Constantine divided the rule of the empire among his three surviving sons and two nephews. The struggle for power which Constantine himself had undergone was renewed.

  • Roman Empire Capstone Hub
  • New Age Encyclopaedia, Seventh Edition edited by D. A. Girling, Bay Books, 1983. Volume 7, Page 276.
  • Merit Students Encyclopedia, Volume 5, P.F. Collier Inc, 1979. Page 230.
  • The New International Illustrated Encyclopaedia, Volume 2, 1954. Page 240.


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helpful on June 11, 2010:

Thanks for the help for my essay.. 7th grade Roman Empire history!

passing on March 05, 2010:

Interesting article about a pivotal figure in our history

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Thanks! This Helped Me So Much On My Essay.

William F Torpey from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on June 15, 2009:

Very interesting history, darkside, and a great series on the Roman emperors. I'm particularly interested in Constantine because it happens to be my father's middle name. Why he chose it I don't know -- and I guess I never will.

BetsyIckes from Pennsylvania on June 07, 2009:

I've always loved Roman history! It is amazing!

Robin from USA on June 06, 2009:

Thanks for an interesting read!

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