CONSTANTINE THE GREAT
My first task was to decide where to commence the story of Constantine’s life.
We need to know the History of how he became Emperor and in order to give a full
picture we start with to Emperor Diocletian
Born to a family of low status he rose in the ranks of the military to become
cavalry commander of Emperor Carus who died after only 11 months as Emperor. By
popular demand Diocletian was acclaimed Emperor.
Realising that the power of Rome was in serious decline he set out to stabilize
the empire. Due to the vast area involved he shared the responsibility by making
Maximum co-emperor. He also delegated further by appointing Galerius and
Constantius as junior emperors. Under this ‘rule of four’ each would rule over a
quarter of the empire. Diocletian was Emperor for 20 years during which time he
fought and defeated all who threatened him. He was also responsible for the
empire’s bloodiest official persecution of Christians. Weakened by illness he
retired becoming the first emperor to voluntarily abdicate the position.
He had an extremely troubled life with constant wars and strife. It was during
Maximian’s time as emperor that Constantine was born and when he grew up he was
given a high status. Maximian was jealous. He and Constantine put on a show of
solidarity but it was false. Eventually Maximian plotted to kill Constantine in
his sleep. Constantine learnt of the plan and put a eunuch in his bed. After
killing the eunuch Maximian was apprehended (eunuchs seem to have been
expendable) and to save face Maximian was offered suicide rather than be exposed
for the murder. He accepted the offer and committed suicide.
EMPEROR CONSTANTIUS CHLORUS
He, along with Galerius had been appointed by Diocletian as
co-emperors. His area of control included Gaul and Britannia. At that time
Britannia was being invaded by Germanic tribes who lived in and around Denmark.
We know them as Vikings. They would land a few ships on Britain, each with about
75 men, spend a few days raiding and, by the time help arrived, would be on
their ships heading for home.
The Roman response was to create a British Navy the ‘Classis Britannica’. They
put a man in charge named Mausaeus Carausius, a native of the Roman Empire. It
wasn’t long before there were charges of collusion between him and the enemy and
he was dismissed. Eventually he was assassinated by his deputy Allectus who took
the chance to declare himself Caesar. In 296 Constantius Chorlus invaded
Britain, defeated Allectus who was beheaded.
Now Helena comes into the story. It may be no more than a fable but it is worth
As Constantius moved his army around Britain he would sometimes give them a
break from their normal routine by allowing them into a town where they would
let off steam by marauding and pillaging, leaving the town in complete
disarray. The town chosen was that of King Cole (today’s Colchester). King Cole
was terrified but when Constantius set eyes on the Kings daughter Helena it was
love at first sight and the marauding was abandoned.
Which is where the nursery rhyme is said to come from:-
Old King Cole
was a merry old soul
and a merry old soul was he.
He sent for his pipe and
he sent for his bowl
and he sent for his
His troubles were over and he could indulge himself!
Helena went with Constantius to Eburacum (York). It is not know whether
Constantius and Helena were ever married. If so then in 293 they must have
divorced when Constantius married Maximian’s daughter Theodora.
Helena is revered as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox
Church, the Oriental Orthodoxy Church, the Anglican Community and the Lutheran
Church. Those are very strong recommendations!
On the 25th July 306 Constantius died. As he was dying he recommended his son to
be his successor. Consequently Constantine was declared emperor by the legions
He was always fighting battles and not always successfully. It was Galerius who
started the most terrible of the persecutions against Christianity and had
encouraged Diocletian to increase the persecution. To this end he is said to
have secretly burned the Imperial Palace and blamed it on Christian saboteurs.
Diocletian’s rage was aroused and he began one of the last and greatest
persecutions in the history of the Roman Empire.
Later Galerius admitted that the policy of trying to eradicate Christianity had
failed, saying “wherefore, for this our indulgence, they ought to pray to their
God for our safety, for that of the republic, and for their own, that the
republic may continue uninjured on every side, and that they may be able to live
securely in their homes.” Finally he was stricken with a horrible disease –
some form of leprosy which caused haemorrhages and gangrene. He confessed that
his sickness was divine punishment, and desired to be reconciled with the God of
CONSTANTINE THE GREAT
He was known for his bravery. It was said that he fought a lion and also won a
fight with a gigantic warrior. He was also very astute. There was an occasion
when he set off on horseback at speed to help his father who had called him to
help fight the Picts in Britain. To make sure that no-one could follow and
interfere with his plans he took care to mutilate the post-horses at each stage
so that no-one would have the means of doing so. (Those were brutal times.
Eunuchs and horses were considered to be expendable).
He had received a formal education at Diocletian’s court where he learned Latin
literature, Greek and philosophy. Constantine was tall and strong, bull-necked
and broad shouldered. He was one of those men whose physical appearance alone
inspired respect. He was said to be a mixture of sincere humility and of pride
which never tired of adulation.
Perhaps Constantine is best known for his battle for Rome. He commanded an
inferior force of 40,000 men and was facing superior forces. On the night before
the attack he saw a great cross shining in the sky together with the words ‘By
this sign you will conquer!’ Then, on the following night, Christ appeared to
him, showed him His cross and invited Constantine to have a standard made upon
which it was depicted. When victory was his he pursued Christian policy. The
Christian craftsmen who decorated the fourth-century sarcophagi portrayed
Constantine in the guise of a modern Moses!
We can learn more about Constantine from the Bishop and historian Eusebius of
Caesarea who was often surrounded by conflict and seemed to live in constant
theological arguments. Those lead to him being excommunicated for a while though
he was later exonerated by Constantine. Can we trust his writings regarding
Constantine? Scholars think we can as he was known to have met Constantine who
told him the story of his life. Therefore the story of the sign in the sky and
Christ’s appearance came from Constantine and was not imagined.
Having conquered Rome Constantine enacted many administrative, financial, social
and military reforms to strengthen the empire. The government was restructured
and civil and military authority separated. A new gold coin, the solidus, was
introduced to combat inflation. It would become the standard for Byzantine and
European currencies for more than a thousand years.
He built a new imperial residence at Byzantium and named it New Rome. However,
in Constantine’s honour the Romans called it Constantinople.
Despite his claim to be Christian Constantine had little regard for the 5th
Commandment. Before the battle for Rome he got rid of his two rivals so he alone
could be the Augusts Emperor. The killing continued when he had Licinius
executed. Licinius had been a rival Emperor which did not suit Constantine so he
had to be eliminated. A tragic family dispute lead to Constantine having is own
son Crispus executed. Among the reasons killing of Crispus were mentions of
adultery and possibly an unwanted pregnancy. The news caused an immense stir
throughout the Empire, which was amplified and made even more dreadful by the
anguished screams of the aged Empress Helena who came to reproach her son for
having murdered the dearest of her grandchildren. Confused, tormented, quivering
with distress and remorse Constantine’s only solution lay in yet a new crime.
One morning just as his wife Fausta was about to take her bath, soldiers burst
into the room, and pierced her naked flesh with their swords and held her under
the water which soon turned blood- red. Historians assume that the reason was
the same as his killing of Crispus. The message of Jesus had not brought peace
to Constantine’s violence ridden soul. Those were the times they lived in but
when we compare it to the wars, mutilations, murders and abortions of the
twenty-first century things have only got worse.
Yes despite his totally unchristian actions Constantine maintained a watchful
eye on whatever was happening in the Church. When he heard that there was a
religious dispute he took responsibility for finding an answer. He had two such
disputes to deal with; the first was Donatism and the second Arianism. The
leader of the Donatists was Donatus from North Africa. He was a strong orator
with the temperament of a warrior. He and his disciples claimed that sinners
were no longer Christians. His aim was to oppose the Universal Church with an
autonomous church in Africa, which he would control. His claim that sinners were
no longer Christians rejected the great lesson of mercy which had fallen so
constantly from Our Lord’s lips. The Donatists tradition claimed that sinners
would have to be re-baptised to become Christians and that any priest deemed to
have sinned would need to be re-ordained. Constantine asked Pope Miltiades to
give judgment and in 313 a Council was opened in Rome. The Council decided
against Donatism though it didn’t stop Donatus personally continue to thrive for
some time. Eventually Constantine had had enough and went to Africa with the
sword to put the matter to rest!
The second dispute, Arianism, was regarding the very belief in God the Father
and the Son. Arianism claimed that sometime during eternity God the father had
‘created’ the Son. The Son was therefore considered to be beholden to the Father
and not part of a single Godhead. This theory was defended by Arian who was a
Theological Presbyter from Constantinople. Whilst Arianism is named after him it
is certain that the theory had been around for some time but he made his name by
To deal with the matter Constantine called the Council of Nicaea which took
place in 325. This was the first ‘ecumenical’ Council of the Church; the first
General Council in Jerusalem having been an Apostolic Council which established
that Gentiles could join the Church.
Constantine had invited all 1800 bishops of the Christian Church. About 318
attended though they did not travel alone and had permission to bring two
priests, three deacons and acolytes so the total number would be in the region
Constantine arranged travel expenses too and from the bishop’s episcopal sees,
as well as lodging at Nicaea. He also provided and furnished a ‘great hall’ as a
place for discussion so the attendees “should be treated with becoming dignity”.
One of the Papal Legates, Hosius of Cordoba, probably presided over the
deliberations of the Council. Constantine was present but took no part in the
discussion or the voting. After being in session for an entire month, the
council overwhelmingly affirmed the deity and eternality of Jesus Christ and
defined the relationship between the Father and the Son as ‘of one substance’.
It also affirmed the Trinity – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was listed as
three co-equal Persons.
Two Bishops refused to adhere to the Creed and were excommunicated, along with
Arius who had not been in the Council he was not a Bishop. His works were
confiscated and consigned to the flames.
In the last years of his life Constantine made plans for a campaign against
Persia but in the Spring of 337 the campaign was called off when Constantine
fell sick. He had known his death would come soon. He had secretly prepared a
final resting place for himself in the Church of the Holy Apostles in
Constantinople which had been built on his instructions in 330. Soon after the
Feast of Easter in 337 he fell seriously ill. He left Constantinople for the hot
baths near his mother’s city of Helenopolis. He realised that he was dying and
summoned the Bishops and told them of his hope to be baptized in the River
Jordan. But, due to the seriousness of his illness, that was not possible so he
requested baptism right away promising to live a more Christian life if he
should recover. He chose Eusebius of Nicomedia, the bishop of the city where he
lay dying, as his baptizer.
In postponing his baptism, he followed a custom of the time which postponed
baptism till after infancy. It has been thought that Constantine put off baptism
as long as he did so as to be absolved from as much of his sin as possible!
After his baptism he is said to have murmured “Now I am truly happy, I see the
light divine…..” He died on the 22nd May 337.
Following his death, his body was embalmed, laid in a gold coffin, and
transferred to Constantinople where it was exposed for several days before being
and buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles. What happened to his body after
that is not known. Since 337 the church would have been affected by earthquakes
and looting. All that is left of Constantine’s tomb, the founder of
Christianity, as it is structured today, is a fragment of purple coloured stone
in the local archaeological museum in Istanbul.
References: The Church of the Apostles and Martyrs.
By H. Daniel-Rops.
Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia.