Constantine the Great  

25 July 306 - 29 October 312

25 July 306 - 29 October 312

Constantine the Great

Constantine the Great

Constantine, afterwards surnamed the Great, had some competitors at first for the throne. Among the rest was Maxentius, who was at that time in possession of Rome, and a steadfast asserter of Paganism. It was in Constantine's march against that usurper, that we are assured lie was converted to Christianity by a very extraordinary appearance.

One evening, the army being upon its march towards Rome, Constantine was taken up with various considerations upon the fate of sublunary things, and the danger of his approaching expedition. Sensible of his own incapacity to succeed without divine assistance, he employed his meditations upon the opinions that were chiefly agitated among mankind, and sent up ejaculations to heaven, to inspire him with wisdom to choose the right path. It was then, as the sun was declining, that there suddenly appeared a pillar of light in the heavens, in the form of a cross, with this inscription, In this conquer.

So extraordinary an appearance created astonishment both in the emperor and his whole army. Those who were attached to paganism pronounced it a most inauspicious omen; but it made a different impression on the emperor's mind, who, it is said, was farther encouraged by visions the same night.

He caused a royal standard to be made like that he had seen in the heavens, and commanded it to be carried before him in his wars, as an ensign of victory and celestial protection. After this he consulted with several teachers of Christianity, and made a public avowal of their religion.

Constantine having thus attached his soldiers to his interest, who were mostly of the christian persuasion, lost no time in entering Italy with 90000 foot and 8000 horse, and advanced to the gates of Rome. Maxentius advanced from the city with an army of 170000 foot, and 18000 horse. The engagement was fierce and bloody, till the cavalry of Maxentius being routed, victory declared for his opponent; and Maxentius was drowned in his flight by the breaking down of a bridge, as he attempted to cross the Tiber.

Constantine caused the cross, to be placed at the right of all his statues, with this inscription That under the influence of that victorious cross, Constantine had delivered the city from the yoke of tyrannical power; and had restored the senate and people of Rome to their ancient authority.

He ordained that no criminal should for the future suffer death by the cross, which had formerly been the most usual way of punishing slaves convicted of capital offences. Edicts were soon issued, declaring, that the Christians should be eased of all their grievances and received into places of trust and authority.

Constantine contributed what was in his power to the interest of religion, and the revival of learning. But the peace of the empire was disturbed by the preparations of Maximin, who, desirous of a full participation of power, marched against Licinius with a numerous army. After many conflicts, a general engagement ensued, in which Maximin suffered a total defeat.

As he soon died by a very extraordinary kind of madness, the Christians, of whom he was the declared enemy, did not fail to ascribe, his end to a judgment from heaven.

Constantine and Licinius thus remained undisputed possessors of the empire, but it was soon found that the ambition which aimed after a part would not be satisfied with less than the whole. Hostilities broke out between them. Pagan writers ascribed the rupture between these two potentates to Constantine; while the Christians impute it wholly to Licinius.

The two armies met, and Constantine, previous to the battle, begged the assistance of Heaven; while Licinius, with equal zeal, called on the Pagan priests to intercede with the gods in his favor.

Constantine was victorious; he took the enemy's camp, and compelled Licinius to sue for a truce. But soon after, the war breaking out afresh, and the rivals coming once more to a general engagement. Licinius was defeated, and surrendered himself, having first obtained an oath that his life should be spared.

This oath Constantine broke; for, either fearing his designs, or finding him engaged in fresh conspiracies, he commanded him to be put to death.

Constantine being thus sole monarch of the empire, resolved to establish Christianity on so sure a basis that no new revolutions should shake it. He commanded that in all the provinces of the empire, the orders of the bishops should be scrupulously obeyed.

He called also a general council of the bishops in order to repress the heresies that had already crept into the church, particularly that of Arius. There met about three hundred and eighteen bishops, besides multitudes of presbyters and deacons, together with the emperor himself, who all, except about seventeen, united in condemning the tenets of Arius; and this heresiarch, with his associates, was banished into a remote part of the empire.

Having thus restored universal tranquillity to the empire, he was not able to ward off calamities of a more domestic nature. It is not easy to tell the motives which induced him to put his wife and son Crispus to death.

The most plausible account is this; Fausta, the empress, who was a woman of great beauty, but extravagant desires, had long loved Crispus, the son of Constantine by a former wife. She had tried every art to inspire this youth with a mutual passion; and, finding her efforts ineffectual, she made to him an open confession of her desires.

Crispus received her addresses with detestation, and she, to be revenged, accused him to the emperor. Constantine fired with jealousy and rage, sentenced him to death without a hearing; nor did his innocence appear, till it was too late for redress. The only reparation that remained, was putting Fausta, the wicked instrument of his former cruelty, to death.



Murailles de Constantinople
Murailles de Constantinople

It is supposed that all the good performed by Constantine did not recompense the evil which the empire sustained by his transferring the capital from Rome to Byzantium, or Constantinople, as it was afterwards called. The empire had long been in a most declining state; but this gave precipitation to its downfall.
His first design was to build a city, which he might make the capital of the world; and for this purpose, he made choice of a situation at Chalcedon in Asia Minor; but we are told, that in laying out the ground plan, an eagle caught up the line, and flew with it over to Byzantium, a city which lay upon the opposite side of the Bosphorus. This city he beautified with the most magnificent edifices; he divided it into fourteen regions; built a capitol, an amphitheatre, many churches, and other public works.
Having thus rendered it equal to the magnificence of his idea, he dedicated it in a very solemn manner to the God of martyrs, and about two years after, repaired thither with his whole court.

This removal produced no immediate alteration in the government of the empire; the inhabitants of Rome, with reluctance submitted to the change; nor was there, for two or three years, any disturbance in the state, until the Goths, finding that the Romans had withdrawn all their garrisons along the Danube, renewed their inroads, and ravaged the country with cruelty.

Constantine soon repressed their incursions, and so straitened them that nearly 100000 of their number perished by cold and hunger.

Another great error ascribed to him is the dividing the empire among his sons. Constantine, the emperor's eldest son, commanded in Gaul and the western provinces; Constantius, his second, governed Africa and Illyricum; and Constans, the youngest, ruled in Italy. This division of the empire still farther contributed to its downfall; for the united strength of the state being no longer brought to repress invasions, the barbarians fought with superior numbers, and conquered at last, though often defeated.

Constantine was about sixty years old when he found his health began to decline. His disorder, which was an ague, increasing, he went to Nicomedia, where without hopes of recovery, he caused himself to be baptized; and having received the sacrament, he expired (22 may 337), after a memorable and active reign of almost thirtytwo years.

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