The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome – Part 46

The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome series explores the most famous – and infamous – dictators, leaders and emperors of Rome. This week we focus on Emperor Constantine, also known as Constantine the Great.

Constantine The Great Part I

070915-emperor-constantine-part-1Emperor Constantine has rightly been called the most important emperor of late antiquity. His powerful personality laid the foundations of post-classical European civilization; his reign was eventful and highly dramatic. His victory at the Milvian Bridge counts among the most decisive moments in world history, while his legalization and support of Christianity and his foundation of a “New Rome” at Byzantium rank among the most momentous decisions ever made by a European ruler. The fact that ten Byzantine emperors after him bore his name may be seen as a measure of his importance and of the esteem in which he was held.

Constantine was born in 285 to Helena to an inn keeper’s daughter and Constantius Chlorus. When Constantius Chlorus was elevated to the rank of Caesar, Constantine became a member of the court of Diocletian. He proved an officer of much promise when serving under Diocletian’s Caesar Galerius against the Persians. He was still with Galerius when Diocletian and Maximian abdicated in 305, finding himself in the precarious situation of a virtual hostage to Galerius.

When Constantius Chlorus died in 306, the troops hailed Constantine as the new Augustus. Galerius refused to accept this proclamation but, faced with strong support for Constantius’ son, he saw himself forced to grant Constantine the rank of Caesar.

Galerius died in 311, leaving four leaders to struggle for dominance. In the east, Licinius and Maximinus Daia fought for supremacy; in the west, Constantine began a war with Maxentius. In 312, Constantine invaded Italy. Maxentius is believed to have had up to four times as many troops, though they were inexperienced and undisciplined. Victorious in battle, Constantine marched on Rome. He later claimed to have had a vision on the way to Rome during the night before battle. In this dream he saw the symbol of Christ shining above the sun. Seeing this as a divine sign, Constantine had his soldiers paint the symbol on their shields. Following this, Constantine went on to defeat the numerically stronger army of Maxentius at the Battle at the Milvian Bridge. Constantine saw this victory as directly related to the vision he had the night before. Henceforth, Constantine saw himself as an Emperor of the Christian people. Although Constantine was baptized on his deathbed, he is generally understood as the first Christian Emperor of the Roman Empire.

With his victory over Maxentius, Constantine became the dominant figure in the Empire. The senate warmly welcomed him to Rome and the two remaining Emperors, Licinius and Maximinus II Daia, could do little else but agree to his demand that he should be the senior Augustus. It was in this senior position that Constantine ordered Maximinus II Daia to cease their repression of the Christians.

In 313, Licinius defeated Maximinus II Daia, leaving only two Emperors. At first, both tried to live peacefully with each other, Constantine in the west, Licinius in the east. In 313, they met at Mediolanum, where Licinius even married Constantine’s sister and restated that Constantine was the senior Augustus. It was agreed that Licinius would return property to the Christian church which had been confiscated in the eastern provinces. It was clear that Licinius would make his own laws in the east without the need to consult Constantine.

Problems arose when Constantine appointed his brother-in-law Bassianus as Caesar for Italy and the Danubian provinces. Licinius saw in Bassianus little else than a puppet of Constantine. To prevent his opponent from further increasing his power, Licinius managed to persuade Bassianus to revolt against Constantine in 315.

The rebellion was easily put down, but the involvement of Licinius was discovered, making war inevitable. In 316, Constantine attacked with his forces and defeated Licinius, forcing him to retreat.

After ensuing battles, most won by Constantine yet some indecisive, the two sides reached a treaty. Licinius surrendered all Danubian and Balkan provinces, with the exception of Thrace, to Constantine. In effect this was little else but confirmation of the actual balance of power, as Constantine had indeed conquered these territories and controlled them.

For a short while the Empire enjoyed peace, but soon the situation began to deteriorate again. Constantine acted more and more in favor of the Christians and Licinius began to disagree. From 320 onwards, Licinius began to suppress the Christian church in his eastern provinces and also began ejecting Christians from government posts.

Constantine, while campaigning against Gothic invaders, strayed into Licinius’ Thracian territory. It is possible he did so on purpose in order to provoke a war. But as it may, Licinius took this as a reason to declare war in 324.

Constantine moved to attack first with 120,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry against Licinius’ 150,000 infantry and 15,000 cavalry. In 324, he severely defeated Licinius’ forces at Hadrianopolis and shortly after his fleet won victories at sea. Licinius was imprisoned and later executed. Now Constantine was sole Emperor of the entire Roman world.


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