Flavius Valerius Constantinus
or Constantine the Great
) (272 - May 22, 337), proclaimed
Augustus by his troops in 306; ruled parts of the Roman Empire from 307
to his death.
He was born at Naissus in Upper Dacia to Constantius I Chlorus and an
innkeeper's daughter, Helena. Constantine was well educated and served
at the court of Diocletian after the appointment of his father as one of
the two Caesari, at that time a junior emperor, in the Tetrarchy in 293.
On the death of his father Constantius in 306, he managed to be at his
deathbed in Eburacum (York), where troops loyal to his father's memory
proclaimed him Emperor. For the next 18 years he fought a series of battles
and wars that left him as supreme ruler of the Roman Empire.
Constantine is perhaps best known for being the first Roman Emperor
to endorse Christianity, as a result of his victory in the Battle of Milvian
Bridge, which he credited to the Christian God. His adoption of Christianity
may also be due to family influence: Helena was probably born a Christian,
and demonstrated extreme piety in her later life. He legalized and strongly
supported Christianity beginning around the time he became emperor, but
he neither made paganism illegal nor made Christianity the state religion.
Though the church prospered under Constantine's patronage, it also fell
into the first of many public schisms. He himself called the First Council
of Nicaea to settle the problem of Arianism, a dispute about the personhood
and godhood of Jesus. He himself was not baptized and chrismated until
close to his death. Ironically, Constantine may have favored the losing
side of the Arian controversy, as he was baptized by an Arian bishop, Eusebius
His victory in 313 over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge resulted
with him becoming Western Augustus, or ruler of the entire western half
of the empire. He gradually consolidated his military superiority over
his rivals in the crumbling Tetrarchy until 324, when he defeated the eastern
ruler, Licinius, and became sole emperor.
Constantine also rebuilt the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, naming
it Nova Roma, providing it with a Senate and civic offices similar
to the older Rome. After his death it was renamed Constantinople, and gradually
became the capital of the empire.
Although he earned his honorific of "The Great" from Christian historians
long after he had died, he could have claimed the title on his military
achievements alone. In addition to reuniting the empire under one emperor,
Constantine also won major victories over the Marcomanni and Alamanni (306-08),
the Vandals and Marcomanni (314-15), the Visigoths in 332 and the Sarmatians
two years later. In fact, by 336, Constantine had actually reoccupied most
of the long-lost province of Dacia, which Aurelian had been forced to abandon
in 271. At the time of his death, he was planning a great expedition to
put an end to raids on the eastern provinces from Persia by conquering
that nation--something no Emperor since Trajan had contemplated.
He was succeeded by his three sons, Constantine II, Constantius II and
Constans. The last member of his dynasty was his grandson, Julian, who
attempted to restore paganism.