|Constantine: The Godfather||
Pvdens (Mark Hatch)
Change. The Emperor Gaius Aurelius
Valerius Diocletianus (Diocletian; lived
ca 245 - 316 AD) was the product of merit and of the social mobility
possible in the late third century AD. He ruled the Roman world
for over twenty years. Neither mad nor debauched, as some biographers
portray, Diocletian (uniquely) retired from power and famously
boasted of growing cabbages "with his own hand"
in retirement. Diocletian had recognised, however, that the
Empire was too vast for one man's autocratic rule and had sensibly
divided absolute power between four monarchs. At the same time he
put in place a mechanism for orderly succession, with the junior
Caesars stepping up to the rank of Augustus and appointing
deputy Caesars in turn. Moreover, Diocletian had wisely chosen
his colleagues and successors based on their ability and loyalty,
not blood-ties. With the provinces grouped into a dozen Dioceses,
each ruled by a Vicar, the Imperial tetrarchy had provided orderly
succession for a generation
Constantine - the Early Years. On the 27th of February 272 AD, Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus was born in the Moesian military city of Naissus (Ni in Serbia). Constantine's father, Flavius Constantius, an Illyrian from what would later become Dacia Ripensis, was an officer in the Roman army at the time of his sons birth, serving as an imperial bodyguard to Emperor Aurelian in Syria. The position proved favourable to Constantius' career: in 284/5 AD, the newly incumbent Emperor Diocletian, another Illyrian who had also served under Aurelian, appointed Constantius governor of Dalmatia. Constantine's mother, Helena, was a woman of humble origin: one source claims her to be a mere concubine of Constantius, another calls her "extremely lowly", and yet another that she had been a mere stable maid when she met Constantius. More reliable sources generally agree that she was Constantius' legitimate spouse, and that Constantine was thus a legitimate heir.
The Tetrarchy. As emperor, Diocletian effected a systematic and comprehensive division of the Empire. Two emperors would rule the Empire, one in the East and one in the West, in a system called the Tetrarchy. Diocletian would rule the East from Nicomedia (Izmit), and an old Illyrian colleague, Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maximianus Herculius (Maximian; lived c. 250 - July 310 AD), would rule the West from Mediolanum (Milan). Each emperor would have his own court, his own military and administrative faculties, and each would rule with a separate praetorian prefect as chief lieutenant. In 288 AD, Maximian appointed Constantius to serve as his praetorian prefect in Gaul. Constantius divorced Helena, and married Maximian's stepdaughter Flavia Maximiana Theodora ca. 28889 AD. Diocletian, dissatisfied with his first division, divided the Empire again in 293 AD, appointing two Caesars - junior emperors - to rule over further subdivisions of East and West. Each Caesar would be subordinate to their respective Augustus - senior co-Emperors Maximian and Diocletian - but each would act with supreme authority in their own assigned territories. Thus it was that on the 1st of March 293 AD, Constantius was promoted to the office, and given the task of suppressing the usurper Carausius' rebellion in Britannia and Gaul.
At the Court of Diocletian. Constantine, now a Caesar's son, became a potential candidate for future appointment to the Tetrarchy. In the politics of the day, however, Constantine was obliged to spend his youth at Nicomedia as a hostage in the court of Diocletian; the Augustus did not completely trust Constantius - none of the tetrarchs fully trusted their colleagues - and would have wished to have collateral to ensure good behavior. Regardless, young Constantine benefited greatly receiving a formidable education, gaining a skillful understanding of Latin literature, a capable proficiency in Greek, and an aptitude for philosophy. Whether hostage or not, he was a prominent member of the court, participating fully in the political life of the Empire. Constantine fought for Diocletian and Gaius Galerius Valerius Maximianus (Galerius; lived c. 2505 May 311 AD) in Asia, serving in a variety of tribunates. He campaigned against barbarians on the Danube in 296 CE, fought in the Persian wars under Diocletian in Syria (297 AD) and Galerius in Mesopotamia (29899 AD). He travelled to Babylon in Mesopotamia and Memphis in Egypt. Returning from his Egyptian voyage, he met the young Eusebius, his later biographer, in Caesarea Maritima in Palestine. Constantine impressed him with his intelligence, strength, and natural grace.
On 23rd February 303 AD, Constantine probably
witnessed, firsthand, Diocletian's destruction of the newly-built
Christian church at Nicomedia. The event inaugurated what
Christian authors have named the "Great Persecution"
as many of the brethren were imprisoned, tortured, and killed
for acts of defiance against official religious policy (most escaped
punishment through silence). Constantine's silence on the
extent of his complicity while at Diocletian's court during
this period engendered a continuing distrust among the church
hierarchy for any participation on his part in church government.
In a late letter to Eastern provincials, Constantine described
himself as a child when the Great Persecution
began, when in fact, he was nearer to thirty; his later biographers
and panegyrists continued the trend, describing him as "the
young man" or "the youthful emperor".
Indeed, no contemporary Christian challenged him on any aspect
of his role in the persecutions. Nonetheless,
Constantine continued to assert that he had criticised the policy
when first introduced.
Legitimising the Claim. Constantine's succession was clearly contrary to Diocletian's original plans and his position was therefore somewhat insecure. Nonetheless, with Constantius' support and the backing of his armies, it mattered little. Constantine was now directly sub-ordinate to Galerius, so he sent the latter an official notice of Constantius' death and his own acclamation, including with the notice a traditional portrait of himself robed in the outfit of Augustus of the West wearing the imperial wreath. Constantine duly requested recognition as heir to his father's throne, while blaming his army for his unlawful ascension, claiming they had "forced it upon him". Galerius was displeased and it was with difficulty that his advisers convinced him of the necessity of peace and the inherent dangers in challenging a popular man. Galerius was compelled to compromise. He sent Constantine a purple vestment - impressing on Constantine that he, Galerius, remained the true source of power - and granted Constantine the title of Caesar (while elevating Flavius Valerius Severus (Severus; died 16 September 307 AD) instead to the office of Augustus). Constantine accepted the decision, as it served to remove any possible doubts regarding his legitimacy, and began appearing on imperial coinage as Flavius Valerius Constantius the Noble Caesar. In the meantime, however, the usurper Maxentius (son of Diocletian's original colleague Maximian) had been proclaimed Augustus in Rome by the Praetorian Guard. In an unsuccessful attempt to remove the usurper, the newly appointed Augustus, Severus, was killed thus opening the field to an ambitious prince whose sights were on the bigger prize.
Conversion - My Enemy's Enemy is My Friend. In the 4th century AD, the well established eastern provinces were by far the richest and most populous of the Roman world. Some of its cities, Pergamon, Symrna, Antioch and so on, had existed for almost a millennium and had accumulated vast wealth from international trade and as venerated cult centres. Through the provinces numerous cities passed Roman gold going East in exchange for imports from Persia, India and Arabia. Flowing west with those exotic imports came equally exotic 'mystery religions' to titillate and enthral Roman appetites. In contrast, the western provinces, now ruled by Constantine, were more recently colonised and less developed. Its cities were small new towns, its hinterland still uncivilised to Roman eyes. During the crisis decades of the 3rd century AD, many provincial Romans in the West had been carried off into slavery by Germanic raiders and their cities burned. The province of Britannia and part of northern Gaul had actually seceded from the Empire in the late 3rd century and had been ruled by its own Emperors (Carausius and Allectus), with the help of Frankish mercenaries (286-297 AD). Constantine may have ruled the West, but he certainly did not have a power-base in the East from which to mount a bid for the throne. He did have a plan, however. Constantine had been at Nicomedia in 303 AD when Diocletian had decided to purge the Roman state of a disloyal Christian element. Constantine had also served under Galerius on the Danube and had witnessed first-hand how the favoured Galerius, designated heir and rival, in particular despised the fledgling cult of Christianity. The ambitious and ruthless prince, from a base in Trier, immediately proclaimed himself protector of the Christians. Yet it was not the handful of worshippers in the West that Constantine had in mind - there had not, after all, been any persecution in the West - but the far more numerous congregation in the East. While they constituted a tiny minority within the total population (perhaps as few as 2%), the eastern Christians were an organised force, holding important positions within the state administration in many cities. Some even held posts within the imperial entourage. By championing the cause of the Christians, Constantine had neatly engineered for himself the leadership of a 'fifth column' in the Eastern Empire - effectively a state within a state.
Multiple Civil Wars. Having added Italy and Africa to his realm, Constantine first secured his position with the senior Augustus in the East (Flavius Galerius Valerius Licinianus Licinius had succeeded to the throne of Galerius) by a 'peace pact' and the gift of his sister as a bride. Yet within a year, Constantine reneged on his agreement with Licinius and plunged the Empire into a new civil war. Two battles in the Balkans, Cibalae (October 314 AD) and Castra Jarba (November 314 AD), were stalemated with massive casualties on both sides. In a display of astute psychological warfare, it seems Constantine had unnerved the Christians in Licinius' army by displaying Christian emblems in his own legions. Licinius, an accommodating and benign Emperor, sued for a peace in which he acknowledged Constantine as the senior Augustus. Now titular monarch of the world, for the next decade Constantine concentrated on wooing the senatorial class in Rome, a process marked by a programme of public works in a city already in decline.
Fatal Reorganisation of the Army. At the height of its power, Rome's vast empire had been successfully defended by legions stationed in fortresses on the frontiers. Its military machine had thoroughly mastered the arts of military support and logistics. Some 30 legions had been sufficient to vanquish barbarians in forest, desert, mountain or marsh. But the legions had increasingly become the makers of emperors. In the interlude of the tetrarchy, Constantine's father had been chosen by Diocletian for his ability. But Constantine himself had used the Gallic army to stake his own claim for power and he was wary of the legions. Having triumphed by force, Constantine was determined to close the door for any future usurpers.
At the heart of Constantine's new structure for the army was a more mobile force of 100,000 troops, initially withdrawn from the frontier garrisons and divided into several smaller field armies. The comitatenses were stationed well within the provinces in a marked contrast to the armys deployment during the Principate, which was used primarily to protect the Empires frontiers. The old system had meant that if an enemy successfully penetrated the frontier zone, it took considerable time to redeploy forces to defeat the threat. Moreover, withdrawing forces from one area could weaken its defence leading to further problems. Importantly, the comitatenses were at the immediate disposal of the Emperor and had greater freedom of manoeuvre to counter hostile incursions or, from the experiences of the civil wars, to protect the Emperor from the internal threat of usurpers. With the new army came a new command structure, based upon personal loyalty to the Emperor. At its head were two 'field marshals' for infantry and cavalry (magister peditum and magister equitum, respectively), both of whom were under Constantine's watchful eye. Senators were removed entirely from military command.
Increased mobility would seemingly place
greater emphasis on cavalry, ...yet in the crucial battles
that the legions fought against Goths and Huns it was the clash
of foot soldiers - not cavalry - that decided the Empire's fate."
The Greek historian Zosimus, in the early 6th century AD
noted other consequences of Constantine's reforms: "[He]
abolished security by removing the greater part of the soldiery
from the frontiers to the cities that needed no auxiliary forces.
He thus deprived of help the people who were harassed by the barbarians
and burdened tranquil cities with the pest of the military, so
that several straightway were deserted. Moreover, he softened
the soldiers, who treated themselves to shows and luxuries. Indeed
(to speak plainly) he personally planted the first seeds of our
present devastated state of affairs.".
Divine, Dynastic Monarch! The
wily Diocletian had begun a process (adapted from the Oriental
theocracies) that Constantine refined and set as a model for all
future monarchs - surrounding the imperial dignity with a halo
of sacredness and ceremonial. A large court-retinue, elaborate
court-ceremonials, and ostentatious court-costume made access
to the Emperor almost impossible. When he eventually reached God's
agent on Earth, a suppliant prostrated
himself before the Emperor as if before a divinity (contrast this
with Augustus, who had always stood to greet a senator!)
Henceforth, emperors allowed themselves to be venerated as divine,
and everything connected with them was no longer imperial
but sacred. Constantine, not content with concentrating
absolute (and divine) power into his own hands,
went on to reduce the authority of provincial governors and generals
(Duces and Comes). Some
of this authority fell into the hands of the nouveau riche bishops,
at whose head stood Constantine himself. Constantine hoped thus
to prevent any rebellion arising in the provinces, but in so doing,
he also weakened the ability of the provinces to resist invasion.
Spoils of Victory: Pillaging the Pagans. It is not unfair to say that the early Church at this period was highly intolerant of any competition. This is hardly surprising as, throughout recorded history, new religions have always struggled, zealously, to establish themselves as the true faith, radical and different from all previous versions. The Universal Church had eyed with envy the pagan temples and shrines which, through centuries, had amassed fortunes. In favouring Christianity, Constantine sanctioned intolerant zealots to make a concerted effort to crush all opposition. As his propagandists, influential Christian leaders had the ear of Constantine and successfully urged him to confiscate temple treasures throughout the Empire, much of it redirected to the One True Faith. The assault upon the values that had sustained the Empire for a thousand years was merciless and relentless. It began with Constantine's denial of state funds to the ancient pagan shrines, which had always depended on state sponsorship. Never having had full-time fund raisers like the Christian churches, the pagan cults immediately went into decline. Yet having given the Christians the world, Constantine had failed to anticipate the ferocity of Christian discord, which was to dog his reign and the reign of his successors.
The Christian community itself had changed as a consequence of the Constantinian revolution. Official recognition of Christianity, the tax exemptions it gave devotees and state patronage made the Christian faith considerably more appealing to opportunistic pagans. Episcopal posts became highly sought after when, in 319 AD, the clergy were exempted from public obligations and, in 321 AD, priests were exempted from imperial and local taxation. Clerics were even placed outside the jurisdiction of normal courts. Consequently, a flood of new converts, many with little or no religious motivation, swamped the Church. Fierce rivalries within it multiplied, weakened its power and exposed vulnerabilities in both its doctrine and organisation.
Post-Constantine: Lurch into Religious Tyranny. Constantine had successfully established the dynastic principle, but it had become a bitter fruit. His feeble sons, born to rule, murdered each other in an all-consuming power struggle (the survivor died falling from his horse). Worse yet, Constantines nephew, Julian, though raised as a Christian, detested the doctrine and, on assuming the throne, reversed many of Constantines policies. To the alarm of the new Christian establishment, the pagan world seemingly not die quietly. Fortunately, within three years, the Emperor Julian had been assassinated on the Persian front and with the prize once again unexpectedly within their grasp, the Christian Church was fearful of losing it. Thereafter, the Church embraced a ruthlessness hitherto unknown in the world that, in the centuries ahead, would wreak unimaginable horror. In the closing years of the 4th century AD, draconian laws prohibiting non-Christian beliefs were enacted by the new (Christian) Emperor Theodosius. Heresy became equated with treason and was thus a capital offence. Theodosius the Great presided over the destruction of temples and icons, the burning of books and libraries, and a murderous rampage of pagan priests, scholars and philosophers. The prologue to the Dark Age in Europe had been written through the sacrifice of the wisdom and finesse of an entire civilisation on the altar of new belief.
1. Eutropius 10.8; Jerome, Chronicon s.a. 337; and Socrates 1.39.1.
2. Aurelius Victor, 41.16.
3. Lenski, "Reign", 59. Barnes opts for a date "soon after...270", preferring 272 or 273 (Constantine and Eusebius, 3). Elliott, too, chooses 272 or 273 (Christianity, 17). Odahl suggests 273 (Odahl, 16). Dates in the 280s have been recently refuted (Pohlsander, Constantine, 14).
4. Timothy D. Barnes, The New Empire of Diocletian and Constantine Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (1982), 3942; T. G. Elliott, "Constantine's Conversion: Do We Really Need It?" Phoenix 41 (Winter 1987), 4256; T. G. Elliott, "Eusebian Frauds in the "Vita Constantini"". Phoenix 45 (Summer 1991), 163; Elliott, Christianity, 17; Barbara Saylor Rodgers, "The Metamorphosis of Constantine". The Classical Quarterly 39 (1989), 238; David H. Wright, "The True Face of Constantine the Great". Dumbarton Oaks Papers 41 (1987), 495, 507.
5. A.H.M. Jones, Constantine and the Conversion of Europe. London: The English Universities Press (1948), 12.
6. Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, 3; Lenski, "Reign", 5960; Odahl, 1617.
7. Ancient sources: Ambrose De Obit. Theod. 42; Jerome, Chronicon 306; Origo Constantini 2. Modern commentary: Barnes, 3; Lenski, "Reign", 59.
8. Odahl, 16.
9. Simon Corcoran, "Before Constantine". The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine. Ed. Noel Lenski. New York: Cambridge University Press (2006), 4154; Odahl, 4650; Warren Treadgold, A History of Byzantine State and Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press (1997), 1415.
10. Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, 3; Lenski, "Reign", 5960; Odahl, 47, 299; Pohlsander, Constantine, 14. The date of Constantius' remarriage is a contentious issue. Pohlsander and Odahl favor a remarriage in 293, as the Origo Constantini links the two events explicitly, while Barnes and Lenski favor a 288 or 289 date, based on a reading of the Panegyrici Latini dated 21 April 289 that seems to suggest that Constantius was already married to Theodora at the time.
11. Corcoran, 401; Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, 3, 8; Odahl, 467; Pohlsander, Constantine, 89, 14; Treadgold, 17.
12. Lenski, "Reign", 60; Odahl, 7273.
13. Eusebius, Vita Constantini 1.19; Odahl, 7273.
14. Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, 2225; Odahl, 6769.
15. H. A. Drake, "Lambs into Lions: Explaining Early Christian Intolerance". Past and Present 153 (November 1996), 15, 345; Treadgold, 25.
16. H. A. Drake, "The Impact of Constantine on Christianity". The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine. Ed. Noel Lenski. New York: Cambridge University Press (2006), 126.
17. Elliott, "Conversion", 425.
18. Odahl, 15.
19. H. A. Drake, "Impact", 126.
20. Odahl, 73.
21. Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, 2527; Odahl, 6972.
22. Lenski, "Reign", 6061; Odahl, 7274; Pohlsander, Constantine, 15.
23. Odahl, 7576.
24. Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, 27; Lenski, "Reign", 61; Odahl, 77.
25. Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, 2728; Lenski, "Reign", 6162; Odahl, 7879.
26. Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, 2829; Lenski, "Reign", 62; Odahl, 7980.
27. Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, 29.
28. Odahl, 80; Pohlsander, Constantine, 1415; Treadgold, 28.
29. S. Angus, The Mystery Religions, p.236.
30. Lactantius, On the Death of the Persecutors, chapter XLIV; ANF. vii, 318.
31. Eusebius, Vita Constantini (1.xxvi-xxxi).
32. Ferrill, A. (1986), The Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation, Thames & Hudson.
33. Zosimus, Historia Nova, II.34.
34. Goldsworthy, A. (2003), The Complete Roman Army, Thames & Hudson, 203.
Most historians assert 272 AD as Constantines birth year following a number of ancient sources, but another equally reliable contemporary source suggests a birthdate of 276 AD, and modern historians have argued for dates as late as 288 AD. In later years, Constantine would often lie about his age for political gain, further confusing the issue. In any case, Constantine was born in an age in which births were not regularly registered; it is likely that Constantine himself did not know exactly when he was born.
Image: The Tetrarchy of Diocletian and Maximian, with Constantius and Maximinus.
Image: Head of Emperor Constantine I, part of a colossal bronze statue dated to the 4th century AD. (Musei Capitolini, Rome)
|Constantines silence on his complicity in Diocletians Great Persecution is strangely at odds with his later championing of the Christian cause. Perhaps the latter was more political expediency than conversion to the faith.|
Image: Bronze statue of Constantine in York sited near the spot where he was proclaimed Augustus in 306 AD.
Image: The Chi-Rho symbol was frequently depicted on the reverse of coins after Constantine’s accession.
Constantine directed that a spear be covered in gold, with a crosspiece representing a cross, and that the image of the chi-rho be placed above the crosspiece encircled by a crown or wreath. A banner was hung from the crosspiece of imperial (Tyrian) purple and gold cloth. By tradition, Constantine had this Labarum carried before his legions, protected by colour guard of 50 selected men called the Praepositi Laberorum.
|Constantine's official imperial title was IMPERATOR CAESAR FLAVIVS CONSTANTINVS PIVS FELIX INVICTVS AVGVSTVS (Imperator Caesar Flavius Constantine Augustus, the pious, the fortunate, the undefeated). After 312 AD, he added MAXIMVS ("the greatest"), and after 325 AD replaced ("undefeated") with VICTOR, as invictus a reminder of Sol Invictus, the Sun God.|
Image: Aureus of Licinius celebrating the tenth year of his reign.
Ambition Decimates the Legions: "The feeble policy of Constantine and his successors armed and instructed, for the ruin of the empire, the rude valour of the Barbarian mercenaries...the mortal wound so rashly or so weakly inflicted by the hand of Constantine." (Gibbon, Decline & Fall)
The mobility of the Comitatenses of the 4th century AD should not be exaggerated. Any one field army could only move as fast as its marching infantry or the accompanying baggage train.
|The Notitia Dignitatum, which lists imperial posts and military commands at the very end of the 4th century, records five field armies in the Eastern Empire, two associated with the imperial court, while the Western Empire had seven, three of which were comparatively small.|
Image: Legionary of the Emperors mobile field army, the Comitatenses.
|Image: Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea Maritima, father of church history, and fanatical supporter of Constantine|
Image: Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ twice life-size statue, originally gilded to look like solid gold, is a prized exhibit of the Capitol Museum, Rome. It apparently survived papal melting pots because ignorant clergy thought it had to be their hero Constantine!
Ecclesiastica: The revolution of Constantine transformed
the Church beyond recognition. Bishops and priests, no longer elected
or acclaimed by the brethren but members of a self-perpetuating
order, enjoyed exemption from taxation and all
other public service. As state officials they received generous
stipends; and as a custodians of the Church,
bequests from those who died. While they might not 'own' church
property, theirs was undeniably a privileged and exclusive use of
ever-grander riches and properties during their own earthly presence.
But in 321 AD, Constantine went further and began the process by which the clergy were exempted from the jurisdiction of civil law and the decisions of bishops became binding on civil magistrates.