Constantine the Great
Truly deserving of the title "great" it is no exaggeration to say that the
world may well have been a different place, and history taken another course
entirely had it not been for the life of Constantine.
His father, Constantius
Chlorus, was Cæsar of the west and had been so appointed by Diocletian,
who had decided in 286 CE. that the empire was too large and unwieldly to be
ruled by one man and so had divided it into two separate but "united" sections.
(By the way, just for trivia's sake, it is from this act that we have today the
so-called Royal "we", in which the monarch refers to himself/herself in the
plural form). In 306 Constantius travelled to Britain from France to quell an
uprising of the Picts. Constantine who had not long previously joined his father
as a teen-ager, having been held as a - possibly mild - hostage in the eastern
court, to ensure the "good behaviour" of his father, had recently escaped from
what may have been a potential assassination plot. Together they put down the
revolt and almost immediately Constantius died. In an act of what amounted to
usurpation, Constantine, with considerable support from the army, in which he
had not only distinguished himself but also proved to be popular, had himself
proclaimed one of the Augusti in the city of York, northern England, in
his father's stead. He maintained a low profile for 4-5 years, while his rivals
in the east indulged in internecine quarrels. Then, late in 311, he felt the
time was right to put into motion his ambitions to reunite the empire - with
himself as emperor. In the summer of 312 he set out eastwards at the head of his
armies. Just outside Rome on 28 October, where the road crosses the Tiber at the
Milvian Bridge, the two armies, Constantine's and Maxentius' faced each other.
It was here, just before the battle, that Constantine is said to have had a
vision in which he saw in the heavens a cross accompanied by the words In hoc signo vinces, "With this sign
Conquer he did, and entered Rome in triumph. The empire was
reunited and the Senate erected a Triumphal Arch in his honour.
As the next two decades progressed Constantine ruled increasingly from the
east, defeating the remaining, weakened opposition and finally conquering
Byzantium from his last rival, Licinius. Eventually, in 326 he moved the seat of
empire from Rome, which had become more and more badly placed geographically for
the task, to Byzantium, which he now rebuilt into a magnificent new city.
Here it is :-
Note the three major divisions of
the city from different periods (marked by dotted lines) - the first, smaller Byzantium walls, the somewhat
larger Constantine city, and - finally - the Theodosian walls parts of which
can still be seen:-
city was consecrated on Monday 11 May, 330, in the rebuilt church of Hagia
Eirene - the Church of the Holy Peace. And so was born the city of
Constantinople, to remain so with that name throughout the centuries until, in
1926 modern Turkey, under Mustapha Kemal (Attaturk) changed the name to Istanbul
and moved the capital to Ankara - the old Ancyra.
Gradually becoming more and
more favourably disposed towards Christianity, Constantine confirmed old, and
promulgated new laws and edicts, relaxing earlier anti-Christian legislation and
actual barbaric persecutions from the rule of Diocletian. It was under
Constantine that the pagan Empire of Rome became officially Christian although
he himself - probably for reasons of political expediency, remained unbaptised
until literally on his deathbed. Constantine died 22 May 337, seven years and
eleven days after the official founding of his city.
For a brilliant and highly readable history of the Byzantine Empire read John
Julius Norwich's three-volume masterpiece "Byzantium"
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