An Introduction to Constantine
By: TammyJo Eckhart, PhD on 3/25/2019
Rome Reborn® presents a 3-D virtual Rome set in 320 CE, when Constantine was in ascension but not yet sole ruler of the Roman world. To define Constantine as emperor is to ignore the complexities of his life and of the world that created and later bowed to him. Numerous books have been written about this man, but today I want to refresh my memory and yours with an overview of his political career.
The rise to authority of Flavius Valerius Constantinus, generally called Constantine the Great, initially followed a peaceful and stable course, in contrast to the chaos and violence of most of the century. The new stability was a product of a new form of government established by the Emperor Diocletian: the Tetrarchy. Four men – two senior Augusti and two junior Caesars – exercised authority over the Empire. I’ll cover this form of government in a later article, I promise, but let’s return to Constantine.
In 293 CE, Constantine’s father Constantius I Chlorus was named Caesar of the western half of the Empire after marrying Theodora, the stepdaughter of Augustus Maximian. Constantine took advantage of his father’s new position and served in Augustus Diocletian’s court in the East. Constantine would have been around 20 years old at that time, the age for men to become military tribunes under the old cursus honorium. At some point, Constantine joined Caesar Galerius’ staff.
Constantine was 33 when he went to join his father in Britain. It was odd that this was allowed, because supposedly Diocletian was trying to break the cycle of fathers passing on power to their sons, which created imperial dynasties and thereby increased the risk of incompetent rulers coming to power. Constantine helped his father as Constantius ascended to the title of Augustus after Maximian was forced to retire. Constantine’s father died the following year, opening up a position in the Tetrarchy.
The Tetrarchy itself was breaking down, but Constantine tried to create a familial relationship with the previous Augustus by marrying Maximian’s daughter Fausta in 307 CE. The original Tetrarchs were supposed to hand over authority to new Caesars and Augusti, but their retirements were more for show. Both Diocletian and Maximian put forward their own candidates, and at a meeting in 308, they tried to demote Constantine. After Constantine’s victory over Maxentius, Maximian’s son, at the Milvian Bridge in 312 CE, the Senate in Rome recognized him as senior Augustus.
However, Licinius had held that title since 308 ce, and the two men were in a sometimes-cold and sometimes-hot battle for ultimate power. The two of them tried the marriage tactic again, this time with the much older Licinius marrying Constantia, Constantine’s half-sister. The marriage did little to curb the conflict, though religious differences may also have fueled the competition. Licinius renewed anti-Christian policies, while Constantine was meeting with clergy and recognizing the rights of Christians. By 324 CE Licinius was deposed, then executed the following year. Constantine could now claim to be sole emperor of the Roman world.
Whether or not Constantine was a Christian, was in the process of conversion, or was merely tolerant of them is still debatable and beyond the scope of this essay. At any rate, it is certain that he was baptized on his deathbed in 337 CE As emperor he hosted discussions between church officials and issued state policies about religion throughout his reign that affected people of all practices.
Constantine’s economic policies were also complex, but given that the empire had not truly recovered from a period of deep depression and inflation, changes were necessary. He further debased the solidus, the gold coinage, and replaced the previous silver coin with a new one called the miliarense. To address the financial requirements for his military, building, and government programs, he created new taxes, but he also allowed for payment in kind as the value of official currency continued to fall.
Constantine crafted several military changes but seems to have maintained the frontier boundaries with small dispatches of troops and staffing of outposts. He increased the number of military forces attached to the Imperial court. As had several emperors before him, he used German troops and officials, relying upon personal loyalty over loyalty to the Empire.
Constantine expanded the Imperial court with more officials, free, freed, and enslaved. Again, he tended to favor Germans over Latins or the other ethnic groups that made up the Empire. To further his central control, he demoted the authority of the Roman Senate, which had recognized his claim as Augustus, to a municipal power.
At first glance it may appear that Constantine’s greatest change was his renaming and remaking Constantinople as his capital city. However, since Hadrian, if not earlier, Rome had been losing its role as the focal point of the Empire. Rome was still used for some official business and would play host to minor emperors and their families, but it would never again be the governing center. It may not be wrong to call Constantine the father of the Byzantine Empire, although we should bear in mind that the citizens of the Byzantine Empire considered themselves Romans.
To be sure, Constantine did not completely ignore the city of Rome. He instituted a few building projects there, including the Arch of Constantine next to the Colosseum, finished in 315 CE, and the Baths of Constantine on the Quirinal Hill, dated to 320 CE. These monuments may have been his attempt to connect himself to the Emperor Trajan, under whom the Roman Empire claimed its most territory. Of greater lasting importance than these civic projects was Constantine’s patronage of the Church in Rome. Notably, after abolishing the unpopular imperial guard known as the Equites Singulares, he donated their land to the Church for construction of the first great basilica in the city, the church of Saint John Lateran.
In later essays, I’ll dive deeper into Constantine’s life before he became part of the Tetrarchy, his conflicts with other members, and a deeper analysis of his policies as sole Emperor. Some of those topics will be debatable, possibly controversial, but I hope you’ll come back to read more about him when we return to him again.Join the discussion!