Constantine, also known as Constantine the Great, shifted Roman religion from polytheism to monotheism, initiating the Christianization of the Roman Empire in the 4th century AD. Constantine was victorious in several civil wars, became the sole Emperor of the Roman Empire, built many churches—including the Hagia Sophia—and instituted new laws in the name of the Christian God.
Constantine the Great
Constantine, whose full name was Flavius Valerius Constantinus, was born on February 27, circa 280 AD in the city of Naissus, (modern-day Nis, Serbia). Shortly after Constantine’s birth, his father was promoted to deputy emperor and sent to serve under the Emperor in the West. Constantine’s mother, Helena, was a Greek woman of low social standing; Constantine's father later separated from her to marry the stepdaughter of Emperor Maximian.
Constantine’s primary language was Latin, having been educated in the East in Diocletian’s imperial court, a Latin-speaking institution. However, he spoke Greek when he delivered speeches, but they had to be professionally translated. It was among the court circles and in the Eastern cities that Constantine first encountered Christianity. The persecution of the Christians began at Diocletian’s court in Nicomedia in 303. In 305, the co-emperors, Diocletian and Maximian, abdicated and the deputy emperors succeeded them, with Constantine being disregarded. At this time, Constantine joined his father and fought with him in Britain. Constantine’s father died in 306, and Constantine was immediately proclaimed emperor by the army.
Constantine then began a series of civil wars, married his second wife—Maximian’s daughter Fausta—and then invaded Italy in 312. Following this, Constantine formed an alliance with Licinius, who later defeated his co-emperor and rival, Maximinus. Constantine made a joint agreement with Licinius in 313 extending tolerance to Christians, which is known as the Edict of Milan. Constantine then conquered territory in the Balkans in 316 and attacked Licinius in 324, becoming the sole Emperor of both East and West. Following his victory over Licinius, Constantine renamed Byzantium to Constantinople. He wrote that he had come as God’s chosen vessel to quell impiety, and in a letter to the Persian king, Shapur II, claimed that he would bring peace and wealth to all lands. In 325, Constantine summoned church officials to the Council of Nicaea, from which came the Nicene Creed, affirming that Jesus Christ was a divine being.
In 326, Constantine celebrated his 20th anniversary as Emperor. He visited the Western empire, and for unknown reasons, had his wife and eldest son, Crispus, killed. He offended the Romans by refusing to take part in a pagan procession and thus, never returned. He then began to construct his “second Rome”, Constantinople, which was dedicated in 330. He had several churches built, including the Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Apostles, and the church of St. Peter in Rome. He conferred upon the church legal and financial privileges and freedom from civic duties.
Throughout his rise to power, Constantine referred to his divine support; there are accounts that he had a dream or saw a vision in the sky compelling him to conquer in the name of the Christian God. Constantine’s conversion and strong commitment to Christianity were unprecedented.
Constantine fell ill while preparing for a campaign against Persia and later died in 337 after failed treatment. Upon his death, Constantine was finally baptized in the River Jordan.
Significant Accomplishments of Constantine
- First Roman emperor to convert to Christianity
- A great military general, earning victories over the Franks, the Alamanni, the Visigoths, and the Sarmatians
- Edict of Milan in 313
- Nicene Creed in 325
- Conversion of the Roman Empire to a Christian state
- Creation of a new capital of the Empire, Constantinople
“In this sign you will conquer.”
“With Free minds all are to worship their Gods.”
“Thinking is the great enemy of perfection. The habit of profound reflection, I am compelled to say, is the most pernicious of all the habits formed by civilized man.”
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