Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Constantine the Great, the First Christian Roman Emperor


Flavius Valerius Constantinus Augustus who was also called Constantine I was a Roman Emperor from 306 to 337 AD. He was born at about 277 AD in Nis, a town in what is now Serbia. He was the son of Saint Helena and Constantius Chlorus a Roman emperor at about 305-6 AD in the western part of the Roman Empire.  

Shortly before his father’s death in 306, Constantine was made emperor and successor to his father in the west which included such territories as Great Britain, Gaul, the Germanic provinces, Iberia and parts of Italy. At that time, the Roman Empire was a tetrarchy, a system in which there were two co-emperors with each having a subordinate emperor under them.

Constantine’s greatest rival and co-emperor was Maxentius who ruled the East. Maxentius’ differences and his power struggle with Constantine made the conflict between them inevitable.

It was said that Constantine had a dream of Jesus Christ. He had the vision of overlapped first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek which were “chi” and “rho” or “x” and “p” and telling him that he would become victorious with those symbols. The next day during the armed conflict against Maxintius, Constantine reportedly saw a figure of the cross superimposed on the sun and the words “In hoc signo vinces” which in English means “In this sign you will conquer”.

Instead of preparing for a siege, Maxentius decided to meet the forces of Constantine at the Milvian Bridge over the Tiber River in Rome. Maxentius’ troops, with their backs facing the river, met Constantine's troops whose shields and banners were inscribed with symbols that Constantine saw in his dream.  During the battle the cavalries and infantry of Maxentius were overwhelmed by the forces of Constantine forcing them to withdraw toward Rome by crossing the bridge. The mass of troops and horses caused the bridge to collapse bringing down with it Maxentius and some of his troops.

The defeat of Maxentius gave Constantine and Licinius the undisputed powers in the Roman Empire as co-emperors. The realm of Constantine was in the west while that of Licinius was in the east. The marriage of Licinius to Constantine’s sister Constantia strengthened the bond of the two rulers. They jointly defeated the forces of Maximinus Daia who tried to take away from Licinius the Eastern Roman Empire.

As co-emperors Constantine and Licinius jointly issued the Edict of Milan in 313 AD giving the Christians and other religious groups the free exercise of their religion in the Roman Empire. The edict also mandated the return of properties of the Christians which were confiscated by the previous emperors from them.

The unwieldy system of having an empire ruled by more than one ruler at the same time, have in the long run reared its ugly head in the struggle for power between Constantine and Licinius. As a result of it there were civil wars. Constantine proved to be the better military commander beating Licinius in battles. In the third civil war Licinius was again defeated. He was later captured and executed at the order of Constantine. With the elimination of Licinius the tetrarchy ended and Constantine became the undisputed ruler of the Roman Empire.

As a sole emperor, Constantine instituted reforms. He reorganized the army, separated civil and military authorities, gave back power to the senate, and issued new coins which became the standard of exchange for centuries. Constantine also built churches in the Holy land. His mother, Saint Helena, devoted much of her life to pilgrimage to that place and founded the Church of Holy Sepulcher and the Church of Nativity. She supposedly found in Palestine the true cross on which Jesus was crucified.                                                                                                                                            

Drifting towards Christianity, the new religion in the empire, Constantine involved himself in ecclesiastical affairs to achieve unity among Christians. In 325 AD Emperor Constantine called and presided over the First Council of Nicaea to settle dispute about the nature and divinity of Christ. The council came up with the Nicene Creed which defined the Son or Jesus Christ as consubstantial with God the Father. The declaration was adopted as the official position of the Church regarding the divinity and nature of Christ.  

During his reign Constantine moved his capital from Rome to the ancient Greek City called Byzantium which was along the strait of Bosporus. He developed the city which he founded by giving it Roman institution, and built structures that were beautified with Greek works of art. The city later became known as Constantinople. Years after the reign of Constantine, the eastern half of the Roman Empire became known as the Byzantine Empire with Constantinople as its capital.

 Although Constantine still observed some pagan practices after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, he however, was undoubtedly sympathetic to the Christian cause which implied that he converted to the faith. He was baptized shortly before his death on May 22, 337.                                                                                                                           

The idea on Christianity which was first suppressed, but later allowed an unhampered growth during the reign of Constantine I. the first Christian emperor, greatly influenced and changed the way the inhabitants of the Roman Empire lived their lives. Some of the old and absurd beliefs and practices were discarded and replaced with new ones.  As the Old Roman Empire collapsed, its former territories notably in the west such as Spain, France, Portugal, Great Britain also became imperial powers of their own and brought along with them their Judeo-Christian culture as they went. The expansion of their territories from Europe to other lands made Christianity as the largest religion in the world. Perhaps Constantine the Great was one of the instruments of God to spread His words across the world through the Holy Bible.

Related topic:
Christianity and Islam, the Religions That Shape the Course of History