First Christian Roman emperor
Constantine I ruled the Roman Empire from A.D. 306 to 337. During that time, he made several important changes in the ways in which the empire was administered. He was also the first Roman emperor to encourage Roman citizens to become Christians. In addition, Constantine gained fame as the builder of the city of Constantinople, which became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and the center of Byzantine* civilization for more than 1,000 years.
Constantine was born in Naissus, a city in present-day Serbia. He was the son of Constantius Chlorus, one of four contenders for the imperial* throne of Rome. His mother was Helena, a Christian who was believed to have discovered the cross on which Christ died. When Constantine’s father died in York in Britain in A.D. 306, Constantine was declared augustus, or emperor, by his father’s soldiers. However, not until A.D. 324 did Constantine defeat his rivals for the throne and become the sole ruler of the empire. Meanwhile, he ruled his father’s territories in Spain, Gaul, and Britain and married Fausta, daughter of the former emperor Maximian.
In A.D. 312, Constantine invaded Italy. The night before the battle against Maxentius, Constantine supposedly had one of a series of visions and dreams, some of which involved Christian themes. (Two years earlier he had seen a vision of Apollo accompanied by Nike, and the numeral XXX—meant to symbolize the years of his reign. In another vision, he saw a cross above the sun with the words in hoc signo vinces, which means “In this sign shall you conquer.”) As a result of the dream he had at Saxa Rubra, on the night before the battle against Maxentius, Constantine ordered his soldiers to paint crosses on their shields before going into the battle. Although heavily outnumbered, Constantine defeated his rival. He attributed this victory to the Christian God, and from that time forward, he felt the need to maintain the Christian God’s support for himself and the empire. To that end, he built a great triumphal arch in Rome to commemorate the victory.
A year later, Constantine and the new eastern emperor, Licinius, issued a series of decrees, commonly called the Edict of Milan, by which they extended religious toleration in the empire to all religions, including Christianity. Constantine personally rejected paganism* and worked hard to convert the Roman Empire to Christianity. He intervened in church controversies in order to maintain religious harmony (and to solidify his power) and allocated money to build new churches. He founded the Church of St. Peter in Rome and, in his boldest move, established a new, Christian city on the site of the ancient Byzantium. The city was dedicated as “Constantinople” in A.D. 330, and it became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire in A.D. 453.
As an administrator and military leader, Constantine did much to maintain and strengthen the empire. He created a larger and more mobile field army, with new commanders directly accountable to him. He also strengthened and reorganized the frontier armies. He allowed nonRomans to advance through the army ranks. He enlarged the government bureaucracy* and gave senators civilian posts that enabled them to recover some of their lost political influence. However, not all of Constantine’s reforms were popular. New taxes on all forms of trade and commerce were bitterly criticized. The establishment of the solidus, a new gold coin, led to the depreciation of other currencies. Constantine was an able, practical, but often ruthless leader. He had his wife and oldest son executed on suspicion of treason and is suspected of eliminating his relatives in order to secure the succession* of his sons Constantine II, Constantius II, and Constans. Ironically, none of his sons lived long enough or were able enough to have a major influence on the empire. (See also Christianity; Rome, History of.)
* Byzantine referring to the Eastern Christian Empire that was based in Constantinople
* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire
* paganism belief in more than one god; non-Christian
* bureaucracy large departmental organization that performs the activities of government
* succession transmission of authority on the death of one ruler to the next