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Constantine I
Emperor of the Roman Empire
Constantine Musei Capitolini.jpg
Head of Constantine's colossal statue at the Capitoline Museums
Reign 306 - 312 (hailed as Augustus in the West, officially made Caesar by Galerius with Severus as Augustus, by agreement with Maximian, refused relegation to Caesar in 309);
312 - 324 (undisputed Augustus in the West);
324 - 22 May 337 (emperor of the whole empire)
Predecessor Constantius Chlorus
Successor Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans
Burial Constantinople
  • Minervina, died or divorced before 307
  • Fausta
Issue Constantina, Helena, Crispus, Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans
Full name
Gaius Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus
Dynasty Constantinian
Father Constantius Chlorus
Mother Helena

Constantine I (27 February 272 – 22 May 337 AD) was a powerful general who reigned over the Roman Empire as emperor, until his death. He made the previously named city Byzantium (now Istanbul, Turkey) capital of the whole Roman Empire. As emperor, he named the city Constantinople, which means "City of Constantine" in Greek.

Before Constantine became Emperor, he was fighting for the throne at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. When he saw a cross in the sky with the words in hoc signo vinces (Latin for "in this sign you shall conquer"), he changed his deity from Apollo to Jesus and won the battle.

In pagan Rome before this, it had been against the law to believe in Christianity, and Christians had been tortured or killed, but Constantine protected them. He went on to organize the whole Catholic Church at the First Council of Nicea, even though he himself did not get baptized until near the end of his life.

Constantine was also a big part of the beginning of the Orthodox religion, after changing the point from which he ruled from Rome to Byzantium.

Early life and career

Born in Naissus, Dacia Mediterranea (now Niš, Serbia), he was the son of Flavius Constantius, a Roman army officer of Illyrian origin who had been one of the four rulers of the Tetrarchy. His mother, Helena, was a Greek woman of low birth and a Christian. Later canonized as a saint, she is traditionally attributed with the conversion of her son. Constantine served with distinction under the Roman emperors Diocletian and Galerius. He began his career by campaigning in the eastern provinces (against the Persians) before being recalled in the west (in AD 305) to fight alongside his father in the province of Britannia. After his father's death in 306, Constantine was acclaimed as augustus (emperor) by his army at Eboracum (York, England). He eventually emerged victorious in the civil wars against emperors Maxentius and Licinius to become the sole ruler of the Roman Empire by 324.


Upon his ascension, Constantine enacted numerous reforms to strengthen the empire. He restructured the government, separating civil and military authorities. To combat inflation, he introduced the solidus, a new gold coin that became the standard for Byzantine and European currencies for more than a thousand years. The Roman army was reorganised to consist of mobile units (comitatenses) and garrison troops (limitanei) which were capable of countering internal threats and barbarian invasions. Constantine pursued successful campaigns against the tribes on the Roman frontiers—such as the Franks, the Alemanni, the Goths, and the Sarmatians—and resettled territories abandoned by his predecessors during the Crisis of the Third Century with citizens of Roman culture.

The age of Constantine marked a distinct epoch in the history of the Roman Empire and a pivotal moment in the transition from classical antiquity to the Middle Ages. He built a new imperial residence at the city of Byzantium and renamed it New Rome, later adopting the name Constantinople after himself, where it was located in modern Istanbul. It subsequently became the capital of the empire for more than a thousand years, the later Eastern Roman Empire often being referred to in English as the Byzantine Empire, a term never used by the Empire, invented by German historian Hieronymus Wolf.

Although Constantine lived much of his life as a pagan and later as a catechumen, he began to favour Christianity beginning in 312, finally becoming a Christian and being baptized by either Eusebius of Nicomedia, an Arian bishop, or by Pope Sylvester I, which is maintained by the Catholic Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church. He played an influential role in the proclamation of the Edict of Milan in 313, which declared tolerance for Christianity in the Roman Empire. He convoked the First Council of Nicaea in 325 which produced the statement of Christian belief known as the Nicene Creed. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built on his orders at the purported site of Jesus' tomb in Jerusalem and was deemed the holiest place in all of Christendom. The papal claim to temporal power in the High Middle Ages was based on the fabricated Donation of Constantine. He has historically been referred to as the "First Christian Emperor" and he did favour the Christian Church. While some modern scholars debate his beliefs and even his comprehension of Christianity, he is venerated as a saint in Eastern Christianity, and he did much for pushing Christianity towards the mainstream of Roman culture.

Religious policy

Constantine burning Arian books
Constantine burning books by Arian heretics ('Heretici Arriani'), from a 9th-century manuscript now in Vercelli

Constantine was the first emperor to stop the persecution of Christians and to legalize Christianity, along with all other religions/cults in the Roman Empire. In February 313, he met with Licinius in Milan and developed the Edict of Milan, which stated that Christians should be allowed to follow their faith without oppression. This removed penalties for professing Christianity, under which many had been martyred previously, and it returned confiscated Church property. The edict protected all religions from persecution, not only Christianity, allowing anyone to worship any deity that they chose.

Sylvester I and Constantine
Pope Sylvester I and Emperor Constantine

According to Christian writers, Constantine was over 40 when he finally declared himself a Christian, making it clear that he owed his successes to the protection of the Christian High God alone. Despite these declarations of being a Christian, he waited to be baptized on his deathbed, believing that the baptism would release him of any sins he committed in the course of carrying out his policies while emperor. He supported the Church financially, built basilicas, granted privileges to clergy (such as exemption from certain taxes), promoted Christians to high office, and returned property confiscated during the long period of persecution. His most famous building projects include the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Old St. Peter's Basilica. In constructing the Old St. Peter's Basilica, Constantine went to great lengths to erect the basilica on top of St. Peter's resting place, so much so that it even affected the design of the basilica, including the challenge of erecting it on the hill where St. Peter rested, making its complete construction time over 30 years from the date Constantine ordered it to be built.

Constantine might not have patronized Christianity alone. A triumphal arch was built in 315 to celebrate his victory in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge which was decorated with images of the goddess Victoria, and sacrifices were made to pagan gods at its dedication, including Apollo, Diana, and Hercules. Absent from the arch are any depictions of Christian symbolism.

In 321, he legislated that the venerable Sunday should be a day of rest for all citizens. In 323, he issued a decree banning Christians from participating in state sacrifices. After the pagan gods had disappeared from his coinage, Christian symbols appeared as Constantine's attributes, the chi rho between his hands or on his labarum, as well on the coinage.

Constantine made some new laws regarding the Jews; some of them were unfavourable towards Jews, although they were not harsher than those of his predecessors. It was made illegal for Jews to seek converts or to attack other Jews who had converted to Christianity. They were forbidden to own Christian slaves. On the other hand, Jewish clergy were given the same exemptions as Christian clergy.


Constantine reunited the empire under one emperor, and he won major victories over the Franks and Alamanni in 306–308, the Franks again in 313–314, the Goths in 332, and the Sarmatians in 334. By 336, he had reoccupied most of the long-lost province of Dacia which Aurelian had been forced to abandon in 271. At the time of his death, he was planning a great expedition to end raids on the eastern provinces from the Persian Empire.

In the cultural sphere, Constantine revived the clean-shaven face fashion of earlier emperors, originally introduced among the Romans by Scipio Africanus (236 - 183 BCE) and changed into the wearing of the beard by Hadrian (r. 117 - 138). This new Roman imperial fashion lasted until the reign of Phocas (r. 602 - 610) in the 7th century. Constantine replaced the principle of dynastic succession by leaving the empire to his sons and other members of the Constantinian dynasty. His reputation flourished during the lifetime of his children and for centuries after his reign.

The Holy Roman Empire reckoned Constantine among the venerable figures of its tradition. In the later Byzantine state, it became a great honor for an emperor to be hailed as a "new Constantine"; ten emperors carried the name, including the last emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. Charlemagne used monumental Constantinian forms in his court to suggest that he was Constantine's successor and equal. Charlemagne, Henry VIII, Philip II of Spain, Godfrey of Bouillon, House of Capet, House of Habsburg, House of Stuart, Macedonian dynasty and Phokas family claimed descent from Constantine.

The Niš Constantine the Great Airport is named in honor of him. A large cross was planned to be built on a hill overlooking Niš, but the project was cancelled. In 2012, a memorial was erected in Niš in his honor. The Commemoration of the Edict of Milan was held in Niš in 2013. The Orthodox Church considers Constantine a saint (Άγιος Κωνσταντίνος, Saint Constantine), having a feast day on 21 May, and calls him isapostolos (ισαπόστολος Κωνσταντίνος)—an equal of the Apostles.

Family tree

Family of Constantine the Great

Emperors are shown with a rounded-corner border with their dates as Augusti, names with a thicker border appear in both sections

1: Constantine's parents and half-siblings

  • Claudius Gothicus
  • 268–270
  • fabricated ancestry
Julia Helena
Maximiana Theodora
  • Constantine I
  • 306–337
Flavius Dalmatius Hannibalianus Flavia Julia Constantia
Anastasia Bassianus
Galla Julius Constantius Basilina Licinius II Eutropia Virius Nepotianus
Hannibalianus Constantina Constantius Gallus
  • Julian
  • 360–363
Helena Nepotianus

2: Constantine's children

  • Constantine I
  • 306–337
  • Constantine II
  • 337–340
Hannibalianus Constantina Constantius Gallus
  • Julian
  • 360–363
  • Gratian
  • 367–383

Images for kids

See also

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