The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome – Part 47

The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome series explores the most famous – and infamous – dictators, leaders and emperors of Rome. This week we focus on Emperor Constantine, also known as Constantine the Great.

Constantine The Great Part II


Soon after becoming sole Emperor of Rome in 324, Constantine outlawed pagan sacrifices, now feeling far more at liberty to enforce his new religious policy. The treasures of pagan temples were confiscated and used to pay for the construction of new Christian churches. Gladiatorial contests were outlawed and harsh new policies were issued prohibiting sexual immorality. Jews in particular were forbidden from owning Christian slaves.

As a law maker, Constantine was terribly severe. Edicts were passed by which sons were forced to take up the professions of their fathers. Not only was this terribly harsh on such sons who sought a different career but by making the recruitment of veteran's sons compulsory and enforcing it ruthlessly with harsh penalties, widespread fear and hatred was caused. In addition, his taxation reforms created extreme hardship, as those who could not pay were beaten and tortured. Under Constantine, any girl who ran away with her lover was burned alive and anyone who should assist in such a matter had molten lead poured into his/her mouth and rapists were burned at the stake. Yet Constantine is perhaps most famous for the great city which came to bear his name, Constantinople.

Constantine came to the conclusion that Rome had ceased to be a practical capital for the Empire from which the Emperor could exact effective control over its frontiers. For a while he set up court in different places before deciding on the ancient city of Byzantium. On November 8, 324, Constantine created his new capital there, renaming it Constantinopolis, meaning City of Constantine.

He was careful to maintain Rome's ancient privileges and the new senate founded in Constantinople was of a lower rank, but he clearly intended it to be the new center of the Roman world. Measures to encourage its growth were introduced, most importantly the diversion of the Egyptian grain supplies, which had traditionally gone to Rome, to Constantinople. A corn-dole was introduced, granting every citizen a guaranteed ration of grain.

In 325, Constantine once again held a religious council, summoning the bishops of the east and west to Nicaea. At this council the branch of the Christian faith known as Arianism was condemned as a heresy and the only admissible Christian creed of the day, the Nicene Creed, was precisely defined.

Constantine's reign was that of a hard, utterly determined and ruthless man. Nowhere did this show more than when in 326, when on suspicion of adultery, he had his own eldest son Crispus executed. One account of the event tells of Constantine's wife Fausta falling in love with Crispus, who was her stepson, and made an accusation of him committing adultery only once she had been rejected by him, or because she simply wanted Crispus out of the way, in order to let her sons accede to the throne unhindered. Then again, Constantine had only a month ago passed a strict law against adultery and might have felt obliged to act. And so Crispus was killed at Pola in Istria. After the execution, Constantine's mother Helena convinced the Emperor of Crispus' innocence and that Fausta's accusation had been false. Escaping the vengeance of her husband, Fausta killed herself at Treviri.

A brilliant general, Constantine was a man of boundless energy and determination, yet vain and ill-tempered. Though Constantine had defeated all contenders to the Roman throne, the need to defend the borders against the northern barbarians still remained. Accompanied by Constantine II, he campaigned against the Alemanni. This was followed in 332 by a large campaign against the Goths until in 336, he had reconquered much of Dacia, once annexed by Trajan and abandoned by Aurelian.

In 333, Constantine's fourth son Constans was raised to the rank of Caesar, with the clear intent to groom him, alongside his brothers, to jointly inherit the Empire. Also, Constantine's nephews Flavius Dalmatius and Hannibalianus were raised as future Emperors. Evidently they also were intended to be granted their shares of power at Constantine's death. How, after his own experience of the tetrarchy, Constantine saw it possible that all five of these heirs should rule peaceably alongside each other is difficult to comprehend.

Now an elderly man, Constantine planned a last great campaign, one which was intended to conquer Persia. He even intended to have himself baptized as a Christian on the way to the frontier in the waters of the river Jordan, just as Jesus had been baptized there by John the Baptist. As the ruler of these soon to be conquered territories, Constantine even placed his nephew Hannibalianus on the throne of Armenia, with the title of King of Kings, which had been the traditional title borne by the kings of Persia. Yet this scheme was not to come to fruition, for in the spring of 337, Constantine fell ill. Realizing that he was about to die, he asked to be baptized. This was performed on his deathbed by Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia. Constantine died on May 22, 337 at the imperial villa at Ankyrona. His body was carried to the Church of the Holy Apostles, his mausoleum.

Constantine’s wish to be buried in Constantinople caused outrage in Rome, yet the Roman senate still decided on his deification. A strange decision as it elevated him, the first Christian Emperor, to the status of an old pagan deity.

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