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Constantine: Britain's Roman Emperor: 1,600 years ago this month, York saw the proclamation of a man who changed the course of the history of the world. Christopher Kelly introduces the Emperor Constantine.

At noon ON OCTOBER 28TH, AD 312, God dramatically intervened in the course of human history. At least according to Eusebius (bishop of Caesarea on the coast of Palestine) the self-appointed biographer of the newly Christian Roman emperor, Constantine. In late October 312 Constantine advanced on Rome, the culmination of a swift and bloody civil war against Maxentius, a rival claimant to the imperial throne.

The armies met at the Milvian Bridge outside the city. Maxentius' forces crossed the Tiber on boats lashed together. They were quickly routed by Constantine's more experienced troops. Attempting to retreat to the safety of the city walls, the crush of panicked men fleeing for their lives caused the pontoon-bridge to break up. Maxentius and his bodyguard were pitched into the river and swept away in its swift-flowing current.

In Eusebius' view this was a memorable moment of Christian triumph. Above all, it recalled the Israelites' crossing of the Red Sea. Constantine's defeat of Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge replayed the Biblical account in Exodus. Constantine was a modern Moses. Maxentius failed like Pharaoh before him. Drowned in the turbulent waters of the Tiber, he 'sank to the bottom like a stone'.

For Eusebius, victory at the Milvian Bridge was inevitable. Before the campaign Constantine had prayed for divine aid. One day at noon the Emperor and his men saw a shining cross of light with the sun behind it. From a banner attached to the cross blazed forth the words, 'By this conquer'. Eusebius continues: 'Amazed by this marvellous sight, and determined to worship no other god than the one who had appeared, he summoned those expert in his words and asked who this god was.'

The meaning of this sign was confirmed that night in a dream. According to Constantine, Christ had appeared and urged him to make a copy of what he had seen in the sky. The next morning the imperial goldsmiths and jewellers were hurriedly summoned. A huge cross was swiftly constructed. From it a costly golden tapestry with the Emperor's portrait fixed above. Under such a battle-standard, Constantine's Success was now divinely assured.

This version of Constantine's conversion to Christianity and of events at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge has not always been believed. In his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (first published in 1776), Edward Gibbon sneeringly dismissed the whole account. In Gibbon's view the 'interest of religion' was irreconcilable with the duty of a rational historian. Under the cold, clear light of reason the warmly partisan histories of bishops like Eusebius were clearly exposed. Here,
   ... credulity performed the office of
   faith; fanaticism was permitted to
   assume the language of inspiration,
   and the effects of accident or
   contrivance were ascribed to
   supernatural causes.

Modern scholarly versions of Constantine's conversion before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge veer (perhaps predictably) closer to Gibbon than to Eusebius. For most, the story is a skilful fabrication entirely consistent with Constantinian 'propaganda'. It is part of Constantine's assertion of the rightness of his cause in a dirty civil war in which his opponent, Maxentius had a roughly equal claim to imperial power.

Of course, not everyone in antiquity was convinced by the authorized version of Constantine's conversion. Writing two hundred years later in the 490s, the fiercely anti-Christian historian, Zosimus, recorded what he claimed were the real reasons for Constantine's adherence to his new religion. The truth apparently lay in the murky politics of the imperial household. In mid-326 the Emperor ordered the execution of Crispus, his eldest son and heir apparent. Shortly afterwards, Constantine authorized the elimination of his second wife, Fausta. Some said she had been shut up in the steam room of the palace baths in Rome, locked in until she suffocated in the heat.

The cause of this family purge was said to be the rumour that Fausta and Crispus had been illicit lovers. After their deaths Constantine, perhaps realising that he had been deceived, was overcome with guilt. He sought out a religion which would grant him absolution. Faced with the gravity of his crime, pagan priests refused. According to Zosimus, it was at this moment that a Christian bishop at court seized the opportunity to assure the Emperor, 'that the faith of the Christians could expunge all sin and it promised this: that the ungodly who converted to it would be immediately released from all sin.'

Modern historians have not been persuaded. On the one hand, confronted with Eusebius' account of a glittering cross in the noonday sky there has been a reluctance to replace rational explanation with divine intervention; on the other, presented with Zosimus' tale of a family at war, modern historians have expressed a clear distaste for the kind of wild and unsubstantiated stories which inevitably collect around any bloody dynastic feud. In the end, whatever the most plausible explanation--perhaps somewhere between the dramatically miraculous and the desperately cynical--Constantine's open and enthusiastic support for Christianity should not be doubted.

For Constantine, his religious experience before the Milvian Bridge and his success in battle were inextricably linked. The Christian God had supported the victor. Fifteen years later (in the mid-320s) the Emperor was to claim that the final, bloody show-down against Maxentius on the outskirts of Rome was the culmination of a much longer process of conversion. On this pious retelling of events, it had all begun six years before, when Constantine had accompanied his father--the emperor Constantius I--on a military expedition to northern Britain.

Constantius I was one of four emperors who together made up the so-called tetrarchy (literally, in Greek, 'the rule of four') which controlled the empire under the leadership of the senior emperor, Diocletian. In the 280s Diocletian had established the tetrarchy as a way of preventing the Roman Empire fragmenting into a set of rival kingdoms exhausting themselves by continual civil war. A fragile unity and an uneasy peace were preserved by this imperial power-sharing agreement. The four emperors ruled together, each having a specific responsibility for the government, good order and security of a particular part of the empire.

Constantius I was in charge of Spain, Gaul (roughly modern France and the Low Countries) and Britain. In 296 he had commanded a fleet which had been part of a successful operation to suppress a British revolt. Constantius' victory ended a decade of separatist rule, first under Carausius who had seized power in 286 and then, from 293, under Carausius' chief finance officer, Allectus who disposed of his former master in a brutal coup. Allectus' death in battle in 296 marked the reintegration of Britain into the Roman Empire. As Constantius' invasion fleet sailed up the Thames the citizens of London recognized the inevitable, crowding the city's walls to cheer his arrival. A gold medallion minted to commemorate the event hailed Constantius as redditor lucis aeternae, 'the restorer of light everlasting'.

It may be that in crossing the Channel a second time in 305 Constantius was hoping for another victory over distant barbarians and the glory which that would bring in the more civilised parts of the empire. It is not clear how serious the military situation was. It may be that Pictish raiding parties were penetrating further south, threatening the security of the frontier zone and the settlements around Hadrian's Wall. Perhaps some impressive show Roman strength was required. After all, it is worth remembering that, by the beginning of the fourth century, Hadrian's Wall was already two hundred years old, as distant from Constantius I and his contemporaries as the Napoleonic Wars are from us.

In advance of his campaign, Constantius was responsible for repairs carried out along the western part of the Wall. Extensive renovations were completed to the fort at Birdoswald. A dedication slab (now in Carlisle Museum) records the restoration of 'the commandant's house, which had been covered with earth and had fallen into ruin, and the headquarters building and the bath-house'. At York the already heavily fortified legionary camp may also have been further monumentalised by the addition of a number of solid multiangular towers (the tower at the south-west corner of the fortress defences still stands in the gardens of the Yorkshire Museum).

Preparations carefully completed, Constantius' expedition against the Picts seems to have been a success. For Constantine--who had been at his father's side since the expedition set off from Boulogne--this was his first real experience of warfare and of military life. The base for operations was York where the impressive legionary camp no doubt offered, the imperial family some relief from the hardships of campaigning on the northernmost edges of empire. Roman troops are likely to have penetrated as far north as Dundee, reusing temporary marching camps constructed over a century before for forces commanded by the emperor Septimius Severus. But, in the end, the long marches, rough terrain and continual damp took a heavy toll. On 25th July, AD 306 Constanius, then in his mid-fifties, died in the legionary headquarters in York. Constantine, was immediately proclaimed emperor by his father's army. A weathered marble head found at Stonegate in York in the early nineteenth century can reasonably claim to be the earliest surviving portrait of Constantine. It captures the strong features of a young-ish man, then probably in his early thirties; a newly proclaimed Emperor about to start on a long march to power.

Six years later, in 312 at the Milvian Bridge outside Rome, Constantine defeated Maxentius, securing complete control of the western half of the empire. It took a further twelve years of diplomacy and then open warfare to remove Licinius, emperor in the east and the last surviving tetrarch. By 324, Constantine was the undisputed sole ruler of a completely reunified Roman Empire. That moment of triumph was celebrated by the establishment of a magnificent new city. The old Greek town of Byzantium was almost completely demolished and replaced by a new, model imperial capital (now modern Istanbul) first named after its founder: Constantinople, 'the city of Constantine'.

The imposing ceremonial architecture of Constantinople deliberately echoed that of the old imperial capital, Rome. The centre of Constantine's new city was dominated by the great, colonnaded Forum. A grand processional way, flanked with porticoes, ran down the hill towards the sea, connecting the Forum with a vast palace complex. These splendid buildings, halls, courtyards and gardens--fortified, walled and secluded--like the Forbidden City or the Kremlin spoke of permanence, magnificence and imperial power. Adjacent to the Great Palace, Constantine extended and almost completely re-built the Hippodrome (one of the few survivals from the original town of Byzantium) on a scale which would stand comparison with the Circus Maximus in Rome. By the Hippodrome stood the Milion which recorded the distances from Constantinople to other major cities in the empire. Again, the parallel with Rome was unmistakeable. In 20 BC the emperor Augustus had placed a Golden Milestone (the miliarium aureum) in the Roman Forum to symbolise the city's position at the centre of the world.

Constantinople celebrated the achievements of its founder, but also self-consciously looked back to the classical past. Next to the Great Palace, the Baths of Zeuxippus exhibited over eighty classical bronzes. The Hippodrome too was adorned, like a grand out-door sculpture museum, with the finest antique statuary. Constantine was said by Eusebius to have been responsible for transporting one of the most famous of the Hippodrome's exhibits from the sacred site of Delphi in central Greece: the Serpent Column tripod-base. This monument which can still be seen in modern Istanbul--precisely where it was placed by Constantine's orders seventeen hundred years ago--originally formed part of a dedication by the Greek confederate states in 479 BC in thanksgiving for their victory over the Persians at the battle of Plataea.

The centre of the new city's Forum was marked by a tall column of porphyry, a hard, deep-purple Egyptian stone which since pharaonic times had been associated with kingship. (The column, blackened by a fire in 1779, still stands in the centre of modern Istanbul, just along from the Grand Bazaar in the university quarter of Beyazit.) The base of the column was believed by many to contain the palladium. This mysterious image of the goddess Pallas Athene was thought to have been brought to Rome by the city's founder Aeneas who had rescued it from the Greeks as they pillaged Troy. In Rome the palladium, which guaranteed the safety of any city in which it was venerated, was preserved in the Temple of Vesta. Constantine is said to have had this ancient talisman removed--perhaps stolen--and to have consecrated it at the centre of his new capital. Constantinople might thereby lay claim to a direct link not only with Rome, but also with Troy.

Constantine's column was also a Christian reliquary. In the column's base, along with the palladium, was placed the stone which Moses struck to provide water for the Israelites in the wilderness, the haft of the adze which Noah used to build the ark and the wicker panniers used by the disciples to distribute the loaves and fishes at the feeding of the five thousand. The column itself was topped by a statue of Apollo remodelled to appear as Constantine. This golden image was raised on May 11th, 330, the day of Constantinople's dedication. The statue's head, like the rising sun, was crowned by a radiate diadem; each of its seven glittering rays contained a sliver from the nails used to crucify Christ. Inside the statue--as a further guarantee of the city's security--was hidden a splinter from the true cross.

This remarkable assemblage of Christian and classical relics at the centre of Constantinople is key to understanding Constantine's self-presentation. He openly and proudly proclaimed himself as heir to an empire whose history stretched back three hundred years to the emperor Augustus and beyond a further eight centuries to the very foundation of Rome by the Trojan refugee, Aeneas. Yet, importantly, for Constantine that sense of Roman history, and of his own place in ensuring its continuance, was not incompatible with his own commitment to fulfilling a divine Christian mission, entrusted to him on his accession in York and confirmed by his vision at the Milvian Bridge. Flushed with success after his defeat of Licinius in 324, he issued a public letter to the people of Palestine. This is one of the most uncompromising statements of Constantine's faith.
   Beginning from Britain in the far west
   where it is decreed by Heaven itself
   than the sun should set, I have
   repelled and scattered those horrors
   which held everything
   in subjection, so that
   the human race, taught
   by my obedient service, might restore
   the religion of the most dread Law ... I
   could never fail to acknowledge the
   gratitude I owe, believing that this is
   the best of tasks ... Indeed, my whole
   soul and whatever breath I draw, and
   whatever goes on in the depths of my
   mind, that, I am firmly convinced, is
   owed by us wholly to the greatest

The text of the letter was preserved by Eusebius, but its authenticity has often been doubted. Such a defiantly Christian Constantine seemed unlikely. The same clarity and purpose so powerfully conveyed by Eusebius' version of the events before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge was for some scholars a sure indication of forgery. This letter was simply too good to be true.

Any doubts were definitively silenced in 1953 with the publication of a battered scrap of fourth-century papyrus from Egypt (now in the British Library) on which a scribe had copied out part of Constantine's letter to the people of Palestine. This contemporary document confirmed that Eusebius' version of the text was accurate. Clearly, not all of Constantine's unambiguously Christian pronouncements are the result either of wishful thinking or artful fakery on the part of his supporters.

Even so, whatever the strength of the Emperor's personal conviction, the Roman Empire did not become Christian overnight. In a highly-traditional, conservative society many were reluctant to abandon long-held beliefs. The weight of the classical past, so clearly respected by Constantine in his new capital city, could not be so easily shifted. For all his obvious engagement with Christianity, Constantine was no crudely intolerant crusader. Non-Christians were not persecuted; nor were they forcibly converted. Rather, pagan forms of worship were discouraged. Constantine moved to ban blood sacrifice; he decreed that Sunday should be a special day. Most importantly, he deliberately distanced himself from the imperial cult, which since the emperor Augustus had been one of the most effective expressions of imperial power in the provinces. Under Constantine, statues of the emperor were no longer to be venerated or placed in temples.

Most importantly, the authority and wealth of the empire's most important pagan cult centres were systematically undermined. Many had their statues, their offerings, their bronze doors and even their gilded roof tiles removed. Shipped to Constantinople, much that was grand in this new imperial capital was built from the recycled riches stripped from pagan temples. The vast reserves of gold seized from temple treasuries allowed Constantine to restore a stable to the Roman Empire. Constantine's gold coin, the solidus (literally, 'the solid one') was the reliable basis for the monetary system of the Mediterranean for a thousand years: struck at 72 to the pound it provided the model for the French sou and the Arab dinar.

Under Constantine it was clear that Christianity--and not paganism --enjoyed the Emperor's explicit support. The Christian clergy was given legal privileges and tax immunity. Christian bishops were now a trusted part of the imperial entourage. Strikingly, Christian language, symbols and rituals became part of the vocabulary of imperial power. On 25th July 336, celebrating the anniversary of the Emperor's accession thirty years before in York, Eusebius of Caesarea delivered a series of grand orations before the assembled court in Constantinople. His imagery was arresting. In its magnificence, the Emperor's palace might be compared to Heaven. In his compassionate concern for the welfare of the empire and its people, Constantine might be compared to Christ Himself.
   Arrayed as he is in the image of the
   kingdom of heaven, the Emperor
   pilots affairs here below, following--with
   an upward gaze--a course
   modelled on that ideal form ... Let
   those who have entered the sanctuary
   within these holy halls, that
   innermost, most inviolate of places,
   having shut the doors to profane
   hearing, declare the sovereign's secret
   mysteries to those alone who are
   initiated in such things. Let those
   whose ears have been purified by
   these flowing streams of piety ... celebrate
   the ruler of all, performing
   these sacred rites in respectful silence.

These themes were repeated by Christians around the empire. In the mid fourth century--a long generation after Milvian Bridge--the owner of a grand villa at Hinton St Mary (in Dorset, not far from Dorchester had one of its principal rooms decorated with a magnificent floor mosaic. At its centre a roundel displays the bust of a young, clean-shaven Christ whose appearance seems deliberately to parallel portraits of Constantine or his sons. Behind his head the Chi-Rho, a monogram made up of the first two letters of Christ's name in Greek. On either side are pomegranates, ancient symbols of eternal life.

Sixty years before such a clear affirmation of Christian belief by a wealthy landowner would be unthinkable. At the beginning of the 290s, at imperial command, Roman officials launched their most systematic and effective attempt to suppress Christianity. This was a time of state-sponsored terror remembered by Christians as the 'Great Persecution'. That less than twenty-five years later a Roman emperor should himself publicly proclaim his own belief in the Christian God marks one of the great turning points in European history. It is Constantine's lasting legacy.

Constantine's active support of his new religion was vital to the expansion and success of Christianity. The Church benefited from being on the same side as the ruler of the Mediterranean world and victor in two civil wars. Above all, Christians meeting in the villa at Hinton St Mary now knew that their religion was one which they shared with an emperor. For those amongst them who had heard of the Great Persecution from their parents, this radical change in so short a time must have seemed difficult to credit.

Certainly under Constantine there was no 'pagan persecution', clearly too the classical past was respected, but equally there can be little doubt as to the Emperor's personal convictions--and their dramatic consequences. On this point Constantine's admiring biographer, Eusebius of Caesarea is clear: without the Emperor's intervention, Christianity would never have been more than a minority religion. Without generous state subsidies and unstinting imperial support, Christians would have remained no more than an isolated sect on the social and political margins of the Mediterranean world. Indeed, looking back to his accession in far-away northern Britain in July 306, the faithful throughout the Roman Empire might perhaps reasonably have regarded the results of Constantine's conversion to Christianity--like his amazing vision of a blazing cross in the noonday sky--as something which was truly miraculous.


Noel Lenski, The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine (CUP, 2005); A.H.M.Jones, Constantine and the Conversion of Europe (first pub. London 1948, reprinted, Univ. of Toronto Press, 1978); Averil Cameron and Stuart Hall Eusebius, Life of Constantine (Oxford, 1999); Hal Drake Constantine and the Bishops: The Politics of Intolerance (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press 2000); Christopher Kelly Ruling the later Roman Empire (Harvard Univ. Press 2004);Timothy Barnes Constantine and Eusebius (Harvard Univ. Press 1981); Richard Krautheimer Three Christian Capitals: Topography and Politics (Univ. of California Press 1983).

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Christopher Kelly is a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. His The Roman Empire: A Very Short Introduction will be published by OUP next month.
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Author:Kelly, Christopher
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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