(1) Flavius Valerius Aurelius Claudius, known as The Great, son of the emperor Constantius Chlorus and Helena (q.v.), was born A.D. 272, at Nasus, a city of Dacia Mediterranea. When Constantine's father was associated in the government by Diocletian, the son was retained at court as a kind of hostage, but was treated with great kindness at first, and was allowed several opportunities of distinguishing himself. After the abdication of Diocletian, Constantius and Galerius were elevated to the rank of Augusti, while two new Caesars, Severus and Maximin, were appointed to second them. Constantine was not called to the succession. Diocletian, partial to Galerius, his son-in-law, had left the nomination of the two new Caesars to the latter; and the son of Constantius, whose popularity and talents had excited the jealousy of Galerius, and whose departure, although earnestly solicited by his father, was delayed from time to time under the most frivolous pretences, with difficulty at length obtained permission to join his parent in the West, and only escaped the machinations of the emperor by travelling with his utmost speed until he reached the western coast of Gaul. He came just in time to join the Roman legions, which were about to sail under his father's command to Britain, in order to make war upon the Caledonians. Having subdued the northern barbarians, Constantius returned to York (Eboracum), where he died in the month of July, in the year 306. Galerius, sure of the support of his two creatures, the Caesars, had waited impatiently for the death of his colleague, to unite the whole Roman Empire under his individual sway. But the moderation and justice of Constantius had rendered him the more dear to his soldiers from the contrast of these qualities with the ferocity of his rival. At the moment of his death, the legions stationed at York, as a tribute of gratitude and affection to his memory, and, according to some, at his dying request, saluted his son Constantine with the title of Caesar and decorated him with the purple. Whatever resentment Galerius felt at this, he soon perceived the danger of engaging in a civil war. As the eldest of the emperors, and the representative of Diocletian, he recognized the authority of the colleague imposed upon him by the legions. He assigned to him the administration of Gaul and Britain, but gave him only the fourth rank among the rulers of the Empire with the title of Caesar.
Under this official appellation Constantine administered the prefecture of Gaul for six years (A.D. 306-312), perhaps the most glorious, and certainly the most virtuous, period of his life. The title and rank of Augustus, which his soldiers had conferred upon Constantine, but which Galerius had not allowed him to retain, the latter gave to Severus, one of his own Caesars. This dignity had been expected by Maxentius, son of the abdicated emperor Maximian, the former colleague of Diocletian. Indignant at his disappointment, Maxentius caused himself to be proclaimed emperor by his army; and, to strengthen his usurpation, he induced his father to leave his retreat and resume the imperial title. A scene of contention followed, scarcely paralleled in the annals of Rome. Severus marched against the two usurpers; but was abandoned by his own troops, surrendered, and was slain. Galerius levied a great army, and marched into Italy against Maximian and Maxentius, who, dreading his power, retired to Gaul and endeavoured to procure the support of Constantine. This politic chief did not consider it expedient to provoke a war at that time and for no better cause; and, Galerius having withdrawn from Italy and returned to the East, Maximian and Maxentius returned to Rome. To aid him in the struggle, Galerius conferred the title of emperor on his friend Licinius; and thus there were at once six pretenders to the sovereignty of the Empirenamely, Galerius and Licinius; Maximian and his son Maxentius; Maximin, who had been nominated Caesar by Galerius; and Constantine, the son and successor of Constantius. Among these rivals Constantine possessed a decided superiority in prudence and abilities, both military and political. The harsh temper of Maximian soon led to a quarrel between him and his son Maxentius. Leaving Rome, he went to Gaul, to Constantine, who had become his son-in-law when he and his son were endeavouring to make head against Galerius. Here also Maximian found himself disappointed of that power which he so greatly longed to possess; and having plotted against Constantine, was detected and put to death. Galerius died not long after (311), leaving his power to be divided between his Caesars, Maximin and Licinius; so that there were now four competitors for the Empire: Constantine, Maxentius, Maximin, and Licinius. Maxentius speedily provoked open [p. 404]
hostilities with Constantine, who marched at the head of a powerful army towards Rome.
It was while Constantine was proceeding on this momentous expedition that he made an open and public declaration in favour of Christianity. Before that time, the persecuting edicts of Diocletian had been much mitigated by the forbearance and leniency of Constantius; and Constantine not only followed his father's example in being merciful to the persecuted Christians, but even showed them some marks of positive favour. Very considerable numbers of them, in consequence, flocked to his standard and swelled the ranks of his army. [figure in text: Constantine and Fausta.] Their peaceful, orderly, and faithful conduct, contrasting most favourably with the turbulent and dissolute behaviour of those who formed the mass of common armies, won his entire confidence. To what extent this led Constantine to form a favourable opinion of Christianity, or inclined him to view with esteem and respect the tenets which had produced such results, cannot be ascertained. How far, also, his avowed reception of Christianity was influenced by the prudence of the politician, how far by the conviction of the convert, it is impossible to determine. The accounts of his dream and his vision (see Labarum), which united to enforce his trust in Christianity, bear too much the aspect of fiction, or of having been the illusive consequences of mental anxiety, brooding intensely on the possible results of a great religious revolution, to be woven into the narrative of sober history. The story goes, however, that on his march to Rome, either at Autun in Gaul, or near the Rhine, or at Verona in Italy, Constantine beheld in the sky a brilliant cross with the inscription Ἐν τούτῳ νίκα, By this conquer! and that on the night before his decisive battle with Maxentius a vision appeared to him in his sleep, bidding him inscribe the shields of his soldiers with the sacred monogram of the name of Christ. This, at least, is certain, that Constantine caused the Cross to be employed as the imperial standard, and advanced with it to promised victory. After the armies of Maxentius, led by his generals, had sustained two successive defeats, that emperor himself, awakening from his sensual and inactive life at Rome, advanced against his formidable assailant, and met him near the little river Cremera, about nine miles from the city. Maxentius lost the day, after a bloody conflict, and, in endeavouring to enter the city by the Milvian bridge, was precipitated into the Tiber, where he perished (October 27th, 312).
Constantine was received at Rome with acclamations; Africa acknowledged him, as well as Italy; and an edict of religious toleration, issued at Milan, extended the advantages, hitherto enjoyed by Gaul alone, to this prefecture also. After a brief stay at Rome, during which he restored to the Senate their authority, disbanded the Praetorian Guard, and destroyed their fortified camp, from which they had so long awed the city and given rulers to the Empire, Constantine proceeded to Illyricum to meet Licinius, with whom he had formed a secret league before marching against Maxentius. The two emperors met at Milan, where their alliance was ratified by the marriage of Licinius to Constantine's sister. During this calm interview, Constantine prevailed upon Licinius to repeal the persecuting edicts of Diocletian, and to issue a new one, by which Christianity was encouraged, its teachers were honoured, and its adherents advanced to places of trust and influence in the State. After the overthrow of Maximin by Licinius, and his death at Nicomedia, Constantine and his brother-in-law were now the only two that remained of the six competitors for the Empire; and the peace between them, which had seemed to be established on so firm a basis, was soon interrupted by a strife for sole supremacy. In the first war (A.D. 315) Constantine wrested Illyricum from his competitor. After an interval of eight years the contest was renewed. Licinius was beaten before Adrianople, the 3d of July, 323, and Constantine the Great was recognized as sole master of the Roman world.
The seat of empire was now transferred to Byzantium (q.v.), which took from him the name of Constantinople. Several edicts were issued for the suppression of idolatry; and the churches and property restored to the Christians, of which they had been deprived during the last persecution. A reconstruction of the Empire was effected upon a plan entirely new, and this renovated Empire was pervaded by the worship and the institutions of Christianity. That much of the policy of the statesman was mixed up with this patronage of the new religion can easily be imagined. But still, it would be wrong to make him, as some have done, a mere hypocrite and dissembler. The state of his religious knowledge, so far as we have any means of judging, was certainly very inadequate and imperfect; but he was well aware of the characters of the two conflicting religions, Christianity and Paganism, and the purity of the former could not but have made some impression upon his mind.
The private character of Constantine has suffered, in the eyes of posterity, from his stern treatment of Crispus, his son by his first wife, whom he had made the partner of his Empire and the commander of his armies. Crispus was at the head of the administration in Gaul, where he gained the hearts of the people. In the wars against Licinius he had displayed singular talents, and had secured victory to the arms of his father. But from that moment a strong and unnatural jealousy stifled every paternal feeling in the bosom of the monarch. He detained Crispus in his palace, surrounded him with spies and [p. 405]
informers, and at length, in the month of July, 324, ordered him to be arrested in the midst of a grand festival, to be carried off to Pola in Istria, and there put to death. A cousin of Crispus, the son of Licinius and Constantine's sister, was at the same time sent, without trial, without even an accusation, to the block. His mother implored in vain, and died of grief. It is fair, however, to say that Niebuhr found evidence to support the view that Crispus aimed at supplanting his father. Fausta, the daughter of Maximian, the wife of Constantine, and the mother of the three princes who succeeded him, was shortly after stifled in the bath by order of her husband for infidelity.
In the following year the celebrated Council of Nicaea was held, at which he opposed the Arians, probably on political grounds only, as being the weaker party; for just before his death he received baptism from an Arian bishop, Eusebius of Nicomedia.
Constantine died at the age of sixty-three, at Nicomedia, July 22d, 337, after a reign of thirtyone years from the death of his father, and of fourteen from the conquest of the Empire. He left three sons, Constantine, Constans, and Constantius, among whom he divided his Empire. The first, who had Gaul, Spain, and Britain for his portion, was conquered by the armies of his brother Constans, and killed in the twenty-fifth year of his age, A.D. 340. Magnentius, the governor of the provinces of Rhaetia, murdered Constans in his bed, after a reign of thirteen years; and Constantius, the only surviving brother, now become the sole emperor, A.D. 353, punished his brother's murderer, and gave way to cruelty and oppression. He visited Rome, where he enjoyed a triumph, and died (361) in his march against Julian , who had been proclaimed emperor by his soldiers at Paris.
See the works of Eusebius (De Vita Constantini), Zosimus (Bk. II.), Eutropius, Aurelius Victor, and the Panegyrici Veteres (vi. 10); also Manso's Leben Constantins des Grossen; Burckhardt, Die Zeit Constantins des Grossen; and Broglie, L'glise et l'Empire Romain.
(2) The son of the preceding. See above.
(3) A usurper who had himself proclaimed emperor in Britain during the reign of Honorius and Arcadius, in A.D. 407, reigning for four years and securing possession of Gaul and Spain, until defeated in 411 by Constantius, the able general of Honorius. By him Constantine was taken prisoner, carried to Ravenna, and there put to death.
(4) The name of several emperors of the Eastern Empire. See Byzantinum Imperium.