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Constantine Biography

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CONSTANTINE I, Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus, surnamed "the Great." A Roman Emperor (306–337 a.d.). He was born about 274 a.d., at Naissus, in Mśsia (Servia). He was the eldest son of Constantius Chlorus. He accompanied Diocletian, in that monarch's famous Egyptian expedition (296); subsequently he served under Galerius in the Persian War. In 305 the two emperors, Diocletian and Maximian, abdicated, and were succeeded by Constantius Chlorus and Galerius (q.v.). Galerius, who could not endure the brilliant and energetic genius of Constantine, took every means of exposing him to danger; in this period, it is believed, Constantine acquired that mixture of reserve, cunning, and wisdom which was so conspicuous in his conduct in after years. At last Constantine fled to his father, who ruled in the West, and joined him at Boulogne just as he was setting out on an expedition against the Picts in North Britain. Constantius died at York, July 25, 306, having proclaimed his son Constantine his successor. The latter now wrote a conciliatory letter to Galerius and requested to be acknowledged as Augustus. Galerius did not dare to quarrel with Constantine, yet he granted him the title of Cćsar only. Political complications now increased, and in a short time no fewer than six emperors were "in the field"—Galerius, Licinius, and Maximin in the East, and Maximian, Maxentius (his son), and Constantine in the West (308). Maxentius, having quarreled with his father, forced him to flee from Rome. The latter took refuge with Constantine, but was ungrateful enough to plot the destruction of his benefactor. This being discovered, Maximian fled to Marseilles; its inhabitants gave him up to Constantine, who put him to death (309). Maxentius professed great anger at the death of his father and assembled a large army, with which he threatened Gaul. Crossing the Alps by Mont Cénis, Constantine thrice defeated Maxentius—first near Turin, then under the walls of Verona, and finally near the Milvian Bridge at Rome, Oct. 27, 312; Maxentius himself, in the last of these engagements, was drowned in an attempt to escape across the Tiber. During this campaign Constantine was said to have had the apparition in the sky of a luminous cross with the words, 'Ev тоúтω νίĸa, En toutö nika (in Latin, Hoc vince, 'By this conquer'), as the contemporary historians Eusebius and Lactantius record. This vision, it is said, spurred him on against Maxentius and made him a Christian. Constantine now entered the capital, disbanded the prćtorians, and adopted other judicious measures for allaying the public excitement. He was honored with the title of Pontifex Maximus, or supreme dignitary of the pagan hierarchy.

Constantine was now sole Emperor of the West. Similarly, by the death of Galerius in 311 and of Maximin in 313, Licinius became sole Emperor of the East. In 314 a war broke out between the two rulers, in which Licinius was worsted and was fain to conclude a peace by the cession of Illyricum, Pannonia, and Greece. For the next nine years Constantine devoted himself vigorously to the correction of abuses in the administration of the laws, to the strengthening of the frontiers, and to chastising the barbarians, who learned to fear and respect his power. In 323 war was renewed with Licinius, who was defeated and ultimately put to death. Constantine was now at the summit of his ambitions—the sole governor of the Roman world; but Rome was no longer the political or geographical centre of this world, and he determined to move the capital to Byzantium, which he solemnly inaugurated in 330 under the name of Constantinopolis, the 'City of Constantine.’ A further motive for the removal has been found in the suggestion that Constantine, who had now fully identified himself with Christianity, wished to avoid conflict with the pagan feeling that still was deep-seated at Rome. From Constantinople he ruled his vast empire until his death, which occurred May 27, 337. From the reign of Constantine Christianity was not only recognized and tolerated, but became the religion of the rulers themselves. Of Constantine's personal feeling in the question of Christianity and paganism much has been written. By birth and education he was much inclined towards the growing faith; his mother was a Christian, and his father, Constantius, though a pagan, was very tolerant and would allow no direct acts of violence in his part of the Roman domain during the great persecution of 303. Constantine was by nature mild and kindhearted; his legislation was governed by humane principles. He abolished the system of branding the faces of convicts; ordained that masters who killed their slaves were guilty of homicide, and published an edict of toleration which insured liberty of conscience throughout the Empire. The Christians were as yet but a minority of the whole population, but the Emperor openly sympathized with them and did not hesitate, upon occasion, to insult the pagans. Yet his Christianity was not deep-seated, though doubtless quite sincere as far as it went. He looked upon his overthrow of Maxentius as due to the help of God, instinctu divinitatis, as the inscription on his arch in Rome (see Constantine, Arch of), built in 315, shows; but the very form of expression displays a concession to pagan sensibilities that a rigorous Christian of the period would not have made. He retained the traditional pagan title of Pontifex Maximus, as did his Christian successors of the fourth century, and his coins still bear the figures and the names of the old gods. In the Arian controversy he sided with the Catholic bishops, and it was he who called the great Council of Nicća (Nice) in Bithynia in 325 (see Nice, Council of) and presided at the first sitting. By this council the doctrine of consubstantiality was defined, and the Nicene Creed was adopted. He did not receive baptism until shortly before his death.

The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. V (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 791-792.