For the last post in this series, I want to share with you a few facts about a remarkable man, and a historical being who has haunted me since my youth. He was the son of an officer in the praetorian guard of emperor Aurelian, and of a mother named, inevitably, in my mind, Helena, a christian Bithynian Greek. His were times of uncertainty, of civil wars and barbarian assaults on the Empire. During his life, he made his mark on five cities that are at the vortex of Western civilisation: York in Britain, Trier and Aachen in Germany, Rome itself, and Constantinople. He is, genuinely, the real defender of the Christian Faith. He was born, on 27 February, circa 272 AD, in Naissus, in present day Niš, in Serbia. He died on 22 May, AD 337, in Nicomedia, now İzmit, in Turkey. He became the 57th emperor of Rome.
In his youth he fought for the emperor against barbarians in Asia, the Danube, in Syria and Mesopotamia: he was a brilliant and fearless officer. He went on to campaign in Britain, in 305 AD. From the largest roman garrison in the country, Eboracum, now York, he campaigned against the Picts, beyond the Hadrian’s wall, at his father’s side. At the death of the then western ruler of Rome, Constantius, he was proclaimed emperor and Augustus in Eboracum, immediately recognised by the armies, in Gaul and Britain. His share of the Empire was then Britain, Gaul and Spain. As such he commanded one of the largest roman armies, stationed along the Rhine. In 306 AD he left Eboracum for Augusta Treverorum (today’s Trier) and drove the Frank invaders back, capturing two of their kings.
He continued to fight the germanic tribes whilst Italy was ravaged by civil war, but eventually was forced to intervene. After protracted battles he entered Rome on 29 October, 312 AD. In 313 he and Licinius, his brother in law and Eastern emperor, agreed the Edict of Milan, granting tolerance to Christianity and all religions in the Empire. Alas, civil war soon broke out again in 320, this time with Licinius, helped by Goth mercenaries, challenging Constantine and religious tolerance. But by 325 Constantine had triumphed against his enemies, and was sole emperor of the Roman Empire.
Constantine, after some hesitation, decided to make the city of Byzantium, his capital, Nova Roma, unifying once again the Western and Eastern Roman empires. The city was renamed Constantinopolis in 330 AD. He became the first christian emperor, and founded the new Church of the Holy Apostles on the site of the temple of Aphrodite. Throughout his rule, he would support the Church, build basilicas, and grant privileges to the clergy. In 325 he summoned the first Council of Nicaea – the first ecumenical council of the christian church – that instituted the Nicene creed, and gave the Roman Julian calendar precedence over the lunar Hebrew calendar. In his later life he considered Constantinople as his capital and permanent residence. After his victory against the Goths in 332 AD, he extended his control over Scythia. He resolved then to campaign against Persia, for the treatment of Armenian christians, and called the war a christian crusade.
He fell seriously ill after the Feast of Easter 337. As he was praying, in his mother’s city of Helenopolis, at the church of Lucian the Apostle, he knew he was dying. Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, baptised him, as he lay dying, a few days later, in Nicomedia. He died on 22 May, 337 AD, a christian.
The Byzantine empire Constantine founded would last another 1,000 years. Its successor, Charlemagne’s Holy Roman empire, recognised Constantine as its predecessor. For eastern christian churches he is a saint. So for me.