Constantine the Great (c.272 – 337)

Location of plaque: on railings on Minster Yard, near York Minster’s South Transept.

Constantine I was a Roman emperor, proclaimed in York in 306AD. He was the first Christian emperor and is popularly known as Constantine the Great.

Background

The man who became Constantine the Great was born Flavius Valerius Constantinus at Naissus (modern Niš in Serbia) in 272 or 273AD. He was the son of Constantius – the ‘Caesar’ or junior emperor of the west who, in the year 305, had raised himself to the rank of senior emperor, or Augustus – and his consort Helena (after whom St Helen’s Square is named).

When Constantine was born, the Roman Empire was a vast, sprawling domain stretching from York across southern and western Europe to North Africa, Egypt, the Middle East and modern-day Turkey. It had no fewer than four rulers at any one time. The Empire was divided into two halves, East and West. And each half had two emperors – a senior emperor, called the Augustus, and a junior emperor, called the Caesar.

In 306, Constantius, who was campaigning in the north of Britain, died at York. His son Constantine was duly acclaimed emperor by his father’s army – very possibly right here in York – even though he wasn’t the official heir.

Legitimate heir or not, he proved a hugely capable ruler and general. He waged a series of civil wars against his rival emperors, Maxentius and Licinius, and was so successful that by 324 he had become recognised as the sole ruler of both east and west empires.

Bust of Constantine the Great, the Yorkshire Museum, York. Image courtesy of York Museums Trust: http://yorkmuseumstrust.org.uk/

As emperor, he restructured the government to separate military and civil authorities, and introduced a new gold coin which combated inflation. His reform of the Roman Army into sedentary frontier garrisons and an élite mobile force also addressed the defense of the frontiers, especially along the River Rhine, which characterized Roman military strategy throughout the empire for the following two centuries.

He also moved the capital of his empire to Byzantium, a city on the border between Europe and Asia which was renamed Constantinople after him – although today is known as Istanbul. As sole Roman emperor, Constantine was the most powerful man in the western world, a colossus who bestrode three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa.

First Christian Emperor

But perhaps even more important from our perspective, he was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. Constantine’s victory over Maxentius in 312 at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, just outside Rome, is intimately associated with his conversion to Christianity. Legend has it, that on his march to Rome, Constantine and his army saw a cross of light in the sky, in broad daylight, and the words ‘hoc signo victor eris‘ (‘by this sign you will conquer’). Despite victory in the subsequent battle, Constantine was baptised only on his deathbed in modern-day Turkey in 337 – although this was normal for many converts of the period.

More than 20 years earlier Constantine had played a crucial role in the proclamation of the Edict of Milan, which declared religious tolerance for Christianity in the Roman empire, and so ended centuries of persecution of Christians. He also participated very directly in the proceedings of the Council of Nicaea in 325, which established the basis of modern orthodox Christianity in the Nicene creed.

The emperor’s change of religion acted as a stimulus to conversion among members of the administrative classes and the higher ranks of the army. The Church readily adopted the administrative structure of the empire for its own regional organisation.This ensured that ecclesiastical and government institutions were soon inextricably intertwined. Consequently, attempts by later emperors to reject or change the results of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity met with little success. To this extent, it could be argued that his proclamation as Roman emperor here in York was one of the most important moments in the history of Christianity.

Statue of Constantine I outside York Minster. Made by Philip Jackson for York Civic Trust

York Landmark

In 1998 the Trust commissioned a highly acclaimed statue of the first Christian Roman emperor. It stands alongside York Minster, near the South Transept, the location being only a few metres away from the Headquarters of the Roman Legionary (under the Minster).  A column from the Headquarters has been excavated and re-erected in the same area.

The renowned sculptor, Philip Jackson, took great pains to research the clothing, seating and armour of the period, and gave much thought about how to portray the Emperor. The result is a fascinating medley of fact and conjecture. The battle-hardened warrior sits in conciliatory manner looking down upon his broken sword, which forms the shape of a cross.  By this simple artifice, Jackson symbolises the fact that Constantine made Christianity an acceptable religion of the Roman Empire.

This initiative of the Trust has received wide approval and is so popular that it appears in many guide books and nearly all publicity about York.

For more information on Roman York and its archaeology, follow this link.