Location of plaque: next to the statue in Minster Yard, near York Minster’s South Transept.
Born in Naissius (a Roman city in modern Serbia), Constantine was proclaimed emperor by his army while in York in ad 306. His father, Constantius Chlorus, emperor before him, died suddenly while they were campaigning together in Britain. During his reign (ad 306-337), the second-longest of any Roman emperor, Constantine fought successfully to become the sole Roman ruler, made Byzantium (Constantinople/modern Istanbul) his capital, and shifted imperial power away from Rome itself ensuring its longer endurance in the east.
However, he is remembered now, less for his military prowess, for beating his fellow emperors or for his strategic wisdom in selecting Byzantium as the empire’s pivot, than for being the first emperor to ease the path of the growing Christian church, and, perhaps, for his own conversion. Educated at the court of Emperor Diocletian, he reversed the latter’s policy of persecuting Christians, legislated for religious tolerance, ascribed his victories to divine support and presided over the Council of Nicaea. The resulting Nicene Creed, the first that sought to unify Christian beliefs, was drafted at the council. He presided, too, over other councils, helping to settle heresies that were perhaps inevitable as an organised church took shape. However, he is said to have been baptised only when close to death, in ad 337.
Two matters of context
At the time of his birth, the Roman empire was recovering from a period of civil war and was ruled by the tetrarchy, a hierarchy of four emperors: the senior two were titled Augustus (as Constantine and his father) with two Caesars answerable to them. The emperors were military men deployed with their armies less in Rome than in key points near the borders of the empire, governing the population and repelling external enemies. It was a system that brought stability and succession problems alike. Constantine, for example, did succeed his father but was proclaimed by his own troops in York without reference to Rome. His succession was not inevitable and Constantine solved the problem by eliminating his imperial peers systematically.
The Roman empire, including throughout Constantine’s rule, was polytheistic, though perhaps drifting towards monotheism with its greater opportunities for central control. Roman soldiers, for example, attended official religious ceremonies dedicated to the sun god Sol Invictus as a matter of duty but were free to follow their own cults too. Mithras, the bull slaughterer, was a military favourite. Diocletian, however, persecuted Christianity, a minor cult of the poor and disenfranchised. And Constantine, though supporting Christianity, remained Pontifex Maximus till he died; the title – later adopted by popes – designated him the chief pagan priest of the Roman empire.
Man and myth
Much of Constantine’s story has been obscured by time, by the victor’s version of events and by Christian writings that idolised him as the first Christian emperor. He was born in ad 272, or 274, or 280 (sources vary). His mother Helena, seen early as a Christian saint, was, according to medieval English sources, a Briton but much more likely originated from Asia Minor and may or may not have been a Christian when Constantine was young. Similarly, she was probably of low birth and may have been married to Constantius, but might equally have been his concubine (making Constantine illegitimate). In time, Constantius divorced or abandoned Helena to make an advantageous marriage with Theodora, stepdaughter of Maximian, Diocletian’s co-emperor.
The battle of Milvian Bridge (ad 312) was especially significant for growing the Constantine myth. It was a part of his campaign to become sole emperor and victory gave him the vital control over Rome itself. It was also an internecine affair: his fellow emperor Maxentius, commanding Italy and Rome, was his wife Fausta’s brother. The relationship with Constantine did nothing to protect Maxentius’s life, nor his dignity in death. With victories at Verona and Turin already behind him, Constantine’s route on the Via Flaminia, across the River Tiber into Rome, was over the Milvian Bridge. Maxentius had partly dismantled it in anticipation of battle, leaving himself a wooden pontoon should he need to retreat. His poor tactics, which Constantine noted and exploited, made him the loser. Maxentius had deployed his troops with their backs to the Tiber, leaving them insufficient room to manoeuvre. They were readily cut to pieces, particularly by Constantine’s cavalry. To make matters worse, the pontoon would not bear the panicked escaping forces and many drowned, including Maxentius himself. After the battle, his body was hauled out of the Tiber, his head cut off and paraded into Rome on a spear, in line with a long Roman triumphal tradition. It was then sent to Carthage (in modern Tunis) to ensure that the message of Constantine’s supremacy was grasped firmly, and that Rome’s North African grain supplies should continue uninterrupted.
Revelations from God
Strategically highly significant, giving him power over the ancient capital, the victory had at least equal religious significance. While Roman generals often invoked godly support, usually from Sol Invictus, and claimed morale-building visions or dreams before battle, the Milvian Bridge encounter was the first when a general claimed such revelations from the god of the Christians. The vision was twofold: a Chi Ro (the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek) seen in the sky, along with the words ‘in this sign you will conquer’, and a dream the night before battle in which Christ instructed Constantine to use the sign against his enemies. Accordingly, we are told, he ordered his men to paint the labarum (the Chi Ro sign) on their shields, and they won resoundingly.
Modern scholarship is apt to doubt supernatural interventions and question whether the effects of sunlight and clouds might not have been over-interpreted. It notes too that: these claims were recorded only by interested Christian writers (Lactantius and by Bishop Eusebius who changed his account over the years only later including the miracle); that Rome’s triumphal arch for Constantine, completed three years later, is much less explicit about a Christian vision; and that Constantinian coins, struck later than the battle, continued to commemorate Sol Invictus, Rome’s traditional sun god. None the less, the recounted events mark a stage in Christianity’s progress from reviled minor cult to the Roman empire’s official religion; this occurred, finally, in a decree of Emperor Theodosius, after Constantine, in ad 380.
The Edict of Milan (of February 313, a year after the Milvian Bridge battle), commonly attributed to Constantine, is seen as an important document for ensuring freedom of religion in the Roman world and particularly for freeing Christians from the kinds of systematic oppression that Diocletian had practised. Confiscated church properties were returned to them too, but there were limits that tend to be less noted: the freedoms were conditional and the religions practised should support the Roman empire. Also, the edict was not issued in Milan and was less a formal edict than a joint communiqué between Constantine and Licinius, emperor in the East, Constantine’s co-emperor and rival. It arose from conversations between them that took place at the marriage of Licinius to Constantine’s sister Constantia in Milan.
The relationship between the two emperors was not amicable for long. Constantine did much to blacken the name of Licinius. Moreover, having already beaten him in the naval battle of the Hellespont, Constantine beat him on land at Chrysopolis in ad 324. Constantia persuaded Licinius to surrender to Constantine and pleaded for his life with her brother. None the less, Constantine subsequently ordered his execution. He also ordered the death of his nephew (also Licinius) and ended the tetrarchy, taking control of the whole Roman empire, shifting power to its eastern side, and founding its new capital at Constantinople.
The Constantine paradox
We are left with a puzzle. Constantine was plainly a military strategist and tactician of great skill, capable too of enlisting the loyalties of armies and seeing the wisdom of moving the centre of empire to the east where its influence would endure for longer. Equally plainly, he displayed a degree of ruthlessness in battle, politics and personal relationships – including killing two brothers-in-law – that sits uneasily with his status as the first Christian emperor. Yet, he freed Christians from oppression and played an important role in their formative early councils. So, we are left with open questions: whether, on his route to sole imperial power, it was little more than brilliant politics to have enlisted a rising faith to his colours, or whether he was a convinced but flawed believer in doctrines he helped to fashion. Whichever it was, there is no doubting Constantine’s extensive and lasting influence on the Christian Church.
Podcast: BBC Radio 4, In Our Time, ‘Constantine the Great’, chaired by Melvyn Bragg
Timothy D. Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1981)
Averil Cameron A. and Stuart G. Hall, Eusebius, Life of Constantine, Clarendon Ancient History Series (Wotton-under-Edge: Clarendon Press, 1999)
H.A. Drake, Constantine and the Bishops, The Politics of Intolerance (Baltimore, Maryland, US: John Hopkins University Press, 2002)
Noel Lenski (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Constantine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)
David Potter, Constantine the Emperor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)
Paul Stephenson, Constantine, Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor (London: Quercus, 2011)
Raymond Van Dam, The Roman Revolution of Constantine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)
© Graham Frater