Constantine I the Great

Versión en español.

Serbian version.

Constantine I the Great

1- Who Constantine I was: a brief summary of his early life.

Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustusreign, better known in History as Constantine I the Great, was born in the village of Naissus, the modern city of Nish in Serbia. At that time Naissus belonged to the roman province of Moesia (later Dacia Ripensis) and during the last century all the region had been under the menace of Goths and barbarians. What is more, a great battle took place near the city in 264, when the emperor Claudius II (268-270) defeated a great army of Goths. Thousands of barbarians died in the countryside near Nish.

Constantine was one of the children of Constantius Chlorus and Helena. According to the Thetrarcy, his father had been elected by Diocletian as Caesar in 293. A few years later, in 305, Constantius became into emperor, but in 306 he suddenly died after a war against Picts, in Britain. As he was dying, he asked his soldiers to accept his son as emperor. Consequently, Constantine was proclaimed emperor at York but he had to fight a lot to impose himself over the others rivals.

2- The Council of Nicaea, Constantinople and the triumph of Christianity.

The reign of Constantine the Great, apart from producing some military and fiscal reforms of particular importance, was marked by two fundamental and foundational facts. On the one hand, the Council of Nicaea after the famous Edict of Milan, which proclaimed religious freedom in 313 and on the other hand, the rise of the new imperial capital in the East: Constantinople (ex Byzantium). Both of them would shape the epidermis and the core of the Roman state in just a few decades. 

Mosaic of Constantine I the Great and Justinian with the Virgin and Child. Hagia Sophia. Constantinople (Istanbul).

In 325 Constantine had the opportunity to recreate the role of paganism´s headunder its aegis, that is Pontifex Maximus, but now chairing a Christian assembly, an ecumenical council, in the city of Nicaea. Not only the emperor did attend the meeting but also about three hundred bishops. The mission of the conference was hearing and settling the thesis of Arianism, which was undermining the unity inside the new Faith. Among the main participants were the papal delegate Hosius, bishop of Corduba, and St. Athanasius, who was called “the champion of orthodoxy”. The thorny issue of the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father was tackled under the watchful eye of Constantine. The priest Arius, from Alexandria, had the opportunity to defend his thesis that had sown much dissension in the eastern provinces. According to this thesis, God and Jesus were different substances. Therefore the Alexandrian priest denied the divinity of Christ. After large and exhausting discussions the bishops proclaimed the Trinitarian nature of God. Constantine supported the decision and the Arian doctrine was considered as heretical and condemned. The Nicene formula, as a dogma, officially was sanctioned shortly after.

Far from providing a definitive solution to the conflict, the verdict of the first ecumenical council incited discontent among the followers of Arius. The defenders of orthodoxy, led by Athanasius, had underestimated the problem as well as the power of the Arians. Soon, they had to get the idea that the extirpation of heresy took longer than what they desired. Even the emperor realized that it was impossible to eliminate Arianism in one fell swoop. So he demanded to the church the readmission of the priest of Alexandria in his breast just to pacify the Empire at least superficially. But his decision only generated resentment and rejection in the orthodox ranks. Athanasius, completely disgusted with the emperor, would spend the rest of his days, until his death in 373, fighting for the Nicene dogma.

The column of Constantine being restored in 2009. Constantinople.

The importance of the council of 325 AD lies in the fact that, through his participation, Constantine laid the foundations of “Caesaropapism”. Since then the Caesars would attribute the right to call councils to resolve disputes of the Church. In other words, the emperors started to subordinate the internal Church affairs and matters under the authority of the state. The intrusion of political power through the figure of the emperor would give a more expeditious process for decisions on dogma matters. However, the Roman state would suffer a lot because of theological disputes that sporadically appeared in its territory. Naturally, both the political and religious power got benefits from the new established system. Suddenly the emperor found in the Christian religion the ideal way to unify the Empire and increase, at the same time, his absolute power. In return, the Church got enormous financial resources and, most importantly, state support against Arianism and other heresies such as Donatism, Priscillianism, Pelagianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, etc.

The consequences of the Council of Nicaea also left their influence on state policy implemented by Constantine. In the third decade of the IV century, the Goth’s menace in the province of Danubian Moesia and the major vitality of the East Roman induced the Emperor to move the political center of the Empire to the East. After reunifying the country, Constantine chose the city of Nicomedia to install his government while his engineers started to build a new capital over the Greek city of Byzantium, an ancient colony founded by Byzas. The capital was finished at the very beginning of 330 and on May 11th it was finally inaugurated with great solemnity. The king called it “New Rome”, a name which, over time, would yield to the “Konstantinou polis” of the Greeks and “Constantinople” of Latinos.

The Golden Horn. Constantinople.

Located strategically at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, Constantinople would soon overshadow the greatness of Rome. Two important factors contributed to this: first of all the city occupied a crucial place to rule over the commercial traffic between the East, the ancient Scythia, and the West, without considering that it was also the key passage between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Apart from that, the site chosen was easy to defend against barbarians and Persians. So Constantinople had got the potential advantage to become itself in a metropolis bigger than Rome. Constantine had noticed it and did not pay attention to expenses when he ordered to erect a protective wall several miles long enclosing the entire perimeter of the brand-new capital. Within the city walls, the works included the erection of a forum, the building of the senate and the imperial palace, all of which was achieved through the labor of slaves.

An eagle attacking a snake. Great Palace Mosaic Museum. Constantinople.

On the surface of the forum, the emperor built a column with a statue of Apollo at its top that was soon replaced by his own, when the advance of Christianity started to overshadow Paganism. Near this column, less than a mile south-east, a racetrack that was used for chariot races was marked and built. Not only the emperor built baths, theaters, barns, cisterns, squares, gardens, dams, docks and piers but also many statues and masterpieces were carried from Rome to beautify the new capital. The Christian faith, wining over Paganism after the Battle of the Bridge Milvio, also helped the proliferation of churches. Inhabited mainly by Greeks and open to a formidable process of Christianization, Constantinople would be molded soon under the symbol of the cross.

      Guilhem W. Martin

Serbian Byzantine Society

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