A short history of Byzantium

A short history of Byzantium: No. 2 Constantine: Prelude to Greatness

In a relatively short period of time, Constantine the Great took two decisions that changed and/or reshaped the Mediterranean, and the future of the world. He adopted Christianity, acting as its patron and transferred the capital of the empire to the east with Constantinople at its heart. He could seriously be considered, as John Julius Norwich states, the most influential person in history, only behind Jesus, the Buddha and the Prophet Mohammed? However before we continue our journey in discovering the Byzantine world and Constantine’ reign in Roman history, it is as equally important that we take a step backwards and briefly recount his beginnings.

Constantine was most probably born sometime in February 272 CE, in Naissus, Upper Moesia (modern day Nis, Serbia), at a time in Roman history when a new line of emperors, had just begun to breath new life into the empire. Life after the ‘crisis of the third century’, in which, the Roman empire nearly collapsed saw a steady improvement in the administration of the empire. Notably under the Emperors of Aurelian, Probus and notably Diocletian the empire would reestablish itself as the eminent superpower across Europe and the Mediterranean.

During this period Constantine’s father, Flavius Constantius, would serve admirably under the above mentioned emperors. When he chose to back Diocletian as emperor in 284 CE, he would later be handsomely rewarded for his loyalty by being made Caesar under Maximianus in the tetrarchy. (The tetrarchy or ‘rule of four’ was suppose to be the model, in which, the junior emperors would succeed their senior counterpart upon their death, and in turn appoint a new junior emperor, continuing the smooth transition of power.)

After growing up in the provisional region of Naissus, the teenage Constantine was ordered to travel to Diocletian’s court by his father. Strategically it was seen as a gesture to ensure his father’s loyalty to Diocletian. One might wonder though whether Constantine felt more like a hostage than a guest?

Nevertheless, for around twelve years Constantine would serve under the great Diocletian. He would be amazed by the pomp and ceremony of Diocletian’s court. He would observe and take in all that he could about how to be an Emperor. He also witnessed the ‘revolution’ and changes that took place, which included the reorganization of the army and a huge new bureaucracy, which managed every aspect of Roman life.

Together with Galerius (Diocletian’s junior Caesar), Constantine would also prove himself  as an exceptional soldier. Campaigning would prove to be quite rewarding which made Constantine feel that he was part of a revitalized Empire.


The height of Christian prosecution was reached during Emperor Diocletian’s reign 284-305 AD, but as early as the times of Nero, Christians were persecuted too. Christians were used as a scapegoat for the cause of the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. In the painting above a Christian woman is martyred under Nero in this re-enactment of the myth of Dirce.

However, possibly only one thing may have unnerved Constantine, while he was a resident in Diocletian’s court, and that was the renewed violence against the Christians. Diocletian and Galerius blamed the Christians partly for the problems the Empire found itself in. The wholesale destruction of their churches and the killing of Christians under Diocletian and the lengths Christians went to with their great acts of martyrdom would have been impossible for Constantine to ignore. Was it here that Constantine made a moral stance against the Great Prosecutions? Was it here that he also witness just how powerful the Christian faith could be?

Constantine’s father in the West, did very little to implement Diocletian’s edict against the Christians. The extent of his father involvement was burning or pulling down some Christian churches. Some argue that Constantius may have been ‘secretly’ a Christian, though there is no proof of that. Like father, like son, both though had sympathies towards the Christians and that cannot be denied.

In 303, Constantine travelled with Diocletian to Rome, to celebrate Diocletians twentieth anniversary of his reign and along the journey back to Nicomedia, Diocletian became serious ill. For the first time, Diocletian thought about his succession plans and in 305 CE he unexpectedly retired. Diocletian convinced Maximianius in the west to abdicate and which led to the promotion of Galerius and Constantine’s father Constantius. Everyone now waited for the two new junior Caesars to be announced. Constantine was odds on favourite to be one of the two Caesars to be named. Unfortunately to everyone’s surprise and shock including Constantine, he was overlooked.

Possibly with his tail between his legs, Constantine who had gambled on becoming Caesar, decided to depart from the east and join his father, the new Augustus of the West. There are many accounts about how this occurred, including stories that Constantius begged Galerius to let Constantine leave because he was gravely ill or that he needed his innovative leadership skills to campaign against the Picts in Britain. Other accounts report that Galerius refused Constantius’ requests and that Constantine fled in secret. Either way, Constantine would join his father in early 306 on the coast somewhere near the English channel.

After a successful campaign against the Picts in Britain, the reunion shared between father and son would be short lived. Constantine’s father would die at York. It is at this point now that Constantine’s rise to power really began. His father’s soldiers proclaimed him the new Augustus, at York, in 306 CE. His bold elevation to power and the defiance he showed towards the other emperors gained him no adulation.


Bronze follis of Constantine I, probably struck in 312-13 AD.

In many ways, the seeds had been sown for another civil war and the prize was the control of the empire. Not long after Galerius had died in 311 CE, Constantine saw his opportunity to strike. Strategically, he firstly aligned himself with Licinius, who held eastern Europe as emperor and in spite of their new ‘friendship’, both Constantine and Lincinus wanted to take control of Maxentius territories of Italy and North Africa. Constantine realized he would have to crush Maxentius and take command of his territories before Lincinius did. What lay ahead next for Constantine was a rendezvous with fate, a sign of divine intervention and the famous Battle of the Milvian Bridge.

Photo Credit: The header image is the head of the colossal statue of Constantine I  by Jean-Pol Grandmont and used under the GNU Free Documentation License. The image of the matyred Christian women is by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1897, National Museum, Warsaw.  
Notes and Further Reading
Lars Brownworth, Lost to the West, Crown, 2009.
Phil Grabsky, I, Caesar, BBC Books, 1997.
Michael Grant, The Emperor Constantine, Phoenix, 1993.
John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, Viking, 1988.
Paul Stephenson, Constantine, Quercus, 2009.

1 comment on “A short history of Byzantium: No. 2 Constantine: Prelude to Greatness

  1. I have mixed feelings about Constantine and I’m not sure if they’re warranted or not. I see him a little as a player, leveraging both the followers of christianity and paganism for his gain. Was his conversion to Christianity real or political? I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this. Thanks!

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