A short history of Byzantium

A short history of Byzantium: No. 6 Master of the Universe!

For quite some time, the boorish Maximinus Daia stylised himself in the vain of Augustus in the Asiatic east. He was also quite jealous of Licinius being elevated senior emperor of the Balkan provinces. But once he got word of the events in Milan, where Constantine and Lincinius had formulated an alliance, it was enough to make his blood boil in anger. Daia wasn’t a stupid man, he soon realised that it was inevitable that the three remaining emperors would eventually turn on each other. So he decided to take the initiative and strike first against Lincinius and invade his territories.  Unfortunately, Daia underestimated the resolve of Licinius and would fall from grace very quickly in the year 313 AD. His armies would be crushed by Licinius, and he would flee and later swallow poison and die. 

The outcome would see Constantine, Emperor of the West and Licinius now, Emperor of Eastern Europe and Asia. Furthermore, on Licinius triumphant return to the east, he publicized an edict on which he and Constantine had agreed upon in Milan. He sent out letters of this edict to all the governors in his dominion that stated that religious toleration in the empire would be restored.

For a short while this arrangement, of two emperors sharing power, suited both men as they established a stranglehold of their territories. Though, like a pot of warming milk waiting to furiously boil over, it wouldn’t take long for Licinius to incur the jealous wrath of Constantine. Ill advised or just plain stupid, Licinius started tearing down statues of Constantine from the town of Aemona (situated in Ljubjana, Slovenia) in 314 or 316 which triggered hostilities between the two combatants. Constantine welcomed the chance to flex his muscles and completely humbled Licinius into submission. Shortly thereafter, Licinius was forced to hand over his control of Eastern Europe with the exception of Thrace, following a defeat at Arda in Thrace.

If only for a short time, peace once again return to the empire and Constantine and Licinius resumed their uneasy ‘brotherly’ alliance. From 317 AD, Constantine used his time in this uneasy peace to consolidate his growing stature as statesman and Emperor. Notably, he enacted many laws connected to his vision of a new Roman world. Edward Gibbon, makes note of two laws worthy of mention, that of punishment of murder against new-born infants and rape. With a growing family, Constantine was also able to secure his dynasty through his first two sons that he named as heirs (Caesar), Crispus and Constantine. Crispus, in particular, would play an important role in the downfall of Licinius. By 324 AD, Constantine was secure enough in his strength in the West, that he finally decide that he saw no need to share power anymore with an ageing Licinius and plotted his downfall.

From here on end, Constantine, it seems went to great effort to slander Licinius name, not only in the east but with the Christians too. Subsequently Christian historians, after the fact, would drag Licinius name through the mud. Both, Constantine and historians like Eusebius would portray Licinius as a Christian hater and supporter of the pagan gods. It wasn’t always the case, for present-day evidence suggests, that he was at first just as committed to the Christian cause as Constantine. Possibly playing straight into the hands of Constantine, Licinius became paranoid of Constantine’s antics and open support for the Christians. He also began to see Christianity as Constantine’s “fifth column”. In his disgust and anger, Licinius tried to suppress Christians by executing bishops, burning churches and reintroducing persecutions. If I can briefly pause here for a moment, to make comment that much of this maybe true, but we also have to remember that many of these accounts (above) come from Christian historians, who in their best interests had to portray Licinius as a villain. Poor Licinius, it seems, was destined to play second fiddle to Constantine. Surely, does he not deserve a better reputation than the one he receives in the history books of today ? Nevertheless, in 324 AD, Licinius was duly provoked into a final war with Constantine.

The first engagement of the war was at Adrianople. Both armies presumably had forces over 100,000 strong with Constantine commanding a slightly smaller force than Licinius. At about 52 years of age, Constantine had not lost any of his abilities in command and although he was wounded in the thigh with a spear, a surprise attack by Constantine resulted in some 30,000 of Licinius men to be lost. Licinius quickly fled or escaped to Byzantium. But if Licinius thought he would escape Constantine in Byzantium, he was wrong. At Byzantium, Constantine dug in and besieged Licinius with his fleet led by his son Crispus. Having made his way up the Hellespont, Crispus smashed Licinius fleet after two fierce days of naval engagements. Licinius, again fled, this time across the Bosphorus into Asia. Constantine didn’t let up and followed Licinius into Asia, where he defeated him at the Battle of Chrysopolis. In the end, Constantina (Constantine’s stepsister) begged Constantine to spare her husband’s life after he scurried back to Nicomedia. Forgiveness, on Constanines part was short-lived. Only a few months later, Constantine executed Licinius, after he allegedly discovered a conspiracy against him. Constantine, now found himself master of the whole Roman Empire. He could now boast to be savior and rescuer of his Christian subjects. He also gave himself a new title of ‘the victor”. Though more importantly, he would embark on two new ‘pet’ projects. A new city and an attempt at unifying the Christians.


4th Century Cameo of the Crowning of Constantine.
Notes and Further Reading Lars Brownworth, Lost to the West, Crown, 2009.
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edited, Abridged and with a Critical Foreword by Hans-Friedrich Mueller, The Modern Library, 2013. Michael Grant, The Emperor Constantine, Phoenix, 1993.
John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, Viking, 1988.
David Potter, The Emperors of Rome, Quercus, 2007.
David Potter, Constantine The Emperor, Oxford, 2013.
Paul Stephenson, Constantine, Quercus, 2009.
Photo credit: The header image is a tapestry showing the Sea Battle of the Hellespont between the Fleets of Constantine, led by his son Crispus and Licinius by Pietro da Cortona in 1635.

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