A short history of Byzantium

A short history of Byzantium: No. 15 “Instant Karma”!

The solidus of Constans, as pictured above, was probably struck on the occasion of the celebrations of the Quinquennalia of Constans in 338 AD. There also is another theory that it was possibly issued as a donative when Constantine II, as senior emperor, met up with his brothers to resolve and divide the empire between themselves in the Balkans. Its reverse, which is of most interest to this author, shows the three sons of Constantine I, enthroned and united together. Constantine II is pictured in the middle holding up his hand in benefiction. This picture of harmony, given their character and nature, unfortunately didn’t last long.

Raised as princes in the Imperial court, they grew up spoilt, overbearing and far too self-centred to care about anyone else. Though, they did show enough restraint and respect during the months their father lay in state. Once Constantine I was buried they revealed their true self. The three brothers were elevated as Augusti following a horrible family massacre presided over by Constantius. However, this was only the beginning of things to come. The first stirring of trouble between the three brothers was attributed to the eldest son, Constantine II. With a huge chip on his shoulder, he had a hard time accepting his brothers as his equal. If we cast our attention back to the reverse of Constans solidus (above), the heightened position of Constantine II with his brothers either side of him, is only but one example of Constantine’s attempt to emphasis his role as “Primus inter pares.”

Constantine assumed that being the eldest in the family, it entitled him to play a leading role. After all, is it not a big brothers prerogative to push his younger brothers around ? Constans, in particular, was only fourteen when he became emperor, but found himself under the guardianship of Constantine II. It was therefore big brother who demanded that Constans hand over his African provinces. Begrudgingly, Constans did as he was asked. However, it would be the last time that he would submit to the wishes of Constantine. The two would continue to quarrel over the provinces in their possession, including Constantine’s refusal to give up his guardianship over Constans. Soon enough the audacity and rebuke of Constans eventually rubbed his brother the wrong way. This young upstart would fuel Constantine’s temper, in turn, leading him to storm into Constans territories in northern Italy in 340.


Statue of Emperor Constantine II on top of the Cordonata in Rome. 

Upon hearing that his brother had crossed into Italy, Constans who was residing in Dacia at the time, sent a small detachment of his best Illyrian troops to confront Constantine. Regardless of seniority, skill and military experience, Constantine was surprised in an ambush and subsequently killed by Constans soldiers near Aquileia. Unlike his father, Constantine II would receive no dignity nor respect in death as his lifeless body was thrown into the river Alsa. As a final insult, Constantine II’s name would also be scratched from inscriptions by Constans. It certainly makes me wonder whether the solidius with Constantine enthroned between his brothers, as pictured in this article above, was gathered up from around the empire and melted down ? The fact that there are presumably only a few of these issued coins in existence today, it may give some credence to my theory ?

One has to wonder about the whereabouts of Constantius during the feud between his brothers. There doesn’t seem to be very much of a record about what he felt or thought about the murder of his brother. Whether he was cold and unapologetic about his older brothers death we will never know. It seems he strategically chose to stay out of their brotherly spat. Constantius had his own concerns. He was knee-deep in conflict with the Persians. A war Constantius inherited from his father.

Constans would return to his imperial residence now master of the west and two-thirds of the whole empire. (Constans intentionally decided not to share his newly gained provinces with Constantius.) Constans fate was hinged with how he would conduct himself from this point forward. He would have plenty of time to hone his skills or should we say his reputation for cruelty and misrule.

The two surviving brothers would not fight over who held what territory or the exercise of power. Peace would ensure without civil war for the next ten years. Instead, they would argue over their beliefs with Constans in the orthodox camp and Constantius in the Arian.

Photo Credit: The header image is the gold solidus of Constans that was issued in the Roman city of Siscia. The city mint of Siscia produced coins for the Roman state between 262 and 383. This particular coin is extremely rare and was likely struck in 337-40 AD. I believe my inclusion of this image because of its importance and rarity constitutes as fair use. The statue of Constantine II is used under the Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Image by Tcfka Panairjdde. 
Notes and further Reading
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.
Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West: The Death of the Roman Superpower, Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 2009
John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, Viking, 1988.
David Potter, The Emperors of Rome, Quercus, 2007.
Paul Stephenson, Constantine, Quercus, 2009.

1 comment on “A short history of Byzantium: No. 15 “Instant Karma”!

  1. Pingback: Like Father, Like Son. – Rearview Mirror

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