A short history of Byzantium

A short history of Byzantium: No. 17 Constantius II, the Byzantine autocrat (Part 1).

Constantius is arguably the most interesting of the three sons of Constantine I. He lived long enough, unlikely his brothers Constantine II and Constans, to have an immediate impact on the empire, primarily with his interference in church policies. He was after all a man who loved to wield absolute power. It was Constantius who first sat next to his father’s deathbed and schemed to put in place his plans for succession. Next he acted on behalf of his brothers to have his extended family massacred, so that there would be no doubt who was in charge. He was always prepared to put to death, murder or engage in civil war against men he considered his enemy, to hold onto his absolute grip on power.

It is true that he was a very troubled and complex individual. If you were a part of Constantius court during his reign, you needed to be prepared, as historian Peter Brown states, “to rise and fall like courtiers.” This included, at first all the bishops in his eastern provinces and those that weren’t prepared to prostate oneself to Constantius preferred view of Christianity were generally defamed and exiled. The fourth century historian Ammianus Marcellinus gives us the best account of Constantius later years, where even he is critical of Constantius for being a malign and mistrusting person. Evidence of this is found in the many purges recorded by Ammianus, especially following the defeat of Magnentius.

We will revisit Magnentius shortly but one of most important question during Constantius reign was always going to be centred around Christ’s relationship with God the father. Was Christ God or was he like God ? Under Constantine I, the issue was supposed to have been resolved, but like all good stories there is always a twist or a killjoy at hand. That killjoy according to the Trinitarian bishops was Arius and his followers. Arians, in a nutshell believed that, Christ was not of the same substance. (Christ was like god not God.) This was the view Constantius aligned himself with and he spent considerable time championing the cause of Arians, calling for numerous church councils to get his interpretation of Christianity accepted. His direct interference led to the Sirmium Creed being adopted as the new ‘official’ statement of faith. Clearly seen as a subordinate faith by many, eastern bishops who supported Constantius creed would debate forever how in fact Christ was like God, unable to truly pinpoint its reasoning for it. Without getting bogged down in the theological concepts of it all, it was never going to work, further splitting the Nicenes and Arian factions.


Icon of St. Anthanasius of Alexander. A holy man who would spend seventeen years of his life in exile for daring to stand up to no less than four emperors.

One of the most vocal critics against Constantius Arian views was Anthanasius of Alexander. A champion of the Nicene view of Christianity, he argued with and offended so many of his fellow bishops, including those of the ‘subordinate’ faith, that he was constantly in hot water. Even more worrisome, Anthanasius offended emperors with his outspoken views. Anthanasius once said that: “An Arian is a wicked thing in truth and in every respect his heart is depraved and irreligious….so also are they hostile and hateful to God.”

Constantine I would be the first emperor to exile him, but under Constantius he would suffer the greatest indignity by being framed with prostitutes for apparently libeling the empress. He would be subsequently exiled, where he would run for the safety of Rome. Only while Constans was still alive, did Anthanasius feel safe. He would be allowed to return to Alexander with Constantius pledge to his brother that no harm would come to Anthanasius. However, upon Constans murder by Magnentius, Anthanasius would suffer another long stretch in exile, this time far away in upper Egypt, out of reach from arrest and Constantius.


A gold Solidus of Constantius II celebrating fifteen years as Augustus.

These troubling times for Constantius were only a distraction for the real problems he faced. Upon his father’s death, he inherited a war with Persia. Beginning in the late 330’s, he almost exclusively worked from out of Antioch against King Shapur II. The Sassanids had always resented the fact that many decades early they had lost the Armenian region in war. Provoked by the great Constantine I, King Sharpur hoped to avenge this loss and soon after Constantine’s death, found himself fighting his son, Constantius. It is believed that for thirteen uninterrupted years, the two rulers fought in at least nine major battles. None of the battles proved to be conclusive. After the siege of Nisibis in 350 AD, Sharpur who once more failed in his attempts to achieve his objectives against Constantius, finally decided to sue for a truce. For both men this came as a relief, Sharpur could now concentrate on problems he had on his eastern borders, and Constantius could deal with a little matter involving the murder of his brother and a usurper named Magnetius.

Magnentius had been on Constantius list of things to do for many months. His brother’s death in January, 350 AD had bothered him greatly, but sensibly decided there was nothing he could do about it until the threat from Sharpur had abated. Finally when that chance came in the form of a truce with Sharpur during the summer of 350 AD (which would last for eight whole years before Sharpur resumed his fight with Rome under Julian), he eagerly marshalled his troops to deal with this stand up who threatened the rule of Constantine’s family. Though before he could venture west, he needed someone who could keep the Sassanids from breaking the peace. What he really needed was an understudy to look after the East. Having no sons of his own, Constantius would be forced to call on his cousin Gallus and make him Caesar. If we remember, Gallus and his half-brother Julian were the only two boys to survive the purge of 337 AD. It was also during this amazing moment that Constantius, presumably in a frenzy of generosity released Julian as well from ‘house arrest’, allowing the young man to pursue a scholarly education in Constantinople and other cities in the Aegean.

This generosity, of course, would not be extended to Magnentius in the west. Despite Magnentius quickly gaining the loyalty of many provinces in the west, the forthcoming bloody battle with Constantius would not save him. Even when Magnentius was reduced as Edward Gibbon described, “to sue, and to sue in vain, for peace”, Constantius would not back down. Gibbon’s bests sums up Constantius stance by finally adding that: “though he (Constantius) granted fair terms of pardon and reconciliation to all who adondoned the standard of rebellion, avowed his inflexible resolution to inflict a just punishment on the crimes of an assassin, whom he prepared to overhelm on every side by the effort of his victorius arms.”

Notes and Further Reading
Timothy David Barnes, Athanasius and Constantius: Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire, Harvard University Press, 2001.
“…to rise and fall like courtiers.”, Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, Norton paperback, 1989, p.89.
“An Arian is a wicked thing…”, Charles Freeman, AD 381: Heretics, Pagans and the Christian State, Pimlico, 2009, p.70.
“ to sue, and sue in vain for peace” & “though he granted fair terms of pardon…”, 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, p.357.
Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West: The Death of the Roman Superpower, Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 2009
Ammianus Marcellinus, The Later Roman Empire: AD 354-378, Penquin Classic, 1995.
 Photo Credit: I believe that the header image of the bust of Constantius II is in the public domain. If it is not, I claim it as fair use, as no other free alternate could be found. All other images are in the public domain.

2 comments on “A short history of Byzantium: No. 17 Constantius II, the Byzantine autocrat (Part 1).

  1. Great article! I was always so confused by that period of fractious infighting among Constantine’s kids. The fact that they all had similar names probably has something to do with it. You do a good job of straightening it out.

  2. Nice one! I’m already looking forward to Part 2.

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