7 – Constantine the Great (306 – 337 AD)
Constantine the Great is known as the first Christian Roman Emperor. He was born in modern day Serbia in a place called Naissus in 272 AD. Towards the end of the third century, Emperor Diocletian realized that the empire was too large to be governed by one man. As a result, he split it into two and ruled the east with Galerius as his second in command. Maximian ruled the west with Constantine’s father, Constantius, as the number two.
Due to his father’s position, Constantine grew up in the imperial court and became a high ranking officer under Diocletian. In 305 AD, both Diocletian and Maximian abdicated their positions, so Constantius became emperor of the west. Constantine believed he should have become the leader, but he didn’t have to wait long for his chance as his father died in 306 AD. He quickly established a reputation as a no-nonsense ruler when he attacked the Franks, killed two of their kings and threw their bodies to the animals in the amphitheater.
Although Severus had been named as the new ruler in the West, the army supported Constantine and Severus was killed in 308 AD. Galerius had succeeded Diocletian in the east and tried to invade the west to remove the threat of Constantine. Meanwhile, Maximian’s son, Maxentius, sought to seize power and was declared emperor of the west by his father in 306 AD! At one stage, up to six men tried to claim the title of ‘Augustus.’ Eventually, Constantine won the struggle. He came after Maximian and the former ruler committed suicide in 310 AD. Maxentius was an unpopular leader, so Constantine bided his time before gaining support and launching his bid for control. He defeated Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD and was undisputed ruler of the west.
Licinius controlled the east and had an uneasy truce with Constantine that lasted until 316 AD when they went to war against one another. Constantine defeated Licinius decisively at the Battle of Chrysopolis in 324 AD and became the sole ruler of the entire empire. By now, he realized that Rome was an unsuitable location for his capital, so he moved the capital city to Constantinople in 330 AD.
Constantine had displayed tolerance towards Christians and Pagans during his reign, but ultimately, he was a practicing Christian, so he forbade pagan sacrifices and abolished crucifixion and gladiatorial contests to appease the Christians. He made the mistake of having his son Crispus executed after believing false reports of adultery. It turned out that his second wife, Fausta, made the accusation. Some reports claim she committed suicide while others suggest the emperor had her executed.
Constantine embarked on further military campaigns in later life including a defeat of the Goths. He also regained lost territory from the Dacians. The emperor wanted to invade Persia but died in 337 AD before he could launch the attack. Upon his death, the empire was left to his three sons who fought one another for full control. Constantius II was the last man standing.