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The Emperor Constantine Rules Harshly

In addition to having become an emperor, Constantine took office as Supreme Pontiff. And, as Supreme Pontiff, he gave recognition to the god that had been his father's favorite: Sol Invictus, the Syrian sun god that had been brought to Rome by the boy-emperor Varius Avitus some sixty years before. Constantine's half of the empire was five or more percent Christian. His mother, Helena, was among the Christians. Constantine had become sympathetic with the god of the Christians. And perhaps he gave Jesus at least part of the credit for his military victory over his rival, Maxentius, which made his rule in the western half of the empire possible.

In the eastern half of the empire, Galerius had been succeeded by his choice, his drinking companion, Licinius (pronounced Lick-IN-ee-us). At Milan in 313, Constantine came to an understanding with Licinius. The two recognized each other's rule, and they agreed that Christianity was to have full equality with other religions and that the property taken from Christians during the persecutions was to be returned. This was their Edict of Toleration.

Constantine became Christianity's champion and patron. Constantine's half of the empire remained from five to ten percent Christian, and the city of Rome remained largely pagan, especially the Senate, and so too did the high command of Constantine's army. Constantine had made no break with paganism. The arch dedicated to Constantine's victory over Maxentius, erected in 315 or 316, described that victory as an "instigation of divinity" and had not credited Jesus or Yahweh. Constantine appointed pagan aristocrats to high offices in Rome while tolerating from his army the greeting "Constantine, may the immortal gods preserve you for us!" Then, in 321, in a move to spite Jews and accommodate Christianity with prevailing pagan ways, Constantine made the day of Sol Invictus a holy day and a day of rest for the Christians – Sunday.

Constantine Takes Control of the Eastern Half of the Empire

The emperor in the east, Licinius, grew fearful of the respect that Christians in his realm had for Constantine. He expelled Christians from his household and executed a few bishops. In 323, Constantine and his army entered Greece. Then he drove another wave of Goth invaders north and  back across the Danube River. Although Constantine was still in what was officially the western half of the empire he was close enough to the east to concern Licinius. Licinius attempted negotiations with Constantine, which failed, and war erupted between the two. In late 324, Constantine's forces defeated those under Licinius, and Constantine became emperor of the entire empire. He had publicly promised to spare the life of Licinius, but he changed his mind, and the following year he had Licinius executed by strangulation.

That same year, 324, Constantine founded a new capital city in the eastern half of the empire, at Byzantium. He called the city "New Rome." Later it would be called the City of Constantine, or Constantinople. Eventually it would be called Istanbul.

Constantine had not been baptized, but he appears to have become increasingly devoted to Christianity. He wrote of his successes as an indication of favor from Christianity's god. He attributed the failures of those recent emperors who had persecuted the Christians as an indication of the Christian god's power. He began a new series in the construction of Christian churches much grander than the Christians had before his time. He granted more lands to the Church. He gave Christian bishops the authority of judges – against whom there would be no appeal.

Constantine attempted to increase his appeal as a Christian by writing that his father, Constantius – a vice-emperor under Diocletian – had honored the "one supreme god," and that God had given his father "manifestations and signs" of His assistance. It was a claim that overlooked that his father had worshiped Sol Invictus, had supported, however half-heartedly, Diocletian's persecutions of the Christians, and had died a pagan.

Constantine's Harsh Rule

In 330, Constantine took up residence in his new capital at Byzantium: New Rome. Three years later he returned to Rome to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of his taking power there. He still held the office of Pontifex Maximus, and as Pontifex Maximus he was still the leader of the empire's pagans, but he refused to take part in the city's pagan rituals. Rome's pagan majority was offended, and Constantine returned to New Rome annoyed.

Wishing that his pagan subjects would give up their religious rites, Constantine kept the pagans fearful and cowed as he confiscated from their priests much of the wealth the pagan religions had accumulated, including their sacred icons. This brought to Constantine much wealth in the form of precious metal, which he gave to the Christian Church.

It was around this time that Constantine was experiencing domestic tensions. The source of the conflict remains unknown. His wife, Fausta, was stepmother to his eldest son, Crispus. Crispus had helped him defeat Licinius, but, for reasons unknown, Constantine ordered the execution of Crispus and forced Fausta to commit suicide.

Meanwhile, Constantine created severe penalties against adultery, concubinage and prostitution. For a variety of other crimes, people were to have their eyes gouged out or their legs maimed. Influenced by Christianity, he ended crucifixion as a form of execution. He ended branding criminals and slaves on their face – the face according to Christians having been formed in the image of divine beauty. And in keeping with Christianity's devotion to the family, he forbade the separation of a family of slaves.

But, under Constantine the old world of slavery continued. Constantine passed a law allowing masters to beat their slaves to death. Unlike Diocletian, he allowed infants born to slaves to be sold. Constantine allowed slaves who were caught seeking refuge among "barbarians" to have a foot amputated. Slaves in the public services caught attempting to leave town were to be beaten. Anyone caught sheltering a runaway slave was to be fined. With the agreement of bishops, slaves who sought refuge in Christian churches were to be returned to their masters.

And under Constantine, politics remained unchanged or was changing for the worse. In the place of the spies that Diocletian had relied on for information, Constantine revived the secret police, which was notorious for its corruption. Under Constantine taxes remained oppressive, the great landowners often paying bribes to avoid taxes or passing the burden onto their tenants. As under Diocletian, everyone was forced to follow their parent's occupation, including the sons of soldiers. The state tried to keep people working in crafts where there was a shortage of such workers. Some city officials in some cities in North Africa continued to be elected by its citizenry, but during Constantine's rule municipal government continued to decline as few people wished to serve. Local government was becoming a hereditary duty rather than inspired by any kind of civic pride.

There were still those called consul, but it was a title no longer with executive powers, and no office. In Rome, Senate seats continued to pass from father to son, but the Senate remained without powers: a prestigious club for conversation. Only a few senators, mainly those who happened to live in Rome, attended Senate meetings.


Copyright © 2009-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.