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Constantine's Harsh Rule

During his life and into the Middle Ages, Constantine was described as a man of virtue. Julian the Apostate (a nephew) would describe him differently, as would a Byzantine historian Zosimus almost two centuries later. And so too would modern scholars, working in a time of different values.

In the year 326, Constantine had his eldest son, who had helped him defeat Licinius, Crispus seized and put to death, and he had his wife, the Empress Fausta, stepmother to Crispus, killed at the behest of his mother, Helena. Fausta has been reported as forced to commit suicide. Constantine's motives are unknown. Constantine had been experiencing domestic tensions. There is speculation that the killings involved Constantine's role as Pontifex Maximus, Rome's high priest and protector of virtue. The names of Crispus and Fausta were wiped from the face of inscriptions. References to their lives were erased, and memory of the two was condemned.

Constantine's treatment of Rome's pagans might also be described as harsh. He kept the pagans fearful and cowed as he confiscated from their priests much of the wealth they 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.

Constantine created severe penalties for adultery, concubinage and prostitution. For a variety of other crimes, people were to have their eyes gouged out or their legs maimed. But, 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 slave families.

Meanwhile, slavery continued as an accepted institution. 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 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.

Under Constantine there were still the two men called consuls, but the title no longer carried executive powers. In Rome, Senate seats were passing from father to son, but the Senate remained without powers. It was a prestigious club for conversation. Only a few senators who happened to live in Rome attended Senate meetings.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.