Ancient History & Civilisation



In the distant province of Bithynia-Pontus a trial was causing the Roman governor a headache. Pliny the Younger was a wealthy senator, a refined man of letters, and an enthusiastic gardener. Back in Italy he owned three beautiful villas set amid ideal countryside (two near Lake Como and one in Umbria), and he was considered an enlightened master of no fewer than five hundred slaves. However, now, in AD 111, in the backwaters of Asia Minor close to the Black Sea, those delights of home must have seemed a lifetime away. The tricky case brought before him was proving quite a nuisance.

While Pliny was touring the province to hear legal cases, a group of people had been brought before him and denounced by some locals. Their alleged crime? Being Christians. Pliny gave them every opportunity to prove their innocence. When he interrogated them, however, some confessed that they were followers of Christ. So he gave them another chance after reminding them that the punishment for their crime was death. Again, after the second and third interrogations, they showed not repentance but ‘stubbornness’ and an ‘inflexible obstinacy’. Their faith, he concluded, was ‘madness’.1 The governor was left with no choice: of the guilty, those who were Roman citizens were sent to Rome for an official court hearing, while the non-citizens were executed there and then. If Pliny the Younger thought that would be the end of the matter, however, he was to be sorely disappointed.

News of the case spread around the province. Pliny soon received an anonymous letter listing the names of hundreds of others apparently guilty of the same crime. To make matters worse, when they were brought before him they denied it. The governor, however, was not to be defeated in administering Roman justice. To weed out the guilty from the innocent, he came up with an ingenious solution. He dictated a prayer invoking the pagan Roman gods, asked the accused to repeat it, and requested that they offer up wine and incense to the emperor. The final part of the test was to curse Christ. Some of those who denied being Christian duly followed Pliny’s orders. Others revealed that they had been Christians in the past but were no longer and therefore they too agreed to do what Pliny asked of them. Even so, the test had not produced a conclusive verdict. Although some said that they were no longer Christian, did once having been a Christian constitute guilt? To get to the bottom of the crimes they had committed in the past, Pliny’s next move was to torture two female attendants of the early Christian Church, known as deaconesses. He found not stories of lechery and cannibalism, as his prejudices might have led him to expect, but only ‘depraved, excessive superstition’.2 What to do with these people? Were they guilty or not? Drawing a blank, Pliny wrote to the emperor Trajan for advice.

The emperor replied that even if there had been suspicions about their past, they should be pardoned. In addition, Pliny was urged not to conduct witch-hunts, not to deliberately seek out Christians. This decision would set the legal standard for ‘good’ emperors who followed after Trajan. However, the extraordinary exchange of letters between emperor and governor reveals much more. It shows that in AD 111 trials and executions of Christians were an accepted, if legally knotty, procedure.

Persecution of Christians had begun approximately fifty years earlier with the trial in Rome of St Paul, the great first missionary who had taken the message of Christianity to the Roman east. Not long afterwards, the emperor Nero had made scapegoats of the growing community of Christians living in the imperial capital. Looking to take the sting out of the accusation that he himself had started the great fire of Rome in order to build a new palace, Nero famously had them crucified or burnt in the gardens of his residence. The emperor Domitian was accused of similar treatment of the Christians. Although Trajan was lenient in his judgment of Pliny’s case, the fact remained that the Christians posed a problem for the Romans. Banding together, worshipping the Christian God to the exclusion of traditional Roman gods was simply intolerable. Trials were brought against them and, if found guilty, the unfortunate believers in this alien religion were treated no better than criminals and prisoners of war. Indeed they often met a similar end – a gruesome death in the Roman arena.

In spite of the hostility and penalties it provoked, Christianity grew and grew. By the beginning of the fourth century, it was an empire-wide phenomenon. It is estimated that at that time perhaps ten per cent of the Roman world was Christian; there were a growing number of churches to be found in all parts of the Roman world; a hierarchy of Christian bishops, presbyters and deacons was developing; and a significant variety of people – from slaves and the poor to the upper classes – were converts to the Christian faith.3 As a result of this increasingly strong organization, in 303 the Christians faced their greatest persecution yet. The emperor Diocletian issued an edict ordering churches to be destroyed, scriptures to be burnt, some Christians to be stripped of their offices and others to be made slaves.

And yet, within twenty years of Diocletian’s persecution, all this changed. Christianity went through a revolutionary transformation in status, rising from being the most despised religion to the most favoured. By 324 it had become the official religion of the Roman world. Devotion to the traditional Roman gods had not disappeared, but, incredible as it would have seemed to people at the time, that religion was no longer a requisite part of what it meant to be a Roman.4

The man who initiated this change was the emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor and the first emperor to publicly sponsor the Christian Church. His decision to support Christianity was perhaps the single most influential turning point in Roman history, if not the history of the world. It was because of Constantine that Christianity thrived throughout the Roman empire and transformed itself into the world religion it is today. The key to this revolution was the exclusiveness of Christianity, the idea that only one god could be worshipped. The one characteristic that had provoked centuries of persecution would, ironically, become for Constantine its most useful, cherished quality. By tapping into Christian faith, Constantine would allow the Roman empire to flourish one last time, and his regime would be hailed as Rome’s final golden age.

But the man who was responsible for this religious revolution was not himself an exemplary Christian. Flavius Valerius Constantinus was a man of great contradictions, by turns a soldier, a brilliant general and an astute, dissimulating politician. But was he also a man of genuine faith? A sincere convert to the Christian God? Or was he really a self-interested opportunist and evil genius? Central to the problem of understanding his character are the ancient sources: the pagan authors are highly critical of him, while the Christian writers, particularly Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea, and Lactantius, produced almost lyrical, heavily partisan hagiographies. Despite the conflicting nature of the sources, one clear picture of the emperor’s actions emerges.

To seal his own power and at the same time establish the eminence of the Christian religion required less the Christian virtues of submissiveness, peace and trust than the old Roman virtues of cruelty, vaulting ambition and singular ruthlessness. The people who would fall foul of these characteristics would be not just Constantine’s political enemies, but the closest members of his own family.


In the third century AD the Roman world was in crisis. In the space of fifty years (235–85) there were no fewer than twenty emperors, each falling in quick succession to political assassination or death on the battlefield. But it was not just the government that was unstable. The security of the empire too was at an all-time low. In 251 the Goths broke through the forts, watchtowers and ramparts along the border of the Danube from a region north of the Black Sea; they defeated the emperor Decius in battle and eventually sacked Athens. In 259 two Germanic tribes, the Alamanni and Juthungi, also smashed their way across the same border and invaded Italy. The worst year was perhaps 260: the Franks breached the border of the Rhine, marauded their way through Gaul and sacked Tarraco. But there was even worse happening on the eastern frontier. The emperor Valerian was captured by the Persians, enslaved and forced to live out his days bending over so that King Shapur could step on his back to mount his horse. Although Valerian died in captivity, in one sense he lived on: in a macabre inversion of deification, his dead body was stuffed and placed in a Persian temple as a warning to future Roman ambassadors. As shocking as these events were, Romans would find that there was worse in store.

For the best part of fifteen years the Roman provinces of Britain, Gaul and Spain seceded from the empire, and in 272 the Romans permanently abandoned the province of Dacia (modern-day Romania). Perhaps the most extraordinary offensive against Rome came from Palmyra, a rich, semi-independent city on the border of Roman Syria. When its king, Septimius Odenathus, died, his widow, Queen Zenobia, took control. Renowned for her extraordinary beauty, intellect and chastity, she orchestrated and led the conquest of the Roman east: Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia and many of the Roman provinces of Asia Minor all fell under her control before she then proclaimed her son emperor and herself took the title Augusta (empress).

The Romans fought back on all fronts. The most successful emperor was Aurelian (ruled 270–5). In the space of just five, brilliant years he won back the eastern Mediterranean, defeated Zenobia and brought her to Rome as the prize prisoner at his triumph. However, the restoration of the Roman east was just one of the many extraordinary achievements of Aurelian’s short reign. He also drove the invading German tribes out of Italy, forced them back over the northern borders and made peace with them. When that was done, he went on to restore the seceded provinces of Britain, Gaul and Spain to the empire.

But for all their glory, these exploits could not hide what had become so apparent in the third century: the vulnerability of Rome. The ambivalence of the situation is best summed up by Aurelian’s great building legacy. For the first time in the history of the Roman empire the emperor felt it necessary to surround and protect Rome from invaders with a massive wall. It was completed after his death by the emperor Probus (another successful emperor of this period) and still survives in part today. In 285, however, there would come to power a man who would extend that sense of security right across the empire.

Like many emperors of the third century, Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus (Diocletian) was not from the senatorial and political élite of Rome. He was a low-born soldier from a provincial family who rose to power through the ranks of the military. He had spent most of his time not in the city of Rome, but on the frontiers; in fact, he would travel to the imperial capital only once in his entire life. It was perhaps his experiences on the Danube that spelt out to him the importance of reform if the Roman empire were to survive the preceding decades of crisis. What is certain is that he went about the task of reorganization with extraordinary energy. His reforms focused on money and the army.

The official record of the standing army, the notitia dignitatum, shows how he bolstered the strength of the frontiers by creating new legions. He brought the army under central control and improved soldiers’ pay and supplies. In order to secure the funding of the army, the empire’s economy also needed a radical overhaul. In the course of the third century the coinage of the Roman world had become so debased that the empire reverted to exchanges in kind. Diocletian therefore improved the weight and mint of gold and silver coins, and made them uniform. He also tackled the problem of inflation, and enacted tough social legislation to ensure that tax revenues were successfully and consistently raised. In the process, he established a regular budget for the running of the entire empire.5

Finally, the emperor reorganized the provinces. In order to improve imperial administration, Diocletian broke them down into smaller regions; these in turn were grouped under twelve larger administrative units known as dioceses. The new system allowed closer supervision, as well as the resuscitation of law and finance by local governors and their staffs throughout the empire. However, these impressive, innovative measures were not his most celebrated achievement. The grand idea for which Diocletian would go down in history was his decision on 1 March 293 to create a college of four emperors to rule the Roman world. Diocletian was thus the first emperor to accept that the task of running the Roman empire was too big for one man.

The system, known as the tetrarchy (rule by four emperors), worked as follows. The two senior emperors were both given the title Augustus; Diocletian ruled the eastern half of the empire, while his partner Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maximianus (Maximian) ruled the western half. Each Augustus appointed a junior colleague, and these two deputies were both known by the title Caesar. Gaius Galerius Valerius Maximianus (Galerius) joined Diocletian in the east, while Flavius Valerius Constantius, the father of the future emperor Constantine, aided Maximian in the west. The four men resided in imperial centres pointedly closer to Rome’s frontiers (see map, page 247). In the east Diocletian’s main home was in Nicomedia (modern-day Izmit in Turkey), and Galerius’s in Thessalonica (Greece), while in the west Maximian’s home was Sirmio (Mitrovitz in modern-day Croatia), and Constantius’s was in Trier (Germany). In this way Diocletian ensured that the presence of the emperor of Rome was established in many different areas at the same time.

To shore up the prestige and dignity of the four emperors, uniformity was the key. Each city had an imperial palace, an audience chamber and a hippodrome; each man had his own staff, court and military guard. Diocletian’s court in Nicomedia reflected the style of eastern rulers’ courts. Subjects paid homage by calling the emperor ‘lord’ and prostrating themselves before him. Under the four emperors, the signs of despotism were much more overt.6 However, there was one further, key illustration of the severe nature of the tetrarchy system. A clue lies in the new names that each of the emperors adopted to emphasize the quasi-divine basis of their authority: Diocletian was called Jovius (after the god Jupiter), and Maximian Herculius (after he of the Seven Labours). Theunderpinning of the new regime was emphatically ancient, traditional and pagan. But in the ointment of Diocletian’s drive for uniformity there was a fly.

The single policy of reorganization across the empire for which Diocletian is infamous is his repression of the Christians. Why were they such a threat? Throughout the history of the Roman empire, the favour of the Roman gods was central to its successful creation and survival. With the sweep of conquest, new cults and religions had come within its embrace. Cosmopolitan Rome not only tolerated new religions, but welcomed them too: just as new peoples became Roman citizens, so their religions too were incorporated into the pantheon of Roman gods. Cybele from Asia Minor, Mithras from what is today Iran, Isis and Serapis from Egypt, the goddess Tanit from Carthage – all these gods and their cults came to Rome. They were both worshipped there and took on Roman divine forms. Indeed, their acceptance in Rome meant that the cults grew in stature. The message that their incorporation sent out was clear: even the gods of Rome’s former enemies now favoured Rome. The process served to weld the loyalty of Rome’s subjects to the empire.

Yet there was a limit to this spirit of Roman toleration for new cults – a line that must never be crossed. A number of small, individual cults posed no threat to state control of religion; indeed, they seemed only to enrich it. But the formation of an organized, alternative community did.7 The Romans hated Christianity because they considered the worship of its one god dangerously exclusive. It was a rejection of everything it meant to be Roman. By refusing to pray to Roman gods, Christians rejected the Roman race and the Roman order of things. But Christianity posed an even greater threat than this. After decades of crisis, the ‘peace of the gods’, the unwritten contract by which the Roman gods presided benevolently over the empire in return for worship, was more than a highly guarded prize. On it depended the stability of the entire empire. It was essential to rebuilding security. Loyalty to a Christian God only put that security in jeopardy. Times of greatest crisis entailed the greatest clampdowns.

The first empire-wide persecution of Christians took place in 250. With the northern borders of the empire threatened by Goths, the emperor Decius called for a universal sacrifice in his honour. He wanted to assure himself of divine protection by the gods. Certificates of sacrifice were issued to every citizen, proving that they had participated in them. The Christians who refused were punished with torture and execution. The persecutions ended, but the problem did not. Forty years later, under Diocletian’s uniform regime of the four emperors, Roman control of belief was even more paramount. Tradition, discipline and respect for the old gods were the very cornerstones of Diocletian’s reforms and the empire’s renewal. There was no room for dissent. Unsurprisingly, it was only a matter of time before the tinder was lit and the problem of the Christians flared up violently once again.

In 299 Diocletian learnt of some pagan priests who had tried to divine signs of favour from the gods. When they were unable to find auspicious omens, they blamed their failure on some Christian soldiers who had made a sign of the cross. The reaction that resulted was uncompromising. Diocletian first ordered a purge of the army. After trying to root out Christianity he changed tack and attempted to stop it functioning altogether. He instructed a detachment of the Praetorian Guard in his own imperial city of Nicomedia not simply to burn the local church. Once the flames had subsided, he ordered his soldiers to set to work with axes and crowbars and level it to the ground.

An empire-wide edict followed: Christian meeting-places should be destroyed, scriptures burnt and Christians who held any office should be stripped of it. Depriving Christians of their status deprived them of their legal standing. They were thus liable to summary execution and torture. Christian freedmen were to be made slaves once more. Finally, the bishop of Nicomedia was beheaded and many others were imprisoned and tortured. By ruining Christianity, the persecutors were seeking to foster their traditional religion. In reality, however, the policy had no popular support. It served only to confirm how widespread Christianity had become, and how organized. The campaign had been a bloody, violent failure in an otherwise extraordinarily successful rule.8 Two years after their initiation, Diocletian called an end to the persecutions in 305.

In that same year Diocletian retired to his magnificent seaside palace at Spalatum (modern-day Split in Croatia), the skeleton of which is preserved today in the form of a medieval town. He was the first and only Roman emperor ever to abdicate voluntarily. His severe, authoritarian work of reform was done, and now he could enjoy the delights of the Dalmatian coast without worry. That at least was his hope. However, with his retirement, the success of the tetrarchy that he had devised began to decline.

Diocletian’s ambition was for the system not only to address the problem of security, but also to bring the destabilizing rapid turnover of emperors to an end. The appointment of two Caesars subordinate to two Augusti had made explicit and orderly the means of succession, and thus, it was hoped, would deter usurpers. For all the innovation and success of his other reforms, however, in this ambition his system was a complete failure. All it created was more intense jockeying for power, a new welter of rivalry and competition. It soon became apparent that the only thing that glued the four emperors together was the consent of the others. As soon as that was lost, the government of four would collapse like a sheaf of wheat.9

On 1 May 305, at the ceremonies of succession, the cracks were quick to appear. When the former Caesars, Constantius and Galerius, became the new Augusti and took the place of Maximian and Diocletian, one young man at the ceremony in the east had high hopes that he would be appointed as one of the new Caesars. However, it was not the name of Constantine, the son of Constantius, that Diocletian read out, but that of the newly appointed junior emperor Maximinus Daia, a tough, vehemently anti-Christian soldier from Illyria. The overlooked young Constantine had every right to seethe. Not only the son of a Caesar, he was also a man of considerable achievement in his own right. He had proved himself on the battlefield against the Persians on the eastern frontier, and in the north against the Sarmatians. After his father had been sent to Gaul and Britain, he had remained at Diocletian’s court. Here he was a high-ranking officer, but his achievement went further than that. In the snake-pit of politics and court life he had perhaps also learnt to be a clever dissimulator. That skill certainly would have been useful at the succession ceremony. However, he was not the only candidate to be unfairly overlooked.

At the western court in Milan, the same ceremony to appoint the new Caesar of the west was being held on the same day. Here Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maxentius, the son of Maximian, Augustus of the west, was passed over in favour of another able army officer called Flavius Valerius Severus. Maxentius had reason to be more than bitter at failing to make the grade. The appointment of Daia in the east had been understandable: he had connections there and was a trusted general and friend of Galerius. But as the son of Maximian, a former Augustus, surely Maxentius had a better claim than Severus to be Caesar in the west? Disappointment turned to suspicion. Severus, like Daia, was an army friend of Galerius. Did his appointment reflect something more sinister? Did the eastern Augustus have designs for control of the west too? The new appointment posed only unanswerable questions. Although the ambitious Constantine and Maxentius did not yet know it, opportunities would come their way to redress the slight they had suffered, and they would not be long in coming. The system of the tetrarchy would soon find itself in meltdown.

According to some sources, the first rift was between the two new Augusti. Constantius perhaps feared that his son would become a political hostage in the court of the eastern Augustus. What is certain is that he sent a dispatch to Galerius requesting that Constantine be allowed to join his campaigns to re-establish Roman order in Gaul and Britain. Galerius was reluctant to do so. Perhaps he also knew that he had a hold over his fellow Augustus as long as Constantius’s son was at his court in the east. Following persistent requests, Galerius relented, keeping up the appearance of harmony between the two senior rulers. However, beneath the show of cooperation, so the story goes, he had begun planning Constantine’s downfall. Galerius had instructed Severus to intercept and kill the young Constantine. A trap had been set.

Constantine quickly got wind of the plot. One night, he waited until Galerius had retired to his rooms. Then, in the small hours, he took flight. During the long journey west, he skilfully outwitted his pursuers by maiming horses, used for imperial service, which he encountered along the way. Constantine thus threw the potential assassins off the scent of his trail. He was a tall, strong, athletic man and, riding long and hard, he reached his father at Boulogne in Gaul in time to aid him in his last campaign – an expedition across the English Channel to Britain.10

The war against the Picts was a great success, and Constantine’s role in it was critical. For his valour he earned the title Britannicus Maximus (Greatest Briton). The popularity he gained with the army in Britain would prove incredibly influential to his future career. But perhaps equally influential was what he was able to witness. His father was a very different emperor from the eastern rulers, Diocletian and Galerius. Certainly, Constantius had paid lip-service to Diocletian’s edict to persecute the Christians; he had, for example, ordered the destruction of some churches. It was not in this action, however that his reputation was anchored. Rather, he was celebrated for protecting the Christians from the brutality that he had witnessed in the east. This was not out of the kindness of his heart; Constantius was a seasoned, unsentimental general from Illyria. The decision came down to a simple political judgement – he saw that persecuting Christians would not help him govern western Europe.

Unfortunately for his son, the reunion they enjoyed was brief. On 25 July 306 Constantius died prematurely at Eburacum (modern-day York). The cause of death was perhaps leukaemia, a possible clue lying in the nickname that was given to him posthumously: ‘the Pale’. There was one last, critical action that Constantius took before he died. According to Constantine, his father appointed him Augustus of the west. It was a controversial decision because Constantius had made no attempt to consult with his fellow emperors, least of all Galerius. Nonetheless, the army immediately and joyfully joined in proclaiming the popular Constantine the new Augustus of the west. With that, Diocletian’s tetrarchy was, in effect, wrecked. Constantine had broken cover.

Although Galerius, the Augustus in the east, was forced to accept Constantine’s elevation in the world, he sent him a purple robe recognizing him not as the new Augustus but as the more junior Caesar. To the position of Augustus in the west he promoted Severus. However, not even Constantine’s demotion could hide the new reality of the Roman empire. The government of the tetrarchy was nothing more than a temporary gloss. The four emperors were actually involved in a covert war, each in a bid for more power. Over the next six years that hidden war intermittently broke out into full civil war. The overlooked Maxentius was the first to make his move. He brought his father, Maximian, out of retirement, won over the Praetorian Guard in Rome and in 307 declared himself Augustus with control of Rome, Italy, Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily and North Africa. Galerius sent Severus to deal with the revolt, but Severus was unable to match the combined military forces of Maxentius and Maximian. What troops he could muster deserted him at the gates of Rome. Severus was captured, forced to abdicate power, and then executed at Tres Tabernae, outside Rome, in 307.

From his imperial palace at Trier Constantine had kept a close eye on these events. To maintain his position in a rapidly shifting balance of power, he had even made an alliance with Maxentius and his father. It was sealed by Constantine’s marriage to Fausta, Maxentius’s sister. All too soon, though, the alliance between the three men broke down in the most spectacular way. First, Maxentius was declared a tyrant and a usurper (with Constantine, Daia, Galerius and a new appointee, Licinius, agreed as the legitimate holders of power). Maximian broke away from his son, but soon, in one last throw of the dice, turned against his son-in-law too and sought to win imperial power in the west for himself. This rebellion now forced Constantine to enter the civil war for the first time. At Arles in Gaul he defeated Maximian, who promptly hanged himself. The response of Maxentius to the news of his father’s death was unequivocal. First he ordered the deification of Maximian, then he smashed down the statues and images of Constantine, the icons by which he was recognized as a legitimate emperor, and thus declared war on his former ally. He wanted, he said, revenge for the death of his father.11

In 311 Galerius died, and with him the last vestiges of the tetrarchy. The end met by this famous persecutor of the Christians was gruesomely celebrated by the historian Eusebius. Suppurating inflammations and ulcers infested the genitals of the obese emperor. His sick, lumpen body stank. The doctors who were unable to cure him were summarily executed.12 Was he being punished for his sins against the Christians? This was perhaps the conclusion drawn by Galerius himself: in his last edict, made in his final few days, he renounced the policy of Christian persecution. The tide was turning. But little did he know quite how spectacularly that reversal would soon be transformed into one of the most important revolutions in all history.

Galerius’s death left Daia and Licinius disputing control of the east. In the west, two key protagonists also walked the stage: the usurper Maxentius and his brother-in-law Constantine. Constantine was determined that the job of ruling the western half of the Roman empire fell to him alone. However, he wanted to fight on the side of legitimacy and right. His publicly stated aim was to ‘avenge the state against the tyrant and all his faction’. Indeed, his biographer and Christian panegyrist, Eusebius, described Constantine’s war as a ‘task of liberation’.13

In reality, Constantine simply wanted to eliminate his rivals. Out of the shambles of the tetrarchy, he would make his bid for sole power. From the seed of that self-interest and ambition, however, would grow one of the most significant moments in European history. The outcome of the war for the west would not only decide the fate of the Roman empire – it would alter the fate of the world.


Rumours were leaking out of the city of Rome, and they were playing right into the hands of Constantine. The tyrant and usurper Maxentius was the epitome of pure evil, they said, a practiser of witchcraft, a sacrificer of humans. He liked to abduct and rape married women. On one occasion, the city prefect was bullied into allowing Praetorian officers to seize his own wife so that she might become another of Maxentius’s victims. But by the time the guardsmen broke down her door, they found she had stabbed herself to death rather than give up her chastity to the self-proclaimed emperor. Maxentius was just as brutal with the citizens of Rome as a whole: when they rioted, he did not flinch in response, but sent in the Praetorians to massacre them. This at least is the portrait of Maxentius given by Eusebius.14 His Christian-biased work, written more than twenty-five years after the events described, and designed to exalt Constantine by comparison with his enemies, should be taken with a large pinch of salt. The fact remains that in the prelude to war in 312 Maxentius had successfully held on to power in Rome for six years. He must have been doing something right.

Maxentius knew how to make Romans feel good about themselves again. In 306 Rome was in decline, a shadow of its former glorious self. The four emperors barely set foot in the city. As they travelled between the new imperial cities closer to the frontiers of the empire, Rome was ignored because it was off the beaten track. In fact, the people of Rome and Italy could complain that they were being treated like just another province. The year before Maxentius came to power, Italians had lost the privileged tax-free status they had enjoyed for nearly five hundred years. The senators of Rome too had had to make a considerable mental adjustment to the times they lived in: the Senate and the emperor had drifted apart; the senators were eclipsed by the army. Indeed, it was from the military hierarchy on the battlefields of provincial frontiers rather than in the Senate House of Rome that emperors were now made. Romans felt increasingly as though they were living not in the great imperial capital of a brilliant empire, but in a backwater, a heritage town for tourists, and one decidedly lacking vibrancy.15 That is until Maxentius began his campaign. His was an unashamedly pro-Roman ticket.


Coins from his illegitimate reign show how he wanted to restore Rome to glory. His political slogan was Romanitas (Roman-ness). As a pagan, he appealed to Rome’s religious past. It was, after all, the home of all the gods that Romans had collected from all corners of the empire. Everywhere people walked within the city were rich layers of this extraordinary heritage: in addition to the centuries-old temples, statues, altars and imperial mausolea, there were shrines devoted to particular local deities on street corners in every neighbourhood. Maxentius not only rejuvenated pride in Rome’s old history, but also encouraged it by giving the city a new look. He was a prolific builder, authorizing a new palace complex near the Appian Way, an enormous hippodrome capable of seating 15,000 spectators, and, his greatest architectural feat, the Basilica Nova. Decorated with marble and detailed stucco mouldings, this government hall could boast of being the city’s largest vaulted building. By leaving his stamp on Rome in this way, Maxentius tried to secure his legitimacy as emperor in the west. By 312, however, his appeal was wearing thin.

The buildings he erected cost a fortune. In addition, he had to find the money to maintain the armies with which he had fended off attempts by the legitimate emperors to unseat him. But it was money that Rome did not have. The city, ruled by a usurper, was effectively cut off from the resources of the rest of the empire. As a result, Romans were forced to live on their own means; revenues from the provinces dried up. To make ends meet Maxentius taxed the whole population and forced senators and landowners to contribute gifts of money to the treasury. Making matters worse, another usurper, Domitius Alexander, had taken control of North Africa, thus eliminating Rome’s primary source of grain. Food shortages provoked riots, and the full force of the protesters’ anger was directed at Maxentius. To maintain control of the city, Maxentius was repressive, and the city of Rome came to resemble more a police state than a glorious reincarnation of the Eternal City. To one man, however, the growing chaos in Rome was wonderful news. This was the man whom Maxentius called the ‘son of a whore’; the man whose effigies he jealously destroyed; the man he hated for causing his father’s death. This was the man who was now crossing the Alps with an army to ‘liberate’ and ‘rescue’ suffering Rome.

Constantine’s advisers had not set the best of moods for their general’s campaign. Under the influence of pagan priests, they were fearful and hesitant, warning Constantine that the invasion of Italy did not bode well. They had their reasons: they could point to the fact that Constantine had left three-quarters of his army to protect the Rhine frontier from invasion by the Franks, and that he was intending to face the 100,000-strong army of Maxentius (inflated with auxiliaries from Sicily and Africa) with, according to our earliest source, just 40,000 men.16

Constantine, in response, disagreed. His soldiers might be outnumbered but, after the wars in Gaul and Britain, they had the advantage of being battle-hardened and fit for war. It was an advantage that would prove to be highly effective. After negotiating the Mount Cenis pass, Constantine and his army entered Italy and promptly defeated the three armies that Maxentius had sent to resist him. By October, Constantine had followed the route of the Flaminian Way and drawn up his troops 15 kilometres (9 miles) north of Rome at Saxa Rubra (Red Rocks). However, the composition of the army that pitched camp there was a little unusual.

In addition to officers and military advisers, Constantine’s close entourage also included Christians. Although Maxentius, despite his depiction by Eusebius in the Life of Constantine, was not a vehement persecutor of them, Christians had their reasons for hating him. He had banished three bishops from Rome and had failed to restore property that had been confiscated during Diocletian’s persecution of the Christians in 303–5. By contrast, Constantine was superficially a much more sympathetic ruler. He was not a Christian, but in Britain and Gaul in 306 he had rescinded Diocletian’s edict for the destruction of churches, and had restored Christians’ right to worship.17 This attitude of tolerance made Constantine a candidate for the attention of high-ranking Christians. They had come to his imperial seat at Trier to read aloud their works, and now they formed a small group travelling with him on campaign. One of them was thought to be Ossius, the bishop of Córdoba. It is possible that another was an influential man in his seventies called Lactantius.

A North African by birth, Lucius Caelius Firmianus Lactantius had personally felt the brunt of the Christian persecutions. He had travelled earlier in life to Nicomedia, where he converted to Christianity, and was summoned to Diocletian’s court by the emperor as a teacher of Latin rhetoric. During the violence of 303–5, however, he lost his position, and in order to save his life he eventually fled to Constantine’s western court at Trier. He met the emperor, composed the Christian work called the Divine Institutesbetween 308 and 309 (dedicating it to Constantine) and would later become tutor to Constantine’s son Flavius Julius Crispus, whom the emperor fathered with a mistress before his marriage to Fausta. If he was indeed now in Constantine’s camp, Lactantius was probably biding his time. The Christians in the emperor’s entourage would certainly have been happy to be on his side, but they would also have been looking to improve on the footholds of influence they had established over the years. All they needed was an opportunity. Whenever and however it came, they were at last in a position to pounce.

South of Constantine’s camp, Maxentius was also surrounded by priests. But unlike those in his enemy’s camp, they were pagan priests, and, unlike the Christians, they certainly had the emperor’s full attention. On 27 October 312, the day before the two sides would join battle, Maxentius was in a panic. He was so anxious about whether he had sufficient support from the Roman people to be assured of victory that he turned to his priests and asked them to read the omens. He desperately needed his confidence to be shored up; only a sign from Rome’s traditional gods could do that. The priests cut open the belly of a young animal, delved their hands into its carcass and fingered the intestines. The news was not good.

The augury, so the story goes, indicated that the enemy of Rome would be defeated.18 The atmosphere in the temple was strained. It is reasonable to imagine that a senator or courtier in the assembled group, desperate to avert a complete collapse in the emperor’s morale, tactfully broke the ice. Surely Constantine was the enemy of Rome. Surely he would be the one to fall. That, at least, was the way Maxentius chose to interpret the priests’ announcement. The imperial court breathed a sigh of relief. Indeed, they had reason to feel confident about their prospects. In addition to their superior number of soldiers, they had devised a cunning plan to scupper Constantine’s attack on the city.

To take Rome from the north, Constantine and his army would have to cross the Tiber at Milvian Bridge. (A reconstructed version of this bridge, called the Ponto Milvia, today marks the spot where the original once stood.) Maxentius and his military advisers now made this the central plank of their defence of the city. Maxentius ordered part of the bridge to be destroyed so that the enemy could not cross easily. Alongside it, however, he ordered a temporary floating bridge to be constructed. Crucially, it was made of two parts fastened in the middle by removable iron pins. Maxentius’s forces would come out along this bridge and face Constantine. However, should Constantine’s army force Maxentius back into the city, the defenders of Rome would be able to cross back over the river and then rely on a devastating counter-attack: they would quickly unfasten the pins, watch the makeshift bridge slide apart and thus prevent Constantine from pursuing them. From the Rome-side banks of the Tiber, Maxentius and his advisers believed, they would watch the enemies of Rome fall like lemmings into the river.19

As potentially brilliant as this secret weapon was, Constantine and his army were about to gain their very own psychological advantage. That advantage would spectacularly transform the chances of the outnumbered, anxious Constantine. It would go down in history as one of the most pivotal moments in history, but also one of the most controversial.

Some time before battle was joined, Constantine had a vision. According to Eusebius, at midday, under a bright blue sky, the general saw a shining cross, and inscribed upon it, an instruction: ‘By this sign, you will conquer!’ Another account elaborates: Christ himself appeared with the cross and the order to be victorious was sung by angels.20

Modern historians, suspicious of the fact that Eusebius described the extraordinary moment in great detail in his Life of Constantine, but failed even to mention it in his Church History, have suggested more rational explanations. Perhaps the vision was a natural astronomical event that produced a ‘halo phenomenon’; perhaps Constantine saw a meteor (there is evidence that one landed in this region of Italy at this time). Exactly what he saw, however, is perhaps less important than how he interpreted it. Desperately seeking an explanation, Constantine turned to the Christian priests in his entourage. Whoever was present, be it Bishop Ossius or Lactantius, they now saw an opportunity and seized it with both hands. This, they said, was a sign from God. It was a sign that He was divinely choosing Constantine to defeat the tyrant Maxentius.21

According to Eusebius, Constantine now became convinced that they were speaking the truth. Perhaps he was simply ready and willing to convert. For all his military achievements of the past, he knew he was now facing the most daunting battle of his life. He was leading his soldiers against a vastly superior force and bidding to take the one city that no foreign invader, not even Hannibal, had yet conquered. He needed to put his trust in somebody or something. He needed to know that in return for his devotion there was a god protecting him and his army. Apollo and the monotheistic cult of the Unconquerable Sun had once performed that role: two years earlier Constantine had had another vision in a sanctuary of Apollo in Gaul or Britain.22 Accordingly, after 310 Constantine had his coins stamped with Sol Invictus. But now that pagan deity was being replaced in his thinking by God. For after his spiritual experience before the battle, when he turned to his advisers, he found that this experience was most plausibly explained by the Christians. Constantine was won over.

The Christian priests must not have been able to believe their extraordinary luck. By being in the company of someone who was leaning towards a religious conversion, they had been in the right place at the right time. At last they were not only being listened to by an emperor of Rome, but also obeyed by him.

Constantine wasted no time. Just before battle he made a radical, last-minute change of plan. He ordered all the soldiers to mark their shields in white paint with a sign made up of two Greek letters, chi-rho (XP), the cipher of Jesus Christ. (According to Lactantius, writing four years after the event, Constantine had been given this instruction in a dream before the battle.) Although some of the men would have been Christians, it is likely that the majority were not, so there must have been shock that their commander was asking them to follow him in abandoning the traditional gods. Indeed, at the critical moment before war, when their fears were at their greatest and their superstitions most pronounced, their leader’s command must have induced even more terror. It is possible that Constantine went as far as ordering the metalsmiths in his army to adjust the old Roman standards. Even the defining, talismanic symbol of the pagan Roman army was perhaps adapted to signify the cross.23 The general was determined to take the greatest gamble of his life: to fight the battle under the sign and protection of God.

On 28 October 312 the forces of Constantine and Maxentius collided on a broad plain in front of Milvian Bridge. Maxentius had originally decided to remain in the city, but, buoyed up by his priests’ good augury, he too crossed the Tiber over the provisional wooden bridge along with his men. His fragile morale was immediately challenged, however, when he noticed numerous owls landing on the walls of the city.24 That omen was a fitting symbol of the events that followed. The broad, spacious plain favoured Constantine’s cavalry. Sweeping up along the flanks of the enemy, they threw Maxentius’s army into utter confusion. The fact was that its commitment to fighting for Maxentius had never been resolute. Those soldiers who did put up a fight were trampled underfoot by horses or routed by the following infantry. Slowly but surely, the army of Constantine forced the defenders of Rome back against the Tiber.

With a sudden, collective failure of heart, Maxentius’s troops turned and fled, their general running away faster than any of them. At least, the men perhaps consoled themselves, they could reach their makeshift bridge and make the city their bolt-hole. But Maxentius and his generals had wildly misjudged the effectiveness of their plan B. The temporary bridge could not take the weight of the stampeding survivors from his massive army, and the engineers in charge of unfastening the bolts panicked. Whether spurred by fear or sheer incompetence, they released the metal fastenings too early.

The whole structure collapsed spectacularly. Soldier heaped upon soldier fell into the rushing river and drowned. Others, desperate to save their lives, tried to cross the original bridge. The route was too narrow and they were crushed to death. After the mayhem of the rout had subsided, the banks of the Tiber were littered with thousands of anonymous corpses. One of them, however, was distinguishable by his high-ranking clothes. These clung to the dead body of Maxentius.

The general Constantine had won his greatest military victory. He was now sole ruler of the western empire, and he had achieved the knockout blow under the favour, protection and patronage of the Christian God. His success, it seemed, was thanks to Him. However, Constantine’s personal conversion, if indeed he had already converted, had been the easy part. Translating his new religion into the world of Roman politics, to the emperors of the east, and to the pagan majority of Romans throughout the empire was another matter altogether. As it happens, Constantine had only scratched the surface in invoking the protection of God. Although he did not yet know it, the full potential of his new allegiance was yet to be tapped.


When Constantine the liberator entered Rome, he passed through a pleasant blizzard of incense, flowers and the bright faces of men, women and children shouting his name. They thronged in their thousands to greet him, and joined the celebration ‘as if released from a cage’.25 Constantine rode in a chariot, and in the procession following him the head of Maxentius was prominently displayed on a spear. The people greeted the dead tyrant with vitriolic abuse. By contrast, gifts of money distributed by soldiers into the eager hands of hungry Romans were met with cheers. However, despite the jubilation of Constantine’s victory march, the successful general knew that this was no ordinary triumphal procession.

In reality, he was not simply riding into Rome – he was walking a political tightrope. He owed his victory to the Christian God; the followers of that God would now expect him to find a suitable way of recognizing that fact. Yet at the same time the emperor was entering the ancient city of the traditional pagan gods, the seat of the Roman senators who upheld those traditional beliefs. To them and the majority of Romans, the Christians were nothing more than a strange alien group whose behaviour was highly suspect. They renounced slavery; they led a humble, ascetic and pleasureless existence; they believed in a heaven after death; and, for some strange reason, they prized sexual chastity as a virtue. Pleasing both these audiences was not going to be easy for the new emperor of the west. By both pagan senators and the Christians, Constantine’s every action was going to be very closely observed.

For the traditionalists, matters did not start well. Many senators, to their disgust and horror, would have noticed that the military standards borne into the Forum as part of the procession were certainly not those they were expecting to see. These ones bore the symbol of Christ. But this was not to be the most unwelcome surprise in store for them. After Constantine had exchanged the cuirass and sword belt of a general for the purple toga, rods of office and laurel crown of an emperor, the crowds waited expectantly for him to perform the customary sacrifices to Jupiter. The priests prepared the sacrificial animal, but Constantine hesitated. He was fearful of his soldiers’ reponse if he refused to participate, but knew that it was not to this deity that he owed thanks. Eventually, he refused to ascend the Capitol to oversee the sacrifice. He did not place a laurel wreath in the Temple of Jupiter, and neither did he take any part in paying tribute to the pagan deity.26 After these affronts to Rome’s traditional past, he would need every bit of political nous when facing his next hurdle: a meeting in the Senate House.

Constantine broke the ice by painting his predecessor as a monster. The regime of Maxentius, he began tactfully, was the responsibility of the tyrant and a few of his henchmen. It was not the responsibility of Rome at large. In this way the senators who had collaborated with Maxentius were excused their guilt. The emperor was equally deft in dealing with Maxentius’s army: the compromised Praetorian Guard was to be redeployed on Rome’s frontiers. Facing barbarian enemies would be a sure-fire way for them to rediscover their loyalty to the emperor. However, Constantine went much further than excusing the senators and the army: he declared that he wanted to restore their prestige. Under his new regime he would restore authority and responsibility to the Senate. Senators would no longer rest on the laurels of rank and privilege. They, and not just men promoted from the army, would be given an active hand in government once again – as provincial governors, as prefects of Rome, as judges and holders of office.27Although this process would actually take place gradually over the years to come, for the moment Constantine had struck just the right note.

In one fell swoop he had extinguished the memory of Maxentius and successfully boosted unity by proposing to make the landed aristocracy of the west his partners. In return, the senators reciprocated his trust. Constantine was declared sole emperor of the west. He received a golden shield and wreath as liberator of Italy, and a statue of Victory was dedicated in his honour in the Senate House. As a final tribute, the grand Basilica Nova adjoining the Forum, which had begun construction under Maxentius, was now completed and dedicated to Constantine. With this last honour, his new recognition of the Christians would be clearly expressed. A colossal statue representing him was to be set up in the west apse, and the statue’s hand was to hold the military standard bearing the symbol of Christ.

Over the next few months Constantine remained in Rome. They were critical, highly influential months. It was perhaps during this time that he began to think through what had happened during the battle of Milvian Bridge, what the implication of God’s favour on him might be. Perhaps he took an active interest in finding out more about the Christians. Perhaps he visited their communities and discovered how they lived. We know that he invited Christian ministers and bishops to be his guests at dinner during this time. Perhaps Lactantius and Ossius were present too. Certainly the Christians who had travelled unofficially in his entourage on campaign were now promoted to hold the more official posts of court advisers on Church politics and practice during the winter of 312–13. Whatever Constantine discussed with those men in private, it would not be long before the fruits of their deliberations were revealed very publicly.

As Constantine prepared to leave Rome for Milan in mid-January 313, he could look back with pride on a successful few months in the old imperial capital. The clever balancing act between pagans and Christians had so far been expertly and delicately handled. With Rome now rebranded and reconciled, the emperor had successfully consolidated his power in the western half of the empire. Now he set about bringing peace and unity to the east. To that effect, he sent a letter to the eastern emperor. It was a shot across Maximinus Daia’s bows. It informed him of Constantine’s new status in the west as conferred by the Senate. It also revealed the western emperor’s new religious loyalty by warning Daia to stop persecuting Christians in his domain. However, to bring him to heel, Constantine needed help. He had in mind a new alliance, one to be cemented in the traditional way. The emperor and his entourage set off for Milan: Constantine had a wedding to attend.

The marriage ceremony took place in February in the city’s imperial palace, carefully orchestrated and supervised by Constantine himself. The eighteen-year-old bride was the western emperor’s sister Constantia. Like many women of the élite in the early fourth century, she was a Christian – faith was important to her, a key part of her personality. It was a personality, however, less suited to what she was being asked to do by her brother: to marry a man many years her senior, whom she did not know, whom she did not love and to whom she was to be wed for political expediency. Undertaking such a task required a much thicker skin than perhaps Constantia possessed. Yet she was given no choice. Constantine insisted that she marry a man who would be crucial to his plans in the east. The name of her groom was Valerius Licinianus Licinius. He too held the title of emperor.

Born of peasants from Dacia (modern-day Romania), Licinius was nearly in his fifties when he married Constantia. Like many of the other tetrarchs, he had risen to prominence as an able and effective soldier. On campaign on the frontiers of the Danube he had become a close friend of Galerius. It was through him that, just as Diocletian’s system of four emperors was falling apart, Licinius received his greatest break: in 308, at a conference in Carnuntum, he was appointed to be co-emperor of the west with Constantine in place of the dead Severus. When the eastern emperor Galerius died, however, Licinius negotiated a peace with Daia and took partial control of the dead emperor’s territories in the east. But now the fragility of the peace between Daia and Licinius was being exposed. The alliance between Constantine and Licinius, sealed with the dry, diplomatic marriage taking place in Milan, reflected the new lie of the Roman political landscape. The empire was to be shared by the two men alone. There was no room for Daia.

After the marriage ceremony, the alliance was concluded behind closed doors. One can only guess what was said, but the outline is clear. Licinius was to control the east, Constantine the west. Each side would come to the military aid of the other. All was as expected between two emperors redrawing the Roman map. However, Constantine introduced a new, controversial term to their alliance: a policy of toleration of all religions in the Roman world. Although Licinius was not known as a persecutor of Christians, he was certainly pagan in his beliefs. Yet now he was being asked to put his name to a radical new policy in which every Roman was free to worship whichever god he wished. It must have taken him completely by surprise. But if Licinius was reluctant to agree to the policy, Constantine knew how to convince him.

Daia was a renowned persecutor of Christians in the east. The policy of toleration, Constantine might well have suggested, could be the key to winning their support against the eastern emperor. It is easy to imagine that, encouraged by his new Christian advisers, Constantine pressed the importance of this new policy on his pagan brother-in-law. Constantine’s belief in the Christian God was apparently sincere, but it could also be highly useful and expedient. Licinius clearly agreed.

The Edict of Milan, as it came to be known later, was soon proclaimed by both men. It was the first government document in the Western world to recognize freedom of belief. Henceforth persecution of Christians was disowned as morally wrong. But the edict’s principal benefit was more immediate and tangible than that. It decreed that all Church property previously confiscated from the Christians was to be restored to them. Crucially, it not did favour Christians above pagans, but stressed only their equal rights of worship, granting both full legal recognition to ‘follow whatever form of worship they please’. As Licinius did not share his brother-in-law’s religious belief, perhaps he had insisted on that detail. Perhaps he had also made sure that the edict did not commit him personally to the Christian faith; the wording ‘whatsoever divinity dwelt in heaven’ neatly resolved that question.28 Above all, the edict provided a unifying theme for the new empire; it also gave the government of Constantine and Licinius a unified voice of greater strength.

The agreement bonded two very different men. Constantine was well born, younger than Licinius and, so we’re told by Eusebius, charismatic, graceful and good-looking. In winning the west he had proved himself a gifted commander and an astute politician. Licinius, for all his military achievements, was somewhat overshadowed by the western emperor’s brilliance. Indeed, he had good reason to be jealous of the young pretender: Licinius had originally been appointed senior emperor in the west, but it was Constantine who, by defeating Maxentius, had successfully secured it for himself. However, there was no time for indulging in past resentments. There was an aggressor to defeat. Before the conference in Milan was finished, news arrived from the east. Daia had made the first move against the allies: he had crossed the Bosporus, invaded Licinius’s territories in Asia Minor and laid siege to Byzantium. War had been declared.

It took Licinius only a matter of months to gather an army, give chase to Daia’s forces and drive them on to a plain near Hadrianople (modern-day Edirne in Turkey). On 30 April 313, before the battle, Licinius showed he had taken Constantine’s message in Milan to heart: he ordered the rank and file of his army to recite, if not a Christian prayer, then a more perfunctory monotheistic one.29 It seemed to reap immediate dividends. Although Licinius and his 30,000 troops were outnumbered by a 70,000-strong enemy, he and his men enjoyed a comprehensive victory. Daia fled into the Tarsus mountains (in modern-day Turkey) where, to avoid the humiliation of surrender, he committed suicide by taking poison. Buoyed up by his extraordinary victory, Licinius then honoured his agreement with Constantine and, through a letter sent to provincial governors, communicated to the Romans of the east the regime’s new policies.

However, any impression that he was behaving out of a new-found sympathy with the Christian faith was quickly dispelled by his next move. To ensure that no one could stake a rival claim to the eastern empire, Licinius ordered a bloodbath. All Daia’s sympathizers, court advisers and family were executed. In addition, all the living wives and children of the old tetrarchs Diocletian, Severus and Galerius were hunted down throughout the Roman east and murdered. Although some Christian writers of the time heartily approved of the murder of persecutors, perhaps even they would have been shocked by the clinical nature of the purge. With that accomplished, Licinius, the man who had drifted into a toleration of Christianity for political expediency, took sole control of the east and settled down to administering it from his imperial capital of Nicomedia, with his new young bride alongside. The Roman empire enjoyed a new government and a new cohesiveness. But whereas Licinius’s dispassionate toleration of Christianity began and ended with the proclamation and enactment of the Edict of Milan, Constantine’s work, undertaken from his base in Trier, was only just beginning.

Publicly, Constantine continued to steer a shrewd non-committal path: although he declined to participate in pagan sacrifices, he still held the highest office of the pagan religious establishment, held by every emperor since Augustus, that of pontifex maximus(High Priest). The coins issued in his name were slow to depict any Christian symbolism; instead they carried the name of the monotheistic pagan god Unconquerable Sun, and would do so for many years to come. A speech delivered in 313 at Trier survives: it is a masterpiece of ambiguity, emphasizing Constantine’s closeness with the divine, but cleverly not excluding devotion to one faith or another. For all the poise of this balancing act, however, the reality was very different. Constantine had found his unifying theme for the empire. Now he began industriously applying it to the administration and running of the empire.

A letter from 313 shows his first action: Christians, it said, were exempt from civic public duties such as serving as jurors, overseeing the collection of taxes, or organizing building projects, festivals and games. Previously such exemptions had been given to those whose profession benefited the state in other ways, such as doctors and teachers. Now Constantine declared that Christians were just as deserving. Being able to devote more time to worship of the Christian God, said Constantine, would make ‘an immense contribution to the welfare of the community’.30 Christianity, the imperial message made plain, was essential to the good of the empire. In addition, he granted payments to the clergy, and also made Christians of privileged and propertied rank exempt from paying taxes. Indeed, bishops were not only taking on administrative roles at court, but also across the empire: Christians engaged in civil lawsuits were granted the legal right to refer their dispute from a secular magistrate to a bishop. But these utterly unprecedented changes did not just take the form of benefits in rank and privileges. They had a physical manifestation too.

Constantine gave generously from the imperial treasury so that churches across the western empire could be built or improved, or sumptuously decorated. The legacy of his munificence can be seen today in Rome, where he paid for no fewer than five or six churches. The greatest of these was the enormous Basilica of St John Lateran. Although the cathedral that stands there today is a later construction, the proportions of the original building are known. It was no less than 100 metres (330 feet) in length and 54 metres (180 feet) wide. The design of this and other churches was innovative. Although the word ‘basilica’ is used today to mean a religious building, at the time of Constantine a basilica was simply a secular, public building, normally thought of by Romans as a law court or a marketplace or a venue for public assembly. Under Constantine, this hall-like design now became the structure for the principal church of Rome – and the template for Christian churches in the future.31

Normally churches in Rome were built outside the city walls on sites associated with the veneration of apostles and martyrs. The Basilica of St John Lateran, in the heart of Rome, was an exception because it was founded on a plot of land adjacent to an old imperial palace, a residence which Constantine duly donated to the bishop of Rome (namely, the Pope). The Basilica of St Peter’s, another church endowed by Constantine, venerated an early Christian cult. On the side of the Vatican Hill, the site of the cult centre of St Peter, a huge terrace was created. The clearing of the ground revealed an ancient pagan and Christian burial ground and it was on top of this that the massive basilica of the first St Peter’s was built. In the modern sixteenth-century St Peter’s, constructed on the site of Constantine’s original church, it is still possible to access the cemetery below.

The new churches not only looked different from pagan temples – they served a different function. The temples had simply housed the deity; the Christian churches, by contrast, were not only houses of God, but places in which His followers could congregate. Here on Sundays, the day that Constantine would later make holy (in 321), Roman soldiers would be seen, for the emperor gave them leave to attend church. When in the house of God, slaves too were given a radical new privilege: they were temporarily free. The sheer physical presence and majesty of these buildings spelt a revolution: Christianity was important and Christians were special.32

However, there was one action at this time that above all else revealed the importance of Christianity to Constantine as the glue unifying his and Licinius’s new empire. In 313 news reached the emperor that an argument had broken out in the Christian Church of North Africa. It centred on who was the rightful bishop of the province: Caecilian or Donatus. The dispute had arisen because one group believed that Caecilian should not be recognized. He had been ordained, they said, by a bishop who had colluded in the persecutions of Diocletian by handing over holy scriptures to the Roman authorities. As a result, the rival bishop, Donatus, was consecrated. To previous emperors, such a dispute would have been a parochial matter of absolutely no importance. But not to Constantine.

I consider it absolutely contrary to the divine law that we should overlook such quarrels and contentions, whereby the Highest Divinity may perhaps be roused not only against the human race but also against myself, to whose care He had by His celestial will committed the government of all earthly things.33

The message was clear: whereas in the past emperors were accustomed to arbitrate petitions or cases of a civil or legal nature brought to them by provincials, Constantine’s authority as ruler of the Roman empire was defined as much by his ability to adjudicate disputes within the Church.34 Dissension among Christians was dissension against the unity of the empire, and in the new regime that was not allowed. Since the persecutions under Diocletian, Constantine had always known that the practice of worshipping one Christian God to the exclusion of all others made imperial unity impossible to achieve. If he were now to break cover and throw in his lot with the Christians, there could be no political advantage if he and his fellow Christians were not themselves united. When the North African dispute rumbled on into the winter of 315–16 the emperor wrote to those involved. He threatened to visit them in person and bash their heads together. By that time, however, there were other, far more pressing matters on Constantine’s mind.

The summer of 315 saw the city of Rome in the throes of hosting a grand party. The emperor of the west had left his imperial seat at Trier and, accompanied by an entourage of his family, bishops and court officials, had returned in person to the city he had liberated three years earlier. By way of entertainment, circus races and public games were in full swing. The festival was being held to mark Constantine’s decennalia – his tenth anniversary of becoming emperor – and now, looking back, there was much to celebrate. He had campaigned against the Germans and secured the Rhine frontier. He had restored peace and stability to an empire that had been falling apart at the seams but was now prospering. The Senate in Rome was once again industrious, a partner in government. Indeed, Constantine had addressed the fear of senators that they, and hence Rome, were no longer important: he increased their number, bestowing the rank of senator on people who were not required to live in Rome or to attend meetings of the Senate. Membership thus became empire-wide rather than local.35

The new Christian élite also had cause for celebration. They could now boast a privileged position of influence in Constantine’s court, and the emperor himself, in conversation or in study with Lactantius and Bishop Ossius, was perhaps gaining greater knowledge of his divine protector. His faith was, at least ostensibly, being confirmed. The extent of Christian influence on Constantine can perhaps be gauged in specially minted, commemorative medallions produced in the same year. On them Constantine is depicted wearing the cipher of Christ, the chi-rho, and they were ceremoniously handed out to prominent court officials. Priests, believers and upholders of the traditional Roman religions, however, were not excluded from this prosperity. In the new spirit of toleration their cults too were flourishing. Indeed now, at the festival, a fitting tribute to the emperor’s discretion was unveiled and dedicated.

The Arch of Constantine still stands today in the Forum. This major monument marks the transition from classical to a new style known as ‘late antique’. In this style reliefs are sculpted depicting Constantine’s liberation of Italy: here is a scene describing the defeat of Maxentius, there the drowning of the tyrant’s soldiers and in another Constantine’s entry into Rome. There is, however, not one Christian symbol to be seen anywhere on it. Quite the opposite was true. Some of the sculptures dated to the reign of Hadrian. They were recycled and remodelled to show Constantine and Licinius, and not the classical emperor, hunting and sacrificing to the Roman gods. This was to be the last time that an emperor would be portrayed performing such pagan activities. For all the strides taken towards favouring Christianity, the reality was that the western emperor could still not yet declare his hand.

Constantine was ambitious to unite the empire. He had now found the means with which to realize that ambition. But for the time being he held himself back. He knew that if he openly supported Christianity he would expose a political flank. The upholders of the traditional gods among the senators, governors and administrators of the empire could still attack him, strategically claiming that he was persecuting pagans. Overt favouring of the Christians, Constantine understood, would not only offend those who supported the traditional gods, but would also expose their weakness, suggesting their disadvantage in the new empire. And with the majority of Roman citizens pagan, there was potentially a plentiful source of support for such rivals to draw on. However, it was not pagan senators that Constantine feared most, but a pagan emperor.

In the same month as the celebrations in Rome took place (July 315), Constantia, the wife of Licinius, gave birth to a son. Just over a year later, on 7 August 316, Constantine’s wife, Fausta, also gave birth to a baby boy. But the arrival of these children was not entirely a cause for jubilation because two new chains of legitimacy were being formed. In the minds of Constantine and Licinius it sparked a question that they had not yet confronted: to whom did the empire really belong? Since their alliance had been struck, the answer seemed increasingly to suggest Constantine.

Motivated perhaps by genuine belief, perhaps by calculated self-interest, Constantine’s industrious reforms in favour of the Christians were not just unifying the empire with a new theme. They were winning him vital support in Licinius’s territory, where the majority of the Roman empire’s Christians resided. As Constantine looked at his commemorative arch, he could see how the portraits of both him and Licinius showed the emperors in harmony. Their joint holding of the consulship, and the depiction of both their heads on the coins of the period supported that impression. But Constantine’s new brand of government did not fit with the façade. The logical conclusion of one God, one empire was one emperor.

It would not be long before both Licinius and Constantine showed their hands. When that happened, the two men would become rivals and precipitate a new war. It was to be a war between the supporters of Constantine and the radical new religion he had embraced and those who wanted to uphold Rome’s traditions. So at least the banners of the two sides would claim. In reality, although dressed up in the robes of a holy war, this conflict was aimed at achieving a time-honoured goal: control of the Roman empire.


The steps that turned an alliance of emperors into a fierce rivalry are difficult to piece together. Certainly Licinius had reason to be resentful, even jealous.36 Constantine had taken control of the part of the empire that Licinius believed was rightfully his. To make matters worse, the eastern emperor had only to look around his own territory to see that Constantine enjoyed far greater popularity than he did. Christians of the east offered prayers for Constantine; they hoped that the same largesse he showed their brothers in the west might one day rain down on them too; indeed, because they were prepared to die for their faith, they were prepared to die for him too. They knew that Licinius was neither their saviour nor their voice. In fact, it is possible that it had been Constantine’s intention all along to place Licinius in a vice: to use him to settle the eastern empire at the beginning, but then, when that had been achieved, to destabilize him through the instrument of Christianity. Despite envying Constantine’s popularity, Licinius harboured a much greater source of bitterness – something that would ultimately push him over the edge.

What most riled the emperor of the east were the steps that Constantine took to cut out Licinius’s newborn son from succession to imperial power. In 315 Constantine gave his half-sister Anastasia in marriage to the prominent senator Bassianus. He then sent a delegate to Licinius proposing that Bassianus become deputy emperor in the west. Licinius took offence. It must have occurred to him that it would only require Constantine to appoint his teenage son Crispus as deputy in the east for Constantine to bring the whole empire within the control of his own dynasty. Perhaps it was for this reason that Licinius decided to terminate his friendship with Constantine in the most decisive way: by plotting his assassination.

To carry off such an action, Licinius quickly needed to acquire a pretext and allies. Fortunately, both were easily attainable. He could justify toppling his fellow emperor on the grounds that Constantine had broken the Edict of Milan; he had begun favouring Christians above pagans. If that was not sufficient grounds for action, then, according to a pagan historian, Constantine’s infringement of Licinius’s territory in the autumn of 315 certainly did the trick.37 As for help in carrying out the murder of the western emperor, Licinius needed only to look as far as the Senate in Rome.

By 316 some pagan senators, for all the favour that Constantine had promised them, were quietly seething with disaffection. They disapproved of his lavish spending from the imperial treasury to build Christian churches. To them it seemed that only bishops had the emperor’s ear and were his favoured dinner guests in the palace. There was no point in expressing ambition, they moaned, for now it was only possible to get ahead in the new regime if you were Christian.

Licinius knew the time was ripe for action. In Nicomedia he asked his court official Senecio to find a willing conspirator in Rome. The ideal assassin needed to have elevated status, be able to gain close access to the emperor and be above suspicion. Senecio had one particularly suitable candidate in mind: his own brother and Constantine’s brother-in-law, Senator Bassianus. In setting the plot in motion, however, Licinius had overlooked his own weakness. It is easy to imagine that just as he had been able to find an ally in Constantine’s inner court, he had forgotten that the western emperor also had a devout ally in the east. One might speculate that it was she who now passed on a surreptitious alert.

Perhaps Constantia had chanced upon a rumour drifting through the corridors of the Nicomedian palace, or perhaps she herself had accidentally overheard the conversation between Licinius and Senecio. It is even possible that she, on discovering the plot against her brother’s life, immediately wrote a letter warning him and dispatched it through a trusted Christian channel of communication. What is certain is that when Bassianus attempted the assassination, he was taken completely by surprise. Constantine had been expecting him. The man who was murdered that night was not the God-beloved emperor, but the putative assassin. When Licinius heard the news he ordered the statues and busts of Constantine in Nicomedia to be smashed. With that, war was declared.

The first encounters between the two armies took place in 316 at Cibalae and Serdica in the Balkans. Although Constantine had the upper hand in both battles, he failed to deliver the decisive blow. As a result, a new alliance was drawn up between the two men. The territories of the Balkans and Greece were ceded to Constantine, while Licinius retained Thrace, Asia Minor, Egypt and the Roman east. The two grudging allies also agreed on the thorny issue of succession: on 1 March 317 Constantine announced from his new seat at Serdica (now Sofia in Bulgaria) that both his sons (his baby by Fausta and Flavius Julius Crispus) and Licinius’s child by Constantia were to be declared Caesars – future emperors in waiting. They also agreed to hold the joint consulship for 317, and thereafter to alternate the consulship of each half of the empire between father and son each year. But beneath this paper-thin show of harmony there were deep cracks. In reality, the peace was at best unstable, at worst a piece of diplomatic cynicism on the part of Constantine. The war had simply been shelved.

Between 317 and 321 Licinius endured religious toleration of the Christians. Perhaps he was being kept in line by his wife or by the bishop of Nicomedia, who was based at his court. However, it was a role that the old ‘liberator’ of the east, the one-time saviour of the Christians, increasingly hated. He had drifted without belief into toleration of the Christians for short-term gain, and now it showed. In the west, by contrast, Constantine the Christian became increasingly strident. He liked to stay up late at night and compose his own rousing speeches. These he delivered to his courtiers, lay sermons expressing his divinely inspired vision for the empire. He put on quite a show. Whenever he mentioned the judgement of God, his face would tighten with intensity, he would lower his voice and point to heaven. His words caused some courtiers in his audience to bow their heads as if he were ‘actually flogging them with his argument’. Others clapped loudly, but could not really match the emperor’s fervour. Ultimately they ignored his Christian lecturing.38

Alongside communicating the awe of God, however, the emperor could still be repressive, even violent. In 317 the Donatist dispute in Africa had not yet been resolved. Constantine lost patience and tried to end it by authorizing exiles and executions. Within a few years, some pagan temples were closed down – the first sign in the west of the slow eradication of the pluralist melting pot of pagan cults. In their place was evidence of a growing new common identity.

Through endowments of property, the high profile of bishops, and charitable gifts of clothes and grain to the poor, orphans, destitute widows and divorcees, churches were fast becoming the centres of local power and organization throughout the provinces of the western empire.39 Around 321 the judicial authority of bishops was extended, and bequests to churches legalized. It was easy for the provincial élites to buy into the new religion. Upper classes across the empire were becoming increasingly wealthy and self-confident; archaeological finds reveal how the mark of Christ, the chi-rho, began appearing on objects belonging to the wealthy at this time and how new, exquisite villas were rising up across the western empire.40 Religious conversion had its advantages: it brought with it the new majesty of empire, a new patriotism, and the belief that these would continue to flourish so long as Constantine received not the old Roman ‘peace of the gods’, but divine protection from God.

In a rare preserved speech known as the ‘Oration to the Saints’, delivered to a Christian audience on a Good Friday between 321 and 324, Constantine made his position clear. God was responsible for his success. That success put him under a great obligation: to persuade his subjects to worship God, to reform the wicked and unbelieving, and to liberate the persecuted. It was a religious position that had huge political consequences. The stance forced Licinius into a corner, slowly but surely turning the screw on him. It was not long before he handed Constantine a gift, the very thing that the western emperor had perhaps been looking for all along, the very thing that neatly coincided with his faith – a justification for resuming the war.

In Nicomedia the emperor of the east was becoming increasingly suspicious, paranoid even. Were those officials within his own court, he wondered, agents of Constantine? Were they Christian spies? He took them aside and had them interrogated, but could find no evidence of guilt. For one man, so the story goes, he devised a test of loyalty. He asked Auxentius, a legal clerk in his administration, to accompany him to a courtyard in his palace where there was a fountain, a statue of Dionysus and a flourishing vine. Licinius ordered Auxentius to cut the fullest cluster of grapes he could find. When he had done so, the emperor asked him to dedicate the fruit to Dionysus. Auxentius refused. Licinius gave him an ultimatum: lay the grapes at the foot of the statue or leave his court for ever. Auxentius chose the latter; he would later become bishop of Mopsuestia, in modern-day Turkey.41 This episode was the first of many tests imposed by Licinius. Fear would drive him to far more extreme measures.

In 323 Licinius compelled everyone in his administration to sacrifice or else lose their job. He put the same test of conformity to his army. On the advice of zealous pagan officials, the requirement was forced on civilians, and on 24 December of that year Constantine learnt that bishops were compelled to sacrifice at the festival marking Licinius’s fifteen years as emperor. Anyone who refused was to be punished. Councils and assemblies of bishops were forbidden; Licinius did not want them to organize, unite and encircle him, so he forced them to remain in their own cities. Christian meetings of worship could take place only in the open air, and all tax exemptions for the Christian clergy were scrapped. The influence of his devout wife, and his love for her, perhaps prevented him from going further. Other people in his administration had no such compunction. In short, Licinius encouraged a new permissiveness to reign in the east, a sharp whiplash of pagan reaction. Roman governors were free to punish dissident Christians, shut down some churches, demolish others and, in the case of the bishops in the province of Bithynia-Pontus south of the Black Sea, murder key figureheads in the Christian clergy. According to Eusebius, their bodies were chopped up and thrown into the sea as food for fish.42

At the imperial palace in Serdica Constantine was urged by Lactantius, his adviser and tutor to his son, to rescue ‘the just in other parts of the world’. When Constantine, perhaps deliberately, invaded Licinius’s territories in Thrace on the pretext of repelling a Gothic invasion, both parties seized the opportunity to wage war. Constantine’s case for hostilities against his brother-in-law and former ally was more wide-ranging than the diplomatic incident suggested. This was a war for the defence of the oppressed, a war of liberation, a war against a persecutor.43

The stage was set for one of the last epic confrontations in Roman history. Both sides were quick to mobilize their forces, an extraordinary military feat in its own right. Each side was said to number more than 100,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry. Even given the propensity of ancient sources to exaggerate, significant numbers of troops had clearly been amassed. Egyptians, Phoenicians, Carians, Greeks from Asia Minor, Bithynians and Africans filled out the ranks of Licinius’s forces, while Constantine, in control of a larger part of the Roman empire, relied less on auxiliaries than on standing units of regular Roman legionaries. Eusebius, in contrasting the two armies, had a literary field day. Constantine’s troops were, of course, Christian soldiers of God. Licinius’s, on the other hand, were motley followers of the traditional gods and eastern mystery cults: wizards, diviners, druggists, seers and meddlers in the malignant arts of sorcery.44

Some time before the forces came face to face, Licinius asked his priests to read the omens. The augurers observed the flights of birds and inspected the arrangement of entrails for signs. Their verdict? The omens promised that Licinius would be victorious. The ceremonies continued when Licinius led his closest commanders to a thickly wooded, sacred grove. Pagan statues peeped through the boughs of trees and from behind mossy, rocky springs. The usual sacrifices were made, then Licinius addressed his men. His rhetorical flourish is typical of the way the pro-Christian sources liked to present the conflict.

Friends and comrades, these are our ancestral gods, whom we honour because we have received them for worship from our earliest forefathers. The commander of those arrayed against us has broken faith with the ancestral code and adopted godless belief, mistakenly acknowledging some foreign god from somewhere or other; he even shames his own army with this god’s disgraceful emblem. Trusting in him, he advances, taking up arms not against us, but first and foremost against the very gods he has offended. Now is the moment that will prove which one is mistaken in his belief: it will decide between the gods honoured by us and the gods honoured by the other party.45

On 3 July 324, at the first engagement at Hadrianopolis in Thrace (modern-day Edirne in Greece), Licinius’s hopes for that moment to weigh in his favour were royally dashed.

The two armies had taken up positions on opposite sides of the river Hebrus. For days they eyed each other sullenly. Whenever Licinius’s men caught sight of Constantine’s standard brightly bearing the sign of Christ, they broke the stillness with jeers and insults. During this strange hiatus, however, Constantine seized the initiative. He fooled his enemy into thinking that he was trying to build a bridge across the river that separated them. He even went through the charade of asking his soldiers to climb a mountain and bring down timber. Secretly, however, Constantine had worked out an alternative, shorter crossing. When his cavalry charged across it, they caught Licinius’s army completely unawares. Thrown into confusion, huge numbers of the surprised troops were brutally pursued and cut down. Some gave themselves up in surrender, while others were soundly routed. Licinius was among the latter.46

He and his surviving forces quick-marched to the coast, rushed to their ships and tried to flee to safety across the Bosporus. Constantine, however, had prepared for this moment. He ordered his eldest son Crispus to give chase; at just seventeen years old and now in charge of a two-hundred-strong naval fleet, Crispus seized on his father’s instruction. Meanwhile, Licinius’s admiral was instructed to stop the pursuit. The two fleets met in the narrow straits of the Hellespont. With a roll of the dice, Crispus chose to leave behind the bulk of his fleet and attack with his eight fastest ships. It proved to be a stroke of genius. His attack was orderly and clinical. Licinius’s larger fleet, by contrast, simply crowded out the confined waters and had no room to manoeuvre. The forest of sails and the chaos of chopping, clattering oars brought only confusion. With several of Licinius’s ships scuppered, nightfall drew the sea battle to a close. The next day a strong south wind finished off Crispus’s work: Licinius’s fleet was smashed against the rocks and thus subjected to another crushing defeat. Nonetheless, within a matter of weeks, the eastern emperor regrouped his forces. He had recruited another army from Asia. He faced his enemy once more at Chrysopolis. He was not beaten yet.

The final showdown between Licinius and Constantine took place on 18 September 324. The two emperors drew up their massive armies on a plain midway between Chrysopolis (now a suburb of Istanbul) and the town of Chalcedon. Constantine’s army was distinguished once again by its magnificent Christian standard. On the rich tapestry hanging from the crossbar, the sign of Christ (the chi-rho) gleamed with precious stones and glittering streaks of gold. The emperor knew it was vital not to underestimate the importance of this emblem. He ensured that a specially dedicated guard was responsible for it, a group of men who had been selected for their courage and physical strength. Now it was raised proudly above the massed ranks as they waited to launch their attack. Constantine took his time. He was perhaps in his tent, as was his custom, praying quietly to God, waiting and searching for a revelation. When he believed God’s will was expressed to him, so it was said, he would rush out of his tent, rouse his troops and order them to draw their swords.47

Licinius’s army charged first. Perhaps this time, when they spied their enemy’s Christian standard held aloft, they viewed it ominously and were silenced. According to Eusebius, Licinius ordered his men not to get close to it, nor even to lay eyes upon it. Indeed, when Constantine’s ranks advanced on the enemy and came under a streaming volley of javelins many of them were cut down. Miraculously, so Eusebius claimed, the standard-bearers were saved.48 Perhaps the heart and power this moment gave the men was contagious, for the confidence to win now spread like an epidemic through Constantine’s ranks. As the armies clashed on an incredible scale, the wind, the momentum and the impetus for battle were all with the legionaries of Constantine.

In the face of forceful assault, the fighting spirit had simply left Licinius’s men. The battle of Chrysopolis had turned into a massacre on an enormous scale. Over 100,000 of Licinius’s army were said to have been killed. The victory of Constantine, of Christianity, was decisive. However, there was one man who had escaped the bloodbath. Licinius slipped away from the battlefield on horseback in the company of some cavalry; as Constantine surveyed the site of the catastrophic defeat his exhausted, destroyed enemy was heading east to the imperial palace at Nicomedia, to his loyal wife and his nine-year-old child. Constantine now followed in pursuit and laid siege to the town.

If Licinius’s thoughts had drifted to saving his honour in the traditional way, by turning his sword on himself, perhaps it was the sight of his family as he collapsed at his palace that convinced him otherwise. One ancient source reveals how, during the night of his return home, Constantia persuaded her husband that instead of death it would be better to surrender to Constantine. Once she had gained Licinius’s willingness to live on, Constantia slipped out of the palace and entered her brother’s military headquarters.

For the first time in nearly ten years Constantine laid eyes on his sister again. This was the woman whom he had wed to his enemy at eighteen years old; this was the wife of the man whom, over the intervening years, Constantine had tried time and again to eliminate so that he could become sole emperor and reunite the Roman empire. Now here she stood amid dirty, exhausted soldiers and bloodied prisoners of war who were being punished ‘according to the law of war’. Licinius’s commander-in-chief was being held before execution; the captive soldiers were being forced to repent and then acknowledge Constantine’s God as the ‘true and only God’.49 In such grim circumstances it must have been hard for brother and sister to look each other in the eye. Nonetheless, Constantia steeled herself and fell on her brother’s mercy. Appealing to his Christian values of forgiveness, she begged him to spare Licinius’s life. Constantine agreed.

The imperial pageantry of the arraignments contrasted sharply with the miserable ceremony that took place the next day. Constantine, dressed in magnificent robes and now sole ruler of the entire Roman world, sat on a dais in his camp outside the city. He was surrounded by bishops and court officials. Perhaps Lactantius and Ossius were present too, exalting in the victory of their God. Slowly Licinius walked towards Constantine, his former enemies lining the long, humiliating path from the palace to the victor’s camp. It is possible that Constantia and her son had to face the ignominy of accompanying the defeated leader. When he reached Constantine, Licinius knelt before the emperor in abject supplication. He had brought with him the purple robes befitting his former office, and with bowed head he offered them up to Constantine. Perhaps Constantine added salt to the wound and asked the former emperor to convert to the Christian faith. What is more certain is Licinius’s final indignity: he hailed Constantine ‘Lord and Master, begging forgiveness for the events of the past’.50 Licinius and his family were then officially sent to live out their days in Thessaloniki and in peace.

However, it is easy to imagine that, for all the pomp and ceremony and for all the polite applause, both men knew that nothing had really changed. Within a year of Licinius’s surrender and abdication, a detachment of imperial soldiers found him with his family in Greece. When Licinius saw the guards approach perhaps he knew instantly that Constantine had gone back on his word, that the emperor could never allow potential rivals and their heirs to live, could never forgive. The soldiers took him and his son aside and garrotted them.51


Constantia survived the death of her husband and child. The emperor gave her the title ‘Most Noble Lady’ and she remained an important figure at her brother’s court. Her presence there must have been strained and full of stony recrimination. She died in 330, perhaps no more than thirty-five years old. Constantia, however, was not the only relative to fall foul of her brother’s imperial authority.

In 326 Constantine ordered the deaths of both his first son Crispus (whom he had appointed to the rank of Caesar) and his wife Fausta, the woman who had borne him three sons. The cause is shrouded in mystery. There were suspicions at court that Crispus was having an affair with his stepmother; another rumour suggested that it was Fausta who had fallen in love with Crispus, but had been rejected by him. Either way, such immoral behaviour could never be seen to taint the core of the Christian imperial family – the emperor’s absolutist legislation on sexual matters forbade it. The short, brilliant career of Crispus ended in execution. The cause of Fausta’s death is recorded as suffocation in an overheated steam bath.

Constantine’s unsentimental singularity of purpose also showed itself in the religious policy of his later years. In the aftermath of his victory over Licinius, the emperor published several edicts in the east. The persecuted Christians were to be released from prison, they were to have their property restored and they would receive the same privileges as Christians in the west. Bishops were encouraged to repair churches and build new ones. But the preaching tone of these edicts went much further than the Edict of Milan. In the letters accompanying them, Constantine did not force his subjects to abandon paganism and take up Christianity, but he urged them to do so. The Christian God, he wrote, was morally supreme. It was God who had brought an end to persecutors, God who had established the correct observance of religion. Constantine had simply been his instrument.52 The message rang out: Christianity was now the officially favoured religion of the Roman world. But what about paganism?

Ostensibly the edicts suggest that Constantine was actively campaigning against paganism: some traditional temples were closed, and sacrifices and the consulting of oracles were forbidden, especially by Roman provincial governors and prefects.53 However, the picture Eusebius describes is misleading. Certainly Constantine wanted to stamp out magic and superstition: he outlawed the private use of diviners, and magic designed to sexually arouse or make an attempt on someone’s life. Devotion to the traditional gods, however, was another matter. That form of paganism would be very slow to die out; there was as yet no mass conversion to Christianity.

The imperial ban on pagan sacrifices could never be enforced. They continued in Italy, and in Greece the emperor even lifted the ban so that a cult known as the Eleusinian Mysteries might not be affected. Constantine also allowed a new pagan temple to be built in Italy and dedicated to the imperial family late in his reign. Temples in Rome were granted protection from the emperor, and it remained the job of the prefect of the city to restore and maintain the buildings, statues and centres of the ancient Roman cults in the fourth and fifth centuries. Nonetheless, later emperors would be much harsher in their clampdown on pagan practices. The process of fossilizing Rome’s pagan past had begun.

The Church may have become the unifying institution of Constantine’s Christian empire. An issue of doctrine, however, was spoiling the picture. When Constantine ‘liberated’ the east from Licinius, he discovered that the Church there was even more divided than that in Africa. The greatest dispute, however, was not a mere debate over the legitimacy of a bishop, but a philosophical dispute over the relationship between God and Jesus Christ: was God the Father the same as God the Son, or was he inferior? A priest called Arius argued that while God the Father was eternal and indivisible, God the Son had to be created after the Father as His instrument for the salvation of man. Although he was perfect, God the Son was therefore not eternal and could not be called God. Arius’s argument sparked an absolute furore and threatened an upheaval in Church unity once again. Constantine stepped in.

In 325 he called together and personally attended the first universal meeting of the Church, known as the Council of Nicaea. The occasion must have been an extraordinary sight. For the first time, over three hundred bishops from all corners of the Roman world came together in an attempt to thrash out the doctrine being disputed by Arius. On the morning of the first day, dressed in the splendour of his bright purple robe embroidered with gold and inlaid with stones, Constantine entered the large, silent hall of the palace at Nicaea. He walked with an elegant, modest gait. A small golden chair was set front and centre before the rows of bishops. Their excitement at the occasion reached a new pitch when the emperor showed deference by waiting for them to sit down before he did. Only when they gave him the signal did he sit first, and then the whole gathering followed suit.54 From his seat, however, Constantine did much more than invigilate proceedings. He took an active, forceful part.

He was credited, for example, with finding the form of words that resolved the dispute. This stated that God the Son was ‘of one substance’ in relation to God the Father. The formulation implied that Arius was wrong. Despite this intervention, however, Constantine, the great soldier, the commander who had won the civil war, was less concerned with the intricacies of doctrinal debate. The emperor wanted simply to put out the fire of the controversy and end the dispute. Cajoling, bullying, and slipping between Latin and Greek in his efforts to persuade recalcitrant bishops, Constantine strong-armed the majority into putting their names to the proposed form of words designed to heal the rift. Most complied, but Arius and two of his followers refused and all three men were exiled. Unity, admittedly with the exception of a few dissenters, had prevailed. The grand occasion had been a triumph. Or so it seemed.

Certainly there were striking successes. For the first time the emperor of Rome, the most powerful man in the world, had used his power to establish Christian orthodoxy. On many issues he had won agreement from the vast majority of attendants coming together for the first time. Although Constantine made a show of deferring to the bishops, they had assembled under his authority and the decisions they had reached were universally binding. Indeed, in exiling Arius and his followers the treatment of ‘heretics’ had been taken out of the hands of bishops and become subject to the criminal law pronounced by the emperor.55 Religious and imperial power had become one.

In reality dissension had not gone away. Eusebius’s account of the Council of Nicaea papered over the very real differences of opinion expressed there. Later on, Arius returned from exile and continued to deliver sermons in his influential city of Nicomedia. Before Constantine died, even the emperor himself would backtrack on the doctrine he had forced the bishops into agreeing. Only with time would the unity that Constantine desired at Nicaea be realized. Indeed, the council produced the ‘Nicene Creed’. This is the official summary of the Christian faith, which begins, ‘I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. . .’ To this day it is recited by Christians every Sunday. To this day, Constantine’s formulation is still the unifying creed of the Church.

Constantine’s Christian theme inspired him to breathe new life into his empire in other ways. He helped found Jerusalem as a holy city for Christians as well as Jews, but was ambitious to achieve much more. When, on 8 November 324, with spear in hand, he plotted the site of a new city around the old town of Byzantium (now Istanbul), he founded what he called a ‘New Rome’. If Constantine’s intention was to rebrand a new Christian empire, what better way to do that than by founding a new imperial capital on the site of his victory against Licinius? And what better place to locate that city than at the strategic point where Europe and Asia meet? With his usual sharp eye for self-promotion, he named the new city after himself. Constantinople was officially dedicated on 11 May 330.

Whereas Rome was defined by its ancient past, former emperors and traditional gods, Constantinople marked the start of a new era. A massive building programme took place: new walls, new forums, a new hippodrome and a new imperial palace all sprang up in the space of just six years. There was also a new Senate House for the newly appointed Christian senators. As for Christian buildings, the city could boast Constantine’s mausoleum, and it is possible that the famous church of St Sophia began its incarnation under the emperor. However, contrary to Eusebius’s description, the city that bore Constantine’s name was not exclusively Christian. The emperor filled his new city with art treasures from the classical world, making it the showroom of his new empire. Crucially, he did not move the capital city of the empire to Constantinople and thus downgrade Rome. The Eternal City continued to supply senators to help administer the empire. Constantinople was, rather, just another imperial centre, alongside the likes of Trier and Milan, albeit one to which the emperor was highly attached. The better part of his last seven years was spent there.56

Constantine died on 22 May 337. His reign had been the longest of any emperor since the very first – Augustus. Some time before his death he was baptized, an indication of the sincerity of his belief. After that time he wore only white, forsaking the robes of imperial purple for the dress traditionally adopted by a Christian initiate. The man who attended his deathbed was a man he had liberated when he defeated Licinius some thirteen years earlier, a man whose company he had often shared since that time, the bishop of Nicomedia.

Christianity continued to thrive on the imperial templates Constantine had set. Only one of the Roman emperors who came after him was pagan. The attempts of Julian the Apostate to turn back the clock between 360 and 363, although vigorous, ultimately failed. At the end of the fourth century, in Rome alone there were seventy priests and twenty-five churches. The sumptuous development of St Peter’s reflected the extraordinary patronage of the Roman élite, the Church hierarchy and the emperor himself, and Rome would become a principal destination for pilgrims. However, this success of Christianity did not hold true for the new, unified and restored Roman empire.

Constantine’s successors were his three sons. On his death they had agreed to share power, but almost immediately began arguing and killing each other. The fractures in the Roman empire that Constantine’s work had temporarily healed would quickly reappear. Within fifty years they would be gulfs. In 364 a new dynasty was founded under Valentinian I. He chose to divide the empire in half once again, splitting it between an eastern and western emperor. However, the force that would put a fatal stress on the empire came not from weak leadership within, but from the frontiers. The barbarians were coming.

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