`Constantine, the superior of the Emperors in rank and dignity, was the first to take pity on those subjected to tyranny at Rome; and, calling in prayer upon God who is in heaven, and His Word, even Jesus Christ the Saviour of all, as his ally, he advanced in full force, seeking to secure for the Romans their ancestral liberty.' - Eusebius, c.325.'
`Now that the whole empire had devolved on Constantine, his arrogance increased and he was carried away with his success.' - Zosimus, late fifth century.2
On i May 305 the tetrarchs simultaneously held two grand parades on opposite sides of the empire. Diocletian and Galerius were just outside Nicomedia, and Maximian and Constantius were at Milan. The cities were the most common residence for the two senior emperors, but in Diocletian's case the spot had a particular significance, for it was there, just over twenty years before, that the army had proclaimed him emperor. Now, aged about sixty and in poor health, he formally resigned his office. Maximian simultaneously did the same at Milan, although subsequent events would make it clear that he acted unwillingly. Galerius stood beside Diocletian and Constantius beside Maximian, and the two Caesars were now each promoted to the status of Augustus. To aid them in their task two new Caesars were appointed. Diocletian unclasped his purple imperial cloak and draped it over the shoulders of Galerius' nephew Maximinus Daia. By the same gesture, Maximian elevated the general Severus to the imperial college.
No senior officer or official can have been surprised by this carefully orchestrated power change, for preparations must have been underway for some time. The promotion of Constantius and Galerius was anticipated, but some sources claim that the choice of Caesars surprised at least the junior ranks in the army. Constantius and Maximian both had adult sons who seemed more obvious candidates. Severus was a close associate of Galerius and it is clear that the latter expected to dominate the new tetrarchy just as Diocletian had controlled his imperial colleagues.'
It is impossible to know when and why Diocletian decided to resign. Some scholars see it as a long-held plan, fundamental to his concept of the tetrarchy, but this is surely too schematic. It is more natural to see his regime as developing gradually and not part of some master plan. He had recently recovered from a serious illness and he may simply have lacked the strength or the enthusiasm for the task of ruling the empire. The Christian writer Lactantius, who until a few years before had taught rhetoric in Nicomedia itself, claimed that Galerius pressured the ailing emperor into resigning and then selected the new Caesars himself. We need to be cautious, because Lactantius disliked both men, because they had persecuted the church and his book described the gruesome fates of all who did this. Yet it is undeniable that the new regime was built around Galerius, and in recent years he was the best placed of the tetrarchs to influence Diocletian. Even so, the latter had always proved single-minded in the past and it may be that he believed Galerius was the best choice.4
However willingly, Diocletian resigned. For the moment, as in the past, Maximian was unable to resist his more forceful colleague. The empire had four new rulers, one of whom expected to impose his will on the other three and impose solidarity. He failed. It is doubtful that Galerius was as good a politician as Diocletian, but the main difference was the existence of potential rivals with a good enough blood claim to imperial power to rally support. As in the past, one usurpation tended to encourage others. The first came in Britain, just over a year later.
Constantius' son Constantine was in his early thirties when he witnessed the acclamation of Galerius and Maximinus Daia at Nicomedia. He had already proved himself a capable officer, fighting on the Danube and against the Persians. For a while he remained with Galerius and stories subsequently circulated of attempts by the latter to engineer his death - ordering him to lead a charge and then withholding reserves, and even commanding him to fight a lion single-handed. Finally, when his father requested that he come to join him in Britain, Constantine is supposed to have slipped away quietly. Using the imperial post with its system of relay stations and fresh mounts, he rode hell for leather to escape, killing the horses he did not need to prevent pursuit. Reaching the bedside of his dying father at York, Constantius had just enough breath left to name him as his successor. Most of this tale is probably romantic invention. In fact, we know that Constantine spent several months in Britain with his father. This was important, for it permitted him to build up a rapport with his senior officers and officials.'
Constantius died in York on 25 July 306 and Constantine was immediately proclaimed as his successor by the senior army officers there, backed by their troops. For the moment he claimed only the rank of Caesar and sent envoys with an image of himself in imperial regalia to Galerius, seeking his acknowledgement. This was duly given, in marked contrast to Diocletian's rejection of the claims of Carausius. Galerius also now promoted Severus to the rank of Augustus, completing the tetrarchy once again. However, the appearance of stability did not last.
Maximian had retired to a villa in Italy and his son Maxentius was in Rome in October. Earlier in the year Galerius had issued a decree extending Diocletian's system of taxation to cover Italy as well as the provinces, ending more than four centuries of the region's exemption from direct taxation. Maxentius fed off the unpopularity of this and was proclaimed emperor at Rome by a range of supporters including the praetorian guard - the last time it would make an emperor. Maximian came out of retirement to back his son, once again calling himself Augustus. This time Galerius and Severus were adamant in refusing to accept any more additions to the imperial college.
Severus gathered an army at Milan and marched on Rome in 307, but almost all of his officers and soldiers had been commanded by Maximian before his retirement. They showed no enthusiasm for fighting against their old commander and soon began to desert. Severus fled, but was captured, held prisoner and forced to resign as Augustus. In the autumn Galerius invaded Italy, but he was unable to force the enemy to risk an open battle and was not prepared for such a major undertaking as besieging Rome so late in the year. It is claimed that he was amazed at the sheer size of a city that he had never seen before - a striking reaction from the ruler of the Roman world, but a sign of the city's now marginal importance. Galerius withdrew and did not repeat the attempt. Maxentius responded by having Severus killed, making full reconciliation unlikely.'
During this period Constantine campaigned on the Rhine frontier, winning the victories that were expected of an emperor. He did not formally break with Galerius, but nevertheless dealt with Maximian, marrying his daughter Fausta at Trier in 307. (Maximian's older daughter Theodora seems to have died some years before her husband Constantius. She was not the mother of Constantine, for he was the product of an earlier liaison - there is considerable doubt that it was a legal marriage, and Constantine's mother may have been Constantius' mistress rather than his wife.) Maximian proclaimed Constantine as Augustus. He had already squabbled with his own son so remained at the court of Constantine. The Roman world now had five emperors.7
In 308 Diocletian came out of retirement to support Galerius. They met with Maximian at Carnuntum on the Danube and appointed as Augustus an officer named Licinius, who was another close associate of Galerius. Maximinus Daia and Constantine were confirmed as Caesars, but permitted to call themselves `sons of the Augusti'. Maxentius was ignored, but was anyway kept busy by the rebellion of a usurper named Domitius Alexander, who had been proclaimed in Africa and was not suppressed until the following year. After the conference Diocletian went back to cultivate cabbages at his palace in Sirmium - he is supposed to have boasted about their flavour - and Maximian also resumed his retirement.8
Diocletian's intervention brought an uneasy truce, but also showed just how far the stability of the tetrarchy depended on the imperial college being dominated by one man. In 310 Maximian once again decided to take back power and rebelled against Constantine. He was swiftly suppressed and executed. Both Constantine and Maximinus Daia soon took back the title Augustus - the latter was said to have been very bitter after seeing first Severus and then Licinius promoted over his head. Galerius died the next year - he was suffering from cancer of the penis and his last days were said by Lactantius to have been particularly unpleasant. Licinius and Maximinus Daia rushed to carve up his territory, eventually accepting a division at the Bosphorus. Diocletian may have died around the same time, but there are a number of traditions about his end, some claiming disease and others suicide.'
In 312 Constantine attacked Maxentius. His army was loyal, toughened by campaigns on the frontiers, and he was a very capable general. Marching quickly, he defeated Maxentius' subordinates in northern Italy and then approached Rome itself. The city's walls offered it protection from sudden assaults, but such a long circuit wall was difficult to defend against a properly organised attacker. It would also have damaged Maxentius' prestige to skulk behind defences against a challenger whom he seems to have substantially outnumbered. He led his army out and crossed the Tiber at the Milvian bridge - the stone bridge had been demolished, so a pontoon bridge had been constructed next to it. In spite of their numbers, neither general nor army was a match for their opponents, and Constantine won an overwhelming victory. Maxentius was killed and many of his panicking soldiers drowned when they streamed across the pontoon bridge and it collapsed under their weight.'°
Three emperors were left and Constantine and Licinius now allied. In 313 Licinius married Constantine's half-sister Constantia (one of the children of Theodora), before he led his army eastwards against Maximinus Daia. The latter had crossed into Europe and advanced along the main road through the Balkans. They met near the city of Adrianople on 3o April and Daia's army was routed. He escaped, but was hunted down and committed suicide in July. The two emperors left standing now agreed to split the provinces between them, Constantine taking the western and Licinius the eastern provinces.
In 316 Constantine provocatively crossed into Licinius' territory during the course of a campaign against some Sarmatian tribes. If he hoped to provoke a war and not simply assert his seniority, he may have been shocked to find his enemy stronger than expected. There were two battles, the second once again near Adrianople, but although Constantine won both, his victory was not overwhelming. In a negotiated settlement Licinius gave up almost all of his provinces in Europe. In 324 the struggle was renewed. Once again, the road system shaped the campaign and Constantine won his first victory near Adrianople. Licinius retired to Byzantium, but lost a naval battle and then fled to Asia Minor. Constantine pursued and won a final victory at Chrysopolis. Licinius surrendered and was allowed to go into comfortable captivity. Some time later he was charged with conspiracy and executed, along with his infant son. Constantia was spared and lived on as an honoured member of the imperial court."
For the first time in almost forty years the empire was united under a single emperor. It is true that during his reign Constantine named several of his sons as Caesars, but there was never any doubt that he was supreme. Going further than Septimus Severus, who had merely `found a father', Constantine had long since spuriously declared himself the descendant of the brief, but honoured Claudius II. He made no attempt to revive the tetrarchy and his success rather undermines modern claims that it was now essential to have more than one emperor. Like Diocletian he was a `strongman' who defeated all his opponents and intimidated any other potential challengers. Unlike Diocletian he chose not to do this through taking and dominating imperial colleagues, but preferred to rule alone. The success of both men had far more to do with personality, political skill and single-minded ruthlessness, than with any of the institutions they employed. Altogether Constantine was an emperor for thirty-two years, although he only controlled the entire empire for thirteen."
Constantine is famous as the emperor who made the empire Christian. The truth is a good deal more complicated than this, and the preceding narrative has deliberately omitted any mention of his religion. This is not because it was not significant, but because he needs to be understood first as one of the many - though admittedly one of the most successful - usurpers who competed for imperial power in the third and fourth centuries. This was the context of his conversion, and of his religious attitudes and policy. It is misleading to transfer the novelty of his faith to analysis of his political career. Perhaps more than at any other time, there is a great danger of turning a history of Constantine's reign into essentially a history of Christianity - and especially orthodox Catholic Christianity - during these years, simply because this was the concern of the overwhelming majority of the sources.
For a generation after Gallienus called off his father's persecution of the Church, Christian communities across the empire had been free from systematic persecution. This promoted the already pronounced trend for Christianity to become much more visible. Bishops, as Paul of Samosata's controversial career at Antioch had shown, often became wellrecognised local dignitaries. Churches were built openly in many towns and cities - there was one next to Diocletian's palace in Nicomedia. There were Christians in many walks of life, including the army and imperial administration, and only occasionally did some of them find that their beliefs became incompatible with their official duties. Tacitly, Christianity seemed to be accepted and no longer seen as a threat to the empire. The wild rumours of cannibalism and incest had largely gone, and many people had a much clearer idea of what the Christians believed. The Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry based his attacks on the Church on a very detailed knowledge of Jewish and Christian scriptures."
There had been a last burst of persecution under the tetrarchy. Diocletian is supposed to have first become concerned when the priests conducting an unsuccessful augury blamed the failure on Christians in the crowd making the sign of the cross. In 297 all imperial officials and soldiers were required to display their loyalty by performing a sacrifice. Some Christians resigned in response, more probably did just enough to conform, and a few openly refused and were executed. In 303 there was a more concerted move against the Church, prompted in part by a fire in the palace in Nicomedia, which was blamed on Christian arsonists. The focus of the new round of persecution gives a good idea of just how well established and public the Christian movement had become. Churches were targeted - the one next to the palace in Nicomedia was the first to be demolished - and associated assets were confiscated. All Christian scriptures were to be handed over to the authorities and burned. Rather than seeking out every Christian, it was mainly the leaders who were arrested and torture was employed to force them to recant. Those who refused were imprisoned, subjected to more savage coercion and in due course often executed if they continued to resist.
As in the past, Diocletian's main aim was to impose outward conformity and unity throughout the empire. Again, as in earlier persecutions of the Church, much depended on the enthusiasm of governors and other local officials. In some regions it was strongly pressed and extremely brutal, and probably all the more shocking to a Christian community that had been free of such attacks for decades. Diocletian was an enthusiastic persecutor, Maximian and Galerius somewhat less committed, and Constantius decidedly lukewarm. The latter demolished churches, but does not seem to have executed anyone.14
The Christians were not the only group to suffer in these years. In 302 Diocletian had also ordered the persecution of the followers of the prophet Mani. Born in Persia in 216, the latter had travelled widely, including a visit to India, and the religion he created showed the influence of Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, Buddhist and other ideas. Diocletian seems to have viewed the Manichees as potentially subversive because of their presumed sympathy with the Persians. In his decree he claimed that they `had sprung forth very recently like novel and unexpected monstrosities from the race of Persians - a nation hostile to us - and have made their way into our empire, where they are committing many outrages, disturbing the tranquillity of the people and even inflicting grave harm on the civic communities'. He feared that in time they would `infect the modest and tranquil Roman race ... and our whole empire'. It is doubtful that his suspicion was correct, for although Ardashir and Shapur I had treated Mani with respect, their successors had persecuted the cult, executing the prophet himself in 276.Is
Persecuting the church was scarcely Diocletian's greatest priority in the last years of his reign, although it obviously dominated the accounts of our Christian sources. After his resignation, Galerius and especially Maximinus Daia were enthusiastic persecutors, but again, often had other more important concerns. There is very little evidence that by this time the wider pagan population had much enthusiasm for persecuting Christians. In his last days Galerius issued a decree admitting that persecution had failed to stamp out Christianity. Therefore, Christians would now be permitted freedom of worship and allowed to rebuild their churches, although their confiscated property was not restored. As a result, `it will be their duty to pray to their god for our safety and for that of the state and themselves, so that from every side the state may be kept unharmed and they may be able to live free of care in their own homes'. Within less than a year Maximinus resumed the persecution, refusing to enforce Galerius' decision. Replying to one petitioner he blamed the Christians' abandonment of the old cults for all the ills of the world, such as war, plagues and earthquakes.'
Both Constantine and Maxentius adopted a benevolent attitude towards the Christians when they first seized power, not wanting to alienate any potential supporters. The latter's enthusiasm seems to have cooled once he became more secure. Constantine's father Constantius had not only been very restrained in the years of persecution, but seems to have had a number of Christians in his household. For himself, he remained devoted to the worship of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) - the popular supreme god whose protection Aurelian had claimed. Throughout the third century there was a tendency amongst many pagans towards a form of monotheism, revering one deity above all others, and perhaps seeing the various gods and goddesses as merely manifestations of a single divine being. Several of the main philosophical schools had taught similar ideas for centuries. Whatever the specific nature of Constantius' beliefs, he certainly did not feel any great hostility towards Christians and may have had a good deal of sympathy, although the `closet' Christianity claimed for him in later years is unconvincing. Constantine appears to have begun with a similar attitude. Like many people in the ancient world, he believed profoundly in the power of the gods to communicate in dreams. In 310 one panegyrist proudly asserted that he had been granted a vision by the sun god Apollo and this was reflected on his coinage .17
Before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine ordered his men to paint their shields with a Christian symbol - probably the chi-rho, but possibly a cross with the head turned into a letter V. It was a temporary gesture, probably not repeated in any of his subsequent campaigns. Although the emperor's closest bodyguards seem to have continued to carry shields bearing the chi-rho, the rest of the army kept their traditional insignia, some of it pagan. This was still true at the end of the century and most likely had more to do with unit pride and tradition than particular beliefs. In 312 it was a one-off gesture, intended to inspire his men with the belief that they had divine aid. On a practical level, it also helped to identify the soldiers - always a problem in a civil war fought between armies with identical uniforms and equipment."
The inspiration for Constantine's order was variously explained, and it is likely that the story grew in the telling. The earliest account in Lactantius speaks of the emperor having a dream the night before the battle in which the Christian God instructed him to do this. Later, after Constantine's death, his biographer Eusebius claimed that the emperor himself had spoken of an earlier omen, when he and his army looked up at the noon sun and saw the symbol of a cross against it, with the words in Latin, `by this conquer' (hoc signo victor eris, or `in this sign you will conquer' in the slightly fuller Latin, although the text gives it in Greek). That night Jesus appeared to him in a dream and explained that using the symbol would bring him victory. In the end, the details do not really matter. Constantine believed that the Christian God had promised and then delivered victory. He was not the first Roman leader to believe that his career was guided by divine help, only his choice of deity was different.'9
The Christian God had demonstrated His power and this was the basis for Constantine's conversion to Christianity. His army from now on marched under a special flag called the labarum, its top decorated with a chi-rho. Allying with Licinius, the two confirmed the Christians' freedom to practise their religion granted by the dying Galerius, but went further, returning confiscated property, including the sites of demolished churches. Eager not to alienate anyone, the two emperors stated that current owners would be compensated. (Traditionally this agreement is known as the Edict of Milan, although - as very many scholars have pointed out - it was neither technically an edict, nor was it issued at Milan.) The subsequent struggle between Licinius and Maximinus Daia was painted in religious terms. The story circulated that Licinius was visited by an angel the night before the critical battle and given a special prayer for his soldiers to repeat. The wording was more generally monotheistic than specifically Christian, but his overwhelming victory seemed proof of its efficacy. Later, when war broke out between Constantine and Licinius, there was an effort to portray this as a new crusade, but there is no convincing evidence that the latter was ever seriously hostile to the church. Perhaps he believed that many prominent Christians were sympathetic to his rival and so mistrusted them, but it is unlikely to have gone further than this. Nevertheless, marching behind the labarum, Constantine's forces were victorious.2O
There were Christians fighting in Constantine's army, but also plenty of pagans, and doubtless more without especially strong formal beliefs. He did not win because he had harnessed a great pool of manpower previously ignored or marginalised by the state. All the evidence suggests that at the beginning of the fourth century Christians were a minority in the overall population. It is also regularly asserted that they were a small minority, but this is by no means clear. As usual, there are no reliable statistics, and, of course, we do not even know how big the empire's population was. One recent study suggested that Christians represented io per cent of the total, but this remains purely conjectural.2'
It is very unlikely that the numbers were smaller than this, and they may as easily have been two or three times higher. We know most about the churches in the eastern provinces, including Egypt, hear quite a bit about those in North Africa, know something about the Church in Rome, but very little indeed about Christian activity in the western provinces. In some areas in the east Christians may locally have been in the majority. Armenia was the first country in the world to become formally Christian when its king converted early in the fourth century. This further increased its closeness to Rome when Constantine fought his way to control of the entire empire. Fairly quickly, Christians living under the Persian kings found themselves under suspicion of sympathising with the Roman enemy.22
It is important not to view religious groupings too simplistically. The divide between Christian and pagan was fundamental to the former, but often far less clear to the latter. Pagans were most certainly not one homogenous group, and many would not necessarily have felt any par ticular sympathy with others who were seen as pagans by Christians. Christianity was far more organised than any substantial pagan cult. It had its own scriptures, supplemented from the very beginning by an ever-expanding literature discussing doctrine, commemorating martyrs and justifying its beliefs to outsiders. Christians sought to convert others to their beliefs in a way that was again highly unusual compared to other established religions. Associated with most Christian communities would have been many people with an interest in and sympathy for the faith, but who had not yet made a firm commitment. Over time some of these would do so, others would drift away and some would simply remain as they were on the fringes. When considering Christian numbers we need to be aware both of this diversity and of a whole range of levels and permanence of commitment."
It is also a mistake to speak too rigidly of a single Church. There were many Christian communities, each distinct in its origins, sometimes its practices and, at times, its doctrine. A division might also be based on language. There was a large Syriac-speaking Christian community in the eastern provinces that seems to have had markedly different traditions to Greek Christianity. Even those churches that would soon come together to form the orthodox Catholic Church were not as uniform as they would become. We should not let hindsight make us assume that its institutions sprang into being instantly, rather than developing over a long period.
The Christian Emperor
Constantine won control of the empire through military force. The support of Christians was an asset, but a relatively minor element in his success. Yet there is no good reason to doubt that the emperor genuinely believed his victory was given to him by God. Virtually every scholar would accept this, although for a long time there was a rather fruitless debate over the question, some preferring to see him as an utterly cynical pragmatist. Apart from oversimplifying human character, this ignored three fundamental points. The first is that individuals respond to religious conversion in different ways. Change in their behaviour and attitudes may be swift or gradual. We should remember that Constantine is unlikely to have had especially detailed knowledge of Christian doctrine before he converted, although it is claimed that he subsequently spent long hours studying the scriptures. Secondly, his faith is often measured against an especially rigorous and rigid ideal, so that he must not only be an enthusiastic supporter of Christianity, but implacably hostile to every other belief system. Constantine was no zealot, but scarcely any Christians at this period seem to have wanted to compel pagans to convert. Finally, Constantine was not just another army officer or private citizen, but the emperor. He spent over half of his reign in a state of rivalry with competitors for power, and often in open war. Like Diocletian before him, his first priority was surviving, and reforms came later and gradually. Simply staying in power and running the empire occupied most of his time and effort.14
This last point is all too easily lost in accounts of Constantine's reign, which stay focused almost exclusively on the Church. Christian communities certainly benefited greatly under his rule. Not only was their religion granted formal acceptance by the state, but Constantine was generous in funding the construction of grand church buildings. Some of the first of these were in Rome. The praetorians and other guard units stationed in Rome had supported Maxentius and were disbanded after his defeat, and what is now known as the Church of St John in Lateran was constructed on the foundations of the demolished barracks of the guard cavalry. The Church of St Peter was built on the Vatican Hill where tradition maintained that the Apostle had been buried after his martyrdom under Nero. Given that the site was associated with the grand circus of Nero, it is highly probable that this was in the right place. These and the other churches built by Constantine were not designed like pagan temples, although over the following centuries many of the latter would be taken over and remodelled as churches. Instead, their layout drew more inspiration from the basilica, the traditional Roman meeting place for conducting public business. They were large, with high and often vaulted ceilings allowing large numbers of people to gather.25
Constantine built a considerable number of churches, although the scale of his activity in this respect was exaggerated by Christian authors such as Eusebius. There are few traces of new churches in Asia Minor, although this may have been because the local Christian communities did not consider them necessary. Yet, just like the tetrarchs, Constantine was a prolific builder of other monuments, adding another bath complex to Rome. Several of those in the city were completions of projects already begun by Maxentius - most notably the huge basilica whose remains tower over the Forum today. This contained a monumental statue of Constantine himself."
The Arch of Constantine was similarly the reshaping of a monument already begun by his defeated predecessor. Sculptures were plundered from earlier artworks, and the faces of emperors such as Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius recarved to show Constantine hunting and offering sacrifice. The text of the inscription is monotheistic but vague, speaking of Constantine defeating his rival `through the greatness of his mind' and `with the inspiration of the divinity'. Other slogans were deeply traditional, naming him as `the Liberator of the City' and `Founder of Peace'. In contrast, the reliefs showing scenes from his Italian campaign including the Battle of the Milvian Bridge were unprecedented, for no one had depicted the defeat of other Romans in a permanent monument. The Arch of Severus showed only scenes from his Parthian campaign and ignored his victories in civil wars. Attitudes may well have changed, for there is no record of any criticism of this .17
Constantine's greatest project was the conversion of the city of Byzantium into the great metropolis of Constantinople. Again, it is important not to assume that he always intended the city to become what it would later be - the capital of the Eastern Empire and the new Rome. It is better to think of it in the context of the tetrarchic practice of developing certain cities such as Nicomedia and Trier. Constantine's concept was probably grander, since he had made himself sole emperor and wished to celebrate his victory. Artwork was brought from all over the empire to ornament Constantinople. Christian claims that there was no trace of pagan cults in the city were exaggerated. There was a large nude statue of Constantine as the sun god on top of what is now known as the Burnt Column, and there were a few temples, mostly on existing foundations. Yet it is fair to say that it was an overtly and overwhelmingly Christian city. Strategically, Constantinople was well placed for an emperor who might wish to move either eastwards or to operate on the Danubian frontier. This in part explains why in time it would outstrip the other tetrarchic capitals."
Constantine did take gold statues and goods from many pagan temples to use in his new projects. A few temples - chiefly ones associated with particularly extreme customs such as ritual prostitution - were shut down altogether. In contrast, other communities sought and received imperial approval to build new temples. Some were associated with the imperial cult, something that had always been more to do with displays of loyalty than piety. Coinage continued to employ well-established pagan imagery for much of the reign, and the emperor himself remained the pontifex maximus - the most senior priest of Rome."
Legislation did sometimes reveal the emperor's Christian beliefs. One law banned owners from tattooing a slave's face, since all men were made in the image of God and it would be wrong to deface that image. There was some restriction on animal sacrifice, but the details of this and how strictly it was imposed at this stage are unclear. Crucifixion was banned, but the death penalty remained and was often imposed in extremely vicious ways. Female slaves who permitted girl children in their charge to be abducted were to be killed by having molten lead poured down their throat. Constantine was particularly keen to punish adultery and other sexual crimes. Yet, while this no doubt chimed with his new beliefs, there was a long tradition of similar legislation stretching back to Augustus. His only break with these earlier laws was to remove the penalties imposed on those who had no children. The tiny minority of Christians who chose a celibate life were not to suffer for this.3°
Christian bishops and some other priests were granted exemptions from undertaking magistracies and other expensive services for their local community. The same privilege was later extended to Jewish rabbis and synagogue leaders. A few of Constantine's pronouncements are overtly hostile to the Jews as the killers of Jesus, but his actions were not markedly more anti-Semitic than those of many earlier pagan emperors. The Jews were again forbidden to seek converts or to attack those of their own number who converted to Christianity."
Constantine was eager to promote unity amongst Christians and involved himself with two major disputes within the Church. The first was not about doctrine, but was a consequence of the tetrarchic persecution in North Africa. At the time some priests had fled and others came close to collaboration, handing over books they claimed to be scriptures. Others had faced torture and death, while some had the good fortune never to be arrested. When it was all over, a group dubbed the Donatists - their leader was called Donatus - refused to readmit into fellowship those who had fled or collaborated, let alone permit them to resume their priesthood. The dispute came to a head when the Donatists refused to accept the appointment of a certain Caecilian as bishop of Carthage because he was seen as too lenient. There may well also have been a fundamental clash of personalities on both sides. The Donatists appealed to Constantine, just as the congregation in Antioch had once petitioned Aurelian, but with the difference that the emperor was now a Christian. Constantine decided that the issue should be judged by the bishop of Rome. The latter opted to employ the traditional format of Roman justice, but the Donatists' representatives were either unaware or unprepared for this and their case was quickly dismissed. However, they refused to accept this and the result was a schism in the Church in North Africa that persisted for generations."
The other major dispute would also prove an enduring one, but this time the matter was one of doctrine. Fierce debate raged over the precise nature of the Trinity - God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. In many ways the arguments show the deep influence of the ways of thinking promoted by the major philosophical schools, with their obsession with specifically categorising things. It was an indication of just how many Christians had received a traditional education, rather weakening the frequently repeated claim that they were invariably of humble status and ignorant. One group known as Arians - it followed the ideas of a presbyter in Antioch named Arius - argued that the Father must have had an earlier, higher existence. Therefore, as the Son, Jesus was, however marginally, not the equal of the Father. In 325 a council was summoned and met under imperial patronage at Nicaea. Constantine was present, but seems to have acted as an interested layman and did not actually take part in the debate. Eventually, it produced a creed in which the Trinity was described as `of the same substance' (homoousios in Greek). Constantine himself was credited with backing and perhaps devising this term. Arius and others who refused to accept this were exiled, although subsequently recal led.33
Constantine repeatedly stated that his rule was sanctioned by divine favour. As the reign progressed this became explicitly the support of the supreme, Christian God. He was chosen to govern the empire just as bishops were chosen to shepherd their congregations. Yet it is striking from the beginning how concerned Constantine was to show that bishops were independent and to respect the decisions of church leaders. They acquired the right to dispense justice in church disputes. Christians were also encouraged to enter imperial service and doubtless some people `converted' in the hope of winning the emperor's favour. Plenty of pagans continued to enjoy very distinguished careers under Constantine, as indeed did Arians and other members of Christian sub-groups. Far more important than issues of beliefs were competence, connections and, most of all, loyalty.34
Focusing on Constantine's faith all too easily obscures just how traditional most of his behaviour was. His style of rule was essentially similar to that of recent emperors, and especially Diocletian - so much so that it is often difficult to tell which of the two initiated a reform. The division of the army into frontier-based limitanei and the comitatenses, in theory kept at the more immediate disposal of the emperor, became more formal. The massive increase in bureaucracy also continued, the various departments of government taking firmer shape. By the end of Constantine's reign there were five praetorian prefects and their role was entirely civil. There were changes in detail to the provincial organisation, and rather more major alterations to the tax system and coinage. Yet, on the whole, the continuity with Diocletian's reign is far more striking than any changes.35
The most fundamental difference was Constantine's decision not to renew the tetrarchy itself, or indeed to rule with any colleagues. Unlike Diocletian he did have sons, as well as several half-brothers. In 317 he appointed Crispus, his son from his first marriage, and Constantine II, the oldest son from his second marriage, as Caesars. Simultaneously, Licinius elevated his own son and namesake to the same rank. Crispus was the oldest of the young Caesars, but none of the boys was yet old enough to play an effective role in government. By 324 Crispus was able to fight with some distinction in the civil war, but two years later he was executed by his father. A few months later Constantine killed his second wife, Maximian's daughter Fausta, locking her in an overheated bath house until she was asphyxiated.
Wild stories soon circulated, claiming that Fausta had developed an overwhelming passion for her stepson. When he refused to be seduced, she accused him of attempting to rape her, and his stern father - who had introduced very harsh legislation against such crimes - imposed the death penalty on his son. Afterwards, he is supposed to have learned the truth and so executed his wife. The tale is most likely no more than gossip. Equally false is the malicious claim by some pagan authors, including the Emperor Julian, that Constantine converted to Christianity because only their God would forgive a man guilty of killing his own family. However, he had already been a Christian for more than a decade before these savage events. Whatever the precise details, the desire of Fausta for her own sons to inherit instead of their older step-brother seems the most likely cause.36
Palace conspiracies were nothing new, and Constantine's extended family was particularly large and relationships complex. His own halfbrothers were not fully trusted and were kept away from power for most of the reign. Their mother, Theodora, was long dead, but his own, Helena, was a prominent figure during the reign, the official line emphasising that she had been Constantius' wife, whatever the actual truth of their relationship. Both she and Fausta were named Augusta. Helena was an especially prominent supporter of the Church and in her last years went on a pilgrimage to Judaea. In 326 she was in Jerusalem and was involved in the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, raised above what was believed to be the empty tomb of Christ. In later years legends would grow up claiming that she discovered many relics, including fragments of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Although she died not long afterwards, Helena remained an important figure throughout the Middle Ages.37
Constantius II, Fausta's second son, was named as Caesar in 324, and his younger brother Constans was similarly elevated in 333. Two years later Constantine also promoted his nephew Dalmatius, so that there were four Caesars. The empire had five emperors - hence the five praetorian prefects - but only Constantine himself was the Augustus, and there was never any doubt that his power was supreme. This was not a college of equals. In many ways it had more in common with the appointment of relatives as co-rulers by emperors like Gordian, Decius and Philip. It showed to the world that the regime could continue even if the emperor himself died. Nor was it a deliberate revival of the hereditary principle and rejection of deliberate selection of successors. Much like the emperors of the second century before Marcus Aurelius, Diocletian had simply lacked a suitable heir amongst his family and therefore had had little choice but to look elsewhere. Close male relatives could not be readily overlooked. While Constantine was alive they could generally be kept in order, if only by fear, for the fate of Crispus showed that the Augustus would not hesitate to kill even those close to him. Constantine evidently hoped - much like Septimius Severus - that his relatives could be persuaded to live in harmony. Like Diocletian, he was willing to impose harmony, killing his own relatives when he felt this was necessary. In many ways Diocletian and Constantine were alike, both equally determined that one man should wield ultimate power. All of their decisions, including their religious policy, were intended to reinforce this personal supremacy.
Although his greatest victories came in civil wars, Constantine also frequently campaigned against foreign enemies, especially along the Rhine and Danube. Not long after being acclaimed emperor, he had won a victory over a raiding band of Franks. Their captured leaders were fed to the wild beasts in the arena at Trier. In later years he fought against other peoples, including the Sarmatians and Goths. None of our sources mention any significant defeats, and most of the victories claimed by imperial propaganda were probably genuine and substantial. Near the end of his reign Constantine made preparations for a major attack on Persia. The Sassanid king, Shapur II, who had ascended the throne as an infant - legend had it he was actually declared king some months before he was born - was now an adult. Friction developed around the border territories ceded to Rome after Galerius' victory. The Persians resented the loss of these regions and, understandably, were always nervous of future Roman aggression.38
The urge to follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great was often in the minds of Roman generals and emperors who campaigned in the east. More importantly, a victory over Persia offered the prospect of far greater glory than defeating a lesser opponent. In this sense, Constantine's plan was deeply traditional. Yet he added another element, for some years earlier he had written to Shapur, telling him of the power of his God who had `utterly overthrown' his enemies. He rejoiced at the report that there were many Christians living in Persia, and asked the king to protect and cherish them, `for by this proof of faith you will secure an immeasurable benefit both to yourself and all the world'. Later, with war imminent, at least one Christian writer looked forward to Constantine's victory uniting all the Christians under one rule.39
It was not to be. Constantine died on 22 May 337 at the age of about sixty. He had been baptised just a short time before. It was not uncommon to delay this ritual until very late in life at this period, for it was felt inappropriate to sin after undergoing baptism. The bishop who performed the ceremony was believed to have Arian inclinations, but this is unlikely to have been a concern for the emperor. Instead, as ever Constantine employed people on the basis of his confidence in their reliability and competence.4°
Constantine was not likeable, but then very few emperors were, especially in the third and fourth centuries. He had been highly successful at a time when civil war remained an ever-present threat. He gave the empire a time of comparative stability, but just like Diocletian, we should not exaggerate the depth of the recovery. Christian authors eulogised Constantine, while pagans condemned him and blamed him for many of the ills that would later befall the empire. In recent centuries, modern historians have all too often had almost as extreme views of him. There is no doubt that his conversion to Christianity was a very significant moment in the history of the world. Yet it is also worth remembering that this religion had already survived repeated attempts to eradicate it. Sweeping claims as to whether it would have survived and spread or faded if Constantine had not converted must be taken with a large pinch of salt.