Constantinople dedicated: almost every other city stripped naked.
When Constantine first set eyes on Byzantium, the city was already nearly a thousand years old: whether or not we accept the story of its foundation by Byzas, there can be no doubt that a small settlement was flourishing on the site by about 600 BC, with its acropolis on the high ground where the church of St Sophia and the palace of Topkapi stand today. In AD 73 it had been incorporated into the Roman Empire by Vespasian; it was unfortunate that when, 120 years later, Septimius Severus was struggling for control of the Empire, the city ill-advisedly backed his rival and had to submit to a three-year siege, after which the victorious Severus sacked it without mercy, razing its tremendous ramparts - so beautifully built, it was said, that they seemed to be carved from a single piece of stone -to the ground. Before long, however, realizing the importance of its strategic position, the same Emperor decided on a complete reconstruction; and it was this Severan city that Constantine inherited.
His own decision to transform it yet again seems to have been taken towards the end of 324, some six months or so before the Council of Nicaea. Inevitably, when his new city of Constantinople became both the centre of the late Roman world and the most splendid metropolis known to mankind, stories were to grow up - encouraged, very probably, by Constantine himself - about the supernatural circumstances attending its foundation: how the Emperor had first decided to build his new capital on the plain of Troy, but how God had come to him by night and led him instead to Byzantium;1 how, when he hesitated at Chalcedon, a flight of eagles had flown down from the mountains, picked up the builders' tools and materials and carried them in their talons to
1 Sozomcn, Ecclesiastical History, II, j.
the mouth of the Bosphorus; how, as William of Malmesbury tells us, Constantine dreamt of a wrinkled old woman who was suddenly transformed into a young and beautiful girl, and how a few nights later the dead Pope Sylvester appeared in another dream and explained that the woman was Byzantium herself, whom he was destined similarly to rejuvenate: and finally how he personally traced out the line of the walls with his spear -replying, when his companions showed astonishment at its length, with the words: 'I shall continue until he who walks ahead of me bids me stop.'1 In fact, however, there would have been no call for such supernatural guidance; at that time the Emperor was merely planning a commemorative city on the model of Adrianople or Caesarea, bearing his name and serving, by its sheer magnificence, as a perpetual reminder of his greatness and glory to future generations. A fine city, to be sure; but nothing more.
What decided him to make it the capital of his Empire was, almost certainly, his second visit to Rome. His disillusionment with that city was now complete: its republican and pagan traditions could clearly have no place in the new Christian Empire that he was so carefully shaping. Intellectually and culturally, it was becoming calcified, growing more and more out of touch with the new and progressive thinking of the Hellenistic world. The Roman academies and libraries were no longer any match for those of Alexandria, Antioch or Pergamum. In the economic field, too, a similar trend was apparent. Not only in Rome but throughout much of the Italian peninsula, malaria was on the increase and populations were dwindling; during a century in which the financial problems facing the whole Empire frequently brought it to the verge of collapse, the incomparably greater economic resources of what was known as the pars orientalis constituted an attraction which no government could afford to ignore.
Strategically, the disadvantages of the old capital were more serious still, and had been for some time: none of Diocletian's tetrarchs, for example, had dreamt of living there. Already for the best part of a century, the principal dangers to imperial security had been concentrated along the eastern borders: the Sarmatians around the lower Danube, the Ostrogoths to the north of the Black Sea and - most menacing of all -the Persians, whose great Sassanian Empire by now extended from the former Roman provinces of Armenia and Mesopotamia as far as the Hindu Kush. Less than seventy years before, in AD 260, the Roman Emperor Valerian had actually been taken prisoner by the Persian King
1 The Constantinian walls actually followed a line a little over a mile inside the Theodosian walls that we know today. No trace of them survives above the ground.
Shapur I and had spent the rest of his life in captivity, suffering the ultimate indignity of being regularly used as the royal mounting-block. In 298, admittedly, Galerius had settled the score by gaining a decisive victory over King Narses, sealing it with a forty-year treaty of peace; but this treaty had only a dozen years more to run, and after its expiry a renewal of warfare was a virtual certainty. In such an event what possible part, it might be asked, could Rome be expected to play? The plain truth was that the focus of the Empire - indeed, of the whole civilized world -had shifted irrevocably to the East. Italy had become a backwater.
There were other, less material considerations too - among them a widespread belief that Rome's days were numbered. The Sibylline oracle had prophesied - in one of those appalling puns so beloved of the ancients -that the mighty Roma would one day be reduced to a rhume or mule-track, and many people feared that the end of the city would also bring about the end of the world. This idea had been developed in several literary works, among them the Divine Institutes of Lactantius - who, during his years as tutor to the Caesar Crispus, would have had countless chances of discussing it with the Emperor himself; and Constantine, who was even by the standards of his day an unusually superstitious man, may well have believed that by founding - in the name of Christ the Saviour - a 'New Rome' in which the spirit of the old would somehow be immanent, he might also be giving the entire world a new lease of life.
This superstitiousness was still more in evidence when the time came for the city's consecration. Only after agonizing discussions with his augurs and astrologers did the Emperor designate, as the most auspicious day for the ceremony, 4 November 328, 'in the first year of the 276th Olympiad, when the sun was in the constellation of the Archer and at the hour dominated by the Crab'. The rites then performed - in which we know that the pagan High Priest Praetextus and the neo-platonist philosopher Sopater both played an important part - were by no means exclusively Christian; the contemporary accounts leave us with a clear impression that Constantine was once again hedging his bets, seeking blessings from all possible sources in the hope of securing a blanket benediction for the city that was to bear his name. There is even a hint of the same attitude in those famous words quoted above, 'I shall continue until he who walks ahead of me bids me to stop.' Who, one is tempted to ask - and once again Gibbon's phrase is irresistible - who was 'this extraordinary conductor'? Constantine, so far as we know, never identified him - perhaps because he was not too sure himself.
The members of the imperial suite whose questions prompted so gnomic a reply can be forgiven their concern; for the walls that the Emperor so confidently traced - running some two and a half miles, in a sweeping convex arc, between points now approximately marked by the Orthodox Patriarchate on the Golden Horn and the Samatya Gate on the Marmara shore - enclosed an area well over five times more extensive than its predecessor. Clearly a city of such a size would take many years to create; the New Rome, like the Old, could not be built in a day. But Constantine had already decreed that the ceremony of formal dedication should coincide with his silver jubilee in the early summer of 330 - only a year and a half away - so construction work continued at a furious rate, concentrating above all at the eastern end of the peninsula, on and around the old acropolis.
The focal point here was the Milion, or First Milestone. It consisted of four triumphal arches forming a square and supporting a cupola, above which was set the most venerable Christian relic of all - the True Cross itself, sent back by the Empress Helena from Jerusalem a year or two before. From it all the distances in the Empire were measured; it was, in effect, the centre of the world. A little to the east of it, on a site occupied in former times by a shrine of Aphrodite, rose the first great Christian church of the new capital, dedicated not to any saint or martyr but to the Holy Peace of God, St Eirene. A few years later this church was to be joined - and somewhat overshadowed - by a larger and still more splendid neighbour, St Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom; but for the time being it had no rival. A quarter of a mile or so away from it towards the Marmara stood Constantine's huge Hippodrome, in the central spina of which was erected one of the most ancient classical trophies in the city - the so-called 'Serpent Column' brought by Constantine from Delphi, where it had been erected in the Temple of Apollo by thirty-one Greek cities in gratitude for their victory over the Persians at the battle of Plataea in 479 BC.1 Half-way along its eastern side, the imperial box gave direct access by a spiral staircase to that vast complex of reception halls, government offices, domestic apartments, baths, barracks and parade grounds that was the Palace.
Directly westward from the Milion ran a broad thoroughfare, already begun by Severus, known as the Mese; and where this crossed the old Severan walls the Emperor laid out a magnificent new forum, oval in
1 The heads of the three intertwined bronze serpents are believed to have been chopped off by a drunken member of the Polish Embassy to the Sublime Porte in 1700; a part of one of them was recovered in 1847 and can be admired in the Archaeological Museum.
shape - it was probably inspired by the somewhat similar one at Gerasa (Jerash) in Arabia - and paved entirely in marble. At its centre stood a great hundred-foot column of porphyry, brought from Heliopolis (the City of the Sun) in Egypt, itself standing on a twenty-foot marble plinth. Within this plinth had been deposited a number of remarkable relics, including the hatchet with which Noah had built the ark, the baskets and remains of the loaves with which Christ had fed the multitude, St Mary Magdalen's jar of ointment and the figure of Athene brought back by Aeneas from Troy. On the summit stood a statue. The body was that of an Apollo by Phidias; but the head, which was surrounded by a metal halo with representations of the sun's beams radiating from it, was that of Constantine himself. The right hand carried a sceptre, while in the left was an orb in which had been placed a fragment of the True Cross.1
Once again, Christian and pagan elements are combined; but this time Apollo, Sol Invictus and Jesus Christ all seem subordinated to a new supreme being - the Emperor Constantine. We shall never know for certain, but the existing evidence surely points to the fact that by the last decade of the Emperor's life he was rapidly giving way to religious megalomania. From being God's chosen instrument it was but a short step to being God himself, that summus deus in whom all other Gods and other religions were subsumed.
Beyond the forum, there was as yet relatively little building: the Mese turned north-west, and after running a mile or so through open fields split into two, the left-hand branch leading towards Thessalonica, the right-hand towards Adrianople. Around the Palace, the Church and the Hippodrome, however, tens of thousands of labourers and artisans worked day and night; and, thanks to the wholesale plunder by which the towns of Europe and Asia were deprived of their finest statues, trophies and works of art, it was already a fine and noble city - though not yet a very large one - that was dedicated, as Constantine had determined that it should be, in a special ceremony that marked the climax of his silver jubilee celebrations.
The festivities, which continued for forty days and nights, may well have included the first of those extraordinary annual exhibitions of
1 The Column of Constantino still stands - but only just. After an accident in 416 it was bound together with iron hoops (renewed by Sultan Mustafa III in 1701). In 1106 the Emperor's statue was blown down in a gale, and later in the same century the capital was replaced by Manuel Comnenus. The monument also sustained serious damage by fire on several occasions, which is why the English have usually known it as the Burnt Column; the Turks prefer to call it the Hooped Column By any name it is a pitiful sight today.
Emperor-worship which, in later years, regularly marked the birthday of the city. On these occasions virtually the whole populace would throng to the Hippodrome to watch a sumptuous procession, the centrepiece of which was another colossal statue of Constantine, this time fashioned of gilded wood and holding in its left hand a small representation of the Tycbe, or genius of the city. This was solemnly carried in a triumphal car on a circuit of the theatre with an escort of soldiers in full ceremonial dress, each carrying a lighted taper. As it passed, all would bow; and when it arrived opposite the imperial box the Emperor himself would rise and make a deep obeisance.
Whether or not Constantine ever adored his own likeness in this manner is uncertain. From the few facts that have come down to us, the general impression is that the Christian element in the dedicatory celebrations was a good deal more in evidence than it had been for the consecration eighteen months before. At last, as the forty days reached their culmination, the Emperor attended High Mass in St Irene, while the pagan population prayed for his prosperity and that of the city in such temples as he had authorized for their use.1 It is with this Mass, at which the city was formally dedicated to the God of the Christians, that the history of Constantinople really begins - and, with it, that of the Byzantine Empire.
The date was 11 May 330. It was, we are credibly informed, a Monday.
Only half a dozen years before, Byzantium had been just another small Greek town, with nothing other than its superb site to distinguish it from a thousand others across the length of Europe; now, reborn and renamed, it was the 'New Rome' - its official appellation (though never generally adopted) proudly carved on a stone pillar in the recently completed law courts. By now, moreover, Constantine had made it abundantly clear that this was to be no empty title. The old Rome, to be sure, was never actively made to suffer for its relegation to secondary status: its people kept all their ancient privileges, continuing to enjoy their free issue of bread and other commodities. Its trade, too, went on as before; the port of Ostia remained busy. But several of the old Roman senatorial families were already beginning to trickle away to Constantinople, lured by the promise of magnificent palaces on the Bosphorus
1 Constantine is known to have given authority for two of these, one dedicated to the Tyehe and one, close by the Hippodrome, to the Dioscuri - Castor and Pollux, the Heavenly Twins; and there may well have been others, quite apart from several remaining from former times.
to say nothing of extensive estates in Thrace, Bithynia and Pontus; while a larger and infinitely more sumptuous Senate House had risen in the new capital to accommodate them in a second, Constantinopolitan Senate - the clari - which was to function in parallel to that of the clarissimi in Rome.
Meanwhile all the cities of the Empire were ransacked for works of art with which the growing city was to be adorned - preference being normally given to temple statues of the ancient gods, since by removing them from their traditional shrines and setting them up in public, un-consecrated places for aesthetic rather than religious purposes, Constantine could strike a telling blow at the old pagan faith. Among the most important appropriations were the Zeus from Dodona, the Athene from Lindos - though this may have been taken by Theodosius the Great half a century later - and the Apollo from Delphi; but these were accompanied by some thousands of other, lesser sculptures of unknown description and unrecorded provenance. The speed of the new city's transformation seemed to its inhabitants, native and immigrant alike, almost a miracle in itself1 - the more so in that the Emperor was simultaneously engaged on another vast work of self-commemoration at Cirte in Numidia (which he had decided to call by his own name, Constantine) and a complete reconstruction, in honour of his mother, of the little town of Drepanum on the Asiatic shore of the Marmara which he had named, predictably, Helenopolis.
Meanwhile in 327 Helena herself, with all the zeal of a passionate convert, had set off at the age of seventy-two for the Holy Land, where Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem took her on a tour of the principal shrines and where, according to tradition, she found the Cross in a cistern beneath a temple to Aphrodite - distinguishing it from those of the two thieves by laying it on a dying woman, who was miraculously restored to health. Eusebius, curiously enough, while writing at some length about the Empress's journey and her benefactions to the various churches, fails to mention this momentous event; on the other hand we find Macarius's second successor, Bishop Cyril - who was himself, as a very young man, almost certainly in Jerusalem at the time - speaking of
1 'A particular description, composed about a century after its foundation, enumerates a capitol or school of learning, a circus, two theatres, eight public and one hundred and fifty-three private baths, fifty-two porticoes, five granaries, eight aqueducts or reservoirs of water, four spacious halls for the meetings of the senate or courts of justice, fourteen churches, fourteen palaces, and four thousand, three hundred and eighty-eight houses which, for their size or beauty, deserved to be distinguished from the multitude of plebeian habitations' (Gibbon, Chap. XVII).
it only a quarter of a century later as if it were common knowledge. Further corroboration is provided by a significant action of Constantine himself: soon after the Cross arrived in his new capital, he sent a piece of it to Rome, to be placed in the old Sessorian Palace which his mother had always occupied during her visits to the city and which he now ordered to be converted into a church. Still known as S. Croce in Gerusalemme, the building has been indissolubly associated with St Helena ever since.1
The Empress, Eusebius reports, having been granted by her son 'authority over the imperial treasury, to use and dispense monies according to her own will and discretion in every case', was taking full advantage of her prerogative. Thanks to her, endowments were provided for the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem and that of the Ascension on the Mount of Olives, together with others at Mamre (the shrine near Hebron associated with Abraham), Tyre and Antioch; most important of all, however, was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem, where Helena gave new impetus to the ambitious building programme which her son had initiated in 325 to mark the successful conclusion of the Council of Nicaea. As a result of this undertaking, the whole uneven surface of the rock which surrounded the Tomb was levelled to form a vast courtyard, with a portico along one side and colonnades around the other three. At one end was the Tomb itself, enclosed in a small circular aedicule known as the Anastasis; immediately to the east stood Constantine's new basilica, with two aisles along each side and a deep atrium running across its entire breadth. Its outer walls were of finely polished stone, while those of the interior were covered with revetments of polychrome marble, rising to a gilded and coffered roof.
Little of these splendid edifices remains today. Fires and earthquakes have taken their toll, and the passage of sixteen and a half centuries has done the rest. It must also be admitted that with only a limited quantity of first-class architects and craftsmen available at any given site, all too much of the imperial construction work was hasty and slipshod; walls were too thin, foundations too shallow. Yet the vision was there, and the energy, and the determination to preserve, perpetuate and adorn the great shrines of the Christian faith; and if few of these shrines nowadays possess a single stone recognizably dating from the time of Constantine,
1 The Chape] of St Helena in the crypt of this church is - with the communicating Chapel of St Gregory - part of the ancient Palace. According to legend it was once the Empress's bedroom; it is now thought more probably to have served as her private chapel.
there still remain a remarkable number whose very existence is due, in large measure, to him.
And, of course, to his mother. By now an old woman, she had for years enjoyed immense popularity across the Empire; and her zeal for the religion that she had so enthusiastically embraced had in its turn been responsible for untold quantities of conversions. Her journey to the Holy Places caught the imagination of all Christendom; and even if we may question her finding of the True Cross, we can deny neither the number nor the generosity of her benefactions to churches and monasteries, hospitals and orphanages, wherever she went. We do not know the length of her stay in the Levant, nor the circumstances of her death; there is no certain evidence that she ever returned to Constantinople, and she does not seem to have been present at any of the dedication ceremonies. It may well be, therefore, that she died, as one suspects she would have wished to die, while still in the Holy Land - the first recorded Christian pilgrim, and the founder of the pilgrim tradition that has continued from her day to our own.
Throughout the triumphal ceremonies by which Constantine inaugurated his new capital - and, as he believed, a new era for the Roman Empire - he was uncomfortably aware that, in one vital respect, he had failed. Despite the Council of Nicaea, despite all that he had done to bind together the Christian Church, it remained as divided as ever it had been. To some extent - though this he is unlikely to have admitted, even to himself - the fault was his own: personally uninterested in the nicer distinctions of theological doctrine and swayed above all by his determination to achieve unity within both Church and State, he vacillated constantly between opposing camps, allowing himself to be persuaded by whatever favourite happened to have his ear at any given moment. But the greater part of the blame lay with the Christian leaders themselves. Obviously, they believed that vital issues were at stake - issues for which, as many had already proved, they were ready to face exile and even martyrdom; none the less, by their eternal bickering and squabbling, by the hatred and bigotry, intolerance and malice that they showed to each other and by the readiness with which they stooped to every form of dishonesty to achieve their ends, they set a sad example to their flocks - an example which, moreover, countless generations of their successors have been all too ready to follow.
Archbishop Alexander died in 328, and was succeeded in his Alexandrian see by his former chaplain, Athanasius. The two had been together at the Council of Nicaea, where Athanasius had proved even more skilled and quick-witted a dialectician than his master. In the years to come, he was to show himself to be something more: the leading churchman of his time, one of the towering figures in the whole history of the Christian Church, and a canonized saint. (He was long erroneously believed to have been the author of the Athanasian Creed, which still bears his name.) Arius and his adherents were to have no more redoubtable adversary.
For the moment, however, their star was once again in the ascendant. Even after Nicaea, Arius had never lost the support of the Emperor's family - in particular that of his mother and his half-sister Constantia -while the Asian bishops (as opposed to those of Europe and North Africa) were also overwhelmingly pro-Arian in their sympathies and took full advantage of their proximity to the imperial court to further their cause. Already in 327 they had persuaded Constantine to recall Arius from exile and to receive him in audience; the Emperor, impressed as much by the brilliance and obvious sincerity of the man as by his assurance that he willingly accepted all the points of faith approved at Nicaea, had gone so far as to write at least two personal letters to Archbishop Alexander urging (though taking care not to command) that he should be allowed to return to Egypt. He seems to have been genuinely surprised when the archbishop proved reluctant to comply - and was probably still more so in the following year when Alexander's flock, by their election of the firebrand Athanasius, showed themselves equally obdurate.
Not that Athanasius, even on home ground, was universally popular; firebrands seldom are. For internal political reasons unconnected with the Arian controversy, the local Meletian Church under its own Bishop John Arkaph was bent on his destruction, and over the next few years unleashed against him, in quick succession, accusations of fraud, bribery and even sacrilege. When all three charges failed to stick, they tried one of murder, claiming that a Meletian bishop had been flogged to death and dismembered at his instigation. According to one version of the story, Athanasius was actually able to produce the missing bishop, all in one piece, before the examining magistrate; in any event he had no difficulty in establishing that his alleged victim was alive and well, and the case collapsed. Arkaph and his followers now had one last try: rape. They found a young woman whom they managed to bribe or frighten into claiming that she had been violated by the archbishop - an experience which, she added, was made the more regrettable by the fact that she had vowed herself to perpetual virginity. Unfortunately, she failed to recognize her ravisher in court; and once again Athanasius was found to have no case to answer.
Whether Constantine was, as he maintained, genuinely troubled by these continuing accusations - groundless as they invariably proved to be - or whether he was simply falling ever more under the influence of the pro-Arians around him, he seems gradually to have come to the conclusion that Athanasius, rather than Arius, was now the chief impediment to that Church unity for which he strove. By this time, too, he was making plans for celebrating, in 335, the thirtieth year of his reign by the formal consecration of the rebuilt Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Here he proposed to summon a vast convocation of bishops, drawn from every corner of the Empire; and he was determined that doctrinal harmony should prevail among them. He accordingly gave orders that the bishops on their way to Jerusalem should hold a synod at Tyre, in the presence of a high imperial official, in order - as he rather disarmingly put it - 'to free the Church from blasphemy and to lighten my cares'.
The synod was called for July. It was, as soon became clear, to be attended almost exclusively by bishops of the Arian persuasion, and consequently to be less a gathering of distinguished churchmen than a trial of Athanasius; and the archbishop seems to have realized as much. In the previous year, when a similar exercise had been proposed at Caesarea, he had categorically refused to attend and the idea had been abandoned; on this occasion, however, he resolved to face his enemies and duly presented himself before the tribunal. He was soon to regret his decision. All the old charges were now revived, and new ones introduced; hosts of new witnesses were called, each one apparently prepared to swear black and blue that the archbishop had broken every commandment and committed every crime in the statute book. He himself fought back with characteristic vigour, not hesitating to meet his accusers with their own weapons; and the synod soon degenerated into a general uproar of lie and counter-lie, of calumny and curse, insult and invective. Finally a commission of inquiry was appointed, consisting of six of Athanasius's most implacable opponents, with orders to proceed forthwith to Egypt, there to gather further evidence. At this point the archbishop, believing - probably rightly - that his life was in danger, slipped away to Constantinople. He was deposed in his absence, after which the synod broke up and its members continued their journey to Jerusalem.
Once arrived in the capital, Athanasius went straight to the Palace, but was refused an audience; and we have it on Constantine's own authority that, one day when he was riding into the city, the archbishop suddenly appeared in his path and flung himself in front of his horse. 'He and his companions looked so weighed down by their troubles,' wrote the Emperor, 'that I felt an ineffable pity as I realized that this was Athanasius, the holy sight of whom had once been enough to draw the Gentiles themselves to the worship of the God of All.' The whole episode, we can assume, had been expertly stage-managed by Athanasius; but despite its promising beginning it did not succeed. Six bishops, including the two Eusebii, hastened to Constantinople at the Emperor's bidding, with a new and dangerously damaging allegation: that the archbishop was even now planning to call all the workers at the port of Alexandria out on strike. If he were not immediately reinstated, they would refuse to load the transports with the grain on which Constantinople depended for its survival, and the capital would be starved into submission. In vain did Athanasius deny the charges; where his beloved city was concerned, Constantine was deaf to the voice of reason. In a rage, he banished the still protesting archbishop to Augusta Treverorum - the modern Trier - and then turned back to the interrupted task of getting Arius reaccepted in Alexandria.
Now, however, it was the Emperor's turn to fail. Every attempt by Arius to return brought new outbreaks of rioting in the city - led by the great St Anthony himself, aged eighty-six, who had left his desert hermitage to champion the cause of orthodoxy and who now wrote several personal letters to the Emperor on behalf of Athanasius. Although these were written in Coptic - Anthony spoke no Greek - they seem to have had some effect, inducing Constantine, probably some time in 336, to summon Arius back to Constantinople for a further investigation of his beliefs. It was during this last inquiry - so Athanasius later wrote, with considerable Schadenfreude, to his Egyptian flock - and while the pro-Arian bishops were trying to persuade the Patriarch of Constantinople to allow him to attend Mass on the following day (a Sunday), that
Arius, made bold by the protection of his followers, engaged in light-hearted and foolish conversation, until he was suddenly compelled by a call of nature to retire; and immediately, as it is written, 'falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst and gave up the ghost' . . .
This story, to be sure, comes from the pen of Arius's arch-enemy; but 1 Acts. I. 18. although there are - predictably - several different versions of exactly what occurred,1 the unattractive circumstances of his demise are too well attested by contemporary writers to be open to serious question. Inevitably, it was interpreted by those who hated him as divine retribution: the archbishop's biblical reference is to the somewhat similar fate which befell Judas Iscariot. It did not, however, put an end to the controversy - nor even to the exile of Athanasius, which lasted until after Constantine's own death in 337. Only on 23 November of that year did he finally return to Alexandria, starting up as he did so yet another period of factional strife in that unhappy diocese. Constantine's dream of spiritual harmony throughout Christendom was not to be achieved in his lifetime; indeed, we are still awaiting it today.
One would like to hear more about the tricennalia celebrations in Jerusalem. Eusebius writes with wonderment of the numbers of the assembled bishops, and of the distant lands from which they had come: they even included, he tells us, 'a holy prelate from Persia, deeply versed in the sacred oracles'. All, he goes on, were received by the Imperial Notary and entertained with feasts and banquets, while there were also lavish distributions of food, clothing and money to the poor of the city. Most of his account, however, is devoted to the endless series of sermons and dissertations that were pronounced, and in particular to an interminable one of his own which he was to repeat, in the presence of the Emperor, on his return to Constantinople. Of the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre itself he tells us nothing at all.
Still less do we know how the tricennalia were marked in Rome. The Christians, we read, celebrated them by transferring the presumed remains of St Peter and St Paul from the catacombs of St Sebastian to the two splendid new basilicas that Constantine had built near the sites of their respective martyrdoms. But those who had remained faithful to the old religion, who despised the Emperor as an apostate and his new city as an upstart, who believed Rome to be the eternal capital of the Empire and the world, unchallengeable and unchangeable - in what way did they observe Constantine's anniversary? Did they invite him to par-
1 Socrates Scholasticus, for example, records that Arius was taken short while 'parading proudly through the midst of the city, attracting the notice of all the people', just as he was passing through the Forum of Constantine. Socrates is admittedly writing in the first half of the following century, but he inspires confidence when he writes that 'the scene of the catastrophe is still shown at Constantinople ... behind the shambles in the colonnade: and, in the way that people still point to it as they pass by, the memory of this extraordinary way of death is perpetually preserved.'
ticipate, as they had ten years before? Were they offended, or relieved, by his non-appearance? We cannot tell. As for the Emperor himself, it is doubtful whether he spared the matter a moment's thought.
His place at such a time was his new capital, where the celebrations -in contrast to those that had marked the city's consecration and dedication - were exclusively Christian. (Between 331 and 334 he had issued a series of decrees effectively closing down all pagan temples in the Empire.) In the course of these festivities, however, he took the opportunity of announcing the promotion of his two nephews - the sons of his half-brother Delmatius - to key positions in the State. The elder of the boys, named after his father, was proclaimed Caesar; the younger, Hannibalianus, was appointed King of Pontus and given the hand of his first cousin, the Emperor's daughter Constantina, in marriage. With the additional title of King of Kings - shamelessly appropriated from the Persians - he was then sent off with his bride to rule in Pontus, that wild, mountainous region that extends back from the rainswept southern shore of the Black Sea.
The elevation of these two youths brought the number of reigning Caesars effectively to five, Constantine's three sons by Fausta having already been raised to similar rank - the youngest, Constans, only two years previously, at the age of ten. It has been suggested that by multiplying their number the Emperor was deliberately attempting to reduce the Caesars' prestige: with advancing age he was becoming ever more convinced of a special divine dispensation that singled him out from his fellow-men, even those of his own family. The Caesars enjoyed viceregal powers in the various provinces of the Empire to which he had appointed them, but such glory as might attach to their station must be seen, he was determined, only as a reflection of his own. Never at any time in his life did he consider appointing a second Augustus, as Diocletian had intended.
But his very reluctance to delegate authority in the capital imposed on Constantine a workload of almost Herculean proportions; and early in 337 he seems to have suspected that he was ill. He had spent the winter in Asia Minor mobilizing his army - for the young King Shapur II of Persia was making no secret of his territorial ambitions and it was now plain to everyone that war could not be long in coming - during which he had shown all the energy, stamina and endurance that had long made him a legend among his men. Then, shortly before Easter, he returned to Constantinople - there to put the finishing touches to the great Church of the Holy Apostles which he had begun a few years before on the high spur of land which forms the city's fourth hill.1 Perhaps he already suspected that he had been stricken, for it was at this time that he gave orders for his tomb to be prepared in the church; but only after Easter was past did his health begin seriously - and obviously - to fail. The baths of the capital having proved useless, he moved on to those at Helenopolis, the city that he had rebuilt in honour of his mother; and it was there, so Eusebius tells us, that, 'kneeling on the pavement of the church itself, he for the first time received the imposition of hands in prayer'2 - becoming, in short, a catechumen. Then he started back to the capital, but when he reached the suburbs of Nicomedia found that he could go no further; nor could the momentous step that he had so long considered be any further delayed. Summoning the local bishops, he addressed them:
The long-awaited time has finally come, when I have hoped and prayed to obtain the salvation of God ... Now I too may have the blessing of that seal which confers immortality, the seal of salvation itself. I had thought to receive it in the waters of the Jordan . . . but it pleases God, who knows what is best for us, that I should receive it here. So be it, then, and without delay; and should it be the will of Him who is Lord of life and death that my existence here should be prolonged ... I shall prescribe for myself henceforth a way of life that befits his service.
And so at last Constantine the Great, for years a self-styled bishop of the Christian Church, was baptised by Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia; and when it was done, 'he arrayed himself in imperial vestments white and radiant as light, and lay himself down on a couch of the purest white, refusing ever to clothe himself in purple again'.
Why - the question has been asked all through history - why did Constantine delay his baptism until he was on his deathbed? The most obvious answer - and the most likely - is Gibbon's:
The sacrament of baptism was supposed to contain a full and absolute expiation of sin; and the soul was instantly restored to its original purity, and entitled to the promise of eternal salvation. Among the proselytes of Christianity, there were many who judged it imprudent to precipitate a salutary rite, which could not be repeated; to throw away an inestimable privilege, which could never be recovered.
1. As additional evidence for the claims of Constantinople to be the successor to Rome, it too was held to be built on seven hills - though to identify them all needs a good deal more credulity and imagination than is required for their Roman counterparts.
2. De Vita Conttantini, IV, 60-71.
There was indeed nothing unusual, in those early days of Christianity, in deferring baptism until the last possible moment; forty-three years later, we shall find the devout Theodosius the Great doing much the same. And Constantine himself seems to corroborate this explanation in the last sentence of his speech - though whether Eusebius has reported the words which his hero actually spoke, rather than those which the good bishop felt he ought to have spoken, is another open question. A more recent historian1 has suggested that the Emperor's first sentence may be the more revealing: if he had had to wait so long for something he wanted so much, it could only be because that thing had heretofore been denied him. This interpretation is certainly possible, but seems somehow less likely. Constantine had been guilty of many sins - the murder of his wife and son for a start - but these would have been washed away by his baptism; and although his appearance, especially at formal functions, might have provoked an occasional shudder among the more traditionally minded of his subjects,2 there is no contemporary evidence to suggest that his private life in his seventh decade was such as to debar him from the Church. (Later stories of a growing penchant for homosexuality are almost certainly without foundation.) In any case, few churchmen would have jeopardized their careers by refusing their Emperor an earlier request for baptism had he made one.
After a reign of thirty-one years - the longest of any Roman Emperor since Augustus - Constantine died at noon on Whit Sunday, 22 May 337. His body was placed in a golden coffin draped in purple and brought to Constantinople, where it lay in state on a high platform in the main hall of the Palace, surrounded by candles set in tall golden candlesticks and presenting, so Eusebius assures us, 'a marvellous spectacle such as no mortal had exhibited on earth since the world itself began'. And there it seems to have remained, not for a few days only but for some three and a half months, during which time the court ceremonial was carried on in Constantine's name precisely as if his death had never occurred. No one was yet sure which of the five young Caesars was to
1. John Holland Smith, Constantine the Great.
2. The Asiatic pomp which had been adopted by the pride of Diocletian assumed an air of softness and effeminacy in the person of Constantine. He is represented with false hair of various colours, laboriously arranged by the skilful artists of the times; a diadem of new and more expensive fashion; a profusion of gems and pearls, of collars and bracelets; and a variegated flowing robe of silk, most curiously embroidered with flowers of gold. In such apparel,' sniffs Gibbon, 'scarcely to be excused by the youth and folly of Elagabalus, we are at a loss to discover the wisdom of an aged monarch and the simplicity of a Roman veteran."
assume the vacant throne, and the uncertainties of an openly acknowledged interregnum were not to be risked unnecessarily.
Where the succession was concerned, the army was the first to make its wishes known. Although the title of Augustus continued, in theory at least, to be elective, the soldiers everywhere proclaimed that they would accept no one but Constantine's sons, reigning jointly. With Crispus dead, that left the three sons born to Fausta: the Caesar in Gaul Constantine II, the Caesar in the East Constantius, and the Caesar in Italy Constans;1 and of these it was naturally Constantius, now a young man of twenty, who hastened to the capital after his father's death and presided over his funeral.
This was an extraordinary occasion, as Constantine had intended that it should be. The burial itself he had personally planned down to the last detail, and in view of his known love of ceremonial and parade it seems more than likely that the preliminaries were also carried out according to his instructions. The funeral procession was led by Constantius, with detachments of soldiers in full battle array; then came the body itself in its golden coffin, surrounded by companies of spearmen and heavy-armed infantry. Vast crowds followed behind. From the Great Palace it wound its way round the north-eastern end of the Hippodrome to the Milion, and thence along the Mese to a point some quarter of a mile short of the Constantinian walls, where it turned off to the right to the newly-completed church of the Holy Apostles. 'This building,' Eusebius tells us,
[Constantine] had carried to a vast height and brilliantly decorated by encasing it from the foundations to the roof with marble slabs of various colours. The inner roof he had formed of finely fretted work, overlaying it throughout with gold. The external covering .. . was of brass rather than tiles; and this too was splendidly and profusely adorned with gold, reflecting the rays of the sun with a brilliancy that dazzled those that beheld it, even from a distance. And the dome was entirely surrounded with delicately carved tracery, wrought in brass and gold.
But that was only the beginning:
He had in fact chosen this spot in the prospect of his own death, anticipating with extraordinary fervour of faith that his body would share their title with the
1 The distressing lack of imagination shown by Constantine in the naming of his children has caused much confusion among past historians, to say nothing of their readers. The latter can take comfort in the knowledge that it lasts for a single generation only - which, in a history such as this, is soon over.
Apostles themselves and that he should then become, even after death, the object with them of the devotions which should be here performed in their honour. He accordingly caused twelve sarcophagi to be set up in this church, like sacred pillars, in honour and memory of the number of the Apostles, in the centre of which was placed his own, having six of theirs on either side of it.
For the last few years of his life Constantine had regularly used the title Isapostolos, 'Equal of the Apostles'; now at his death he gave, as it were, physical substance to that claim. From the moment that the idea first took shape in his mind, his agents had been scouring the Eastern Mediterranean for alleged relics of the Twelve to place in their respective sarcophagi; and his choice of his own position in the midst of his peers, with six of them on each hand, strongly suggests that he saw himself as yet greater than they - a symbol, perhaps of the Saviour in person: God's Vice-Gerent on earth.
It was, indeed, a fine resting-place; but Constantine was not to occupy it for long. In his capital, as in so many cities of the Empire, he had tried to build too much, too quickly. There was in consequence a chronic shortage of skilled workmen, and a general tendency to skimp on such things as foundations, wall thicknesses and buttressing. The Church of the Holy Apostles, for all its outward magnificence, was at bottom jerry-built. Within a quarter of a century of its completion, the state of the fabric began giving cause for alarm. Before long the great golden dome was in imminent danger of collapse, and the unpopular Patriarch Macedonius gave orders for the Emperor's body to be removed to safety in the nearby Church of St Acacius the Martyr. Unfortunately, there were many in the city to whom such a step was nothing short of sacrilege, and many others who gratefully seized any weapon with which to attack the Patriarch; serious rioting broke out, in the course of which -according to Socrates — several people were killed, and 'the courtyard [of the church] was covered with gore, and the well also which was in it overflowed with, blood, which ran into the adjacent portico and thence even into the very street'.
The Church of the Holy Apostles did not, in the event, collapse as the Patriarch had feared it would; it stood - if somewhat unsteadily - for two centuries until, in 550, it was completely rebuilt by Justinian. Of those twelve apostolic sarcophagi, and the great tomb of the Emperor among them, not a trace remains.