Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus, born February 27, 272, is commonly known as Constantine I or Constantine the Great. He was proclaimed Augustus by his troops on July 25, 306, and ruled an ever-growing portion of the Roman Empire to his death. Constantine is famous for his rebuilding of Byzantium as "Nova Roma" (New Rome), which was always popularly called "Constantine's City" (Constantinopolis, Constantinople). With the Edict of Milan in 313, Constantine and his co-Emperor Licinius removed all onus from Christianity. By taking the personal step of convoking the Council of Nicaea (325), Constantine began the Roman Empire's unofficial sponsoring of Christianity, which was a major factor in that religion's spread. His reputation as the "first Christian Emperor" was promulgated by Lactantius and Eusebius of Caesarea, gaining ground in the succeeding generations.
He was born at Naissus, (today's Nis, Serbia, Serbia and Montenegro) in Upper Moesia, to Constantius I Chlorus, who was of Greek descent, and an innkeeper's daughter, Flavia Iulia Helena, who at the time was an adolescent of only 16 years. She "may not have been married to Constantius I Chlorus, - who as a high officer could have found it difficult to marry a non-Roman wife -- although some modern authorities refuse to accept this view, out of a pious determination to regard Constantine as legitimate."
His father left his mother in 292 to marry Flavia Maximiana Theodora, daughter or stepdaughter of Western Roman Emperor Maximian. Theodora would give birth to six half-siblings of Constantine, including Julius Constantius. Family influence is thought to account for a personal adoption of Christianity: Helena is said to be probably born a Christian, though virtually nothing is known of her background, save that her mother was the daughter of an innkeeper and her father a successful soldier, a career that excluded overt Christians. Certainly Helena demonstrated extreme piety in her later life in her trip to Palestine, where she discovered the True Cross and established basilicas.
Constantine was well educated and served at the court of Diocletian in Nicomedia as a kind of hostage after the appointment of his father, a general, as one of the two caesares or junior emperors in the Tetrarchy in 293. In 305, the Augustus, Maximian, abdicated, and Constantius succeeded to the position. However, Constantius fell sick during an expedition against the Picts and Scots of Caledonia and died on July 25, 306. Constantine managed to be at his deathbed in Eboracum (York) of Roman Britain, where the loyal general Stephanos Tolberius, a North African and his troops loyal to his father's memory proclaimed him an Augustus.
For the next 18 years, Constantine fought a series of battles and wars that left him first the Western Roman Emperor in co-rule with an Eastern Roman Emperor, and then the supreme ruler of the Roman Empire. His victory in 312 AD over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge resulted in his becoming Western Augustus, or ruler of the entire Western Roman Empire. He gradually consolidated his military superiority over his rivals in the crumbling Tetrarchy. In the year 320, Licinius, emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, reneged on the religious freedom promised by the Edict of Milan in 313 and began another persecution of the Christians. A puzzling inconsistency since Constantia, half-sister of Constantine and wife of Licinius, was an influential Christian. It became a challenge to Constantine in the west, climaxing in the great civil war of 324. The armies were so large another like these would not be seen again until at least the fourteenth century. Characteristic of the age, it was a great cosmic battle. Licinius, aided by Goth mercenaries, represented the past and the ancient faith of Paganism. Constantine and his Franks marched under the Christian standard of the labarum. The new religion confronted the old Gods. Supposedly outnumbered, but fired by their zeal, Constantine's army emerged victorious. He was the sole emperor of the entire Roman Empire.
Constantine is perhaps best known for being the first Roman Emperor to freely allow Christianity, traditionally presented as a result of an omen - a chi and rho in the sky, with the inscription "By this sign shalt thou conquer." This occurred before his victory in the Battle of Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312, when Constantine is said to have instituted the new standard to be carried into battle, called the labarum. Some scholars, however, have called into question this vision. "There was no vision ... The Emperor himself never seems to have spoken of it ... even on occasions when he might have been expected to do so ... There can be little doubt, on the other hand, that at a certain moment before the battle the Emperor underwent some profound spiritual experience."
Christian historians ever since Lactantius have adhered to the view that Constantine "adopted" Christianity as a kind of replacement for the official Roman paganism. Though the document called the "Donation of Constantine" was proved a forgery (though not until the fifteenth century, when the stories of Constantine's conversion were long-established "facts") it was attributed as documenting the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity for centuries. Even Christian skeptics have accepted this formulation, though seeing Constantine's policy as a political one, unifying and strengthening the Empire, rather than a spiritual move.
Under Constantine's rule, Christians for the first time were free to compete with pagan Romans of wider culture in the traditional cursus honorum for high government positions. Constantine granted various special privileges, and churches like the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem were constructed. Christian bishops took aggressive public stances that were unknown among other cult leaders, even among the Jews. Proselytism had to be publicly outlawed, simply to maintain public decorum.
Constantine preached harmony. He began giving his own sermons in the palace before his court and invited crowds. Pagan temples were just an honest error. Pagans still received appointments, even up to the end of his life. Exerting his absolute power, the army recited his composed Latin prayer in an attempt to convert them to Christianity. He began a large building program of churches in the Holy Land. The power and wealth of the clergy grew, contaminated by those who saw this as an opportune time to join for selfish gain. They took over the courts and heard all civil suites, from which there was no appeal. The clergy enjoyed such benefits that restrictions to join them began in 329. "The growth of the strength of the bishops was an unintended consequence of Constantine's policies ... The church, through its bishops, assumed the role of legitimator which had been played by the Senate during the Principate. The change meant that emperors had now had to minister to the priorities and interests of the bishops at least as zealously as they had once done for the Senate."
As a Christian, Constantine's kindness, in his laws, reflect his brutal age. Death was the penalty for anyone collecting taxes over the authorized amount. A prisoner was no longer to be kept in total darkness, but must be given the outdoors and daylight. A condemned man was allowed to die in the arena, but he could not be branded on his "heavenly beautified" face, just on the feet. Parents caught allowing their daughters to be seduced were to have molten lead poured down their throats. To little, or no effect, gladiatorial games were ordered to be eliminated in 325. A slave master's rights were limited, but a slave could still be beaten to death. Criminals were still to be crucified and put on display, to show there was Roman law and justice, until 337. Unwanted children could still be thrown out into the streets to die, and those who took them in were allowed to keep and raise them as slaves. The members of slave families were not to be separated. As in the past, endangering dark sorcery, magic and divination were outlawed. Pagan religious practices were to be performed publicly at altars, sacred places and shrines as was custom, not in suspicious secret gatherings, that may hide debauchery and plotting. Omens arising from public buildings being damaged by lightning, etc. were to read by the royal soothsayers. For the first time, girls could not be abducted.
When the Altar of Victory was desecrated and removed from its place of honor in the Senate, the Senate deputized Symmachus, prefect of Rome, to appeal to the Emperor for its return. Symmachus publicly characterized the late Emperor Constantine's policy, in a plea for freedom of religion:
[Constantine] diminished none of the privileges of the sacred virgins, he filled the priestly offices with nobles, he did not refuse the cost of the Roman ceremonies, and following the rejoicing Senate through all the streets of the eternal city, he contentedly beheld the shrines with unmoved countenance, he read the names of the gods inscribed on the pediments, he enquired about the origin of the temples, and…