Constantine the Great and the impact of his sole rule

Image Credit: Haefen Hassinger

Constantine the Great reunited the Roman Empire under his sole rule in 324 after he defeated Licinius. This ended 20 years of civil war that broke out after the abdication of Diocletian. Constantine would rule over the united Roman Empire from 324 to his death in 337. Although his reign as sole ruler wasn’t long, he made a few important changes during this period. In this article I shall give an overview of his changes.

Constantine and Christianity

One of the major changes that Constantine made was the gradual Christianization of the Roman Empire. By the time he was born, Christianity was a significant pressure group despite being a minority. Their communities were rich, influential and organized. But due to their refusal to conform to the wishes of the Roman government, they faced a long history of persecution. 1

Constantine however, appreciated the strengths of the Christians. He believed that their organization and teachings of love, charity and mercy would unify the Roman Empire. In 313, after converting to Christianity, Constantine began to grant the Christian clergy and community various benefits. He extended his patronage to the Christian communities throughout his empire when he became sole Roman emperor. Even his legislation favoured the Christians. But the price for Constantine’s generous patronage was Caesaropapism; monarchical control over the Church. 2

Sadly for Constantine, Christianity did not bring about the unity he hoped for. During his reign, he had to mediate in various religious disputes concerning the Donatists and Arianism. In 325, Constantine held the First Council of Nicaea to resolve the dispute over Arianism. This set a precedent for future emperors when it came to resolving religious disputes. 3

To Christianize his empire, Constantine had to gradually cripple paganism. He confiscated their treasures, destroyed their temples, banned their practices and killed many influential pagans. Not content with suppressing merely paganism, Constantine was also actively involved in missionary work. Whenever he conquered new lands and people, forced conversion to Christianity was always one of his demands. All these factors paved the way for the growth of Christianity which carried on after his death. Meanwhile, the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire would become predominantly Christian. 4

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Constantine and his new imperial capital; Constantinople

Another major change that Constantine made was the creation of a new imperial capital; Constantinople. The former capital, Rome, was too far from the frontiers of the empire and too remote to be effective. Its pagan influence and traditions also made it unsuitable for Constantine’s inclinations towards Christianity. 5

With the defence of his empire uppermost on his mind, Constantine decided that the Balkans was most suitable for his new capital. This was the best place to deal with foreign invaders. From the Balkans, he could easily march north to deal with the Germanic and Sarmatian tribes. When necessary, he could also march east to contain the Sassanid Persian Empire. 6

After careful consideration, he decided to transform the town of Byzantium into his new capital. Constantine valued Constantinople for its strategic position on the Bosphorus which separated Europe from Asia. The city also possessed a natural harbour and easy access to supplies from Egypt. Furthermore it was extremely difficult to take Constantinople by land and sea due to its natural defences. 7

Constantinople did not become rich and powerful overnight. Initially, Constantine allowed Constantinople to maintain a lower status than Rome. But as he invested time, energy and money into the city, there could be no doubt that he intended to make it his sole capital. One of the measures that Constantine took to attract new settlers was the offering of land grants. He began his massive rebuilding program for Constantinople in 324. Apart from secular buildings, Constantinople was to have many churches as well. On May 11, 330, Constantine dedicated his new capital to God. Constantinople would be the capital of the Byzantine Empire for the next 1,000 years. 8

The administration of Constantine the Great

Constantine’s time at the court of Diocletian left a deep impression on him which in turn influenced his own administration. Firstly, he introduced Diocletian’s oriental court rituals into his own court. But he went further and made them more elaborate. By emphasizing the sacredness of his court ceremonies, Constantine was likening his own court to the heavenly Christian court. 9

Secondly, Constantine prudently adopted and adapted, where necessary, the reforms and administration that Diocletian left behind. For instance, he utilized the existing separation of power between the provincial military and civilian officials. But he went further by limiting their powers to prevent them from rebelling against him. 10

Thirdly, he reorganized the central government to establish firmer control over his empire. In the process he abolished some offices, changed the job scope of others and created many new offices for his government. All these measures were for the sake of imperial unity. 11

Fourthly, Diocletian introduced a gold coinage during his reign which Constantine found useful. He then introduced his own gold coinage at a slightly lower weight, known as the solidus. Using the treasures he had seized from Licinius and the pagan temples, Constantine minted many of his new coins. The solidus would last as a means of payment for the next 700 years. The drawback was that Constantine’s monetary system tended to benefit the rich over the poor. 12

Constantine’s army, bureaucracy, Christian patronage and charity, and general extravagance required huge amounts of money to maintain. The result was high taxes which caused extreme hardship for the lower classes. Left with no alternative, many people turned to crime as they struggled to survive. Corruption and bribery also existed to complicate matters. Despite Constantine’s attempts to address these problems through legislation, he failed to make a difference. 13

Constantine and his building projects

Emperors generally embarked on massive building programmes to glorify their reign. Unsurprisingly, Constantine’s secular and ecclesiastical buildings reflected his love for extravagance and pomp. 14

His secular building projects took place throughout the empire. He invested time and energy to restore Rome, the ancient capital. There he built baths, basilicas and even repaired the Circus Maximus. He also left his mark in Trier, Puteoli, North Africa and even had an aqueduct repaired on the Cumaean Gulf to ensure the supply of drinking water. 15

But Constantine’s creation of Christian churches overshadowed his secular buildings. Their forms were many and their architecture varied. Constantine enjoyed trying different designs and incorporating pagan influences to beautify his churches. The purpose of his churches was to instil spiritual contemplation and awe. Based on contemporary accounts, Constantine succeeded. Future emperors would emulate Constantine in building grandiose churches. The most famous church would be Justinian I’s Hagia Sophia. 16

Reflections of the Vizier

Constantine changed the world to suit his vision with his adoption of Christianity and his founding of Constantinople. Few men had his power and influence to do so. Even today, the impact of his decisions continues to affect the world. Christianity has become a major religious group. Meanwhile, Constantinople or Istanbul continues to be a major city.

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References

Grant, Michael. The Emperor Constantine. England: Orion Books Ltd, 1998.

Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.

Treadgold, Warren. A History of the Byzantine State and Society. California: Stanford University Press, 1997.

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  1. Michael Grant, The Emperor Constantine (England: Orion Books Ltd, 1998), 126-127; John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries (England: Penguin Books, 1990), 32; Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society (California: Stanford University Press, 1997), 25. []
  2. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 150-151, 156-160; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 44-45; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 33-34, 40. []
  3. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 161-174; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 53-57; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 34-35, 42-43. []
  4. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 177-183; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 59-61; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 40-42, 50. []
  5. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 116, 177; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 62-63; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 39. []
  6. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 52, 61, 74-75, 118-119; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 63-64; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 39. []
  7. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 119-120; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 63-64; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 39. []
  8. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 119-122; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 65-67; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 39-40, 45. []
  9. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 81-82. []
  10. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 82-83; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 49. []
  11. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 83-86; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 49. []
  12. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 94-95; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 40. []
  13. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 86-93; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 49-50. []
  14. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 187. []
  15. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 187-189; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 59-61; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 50. []
  16. Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 189-193; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 50. []
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  1. Steve-o says:

    Just wanted to compliment the very good writing.

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