Flavius Valerius Constantinus or Constantine the Great exercised immense power as Roman emperor. He shaped the development of the world by becoming the first Christian emperor and making Constantinople the capital of the Roman Empire. Yet he was not born superhuman. He spent his early life as a hostage at the mercy of the Roman emperor Diocletian. His time as a hostage however would have a profound impact on his life. In this article, I shall show how the early years of Constantine shaped his development.
Origin of Constantine the Great
It is difficult to know anything about Constantine with certainty. This is because propaganda embellished all aspects of his life. Thus, the exact year and the place of his birth are unknown. He was probably born on February 27, around 272 at Naissus; modern day Nis in Serbia. 1
His father was Constantius Chlorus (the Pale) who came from a humble background. According to Michael Grant, Constantius was the son of a goat-herd and a freedman’s daughter. But he rose from a lowly soldier in the Roman army to become emperor of the Western Roman Empire. An able military commander, Constantius inspired loyalty in his soldiers. Although he was uneducated, he had an interest in philosophy and encouraged learning through his decrees that favoured intellectuals. 2
Constantine’s mother Helena also came from a humble background. She was allegedly a stable-maid. The exact nature of her relationship with Constantius is unknown. Constantius, who was a high ranking Roman officer when he met her, may not have been able to make her his legal wife. In any case Constantius married Theodora, the daughter of the Roman emperor Maximian, around 290. Although Helena lived in obscurity, she became influential during the reign of her son Constantine. 3
What Constantine learnt at Diocletian’s court
From a young age, Constantine lived at the court of the Eastern Roman emperor Diocletian in Nicomedia. To ensure the loyalty of Constantius, it was likely that Diocletian held Constantine hostage. Diocletian became Augustus in 284. He was responsible for dividing the Roman Empire into the East and the West. Both regions would have an Augustus (senior emperor) and a Caesar (junior emperor). Each emperor would manage their allocated regions. The aim of this reorganization, known as the Tetrarchy, was to deal with conflicts on multiple fronts in the Roman Empire. 4
Although he was a hostage at Nicomedia, Constantine made the best of his circumstances. He received his education from the intellectuals whom Diocletian patronized. Although Constantine developed a lifelong dedication to learning, he was never an intellectual. The subtleties of the abstract theological disputes he faced as sole emperor would prove to be beyond his comprehension. 5
Due to the dangers of court intrigues, Constantine learnt the arts of a courtier as well. His training in treachery would be used to great effect later in life. More importantly, Constantine had a chance to witness firsthand the strengths and weakness of Diocletian’s government. He also saw the futility of the great persecution initiated by Diocletian and Galerius against the Christians. When he came to power, these experiences would shape his decisions. 6
Apart from administration, Constantine also learnt the arts of war. He accompanied Diocletian and his Caesar Galerius into many battles in the Middle East. His tenure as military tribune under these emperors was successful. By participating in these battles, he developed the military ability needed to seize the Roman Empire for himself. 7
How Constantine regained control of his destiny
In 305, Diocletian decided it was time for him and a reluctant Maximian to abdicate. Constantius became the Western Augustus, while Galerius became the Eastern Augustus. Because his father was now Augustus, many expected Constantine to become his successor. But the Tetrarchy was not hereditary by nature. Instead, Galerius, who had greater power, appointed his partisans, Severus and Maximinus II Daia, as the new Caesars. 8
This turn of events left Constantine humiliated. Coming to the obvious conclusion that he had little future at the court of Galerius, Constantine began to look for a pretext to escape. Constantius, probably aware of his son’s predicament, sent a letter to Galerius requesting Constantine’s aid in Britain. 9
Propaganda suggests that Constantine secured the approval of Galerius after a heavy night of drinking. Then, without waiting for Galerius to change his mind, Constantine fled that very night. Due to the danger of being caught, he hamstringed the horses at every post-house he passed. 10
The truth of this story is uncertain. But the fact remains that before the summer of 305, Constantine had reunited with his father in Gaul. In doing so, he successfully escaped from the clutches of Galerius and the interception of Severus along the way. Now he had greater control and the means to fulfil his destiny. 11
Reflections of the Vizier
The early life of Constantine was difficult. But he never allowed his circumstances to overwhelm him. Surrounded by danger, he could have indulged in self-pity. Or he could have jeopardized his life through a reckless escape. Instead, he made the best use of his time as a hostage to develop the abilities needed to survive and rule. Passed over for promotion to Caesar, Constantine shaped his circumstances once more. This time he left the court of Galerius.
What are your thoughts about the early life of Constantine? What would you have done differently and why?
Look out for my next article where Constantine struggles for supremacy in the Roman Empire.
If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to my blog via rss or email and get updated whenever I publish a new article.
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.
- Michael Grant, The Emperor Constantine (England: Orion Books Ltd, 1998), 15; John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries (England: Penguin Books, 1990), 32. [↩]
- Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 16, 106; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 32; Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society (California: Stanford University Press, 1997), 17. [↩]
- Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 16-17; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 32-33, 35. [↩]
- Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 17-19; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 33-34; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 13-19, 28. [↩]
- Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 19, 106-107, 170-172; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 34. [↩]
- Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 20, 127-128; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 34. [↩]
- Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 20; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 34; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 28. [↩]
- Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 20-22; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 34-35; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 26. [↩]
- Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 22; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 35; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 28. [↩]
- Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 22; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 35. [↩]
- Grant, The Emperor Constantine, 22-23; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 35; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 28. [↩]