Constantine the Great preached and worked for unity throughout his entire life. Ironically, when he died, there was to be no unity in the empire. Not only did the church remain divided, even his sons could not stop fighting amongst themselves. The fighting led to instability and chaos at a time when external threats assailed the empire. Read on to find out who emerged victorious and how he did it.
The Massacre of 337
When Constantine the Great died in 337, his son Constantius II was closest to the capital. Upon learning the news, he returned at once to Constantinople to preside over the funeral. A skilled actor, Constantius put on a convincing show of mourning with his brothers. But as soon as they laid Constantine to rest in his tomb, the peace was over. On September 9, Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans had their coronation as joint emperors. The struggle to consolidate their power began almost at once.
The first victims were the half-brothers of Constantine. Rumours spread that they had poisoned the emperor to seize the throne. As a filial son, Constantius had these traitors executed along with their families. But the murders did not stop there. Constantine’s brothers-in-law also met with gruesome ends. Only three young boys survived the massacre, likely due to their tender ages.
With their potential rivals out of the way, the three emperors met in the summer of 338 to carve up the empire. For the sake of simplicity, the brothers agreed to carry on ruling the domains they had while they were Caesars. There were a few minor tweaks to the boundaries, but for now, the former divisions remained mostly unchanged. The eldest brother Constantine took Britain, Gaul and Spain. The middle brother Constantius got Asia Minor and Egypt. Meanwhile, the youngest brother Constans, who was only 15 years of age, retained control over Africa, Italy, the Danube, Macedonia and Thrace. Due to Constans’ age, Constantine served as his guardian until he was ready to rule alone.
The Rise and Fall of Constans II
Peace between the brothers did not last long. It could not hope to last when each of the brothers wanted the empire for himself. Constantine struck first. He could not tolerate the fact that his youngest brother would not fall in line and submit to his wishes. In 340, he attacked Constans in a bid to assert control over him. This led Constans to ally with Constantius against Constantine. Meanwhile, Constans set an ambush that took and killed Constantine by surprise. With his eldest brother out of the way, the balance of power changed. Constans was now the supreme ruler of the West.
However, Constans was merely 17. Although he led a few successful campaigns in the early years of his reign, he soon neglected his duties. Being young and impressionable, he chose to indulge in wanton pleasures instead. He went so far as to enjoy himself with his blonde German prisoners who liked the hedonistic lifestyle he led. But his critical mistake was to lose the respect of the soldiers that served him.
Thus in early 350, while Constans was away hunting, the disgruntled troops revolted and proclaimed Magnentius their new emperor. A Briton by birth, Magnentius was a pagan in his beliefs. But as an emperor, he was decisive. He quickly issued orders to have Constans killed. With little support, Constans soon met his end while fleeing for his life. Thus in less than a decade, the control of the West changed hands again.
Constantius vs Magnentius
Of the sons of Constantine, only Constantius remained. During these years, Constantius had his hands full with the Persians in the East. When he learned of Magnentius’ revolt, he had to move against the usurper. As the sole son of Constantine, no one else but he had the right to rule the empire.
But before he could move west, he had to resolve the defence against the Persians. To deal with this matter, he made his cousin Gallus Caesar of the East and tasked him with this responsibility. Gallus had the good fortune to survive the massacre that happened in 337. To bind Gallus closer to him, Constantius married his widowed sister Constantina to him.
With his eastern frontier secured, Constantius clashed with Magnentius in September 351. Although Constantius won the Battle of Mursa Major, both sides suffered heavy losses. After his defeat, Magnentius escaped from Croatia back to Northern Italy to regroup. But fortune did not favour Magnentius. After two years of struggling, he had nothing to show for his efforts. Unable to watch any further as he lost support and territory to Constantius, he took his own life. Now that Magnentius was gone, Constantius was the ruler of the reunited empire.
The Caesar Julian
While campaigning in the west, Constantius received reports about Gallus that disturbed him. Due to his suspicions, he summoned Gallus to a meeting and had him executed to pre-empt any potential revolt. With Gallus out of the way, Constantius was truly the supreme ruler of the empire. But he could not manage alone. The size of the empire made it an impossible feat. In the end, he decided to appoint his last living male relative Julian, as Caesar and married his younger sister Helena to him.
Reflections of the Vizier
Constantius II was the sole surviving son of Constantine the Great. In a time of chaos and uncertainty, he had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. Although he was responsible for the massacre of his relatives, he had less opportunistic rivals to contend with as a result. Other rivals like Magnentius had a weaker claim to the throne. They could not hope to last long if the soldiers did not support them. For now, Constantius enjoyed the fruits of his labour and remained safely in power.
Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.