Visitors to York today will see a statue of the Roman emperor Constantine The Great outside the south entrance to York Minster. Venerated as a saint by the Orthodox Church, he is a significant figure in Christian history; putting an end to the persecution of believers during his reign and converting to the faith himself.

Built upon the site of the old Roman fortress of Eboracum, the Minster marks the place where Constantine first became emperor of the western half of the Empire. Its arguable that this was a decisive moment in the history of Christianity – a turnaround in its fortunes that lead to the eventual spread of the faith throughout Europe.

Statue of Constantine outside York Minster
Statue of Constantine outside York Minster

Rise To Power

The son of a Roman army officer who would himself go on to rise through the ranks, Constantine was from the start destined for a life of imperial service. Educated at the emperor Diocletian’s court at Nicomedia in modern day Turkey, the young Constantine was exposed to many cultural influences both pagan and Christian.

His presence here was perhaps not entirely for his own benefit however – he may well have been a sort of semi-hostage, held to ensure his father’s loyalty. Despite this, he fought for both Diocletian and then Galerius against the barbarians in darkest Europe and the Persians in Syria, becoming a tribune of the first order.

His father, Constantious, became the emperor of the western half of the empire in 305 AD and Constantine was recalled to campaign alongside him in Britain. Following the death of Constantious just a year later in 306, the army proclaimed Constantine emperor at Eboracum – modern day York.

Following his promotion, he drove back the Picts and secured Roman control in Britain, ordering the repair of roads and the completion of military bases begun by his father. He left soon after to defeat Frankish armies in Gaul who, sensing instability at the top of the Roman hierarchy, had invaded across the Rhine. Showing little mercy, Constantine had their kings and soldier’s fed to the wild animals of Trier’s amphitheatre.

Political Intrigue

With a share of the Empire consisting of Britain, Gaul and Spain and one of the largest Roman armies, Constantine threw himself into political intrigue and a succession of complex civil wars.

Having initially forged an alliance with the eastern emperor Licinius whilst putting down a rebellion within his own territory, Constantine then turned his attention to the other half of the Empire.

The relationship had already begun to deteriorate with Licinius sponsoring an assassination attempt on Constantine on behalf of an ally and favourite of his. Two battles followed, both of which saw Constantine victorious. A settlement was reached which gave Constantine more territory and his sons the title of ‘caesars’.

An uneasy peace reigned for a time, but violence was to erupt again in the great civil war of 324 AD. True to form, Constantine once again emerged victorious and became the sole ruler of the entire Roman Empire.

Constantine directing the building of Constantinople

The Foundation of Constantinople

Having restored the unity of the Empire, Constantine deemed Rome an unsatisfactory imperial capital. It was too far from the frontiers, the armies and the imperial courts – and had proved time and again a fertile breeding ground for disaffected politicians.

After having toyed with the idea of locating the new capital at Serdica – present day Sofia – Constantine chose Byzantium as the site for the new beating heart of the Empire. Founded in 324, dedicated just six years later in 330, the city was renamed Constantinopolis (Constantinople in English) and became known as the ‘New Rome’.

Even by today’s standards, construction progressed at a rapid pace. By promising imperial estates to new private housebuilders Constantine was able to encourage many to relocate to the new city. Rather than being constructed from scratch, the capital’s temples were simply dismantled and shipped in from other parts of the Empire.

(Picture above: Tapestry of Constantine directing the building of Constantinople, Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Early attitudes toward Christianity

When Constantine returned from the eastern front to Nicomedia in 303 AD, he was to witness the unleashing of Diocletian’s ‘Great Persecution’ of Christians. The new church was destroyed, its treasures seized and priests imprisoned. The oppression continued over the following months with scriptures cast into the flames and Christians dismissed from office.

Although he would later present himself as opposed to these measures, Constantine did nothing of note to halt their progress. According to a chronicler, when he assumed power Constantine followed the more tolerant policy of his father.

Although not yet Christian, he decreed an end to the persecution and the restoration of property lost during the turmoil. After his conversion, however, Constantine was an influential force behind the Edict of Milan of 313 AD which proclaimed tolerance for Christians within the empire.

Apparition appearing to ConstantineConversion to Christianity

The circumstances surrounding Constantine’s personal conversion are unclear. Some scholars speculate that he adopted his mother’s faith in his youth, whilst others believe it to be a more gradual process. It is claimed by some contemporary sources that he received instructions in a dream to paint a Christian monogram on his troops’ shields. Others suggest he saw the Christian sign appear in the sky with the message ‘In This Sign, Conquer’.

What isn’t in doubt is the close association that Constantine drew between his faith and his worldly successes. In a letter to a Persian King he wrote that by the divine power of God he had be sent to bring peace and prosperity to all, he also claimed at another point to be God’s chosen instrument for the suppression of impiety and ascribed his many victories to the ‘inspiration of the Divinity’.

Although Constantine patronized the Church throughout his reign – promoting Christians to high office, granting privileges to clergy and building basilicas – he still appeared keen to still acknowledge pagan rituals and imagery.

He retained the title ‘pontifex maximus’ – denoting he was head of the pagan priesthood – until his death, and when he dedicated the new capital of Constantinople he did so wearing an Apollonian sun-rayed crown with no other Christian symbols present.

He also instructed Christians and non-Christians alike to observe the venerable day of the sun – a Roman day of rest and sun-worship established as an official cult by his predecessor Aurelian – a tradition that continues to this day.

(Picture above: Apparition of the Cross appearing to Constantine, Jacopo Vignali)

Constantine’s Legacy

As would be expected, during his life and those of his sons that followed him, the official line was that Constantine had been a wise and just ruler. After the last of his son’s died, however, his nephew wrote a satire in which Constantine was claimed to be inferior to the great pagan emperors and corrupted by his own greed. Other chroniclers blaimed him for weakening the Empire by indulging his Christian brethren.

His reputation was to remain contested in the centuries that followed. In the medieval period, Catholic historians judged him an ideal ruler – the yardstick against which any king or emperor could be measured, however, the rediscovery of anti-Constantinian sources during the Renaissance led some to condemn him as a tyrant.

Later scholars would attempt to reconcile both sides of the argument. Gibbon judged him a noble hero corrupted by Christian influences who ultimately degenerated into a cruel and dissolute monarch, whilst Burkhardt saw in Constantine a manipulative politician who sought little else but his own power.

Constantine The Great?

Does Constantine then deserve the epithet ‘The Great’ attributed to him by Christian historians many centuries after his death? His reunification of the Empire, by that point covering a vast geographical area, was certainly a great achievement and his military record during this period was outstanding – having defeated Franks (twice), Goths and Sarmatians, as well as his Roman rivals.

The foundation of Constantinople was an act of long term significance, with the city at the heart of the history of that region of the world. Perhaps his greatest acheivement was that of his own faith. By becoming a Christian himself, Constantine brought the religion of a marginalised and often oppressed group into the very centre of political power, paving the way for the Christianisation of the Roman Empire in the centuries that followed.

However, although Constantine The Great ushered in a new period of Christian toleration his treatment of political rivals could be brutal – and it was not for nothing that his later critics would label him a tyrant.