If it weren’t for Constantine it is quite likely that very few of us would have ever been inside a Christian Church. The city he founded bore his name up until the lifetime of my Grandfather. It is still the largest one in Europe. Ten more emperors were to bear the name Constantine, and when Greece became an independent nation in modern times several of its kings were also called Constantine which remains a popular name there and elsewhere. Aristocratic titles throughout Europe hark back to ranks in Constantine’s army. So it is natural to be curious about what a man who had so much influence on history was really like.
Opinion about him has been divided since his own time. He has always had a good press from the religion which he did so much to promote. This has led to something of a backlash against him from people who aren’t so keen on his religious reforms. It is extremely easy to criticise Constantine from the perspective of our modern values, but you can say that about any emperor. Emperors of Rome were not nice cuddly people. They were all brutal dictators heedless of the rights of their subjects. So the question really is how did Constantine stack up compared to his peers?
One thing is for sure, he was a complicated guy. As a young man he was tall and good looking and seems to have got on with everyone. He was active and diligent, working hard on the paperwork and admin stuff even though his active nature and lack of education must have made this side of things hard work. There is no doubt of his ability as a general – I have just quickly reviewed his military career and he either won or drew every battle he fought. And most of his best known battles were against fellow Romans and many were against the odds, so he wasn’t simply trading on the well known military superiority of the legions. He was bold when required, but hardly reckless.
So he ranks well in comparison with other military successes like Trajan and Aurelian. In an age where the ability to lead troops in the field was a key skill, this was important. But there is more to being a successful emperor than effective skull bashing, and again his grasp of politics and getting things done puts him up there with Caesar and Diocletian.
His personal relationships with those around him are more ambiguous. Putting aside his first wife in favour of a politically advantageous marriage to Fausta, the daughter of the emperor Maximian seems harsh to modern eyes. But at the time it would not have raised an eyebrow. In a world where status, connections and pedigree were paramount, the willingness to stick by his son from his first marriage was more likely to attract disapproval. The obscurity of his mother put Crispus at an intitial social disadvantage. But Crispus was groomed to be Constantine’s successor. As a teenager was made a Caesar and given key commands. In the battle to capture Byzantium he led the decisive naval coup with courage and success.
Success in arms trumped any doubts and Crispus was young and became popular. That is the way with these things isn’t it. It is always the young royals that get the crowd behind them. This ought to have been a great asset to Constantine’s regime. Constantine had obviously fought and killed his way to the top. Propaganda can achieve much, but the plain facts were known to everyone. Constantine was only the unrivalled ruler of the Roman world because Constantine had killed all the rivals.
Having a blameless successor should have been a great card to play offering the hope of legitimacy and stability for the future. It was after all not Crispus who had killed Maxentius and Licinius. But it was not to be.
In 326 Crispus was killed on Constantine’s orders. The exact manner of his death is unclear, but it involved a trial and was a public event. Shortly afterwards his step-mother, Fausta, was also killed again on Constantine’s orders. This seems to have been an in-house event. In her case the method used was to place her in an overheated steam bath in the palace. A curious means of execution that suggests to me at any rate that the intention was to kill her without giving her any prior notice.
So in a very short period of time Constantine had killed both his son and his wife. The precise details of how, why and what motivated it all haven’t survived. This has encouraged a lot of speculation ever since and no doubt plenty of gossip at the time. But it is hard to see any way it can be turned round to make Constantine look good.
With Crispus out of the picture the succession issue was much less clear cut. Constantine had three sons by Fausta – Constantine, Constans and Constantius. They were obviously much younger than Crispus and so were not nearly so well suited to succeed. Was one going to inherit or would they share power? It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but Constantine chose to make it tougher still by elevating a couple of their cousins as well. And to throw yet another random factor in, he created a couple of new titles. The cousins were Dalmatius and Hannibalianus. Hannibalianus was married to Constantine’s daughter Constantia and he was raised to the status of nobilissimus. I am not sure exactly what that means. It may well be that not many people at the time did either.
But Hannibalianus got another title the meaning of which was not so ambiguous. He was also declared King of Pontus. It was the first appearance of that title applied to a Roman since the kings had been expelled from the city over a thousand years before. Gibbon doesn’t seem to have thought of one possible explanation of this – that it was intended that Hannibalianus was to be imposed on the Persians as their king once the Romans had defeated them in war. But even if this was the intention, it was a significant moment when the thought of a Roman emperor as a king in name as well as in fact became once again possible.
But whatever they were called, it is obvious with hindsight that elevating so many individuals to the top rank was a risky strategy. It can’t have seemed at all a smart move even without hindsight. Constantine needed only to look back on his own career for an example of how sharing power between peers had led to conflict. And so it was to prove again, but we are getting ahead of ourselves we are still looking at the character of Constantine himself. Maybe his intention was to set up a sort of Darwinian struggle for survival where the fittest successor would emerge from a struggle between them.
It seems quite likely that Gibbon was right to draw a distinction between the early and the later Constantine. The youthful Constantine had been a skilled general, but he had always worked in a way that showed a good sense of political judgement as well. We see him biding his time when it suited his purpose, and acting decisively when he thought it worth taking a risk. It sounds a far cry from the older Constantine whose succession plan seemed to guarantee a civil war.
His poor preparation for his own demise is really the biggest error of his reign. His squeezing the pips out of the poor was a continuation of the earlier policy of Diocletian and was to be continued afterwards by his successors. It was pretty much the only way the empire could be made to work so it isn’t really a personal failing of Constantine himself. His increasing reliance on German soldiers was to prove disastrous in later reigns. But in principle, there was no reason why this should have been the case. The empire had absorbed plenty of immigrants in the past and could have continued to do so, and indeed it could have been a source of great strength. His rule was effective enough, but he doesn’t show the administrative genius of Diocletian.
He was paranoid enough to believe in conspiracies against him. Decrees survive of punishments meted out to a wide range of courtiers. This may have been the origin of the death of Crispus. Jealousy for his youth and popularity are another possibility.
We hear that as he grew older he became vain, sporting absurd hair pieces and wearing ridiculous silk garments that were simply not appropriate to the dignity of an emperor of Rome. It turns out you can have a major influence on the development of Western civilisation and still be a prat. The contrast between his earlier worthy treatment of Crispus and his darker later behaviour is another example. So if you want to love Constantine you will be better off concentrating on the energetic young general. If you want to think of him as an evil monster, well he got there in the end. It is said that after his murder of Crispus graffiti appeared on his palace comparing him to Nero. The comparison is unfair, but not totally unfair. They both used violence liberally and directed it against members of their own family. They also both left Rome in ruins, though in very different ways. Nero of course was a buffoon and whatever you think of him, you can’t say that of Constantine. Constantine was a great emperor and had the most influential reign of the hundred or so holders of that post. But he was definitely not a saint.
We’ll be burying him in the next episode, but you’ll probably have noticed that we haven’t yet covered the most important aspect of his reign, which is religion. Gibbon devotes a couple of chapters to this after he covers the events following the succession. You can’t really do justice to the reign of Julian the Apostate without having detailing the continuing rise of the Church, but it is my intention to get through it as quickly as possible.