Tag Archives: Constantine

The Conversion of Constantine – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 20

Considering that the establishment of Christianity was the most lasting effect of his reign, it is a bit surprising that we don’t know exactly when Constantine became a Christian. Continue reading

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Death of Constantine – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 18 Part 2

Constantine died in Nicomedia in 337 after a short illness.  He had lived to 64, a good age for the time. The death of Constantine ended one of the longest reigns in the history of the empire.  His death came just after he had celebrated his thirtieth year as emperor, something only Augustus had previously achieved.  It was fitting that he was buried in Constantinople, the city he founded. Continue reading

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Character of Constantine – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 18

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. Continue reading

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Constantinople – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 17

With the defeat of  Licinius, Constantine was left as the sole leader of the entire Roman world.  But that didn’t stop him from dreaming.  In one dream he saw the spirit of the city of Byzantium as a tired and frail old matron.  But then she was transformed before his eyes into a beautiful young woman and with his own hands he adorned her with the accoutrements of an imperial city. Continue reading

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Constantine Supreme: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 14 Part 3

If you wanted to have a major summit meeting, by this time the place to have it was Milan.  This was where Constantine and Licinius met to celebrate the wedding of Licinius to Constantine’s sister and to sort out the details of their alliance.  But they didn’t have long.  Licinius found himself under attack by Maximin and Constantine was attacked by the barbarians.  

Constantine (Thanks to Wikipedia)

 


Maximin would no doubt have been watching developments and weighing up the new balance of power in the empire now that his ally Maxentius had been removed from the chess board.  Constantine’s possessions looked good on a map, and of course included Rome itself which was good psychologically.  But the East was where the money and the trade was.  With a bit of effort Maximin could still emerge as the top dog.  And he may well have been thinking as much of survival as anything else.  Gibbon commented that Constantine had probably calculated that if he wished to live he had to rule.  The same was true of Maximin.  

So before the other emperors were even aware that he planned a war, Maximin was already across the Bosphorus and deep in the territory of Licinius.  This advantage wasn’t bought without a price.  He had considerable losses on a forced march carried out through dreadful weather.  He laid siege to Byzantium which fell after 11 days and then proceeded to attack Heraclea.  He captured this as well, and then learnt that Licinius was pitching camp some 18 miles away.


After a show at negotiation, during which both sides tried to win over the other’s troops, a battle was fought. On paper it should have been a shoe in for Maximin who had some seventy thousand soldiers under his command against only thirty thousand for Licinius.  But the superior quality of the generalship of Licinius won out and he was victorious.  Maximin had advanced at tremendous speed, he now fled even more quickly.  He was seen the next day in Nicomedia.  According to Google maps this is a distance of 130 miles – or roughly the distance between London and Paris.  This was about the maximum speed it was possible to travel across land at the time.  


But running away didn’t help much.  He died in Tarsus three or four months later.  It isn’t clear what he died of, but his subjects don’t seem to have been particularly bothered by his death.  They transferred their loyalties to Licinius without any problem.  Licinius set about the now routine extermination of the whole family of the defunct despot.  Maximin’s children – a boy of eight and a girl of seven were killed.  As Gibbon puts it the compassion of Licinius was a very feeble resource.  He also killed the son of Severus – Severianus.  This was hardly justified.  The brief reign of Severus was by this point long forgotten.  (It was only in the last podcast, but you may well have forgotten it already too.)
 

But the execution of the twenty year old Candidianus was a really dark mark.  He was the natural but illegitimate son of Galerius, the friend and benefactor of Licinius.  His father had no doubt expected him to be looked after, so this really was an outrageous breach of faith as well as being pretty hard hearted.


But he wasn’t finished yet.  There was also the wife and daughter of Diocletian.  Galerius had married Valeria, the daughter of Diocletian and Prisca.  Valeria hadn’t had any children of her own but had been a loving step mother to Candidianus.  Maximin saw the advantages of marrying the daughter of one emperor and the widow of another and proposed to her.  (He already had a wife- but divorce was not a huge problem to the Romans.)


As Valeria, along with her mother and step-son, had fallen into the hands of Maximin on the death of Galerius this was tricky.  Her response was that it was too soon after her husband’s death to consider a new union without appearing disrespectful to his memory.  This infuriated Maximin who had her imprisoned in a small village in Syria, confiscated her property and put her undue pressure to reconsider.  This is how Gibbon describes that pressure:

Her estates were confiscated, her eunuchs and domestics devoted to the most inhuman tortures; and several innocent and respectable matrons, who were honored with her friendship, suffered death, on a false accusation of adultery.

Pathetically, and rather tragically, the aging Diocletian attempted to intercede on behalf of his family, with no effect.


I suppose if you are an emperor you probably don’t feel the need to turn on the charm. But we’ll never know whether Maximin would have worn her down and won her over in the end, because he lost out to Licinius.  This made the position of Priscus and Valeria even worse.  He sentenced them to death.  They went into hiding for a couple of years but eventually were recognised, captured and summarily executed.  They were beheaded and their bodies thrown into the sea. The antipathy of Maximin is at least understandable if not particularly noble.  What motivated Licinius has not survived in the historic record.  What is clear is that even by the abysmally low standards of Roman emperors he was a callous and brutal man.

His cruel treatment of the wife and daughter of a great emperor is one mystery.  It is also hard to account for why he then proceeded to pick a fight with Constantine, and the very year after he had defeated Maximin.  The ambitious character of Constantine was perhaps part of his calculation.  Since it was highly likely Constantine would be coming after him at some point it may have seemed like a good idea to strike while his troops were in good spirit after their successful campaign in the east.  Or maybe the opportunity that arose was simply to tempting to pass up on.  


Constantine had elevated a man called Bassianus to the rank of Caesar and cemented the deal by marrying his sister to him.  But in the process he had managed to alienate Bassianus in some way.  The newly minted Caesar and Licinius were soon in touch.  But Constantine got wind of the plot early on and quickly had Bassianus killed.  Licinius did not try to hide his involvement and instead started destroying the statues of Constantine.  Once again, the empire was at war with itself. 


Constantine advanced remorselessly, even though Licinius was far from a feeble opponent. The first battle was fought just inside the territory of Licinius, with Constantine overcoming a larger force.  This was rapidly becoming his trademark.  Licinius retreated but in good order, and a larger battle was fought in the middle of the Balkans.  This was indecisive but Licinius again retreated.  Constantine assumed he was heading towards the strong defensive position of Byzantium.  But in fact Licinius had retreated to Macedonia and as Constantine approached Byzantium Licinius was able to cut his lines of communication.  Licinius had put himself in a strong postion.  He appointed his general Valens as Caesar and opened negotiations for a peaceful end to the conflict.


Constantine had had the better of the campaign so far, but Licinius had proved himself a worthy opponent.  What looked like a reasonable compromise was worked out.  Licinius was left with a lot of what he had been in charge of before the war broke out, but ceded the Balkans and Greece to the Western half of the empire.  Three Caesars were appointed – two of Constantine’s sons and the one son of Licinius to fill the next rank.  The recent elevation of Valens to Caesar level was an obstacle to this arrangement.  So he was deposed and killed.  He had only reigned a few days.  Gibbon points out that this aspect of the treaty was a humiliation for Licinius.  I imagine it wasn’t exactly a ‘my how we laughed’ moment for Valens either.


Constantine was now undisputed emperor in the West, his writ running from the borders of Scotland to the tip of Greece.  For eight years the two halves of the empire existed in peace.  But the two men must have viewed each other with suspicion.  Meanwhile although there was peace within the empire, there was plenty of fighting going on on the borders.  Crispus showed himself to be a worthy successor to his father and grandfather by displaying skill and courage in battles with the Franks and Alemanni.  Constantine kept his own military skills finely honed fighting off a Gothic invasion across the Danube.  He crossed into Dacia and took the war back to the Goths themselves and forced them into a treaty where they were obliged to provide troops to serve the emperor when required.


While all this was going on Licinius was getting older and even less popular.  Eventually Constantine decided that the time was ripe to reunite the empire under the rule of one man, namely himself.   Without troubling to create any kind of pretext he simply invaded the provinces of Licininius.


Licinius responded with spirit and ability.  He gathered together an extensive army and fleet. He took up a strong defensive position at Adrianople.  This gave Constantine a tough obstacle, especially as he was attacking with a smaller force.  It took several days before Constantine could break through, but eventually the superior quality of his veteran and experienced troops paid off.   His personal courage was also a factor – though the story that he swam across a river with only 12 cavalrymen by his side and put thousands to flight the other side must have been made up.   What is certain is that he inflicted very high casualties on the Eastern army and Licinius was forced to retreat to Byzantium.  


But once he was there his situation was not too desperate.  He had a much larger fleet than Constantine and so could maintain his supplies.  It looked like a stalemate, but once again superior leadership swayed the result. This time it was Crispus who took the initiative leading his ships against the fleet of Licinius while it was in narrow waters where its superior numbers were not so advantageous.  After a battle of 2 days he proved victorious.  This changed the whole situation.  It was now possible to cut Byzantium off completely making it only a matter of time before the city ran out of supplies.  Licinius wasn’t really into the heroic last stand thing and slipped across the Bosphorus to Chalcedon with his family and treasure when it became clear what was happening.  He also appointed one of his chief ministers, Martinianus, as a Caesar – which I imagine must have been accompanied by one of those sinking feelings.  In the meantime Constantine built towers, catapults and battering rams to speedily bring Byzantium under his control.


Licinius still wasn’t ready to give in.  He raised yet another army and returned to attack Constantine while he was still occupied with Byzantium. Constantine divided his forces to meet the new attack.  Once again Licinius joined battle with superior forces, and once again was defeated. 


After this final battle Licinius surrendered.   He was promptly invited to Constantine’s victory banquet.  I can’t help wondering what they talked about.  ‘Boy, you kicked my arse there’  maybe.  But Licinius was still Constantine’s brother in law and had given Constantine a run for his money.  He must have had some level of respect for the murderous but resourceful and determined old man.  Martinianus wasn’t so lucky.  He was executed straight away.


But Licinius did not get off scot free.  He was imprisoned in Thassalonica, and later was found guilty of trumped up charges of conspiring with the barbarians.  So he ended up being killed after all.  Constantine was now the sole ruler of the Roman world.  The year is 324.  Constantine’s reign will become one of the most significant in Roman history.  If he had just moved the capital of the empire from Rome to Constantinople that would have been enough to keep his name on people’s lips.  And likewise, being the emperor who established Christianity as the state religion would on its own have secured his place in the history books.  But of course he did both.


In the next chapter Gibbon doubles back to track the rise of Christianity.  Before following him, I’d like to quickly review the state of the empire as Constantine inherited it.


For a start, Christianity had been pretty well supported by Licinius in the Eastern half of the empire.  He had certainly not persecuted the Christians and it is not inconceivable that he himself was a sympathiser or even an adherent.  The cruel behaviour that Gibbon attributes to him may well have been propaganda originating from Constantine’s court.  By 324 the years of official action against Christians was a pretty distant memory.  Constantine no doubt had a lot to do with the establishment of Christianity but he was probably not swimming too hard against the tide.


Another point that Gibbon alludes to is the economic decline of the empire.  This is confirmed by modern research.  A week or so ago I came across an interesting blog post reviewing the state of our knowledge about the scale of trade in the ancient Mediterranean.  One set of data caught my eye.  They had plotted the ages of shipwrecks in the Mediterranean.  There is a huge drop in the numbers from about the time of the crisis of the third century.  It looks like the political crisis coincided with an economic crisis.  My speculation would be that it was the political problems that caused the economic crisis – but we have no way of knowing. What does seem clear is that Diocletian’s stabilisation of the government did not lead on to a revival in trade.  


We saw in Gibbon’s account that skills had declined in Rome when we heard about the shortage of good stone masons.  Moving the capital east may have been a response to the decline in the economic status of the city of Rome.  There was simply more wealth in the east.  The rise of Christianity might also have the same root cause.  As the economy contracted people’s lives became less secure.  The early Church’s welfare activities might well have been seen as a useful insurance policy in troubled times.


Chapter 15 was the most controversial part of Gibbon’s work, and can still be contentious.  It is also one of the longest chapters. I hope I can do it justice.





 

If you want to follow my extended review of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from the beginning, and who wouldn’t, it starts with Augustus founding the empire.

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Back down to Four Emperors: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 14 Part 2

The fierce face of Maximian (thanks to Wikipedia for use of image)

How many emperors does it take to run an empire?  Diocletian tried four with reasonable results.  How did six work out?  Well on the whole not too well, and it was pretty obvious pretty quickly that one of them in particular was surplus to requirements.  Certainly having two close to each other didn’t seem to be ideal.  Although there is a good case to be made that the skill and experience of long serving Maximian had saved both Maxentius and Constantine from being overrun by Severus, it soon turned out that once the crisis was over,  his presence in Rome was a bit of an embarrassment.  It had been Maxentius that had been acclaimed by the Senate and people as emperor.  And frankly, how many of us would actually want our Dad turning up to tell us how to do our job?  Especially if he had done the same job himself pretty successfully for twenty years.

Maximian was persuaded to give up his position for a second time and retired to Illyricum.    Illyricum was part of Galerius’ portion of the empire.  But it turned out that Galerius was no keener on having his former colleague around than his son had been.   Maximian was on the move again, and this time turned up at the court of his son in law Constantine in Gaul.  This worked out okay for a while.  But Maximian still hankered after the top job.  While Constantine was away at the borders dealing with a barbarian incursion, Maximian spread a rumour that he had been killed and assumed the supposedly vacant throne himself.  He instantly raided the imperial treasure which he cheerfully dished out to the local troops to ensure his third run at being an emperor got off to a good start.

Some people just don’t know when to stop.  Next time a more senior member of your family fiddles with your central heating settings, or points out the poor fuel economy of your latest choice of motor vehicle, think how much worse Constantine had it.   In fact, Constantine was having none of it and rapidly returned with an army large enough to deal speedily with the situation.  Maximian fled to Marseilles and attempted to defend it against Constantine – though what his long term plan was by this stage is hard to work out.  The defenders soon saw the hopelessness of the situation and simply handed over Maximian to Constantine.  Constantine executed him.  Or to be precise allowed him to end his own life by strangling himself.  An ignoble end to an illustrious career.  But he had had a good life.

Constantine, as was standard practice under the circumstances, had the name of Maximian removed from public monuments and had all his statues thrown down.

His death brought the emperor count down to a still generous 5.  The next to go was Galerius, who died of an unpleasant disease.   Gibbon describes it thus:

His body, swelled by an intemperate course of life to an unwieldy corpulence, was covered with ulcers, and devoured by innumerable swarms of those insects which have given their name to a most loathsome disease.

This doesn’t sound like much fun, and seems to have slowed him down because he spent the last years of his life enjoying himself. He did get a big irrigation and forest clearance scheme done near the mouth of the Danube, so it wasn’t a complete waste of a reign, but nonetheless for someone who had been so active early in his career he does seem to just peter out towards the end.  His two junior emperors squared up for a war over his position, but in the end managed to agree a division of the spoils between the two of them.   This reduced the number of emperors back down to four.  Maximin took Egypt and Syria while Licinius had Asia Minor of the Balkans. Nobody considered it necessary to fill the post left vacant by the death of Galerius.

Meanwhile the death of Maximian was having repercussions. His son Maxentius  had found his father intolerable when he was alive and in Italy. Now that he had been killed and insulted in Gaul, Maxentius developed an affection for the old man.  He called for the destruction of Constantine’s statues in retaliation and prepared a sizable army to invade Gaul.  Now, this wasn’t really the smartest of tactical moves.  Maxentius had bigger problems on his hands than a bit of disrespect to his father, especially when it was frankly so richly deserved.

For a start he was threatened by the considerable forces of Licinius, and had to station a large body of troops at Verona to deter him.  

Although Maxentius had come to power with a large fund of goodwill, he expended that goodwill pretty quickly.  He had been picked by the people as a champion to oppose the imposition of taxes.  But  he had in fact raised them anyway.  As is often the case it wasn’t difficult for discontent with the tax policy to transfer to dislike of the person raising the taxes.  But Maxentius does sound like a particularly unpleasant individual.  He wasted the whole province of Africa in revenge for a minor rebellion by some officials.  He extracted cash from senators in the guise of a ‘free gift’ and ravished whatever woman took his fancy, including the wives of prominent citizens.

But he was in a strong position, on paper at least.  His military resources were extensive.  His army was in the region of 170,000 foot and 18,000 cavalry.  The granaries were full.  And Italy of course did not have any serious danger of invasion by barbarians.  The forces of Constantine were not only a lot more modest, he also had to allow for defending borders in Germany and Britain.  It is little wonder that when delegations from the city of  Rome sought him out and sought his aid against their tyrant, he was reluctant to risk his own position no matter how much he sympathised with their plight.

But nonetheless, Maxentius seemed set on war.  So like it or not Constantine had to fight.  He chose a most ambitious course of action.  Rather than waiting for the superior forces of Maxentius to concentrate and invade his territory,  he would invade Italy.  Since he had to leave a substantial number of troops behind to cover the frontier this meant he would be at an even bigger disadvantage in terms of numbers.  But it meant he had the initiative, which enabled him to choose the time and place of the battles, initially at any rate.

He had about a quarter the forces, but at least his troops were veterans and he himself was an experienced commander.  These advantages were evident early on.  He was able to move so quickly that he appeared before the city of Susa at the foot of the Cotian Alps before news of his departure from Gaul had reached Rome.  And Susa was taken quickly.  The gates were burned down, and ladders used to scale the walls.  This was an army that knew what it was doing and was to continue to show a high degree of professionalism throughout the campaign.

Advancing to Turin he encountered a large force including heavy cavalry which might easily have done enormous damage to his infantry.  But from his previous experience in the east Constantine knew how to effectively deploy his troops to defeat what might have been a potent weapon against another general.  Constantine was victorious and significantly as the troops of Maxentius retreated to Turin they found that the city had gone over to the side of Constantine.  The gates were shut against them and they were massacred.

Other cities in the region followed suit and Constantine  was soon in charge of most of northern Italy.   Taking up quarters in the imperial palace in Milan he was only 400 hundred miles from Rome.   But Maxentius was still far from being out of the game.   He still had a large army at his disposal in Rome and his Praetorian Prefect Pompeianus occupied Verona.  Constantine could not advance on the capital until he had dealt with that threat and laid siege.  But Verona was no easy target and  Pompeianus no pushover.

Being surrounded on three sides by a river and heavily defended a siege could have taken a long time, and Constantine’s only hope was in speed.  A long war of attrition would inevitably lead to the victory of his better resourced adversary.  Pompeianus was not particularly patient either.  He slipped out of the city and raised a large enough force from the surrounding district to force Constantine to either withdraw or fight a pitched battle.  As he was outnumbered this was a courageous move, especially when the opposing forces met and the Italians proved to have so many more men that their line was considerably longer.  But Constantine’s veterans were able to carry out a skilled manoeuvre to extend the line at the last minute.  Night fell shortly after battle commenced and continued through the night.  As the dawn broke the next day the superior fighting qualities of the Gallic legions had proved decisive.  Pompieanus was among the dead.  Verona surrendered.

This victory gave Constantine the initiative once again and he was now able to advance towards Rome.  But even so, his position was still far from overwhelming.  Rome was a large city and well supplied with food, and there were still plenty of troops following the banner of Maxentius.  The outcome of a long siege  would be hard to predict and might give another emperor the opportunity to intervene.  But the men around Maxentius were facing the same problem.  They believed that they did not need to resort to the fortifications of Rome.  They had sufficient forces to defeat Constantine in the field.  To give this strategy the greatest chance of success the prestige of the emperor himself would be needed leading the army in person.

Maxentius was not blessed with the kind of grit his father and his opponent showed and was reluctant to risk his presence on an actual battlefield.  But the Roman people made their views clear with demonstrations outside his palace and cat calls at the games.  As  Gibbon puts it, shame supplied the place of courage.  But he should have cause for optimism.  The third army that took the field against Constantine was the largest yet and should have been able to halt the invasion.

But it was not to be.  The two armies met  at a village called Saxa Rubra about nine miles outside Rome.  The smaller size of Constantine’s forces was compensated for by their battle hardiness and the valour of Constantine.  He personally lead a decisive cavalry charge.  The Italian cavalry was driven from the field leaving their infantry exposed on the flanks.  Panic ensued.  They had their backs to the river Tiber and were unable to retreat in good order.  One small bridge, the Milvian Bridge from which this battle takes its name, was the only way to escape and was not big enough to allow more than a handful across at a time.  Many were killed by the press of the crowd or fell into the river.  One of the casualties was Maxentius himself who the next day was pulled out of the river.  His heavy armour had weighed him down and like many others he had drowned.

The Milvian Bridge (Thanks to Wikipedia)

The Praetorian Guard had been strong supporters of Maxentius and fought with courage and later desperate determination after the day was lost.  Their bodies were found in their lines.  They at least had not tried to escape.  The Praetorians had been throughout their history at various times arrogant, greedy, foolish and cowardly.  This is almost the only time their behaviour does them any credit at all.

One of the first acts of Constantine on becoming the undisputed leader of the western half of the Roman Empire was to abolish the Praetorian Guard.  The survivors of the battle of the Milvian Bridge were distributed to other legions and their camp leveled.  With the exception of their last battle they had almost nothing to commend them to history.  Even at their best they were the hired thugs of despots.  Often they saddled the empire with some of its most unworthy leaders.  This is the last we will hear about them and we won’t miss them.

Quite apart from their questionable history, they were now surplus to requirement.  Their role was to guard the emperor and the emperor was now no longer at Rome.  The loss of the Praetorian Guard was in that sense another symptom of the decline of Rome’s importance.  Constantine went through the process of addressing the Senate, who in turn acted out a charade of  giving him important honours.   Games and festivals were created to ensure the long memory of his victories.

Monuments commissioned by Maxentius were rapidly rededicated to the new man in charge.  One particular project reveals the depths to which the city that had conquered the world had now fallen.  No craftsman could be found with the skill to decorate a triumphal arch dedicated to Constantine.  Instead, some friezes were simply lifted from the arch of Trajan.  The events depicted were of course completely different to those being celebrated, and some even showed Trajan himself.

If the Senate thought such flattery would at least get them out of ponying up the levies that Maxentius required of them, they were disappointed.   Senators would now have to pay for the privilege of sitting in the Senate.

Constantine’s behaviour towards the family and supporters of Maxentius was standard for the time.   His children and everyone else closely connected with him was killed.  The aim was to prevent descendants of Maximian challenging for the throne in the future.  Key supporters were killed as well.  But it wasn’t a major bloodbath and was no more or less than he would have expected had he himself been beaten.

But Constantine did not stay in Rome long.  There was still politics to be done.  He had arranged the marriage of his sister Constatia to Licinius, part of a bigger alliance deal needless to say, so he was off to negotiate the details in Milan.  Rome was left now without any troops, without a resident emperor  and on the sidelines with no particular role in the empire that bore its name.  The citizens probably wondered if there was any insult left for Constantine to throw at the nominal mistress of the world.  In a few years time they were to discover that in fact, there was.

If you want to follow my extended review of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from the beginning, and who wouldn’t, it starts with Augustus founding the empire.

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Six emperors at the same time: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 14

Galerius – One of six simultaneous emperors (thanks to Wikipedia)

I always imagine History Books Review listeners to be a young vibrant crowd of hip young gun slingers with smart trendy clothes, snazzy streetwise attitudes and great reproductive potential.  So I have a feeling that not many of you will remember the spoof soap opera comedy series that was just called Soap.   It was never a huge hit in the UK and I don’t know how well it did in the US where it was made.  I do know I used to watch this late at night in the early eighties.  Every show was introduced by a synopsis of the increasingly baffling events of the previous episodes, which ended with the phrase ‘confused? you will be!’.

This came back to me as I tried to first of all, to work out what was happening in the aftermath of the resignations of Diocletian and Maximian, and secondly work out how on earth I was going to explain it all.  Now I don’t wan to spend too much time on this chapter.  At the end of the day, all it is really about is how Constantine came to be the undisputed ruler of the whole Roman world.  The details aren’t that important in the overall scheme of things.  But Gibbon’s account is a continuous narrative.  And telling the whole story through all it’s twists and turns is one of the things that gives this work its pace and grandeur.  So I will try and make it as straight forward as I can, as brief as possible but not cut any corners.

First let us introduce Constantine, the man who the plot is going to increasingly revolve around as the chapter progresses, and one of the key figures in European history.  He is also someone who gets talked about not only by historians, but by people with an interest in religion.  So he is one of those historical figures that can’t be ignored.  And as the man instrumental in bringing the world’s biggest religion out into the open it is hard to exaggerate his importance.

But when we are first introduced to him at the start of Chapter 14 it is far from obvious that he is even likely to survive more than a few more pages.  His father Constantius had been obliged to give up his wife to marry Theodora, the step daughter of Diocletian’s co-emperor Maximian.  Constantine was his son by Helena, the woman who had lost out.  Helena’s birth was obscure, both in the sense that she had a humble background and in the sense that we don’t know where she came from.  We do know that Constantine was close to adulthood when the divorce came, so he had been brought up by Helena and he was to remain devoted to her throughout his life.

With Constantius off in Gaul, Constantine and Helena were attached to the court of Diocletian.  Constantius and his son obviously got on well and in a sense he was a sort of hostage for the good behaviour of Constantius.  That was one of those things that probably everybody knew but nobody talked about.

But he was not simply a courtier and fought in the war against Persia under Galerius, giving him the chance to show what he was made of.  And what he was made of turned out to be a man with an instinct for the military.  If Diocletian had it in mind to create a cadre of able leaders to run the empire after him – a very Diocletian sort of idea – he would certainly be able to congratulate himself on how well it was working out in the case of Constantine.

There was another member of the same generation who also seemed to be destined for great things – Maxentius the son of Maximian.  He didn’t get military experience like Constantine, which is odd given the personality of his father.  But nonetheless he was the son of an emperor and so had a good claim on the throne.

Another man in the circle was Flavius Valerius Severus – or just Severus. He had an army background and no obvious connection to any other member of the imperial circle apart from being a good friend and supporter of Galerius.

Gaius Valerius Galerius Maximinus, or Maximin for short was son of the sister of Galerius.  This just about qualified him for imperial status on its own, but to cement the deal Galerius adopted him as his own son as well.

Looking at this list the obvious succession plan for Diocletian would be for Constantius and Galerius to succeed as Augusti and for Constantine to be Caesar to his father in the West and for Maxentius to do the same for Galerius in the East.  For some reason, Diocletian didn’t do this and instead promoted Severus to the rule of Africa and Italy under Constantius, and placed Maximin under Galerius in the East.  This had the effect of putting Galerius in a very strong position with both the junior members of the tetrarchy being strong supporters.  It was also widely known that Constantius was not in the best of health, so this left him with the prospect of total effective control of the empire very shortly.

What was Diocletian thinking when he did this?  It is easy to criticise with hindsight, but Roman politics were complex and nobody knew them better than did Diocletian.  Bad as the outcome of his actions were, it is entirely possible that any other course of action would have been even worse.  But Diocletian was ill and possibly demob happy at the time.  Maybe he just gave in to the demands of Galerius for a quiet life, or perhaps he was deliberately engineering a situation where one emperor was so clearly the leader.

Whatever, the situation this turn of events put Constantine in was precarious.  He was at the time with the army in the East under the direct command of Galerius.  The character of Galerius was not above disposing of an inconvenient rival while he had the chance.  But Constantius was well aware of the situation and immediately requested that Constantine be returned to him on the pretext of needing him for the upcoming campaign in Britain.  It was not easy to answer the summons, but Constantine got the permission of Galerius while he was drunk and in a convivial mood.  His trip across the whole of Europe started first thing the next morning and was done at the fastest speed possible in case Galerius changed his mind.  One colourful detail in some accounts has him hamstringing the horses in the posts after he had used them to prevent pursuit.  This is certainly untrue,as a moment’s thought will prove.  The last thing Constantine would have wanted to do was to draw attention to himself.  It was nonetheless a dramatic flight.

Constantine caught up with his father in Boulogne just as he was about to set out for Britain. Eagle eyed listeners will remember that the conquest of Britain was celebrated by Diocletian in the last episode.  What is the explanation for this discrepancy?  I don’t know.  The reconquest of Britain took place in 297 and Diocletian’s triumph was in 303.  I think Gibbon must have got that bit wrong.

In any event, Constantius was not long for the world.  He died at York in 306.  He has left a good name behind him.  He gets plaudits from contemporaries for his plain manners and being an old style citizen emperor rather than the divinely ordained monarch act played by Diocletian.  He was conscientious and his military exploits were solidly successful and left his portion of the empire in good shape and well defended.  With the monsters around him in power at the time it wasn’t perhaps too hard to shine, but he had been popular.  It was no surprise therefore that his son was immediately proclaimed as emperor by the troops.  Thanks to the situation he was in charge of more legions than would have normally been stationed in Britain.  And he also had a ready made ally in the form of Crocus, a king of the Alemanni who had been helping with the campaign.

Galerius may have regretted letting Constantine slip away but he was soon preoccupied with more significant problems, so he grudgingly recognised the fait accompli.  The appointment of Severus as the emperor in charge of Italy had not gone down well with the Romans.  The new emperor had continued to disrespect Rome by basing his administration in Milan.  Adding injury to insult, there was also a question of taxation.  For five hundred years the Romans had lived free of taxes.  Galerius decided it was time for them to put their hands in their pockets.  Imperial courts and armies don’t fund themselves after all.  Losing political freedom was bad enough.  Losing prestige – well that was bad too.  Hard cash?  Now that is serious.   And given that there were no records of tax collection in Italy the first stage was assessing what everyone was worth.  Not the kind of activity likely to endear one to one’s subjects.  Especially as the accuracy of declarations of personal wealth were sometimes extracted using torture.

Maxentius was approached and persuaded to proclaim himself emperor.  On hearing this, who should turn up but his dad, Maximian who also agreed to resume the purple.  So Italy now had two very credible emperors.  The Praetorian Guard were on board.  They had been the people who probably lost out most by the new trend for emperors to steer clear of the capital.  The undue influence the guards exercised by menacing the person of the emperor himself only worked when the emperor turned up to be menaced.

Severus had been out in the East when all this kicked off, but rapidly returned to sort it out with an army including some Moorish cavalry.  He found the city defended by Maximian.   Maximian was also the man who had originally recruited the Moors.  It wasn’t therefore too difficult for Maximian to win them over to his side.  Severus was forced to retreat to Ravenna.

Ravenna was a good choice.  It is well defended by natural barriers from the land side and was strongly fortifed.  If you go there today the approaches are dominated by Venetian fortifications from much later but the Roman defences must have been pretty good too.  Later it was to serve as the capital of the Western Roman Empire largely thanks to its strong defensive position.

With control of the sea and a well defended city to house his troops, the position of Severus was not too bad.  Maximian soon realised that a siege was unlikely to work.  He always preferred violence when it would work, but he was willing to use guile when necessary.  He managed to undermine the confidence of Severus in his supporters and persuade him to surrender himself without a fight in exchange for a promise not to do him any harm.  Incredibly, Severus fell for it.  Some people just aren’t cut out for the life of a Roman emperor.  Maximian killed Severus straight away.

Galerius himself now felt the need to assert his authority and invaded Italy with the express intention of wiping out the Senate and its supporters.  But Maximian had defended the province with good effect.  This coupled with some bribery to encourage desertions was sufficient to force Galerius to abandon the campaign for now.

Maximian had proved himself many times in battle.  He now showed a shrewd sense of diplomacy and statecraft.  He opened contact with Constantine and traveled north to establish an alliance.  He took his daughter Fausta with him.  Things went  well and Constantine and Maximian’s daughter got married.  Maximian promoted Constantine to the rank of Augustus.  The Western half of the empire was now united under three different Augusti, all neatly related to each other.

In the East Galerius promoted Maximin to Augustus level – although Maximin had already started using the title anyway.  He also appointed a friend, Licinius, as another Augustus.  So the East had three Augusti too.  Gibbon’s title for this chapter is six emperors at the same time.  And here we are, the year is 308 and the empire has six, count them, six emperors. 

Let’s just whiz through those emperors again.

In Egypt you have Maximin.  He is a firm supporter of Galerius though not above promoting himself to Augustus rank when it looked like he was going to end up being the only Caesar left.

New to the grid is Licinius – life long friend of Galerius and allocated Illyrica as his personal domain.

In overall charge in the East and based in Nicomedia is the senior Augustus, Galerian.  He obviously regards himself as the man who is the true successor to Diocletian.

In the West the father and son team of Maximian and Maxentius based in Italy.  Maximian was an old exeperienced bruiser, his son had had a more sheltered life.

The provinces of Gaul and Britain were in the hands of the able and ambitious Constantine.  He didn’t have huge resources at his disposal but did have some experienced troops under his command.  His apparently close relationship with Maximian was deceptive.  His priority was his own career.

Despite the fact that the empire was divided into two armed camps that had actually been fighting each other in Italy, the empire did still remain a single unit.  So for now the empire was at peace though not at ease.

If you want to follow my extended review of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from the beginning (and who wouldn’t?) it starts with Augustus founding the empire.

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