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Struggle for Political Power
Constantine's early life did not show what he was to become as Constantine is well-known to have considered many different religions. He had shown no particular revulsion to the last great persecution of Christians under the Emperor Diocletian. He became Caesar of the West upon the death of his father in 306 AD and ruled the region of Gaul while Severus became the Augustus of the West, a higher designation than Caesar. Maximian usurped the power of Augustus and his son Maxentius, who had also assumed the title of Caesar, had Severus executed. Maximian had a falling out with his son and feared Galerius, who was Augustus of the East; Maximian sought Constantine's protection. Continued bickering eventually saw Constantine given the title of Augustus in 310. Maximian tried to revolt and was killed by Constantine. Galerius died of disease in 311 and his nephew Maximinus Daia, who had also been made an Augustus, took his lands. Continued difficulties with Maxentius led to open warfare between him and Constantine. Constantine invaded Italy to face Maxentius and then had the event that proved to be the turning point of his life.
Victory and embracing of Christianity
While preparing for battle against Maxentius, Constantine is said to have seen in the sky the Chi Rho ΧΡ [ ⳩ ] an early Christian symbol, with the Latin words "IN HOC SIGNO VINCES," or, "under this sign shall you conquer." He ordered his troops to paint the Chi Rho on their shields and won a crushing victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge the next day (Oct 28th, 312) as recorded by the historian and bishop of Caesarea Eusebius. Maxentius drowned while trying to escape. Constantine met with Licinius in Milan in early 313 and together they signed the Edict of Milan which gave equal rights for all religions and made Christianity legal in Rome for the first time and after almost 300 years of persecution. Property that had been confiscated from Christians was restored. An effort by Maximinus Daia to attack Licinius later that year met in failure and he fled and died soon after. Constantine was now the sole leader of the West while Licinius was the sole leader of the East. After a brief war in 314 AD, the two made peace agreeing on the boundaries between them. In 316, at the invitation of the newly legalized Christian church, Constantine tried to settle the Donatist schism. Tensions between Constantine and Licinius grew when Licinius again started persecuting Christians in 320 and led to all out civil war in 324, which ended with Licinius' surrender and imprisonment. Later that year, Constantine accused Licinius of conspiracy and had him killed. Constantine had become sole Emperor and would remain so until his death in 337 AD
Constantine as sole Emperor
In 324 Constantine began building a new city on the site of the village of Byzantium, on the Bosporous. The city was completed six years and given the name of Nova Roma (New Rome), and made his new capital. After Constantine's death, the city would be renamed Constantinople after him.
With his authority over the entire Empire safely secured, one of Constantine's first actions was to call together a meeting of Christian leaders. After years of never being able to all meet together openly, Constantine encouraged Christian leaders from all over the Empire to come together and draw up common understandings of their beliefs. This became the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD
Upon Constantine's death in 337 AD, his Empire was divided between his three sons. They would not work together peacefully and open warfare would soon ensue as they would each seek to consolidate power for themselves.
It is worth noting that much of Constantine's earlier religiosity remains in the archaeological record. For example, Roman coins from the time period of Constantine I can be found, emblazoned with the legend,
"IMP CONSTANT AUG, SOL INV.," expanded as, "Imperator Constantine Augustus, to Sol Invictus," and translated as, "Commander Constantine, Augustus, dedicated to the God of the Unconquered Sun."
- Who’s Who in Christianity, Lavinia Coh-Sherbok, 1998
- There is also the speculative possibility that he may instead have seen the Chi Iota ΧΙ ⧆ with the Greek letters similarly superimposed together, like a sunburst with six brilliant rays. The chi iota was also used in the Byzantine east as an early Christian symbol.
- An Encyclopedia of World History, Kingsport Press, 1948