Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus, popularly known as Constantine the Great, ruled the Roman Empire from 306 CE to 337 CE. He was the son of a Roman army officer, Constantius and a lady called Helena. Later on, both Constantine and his mother were listed as saints by the Byzantine and the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The Early Years
A few years after the birth of his son, Constantius was elevated to the rank of 'Caesar'. Constantine spent most of his childhood in the court of the then Roman Emperor, Diocletian. He was raised among a host of intellectuals in a culture which was flexible, open, constantly enriching, and generous. Both Pagan and Christian scholars had an influence on Constantine's mind. He received an excellent and impressive education in Greek and Latin literature, philosophy, warfare, and administration.
Rising to the Rank of Emperor
Diocletian administered the empire from the eastern stronghold with the assistance of two of his Caesars: Constantius and Galerius. Constantius was in charge of the western Roman Empire and Galerius looked after the eastern front. Constantius requested the services of his son to help him in his campaign. It was a cleverly disguised plan to get Constantine out of the control of Galerius. As soon as the emperor consented, Constantine joined his father to win over Britain. Due to the growing popularity of his conquests, Constantine was promoted to the rank of a Caesar. With the success of the Roman fleet, Constantine acclaimed a heroic status. On the death of his father, he was made the Augustus, much to the dislike of his counterparts in the east.
He ruled Gaul, Britain, and Spain by 307 CE and then set his sight on Italy. The Battle of the Milvian Bridge, in which he defeated Maxentius, his most powerful rival, was a landmark event in his life. Legend goes that it was here that he had a dream in which Jesus conferred him with a holy symbol chi ro with a message, In this sign you shall conquer. This symbol was drawn on every soldier's shield in his army. He won the battle even though he had a numerically small army. By 312 CE, Constantine was the only Augustus of the west. In 323 CE, he defeated Licinius, the last remaining Augustus other than himself, and became the sole ruler of the great Roman Empire.
He chose the Greek city of Byzantium as his capital and renamed it as Constantinople; it is known as Istanbul today. He not only expanded the city, but also strengthened and beautified the entire place. The new capital is still considered the meeting point of the western and eastern world. History is full of examples of how Constantinople influenced the world, both politically and culturally. Due to his endeavors, Rome rose to great heights, and became the center of wealth and governance. It became one of the very most important cities in the world at the time.
Christianity, as the state religion, flourished in his time. The Arch of Constantine is the most famous architecture of his period. This arch was built to commemorate his famous victory in the Battle of Milvian Bridge. He was a patron of religion and art, which is evident from the large number of churches, sculptures, monuments, and holy sites that he built in his empire.
Roman economy, politics, culture, and traditions grew in popularity under his regime. His policies laid the foundation of the modern Western civilization. Although he religiously followed old customs and traditions, the laws were tolerant to every other faith. However, he did this because of his personal interest, and not due to his feelings for the contemporary society. Whatever the reason, he was respected and liked by the army, clergy, and the masses equally.
It was on May 27, 337 CE, that Constantine breathed his last. He was buried in the Church of the Apostles in Constantinople. He considered himself an apostle, because he had spread the Christian faith for all his life. There are statues of the twelve apostles, six on either side of his tomb. His greatness is revealed by the fact that the next 10 Roman emperors assumed the name Constantine in his honor!
He has gone down in history as one of the greatest emperors who had a lasting impact on the civilized world.