Over the next two decades, however,Constantine had to fight his rivals for the throne, and he did not finallyestablishhimself as sole ruler until 324. Following the example of his father and earlier 3rd-century emperors,Constantine in his early life was a solar henotheist, believing that theRoman sun god,Sol, was the visible manifestation of an invisible “Highest God”,who was the principlebehind the universe. This god was thought to be the companion of the Romanemperor. Constantine’s adherence to this faith is evident from his claim ofhaving hada vision of the sun god in 310 while in a grove of Apollo in Gaul. In 312, onthe eve ofa battle against Maxentius, his rival in Italy, Constantine is reported tohave dreamedthat Christ appeared to him and told him to inscribe the first two letters ofhis nameon the shields of his troops.
The next day he is said to have seen a crosssuperimposed on the sun and the words “in this sign you will be thevictor”. Constantine then defeated Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, nearRome. The Senate hailed the victor as savior of the Roman people. Thus,Constantine, whohad been a pagan solar worshiper, now looked upon the Christian deity as abringer ofvictory.
Persecution of the Christians was ended, and Constantine’sco-emperor,Licinius, joined him in issuing the Edict of Milan (313), which mandatedtoleration ofChristians in the Roman Empire. As guardian of Constantine’s favoredreligion, thechurch was then given legal rights and large financial donations. A struggle for power soon began between Licinius and Constantine,from which Constantine emerged in 324 as a victorious Christian champion. Nowemperor of both East and West, he began to implement important administrativereforms.
The army was reorganized, and the separation of civil and militaryauthority,begun by his predecessor, Diocletian, was completed. The central governmentwasrun by Constantine and his council, known as the sacrum consistorium. TheSenatewas given back the powers that it had lost in the 3rd century, and new goldcoinswere issued, which remained the standard of exchange until the end of theByzantineEmpire. Constantine intervened in ecclesiastical affairs to achieve unity; hepresided over the first ecumenical council of the church at Nicaea in 325.
Healsobegan the building of Constantinople in 326 on the site of ancient GreekByzantium. The city was completed in 330 (later expanded), given Roman institutions, andbeautified by ancient Greek works of art. In addition, Constantine builtchurches inthe Holy Land, where his mother (also a Christian) supposedly found the TrueCrosson which Jesus was crucified. The emperor was baptized shortly before hisdeath, onMay 22, 337. Constantine the Great unified a tottering empire, reorganized theRoman state, and set the stage for the final victory of Christianity at theend of the4th century. Many modern scholars accept the sincerity of his religiousconviction.
Hisconversion was a gradual process; at first he probably associated Christ withthevictorious sun god. By the time of the Council of Nicaea (325), however, hewascompletely Christian, but still tolerated paganism among his subjects. Althoughcriticized by his enemies as a proponent of a crude and false religion,Constantine theGreat strengthened the Roman Empire and ensured its survival in the East. Asthe firstemperor to rule in the name of Christ, he was a major figure in thefoundation ofmedieval Christian Europe.Biographies