This day in History – May 22, 337 – death of Constantine the Great

For the last 13 years of his life he had been the sole ruler of the Roman Empire.  The path to the throne was bloody.  Elected emperor by his legions on the death of his father Constantius I Chlorus in 306 AD, Constantine spent the next 18 years walking a bloody trail through the civil wars that wrecked Diocletian’s tetrarchy.  The body count along the way included one father in law (Maximian), two brothers in law (Maxentius and Licinius) and his nephew Licinius II.

In 326 came another scandal.  Constantine’s oldest son and presumed heir Crispus who had displayed military brilliance in the final war against Licinius was summarily arrested and executed.  This was followed shortly by the execution of Constantine’s wife and step-mother of Crispus Fausta.  No explanation for the sudden scandalous executions has survived so conjecture has included an adulterous affair between the two or Fausta falsely implicating Crispus in treason to advance the succession for her three sons and being executed in her turn when the deceit was uncovered.

But in the middle of this blood shed Constantine did find time for administrative reforms to try to secure the Empire.  Posterity remembers Constantine for two things.  Embracing Christianity (before the battle with Maxentius) and founding a 2nd Rome Constantinople on the site of ancient Byzantium.  Dan Brown acolytes will also remember him for the Council of Nicea – which was summoned to bring order to Christian doctrine and address Arianism and not crap on women’s rights.   Constantine himself would not be baptized until his death bed and his adoption of Christianity appears to have tried to merge in attributes and iconography of the faith of Sol Invictus – worship of the unconquered Sun – which was popular in the army into Christianity.

Colossal marble head of Emperor Constantine the Great, Roman, 4th century
Colossal marble head of Emperor Constantine the Great, Roman, 4th century

The death of Constantine marks the end of an era.  It would be the last time any emperor would be sole Augustus of the unified Emperor for so long (his son Constantius II was sole Augustus for 11 years but outsourced rule of the West to two cousins holding rank of Caesar).  The Empire would be divided among his three sons Constantine II, Constans I and Constantius II.  There would also be a final imperial bloodbath with the elimination of Constantine’s half-brothers and their sons.  Only two nephews would be spared because they were children – Gallus (briefly raised to Caesar by Constantius II) and his more famous brother Julian the Apostate.  None of these 5 left sons and the male portion of the House of Constantine ended on the death of Julian.  A daughter of Constantius II would marry the Emperor Gratian and die without issue.

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