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Constantine I

A Christian Empire

Constantine was now sole ruler of the empire, and in a reign of peace he set about rebuilding the strength of old Rome. Constantine continued to tolerate paganism and even to encourage the imperial cult. At the same time, however, he endeavored to unify and strengthen Christianity.

In 314 he convened a synod at Arles to regulate the Church in the West, and in 325 he convened and presided over a council at Nicaea to deal with the troubles over Arianism (see Nicaea, First Council of). Thus Constantine evolved the idea of the ecumenical council. In 330 he moved the capital to Byzantium, which was rebuilt as Constantinople, a city predominantly Christian and dedicated to the Virgin. He seems to have favored compromise with Arianism, and in 335, in defiance of the Council of Tyre, he exiled St. Athanasius.

As the founder of the Christian empire, Constantine began a new era. He was an absolute ruler, and his reign saw the culmination of the tendency toward despotic rule, centralized bureaucracy, and separation of military and civil powers evolved by Diocletian. Constantine's legal reforms were marked by great humanity, perhaps a result of Christian influence. Though he had done much to unify the empire, at his death Constantine divided it again, providing for his three surviving sons and also to some extent for the sons of his half-brother. These nephews were soon killed (though others, notably Julian the Apostate, survived), but complex contests ensued between Constans I, Constantine II, and Constantius II.

Historians differ greatly in their assessments of Constantine's motives and the depth of his Christian conviction. Early Christian writers portray him as a devout convert, although they have difficulty explaining his execution in 320 (on adultery charges) of Crispus, his son by his first wife, and Fausta, his wife. Some later historians see him as a political genius, expediently using Christianity to unify his empire. An intermediate interpretation pictures him as a pagan gradually converted to Christianity (he was baptized on his deathbed), using his new belief for personal ends much as earlier emperors had used the imperial cult.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Ancient History, Rome: Biographies


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