The Origin of Constantine

Although this brief life of Constantine survives only as incorporated into a later (sixth-century) text, it may, in fact, be the earliest biographical record of the first Christian emperor. References to Constantine's Christian enthusiasm were inserted by a later Christian editor, taken mainly from the early fifth-century History against the Pagans by Orosius, a disciple of Augustine. The original text probably ended with the defeat of Constantine's co-emperor Licinius and the founding of Constantinople and may have been written before or soon after Constantine's death in 337. Particulars that were later expunged from Constantine's more favorable biographies still appear without apology, such as the prominent role of Constantine's eldest son Crispus (later executed by his father) and Constantine's own modest origins as the "scantily instructed" son of Constantius's first wife (or concubine), Helena. The author seems more interested in narrating Constantine's political and military legitimacy apart from religious considerations, so he highlights Constantine's (perhaps bogus) relation to the third-century Emperor Claudius Gothicus (reign ca. 268-70 C.E.); he recounts the political career of Constantine's father, Constantius; and he places great emphasis on Constantine's military hardiness and sobriety. "The Origin of Constantine" presents a favorable, but not overly tendentious, narrative of the rise of Constantine to sole rule over the Roman Empire, without the later veneer of Christian adoration or the backlash of anti-Christian resentment.

1(1) Diocletian ruled for twenty years with Her-culius Maximianus. Constantius, a grand-nephew of the divine Claudius (Gothicus), best of princes, through his brother, first became protector, then tribune, and afterward governor of the Dalmatias. Then he was made Caesar by Diocletian, along with Ga-lerius. Having left Helena, his previous wife, he took to wife Theodora, daughter of Maximianus, by whom he subsequently had six children, the brothers of Constantine. But by Helena, his previous wife, he already had a son, Constantine, who later became the most mighty of princes.

2 (2) This Constantine, therefore, was born of a very humble mother, Helena, in the town of Naissus and brought up there (he later adorned this town most splendidly). Having been scantily instructed in letters, he became a hostage with Diocletian and Galerius and fought bravely under them in Asia. After Diocletian and Herculius had laid down their power, Constantius asked for Constantine back from Galerius, but Galerius threw him into the path of many dangers. (3) For when he was a young man fighting in the cavalry against the Sarmatians, having seized a fierce barbarian by his hair, he captured him and brought him to the

From Constantine to Julian: Pagan and Byzantine Views: A Source History, trans. Jane Stevenson, ed. S. N. C. Lieu and Dominic Montserrat. London: Routledge, 1996. Used with permission.

feet of the emperor Galerius. Then, having been sent by Galerius into a swamp, he entered it on horseback and made a way for the rest of the army to the Sarma-tians and brought victory to Galerius, having killed many of them. (4) Then Galerius sent him back to his father. And Constantine, so that he might avoid Severus as he was passing through Italy, crossed the Alps with the greatest possible speed, having killed the post horses behind him, and came to his father at Bononia, which the Gauls previously called Gesori-acum. After his victory over the Picts, his father Con-stantius died at York and Constantine, by the will of all the soldiers, was made Caesar.

3 (5) Meanwhile, two Caesars had been created, Severus and Maximinus [i.e., Maximinus Daia]. Maximinus was given rule over Oriens, and Galerius kept for himself Illyricum, Thrace, and Bithynia. Severus took Italy and whatever Herculius [i.e., Max-imianus] had previously gained. (6) After Constan-tius had died in Britain and Constantine his son had succeeded him, suddenly the Praetorian Guard in the city of Rome created Maxentius, the son of Her-culius, emperor. But at the order of Galerius, Severus took an army against Maxentius, but he was suddenly deserted by all his men and fled to Ravenna. After that, Galerius went to Rome with a vast force, threatening the destruction of the city, and encamped at the fort Interamna on the Tiber. (7) Then he sent Licinius and Probus to the city as ambassadors, asking, in negotiation, that the son-in-law [Maxentius] should seek to obtain what he wanted from his father-in-law Galerius by requesting it, rather than by making war. This was spurned, and he learned that on account of Maxentius's promises, [many] men had deserted his side. Disturbed by this, he turned back, and so that he could give his army some kind of booty, he told them to steal things along the Via Flaminia. (8) Maximinus himself fled to Constantine. Then Galerius made Licinius Caesar in Illyricum. Next, leaving him behind in Pannonia, he himself retired to Serdica, having been attacked by a fearsome disease, and he so melted away that he died with his entrails exposed and rotting, in punishment for the most dreadful persecution, a most just penalty returning on the author of a wicked edict. He had ruled for eighteen years.

4 (9) Severus Caesar was ignoble, both in his way of life and his birth, and an alcoholic and thus a friend of Galerius. It was for this reason that Galerius made him and Maximinus Caesars, with Constantine knowing nothing of the matter. To this Severus were given cities in Pannonia, Italy, and Africa. It is for this reason that Maxentius was made emperor: because Severus, having been abandoned, fled from his own men to Ravenna. (10) Herculius came there on behalf of his son after being summoned, and having deceived Severus with false promises, took him into custody and brought him into the city in the guise of a captive and had him kept in a house belonging to the state thirty [Roman] miles down the Via Appia from Rome. Afterward, when Galerius sought Italy, he was murdered and then brought to a place eight miles from Rome and put in the monument of Gallienus.

(11) Galerius was such an alcoholic that when he was drunk, he would issue orders which ought not to be obeyed, and on the warning of his prefect, he directed that none of his orders issued after dinner should be implemented.

(12) Meanwhile Constantine, having defeated the generals of the tyrant [Maxentius] at Verona, sought out Rome. When Constantine was coming to the city, Maxentius, coming out of the city, chose a plain above the Tiber as the place where they would fight. There he was defeated and, fleeing with all his men, perished, trapped in the crowd of people and thrown down by his horse into the river. On the following day, his body was taken up from the river, and his head was cut off and brought into the city. His mother, when she was questioned about his origins, confessed that he had been begotten by a certain Syrian. He ruled for six years.

5 (13) Licinius too was a man of humble birth from New Dacia, who had been made emperor by Galerius so that he would fight against Maxentius. But after Maxentius had been suppressed, and Con-stantine had retaken Italy, he bound Licinius into alliance with him, provided that Licinius would take his sister Constantia as his wife in Milan. Once the marriage had been celebrated, Constantine went to Gaul, and Licinius returned to Illyricum. (14) Some time later, Constantine sent Constantius to Licinius, suggesting that he should make Bassianus (who had married Constantine's other sister Anastasia) a Caesar, so that Bassianus could hold Italy as a buffer between Constantine and Licinius, following the exampie set by Diocletian and Maximianus. (15) But Licinius spoiled this arrangement, and through the influence of Senicio, Bassianus's brother, who was loyal to Licinius, Bassianus took up arms against Constantine. He was seized while still preparing himself, and at Constantine's order, was convicted and executed. When Senicio, as the person responsible for the plot, was demanded for punishment, Licinius refused to hand him over, and the peace between them was broken. There was an additional reason besides because Licinius had destroyed images and statues of Constantine at Emona. Open war was declared between the two of them.

(16) Both their armies were taken to the plain of Cibalae. Licinius had 35,000 men, infantry and cav-airy; Constantine commanded 20,000 infantry and cavalry. After an indecisive battle, in which 20,000 of Licinius's infantry and part of his armored cavalry were killed, Licinius escaped to Sirmium with the greater part of his horse-troops under cover of night. (17) From there, having picked up his wife and son and treasure, he went to Dacia. He made Valens, commander of the frontier, a Caesar. Then, a huge force having been assembled by means of Valens at Hadrianopolis (a city in Thrace), he sent ambassadors to Constantine, who had settled himself at Philippopolis, to talk of peace. The ambassadors returned, baffled, and having taken to war again, they fought together on the plain of Ardia. After a lengthy and indecisive battle, Licinius's men gave way and fled under cover of night. (18) Licinius and Valens turned away and went into the region of Beroea, believing (which was actually true) that Constantine in order to pursue them would be heading further toward Byzantium. Then as Constantine was eagerly hurrying ahead, he learned that Licinius remained at his back. Just then, when his soldiers were weary with battle and route marching, Mestrianus was sent to him as an ambassador to ask for peace, at the re quest of Licinius, who promised that he would henceforth do as he was told. Valens was commanded to return to his private rank as he had been before, and, when this was done, peace was confirmed between the two emperors, and Licinius held Oriens, Asia, Thrace, Lesser Moesia, and Scythia.

(19) Then, returning to Serdica, Constantine decided in Licinius's absence that Constantine's sons Crispus and Constantine and Licinius's son Licinius should be made Caesars, and thus rule should be carried on harmoniously, as from both of them. Therefore, Constantine and Licinius were made con-suis simultaneously. (20) In the region of Oriens, during Licinius's and Constantine's consulship, L i -cinius, seized by sudden insanity, ordered that all the Christians should be expelled from the palace. Soon after that, war broke out again between Licinius and Constantine.

(21) Again, while Constantine was at Thessa-lonica, the Goths broke through the neglected frontiers, devastated Thrace and Moesia, and began to take spoils. Then, in fear of Constantine, after their onset had been checked, they returned prisoners to him and peace was granted them. But Licinius complained that this was a breach of trust, since an area belonging to him had been relieved by someone else. (22) Then, since he alternated between wheedling and haughty orders, he justifiably roused the wrath of Constantine. During the time when civil war was not yet actually being waged but was being prepared for, Licinius wallowed in the crimes of avarice, cruelty, and lust, murdering many wealthy men and seducing their wives.

(23) Then the peace was broken with the consent of both sides. Constantine sent the Caesar Crispus with a huge fleet to take Asia, and Amandus, acting for Licinius, opposed him with a similarly large naval force. (24) Licinius himself filled the slopes of a high mountain near Hadrianopolis with a great army. Con-stantine turned thither, with his entire force. While the war was going on by both land and sea, Constan-tine was victorious, due to his troops' discipline in battle (though they had difficulty with the heights), and his luck, and the army of Licinius was thrown into confusion and disorganized while Constantine was slightly wounded in the thigh. (25) Licinius, fleeing from there, sought Byzantium; and while his scattered forces tried to reach him, Licinius, having closed Byzantium, prepared for a siege on the landward side, feeling secure to seaward. But Constantine put together a fleet out of Thrace. Then, with his usual foolishness, Licinius made Martinianus Caesar. (26) But Crispus, with Constantine's fleet, reached Callipolis, and there he conquered Amandus in a sea battle so comprehensively that the latter was scarcely able to escape alive with the help of those who had stayed on shore. Licinius's fleet was either destroyed or captured. (27) Licinius, abandoning hope of the sea, by which he saw that he would be blockaded, fled to Chalcedon with his treasure. Constantine, having met up with Crispus and heard of his sea vie-tory, invaded Byzantium. Then Licinius staged a battie at Chrysopolis, greatly aided by the Goths whom their ruler Alica had brought: Constantine's force was victorious and destroyed 25,000 armed men of the other side, while the rest took to flight. (28) Then, when they saw Constantine's legions coming in troopships, they threw down their weapons and gave themselves up. On the following day, Constantia, sister of Constantine and wife of Licinius, came to her brother's camp and begged for her husband's life, which he granted. Then Licinius was made a private citizen and entertained at a feast by Constantine, and Martinianus's life was conceded to him.

(29) Licinius was sent to Thessalonica, but Con-stantine was influenced by the example of his father-in-law Herculius Maximianus, and lest he should assume again the purple he had laid down, to the danger of the state, he ordered Licinius to be killed, as the soldiers of Thessalonica hotly demanded, and likewise Martinianus in Cappadocia. Licinius had ruled for nineteen years and left a wife and son behind him. Although all the participants in the dreadful persecution were already dead, this man was also clearly asking for punishment, who had been a persecutor as far as he was able to.

6 (30) Constantine, in memory of his famous vie-tory, called Byzantium Constantinople, after himself.

As if it were his native city, he enriched it with great assiduity and wanted it to become the equal of Rome. He sought out citizens for it from everywhere and lavished so much wealth on it that he almost exhausted the resources of the imperial treasury. There he founded a Senate of the second rank; the members were called clari.

(31) Then he took up arms against the Goths and gave assistance to the Sarmatians, who had begged for it. Thus, through Constantine Caesar, nearly 100,000 died of starvation and cold. Then he accepted hostages, among whom was Ariaric, son of the king. (32) Thus, when peace had been confirmed, he turned against the Sarmatians, who had proved to be of doubtful loyalty. But all the slaves of the Sar-matians rebelled against their masters, and when the latter had been expelled, Constantine willingly accepted them and distributed more than 300,000 peo-pie of all ages and both sexes throughout Thrace, Scythia, Macedonia, and Italy.

(33) This Constantine was the first Christian emperor except for Philip (the Arab) who, as it seems to me, became Christian simply in order that the thousandth year of Rome might be said to belong to Christ rather than to idols. From Constantine up to the present day, all the emperors have been Christians, with the exception of Julian, whose impious life left him in the middle of what he is said to have been plotting.

(34) Constantine made the change with due order and care. He issued an edict that the temples of the pagans should be closed without any loss of life.

Soon after, he destroyed that most powerful and numerous race, the Goths, in the very bosom of barbarian territory—that is, in the land of the Sarmatians.

(35) He destroyed a certain Calocaerus, who aspired to a revolution in Cyprus.

He made Dalmatius, son of his brother Dalmatius, a Caesar. He gave Dalmatius's brother Hannibalianus to his daughter Constantia and made him King of Kings and ruler of the peoples of Pontica. Then he ordained that Constantine the younger should rule the Gauls, Constantius Caesar the Oriens, Constans should rule Illyricum and Italy, and Dalmatius should protect the Gothic shore.

While Constantine was preparing to make war on Persia, he ended his days in an imperial villa on the outskirts of Constantinople, near Nicomedia, handing on a well-organized state to his sons. He had ruled for thirty-one years and was buried in Constantinople.

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