Constantine the Great
Constantine I ruled the Roman Empire as Emperor from 306 to 337. He
managed the unlikely task of both centralizing the Roman Empire and
setting the stage for its ultimate fragmentation.
came centralization, remedying a political nightmare created in 293
by a predecessor, Emperor Diocletian. Diocletian had divided the Empire
into four administrative units, with himself retaining direct rule of
the two eastern units from a capital at Nicomedia in present-day Turkey
while delegating rule of the two western units to a subordinate based
in Italy. Diocletian died in 306 and by the following year, when Constantine
succeeded his father as ruler of the western provinces, the system had
already spawned no fewer than seven claimants to Diocletian's throne.
Constantine, however, managed to unite the Empire through a series of
military successes culminating in defeat of his principal western rival
Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312.
Yet although Constantine had unified the Empire under a single ruler,
the same military and political expediencies that had led Diocletian
to seek a capital in the east finally led Constantine to the same result.
In 330 he removed his capital to Byzantium, which was renamed Constantinople--a
name it retained until the 20th century, when it became Istanbul. Although
Constantine avoided the mistake of Diocletian in placing the western
sector of the Empire under rule of a potential rival, the geographical
span of the Empire created an inherent instability that was to result
in a conclusive division of the Empire into
two parts just 65 years later.
In fact, Constantine's greatest impact upon history was neither his
reunification of the Empire nor his contribution toward its final division.
History remembers Constantine for his Edict of Milan in 313, which removed
the legal ban on Christianity within the Empire. Constantine attributed
his victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge to his having fought it
under the sign of Christ--because of a dream on the eve of battle.
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© 1999-2000 C. I. Gable