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By Giles Morgan
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2007 Giles Morgan
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The Reign of Constantine the Great
It could be argued that no single individual played a greater role in the establishment and development of the Byzantine Empire than Constantine the Great. Like the immense marble head carved in his likeness that has survived from the fourth century AD at the Capitoline Museum in Rome, with its huge eyes and air of terrible power, his presence seems to dominate modern perceptions of Byzantium. However, to understand and trace the story of the Byzantine Empire, it is necessary to look first at the state of the Roman Empire under the Emperor Diocletian who ruled from 284 AD until his voluntary and unprecedented abdication in 305 AD.
During his reign Diocletian had divided the Empire into two halves formed of Eastern and Western parts. He shared his power with a trusted friend from the Roman military called Maximian, making him ruler in the West in 286 AD. Diocletian ruled the Eastern half of the Empire and retained ultimate power for himself. The decision to divide the Empire was an attempt to achieve greater control of what had become a vast and sprawling concern, stretching from Hadrian's Wall in Northern England to territories in Egypt. Diocletian divided the power structure still further with the appointment of two junior Caesars to serve the Emperors. These actions also reflected the fact that the city of Rome itself was no longer ideally placed in geographical terms to govern and control such a huge multi-national Empire. Diocletian based himself and his court primarily in the city of Nicomedia whilst Maximian ruled his half of the Empire principally from Milan.
This system of government was known as the Tetrachy. Apart from his structural changes, Diocletian is today most infamously remembered for his persecution of Christians throughout the Empire whom he saw as a pernicious, disruptive and divisive influence within Roman society. When Diocletian abdicated, weary with the pressures of power, he forced his reluctant co-emperor to do likewise and their two junior Caesars were declared 'Augusti' in their stead. Constantius Chlorus, nicknamed 'The Pale', took over the Western Empire whilst Galerius, a soldier with a vicious and formidable reputation, became Emperor in the East. Constantius Chlorus was the father of Constantine the Great and, following an impressive and successful career as a general in the Roman Army, he had been given the task of subduing unrest in the unruly province of Britain. Constantine's mother Helena is thought to have been the daughter of an innkeeper from Bithynia. Although historians generally concur that Constantius and Helena were at one time married, Helena was to be set aside in favour of a more prestigious and politically motivated marriage which Constantius made with Theodora, the adopted stepdaughter of the Emperor Maximian.
It is known that Constantine was born on 27 February but the exact year of his birth is not know for certain. It is thought to have been around 274 AD in a Roman province called Dacia. The town of his birth, Naissus, is known today as Nis in the former Republic of Yugoslavia. Although little is known about the origins of Constantine's parents, it seems that Constantius was an example of an increasing trend of the time for individuals to gain success within the Empire on the basis of merit and ability rather than simply high birth and attachment to one of the old families of the city of Rome. Diocletian himself was not from a Roman background but as an efficient and often ruthless soldier and leader he had gained power and approval within the Roman army.
Constantine spent his early life attached to the court of Diocletian at Nicomedia. Although this would have provided Constantine with an opportunity to serve and impress within the Emperor's court, it is likely that Diocletian kept him close as a potential bargaining tool should his father Constantius ever displease him or, indeed, openly rebel.
When Diocletian and Maximian did step down from power and Constantius and Galerius became Emperors, conflict almost immediately arose as to who was to take their place as Eastern and Western Caesars. Through the murky political machinations of the time Constantine was selected and left the court at Nicomedia in some haste to join his father's army in Gaul. There is every chance that, if he had remained, he would have been assassinated in order to prevent his coming to power.
When Constantine joined his father's army it was setting out on a military campaign against the Pictish tribes in Northern Britain. They succeeded in suppressing the marauding and aggressive Picts who had been wreaking havoc in Roman-controlled England and drove them back beyond the boundaries of Hadrian's Wall. However, soon after this success, Constantius became ill and he died suddenly at York on 25 July 306 AD. Constantine, who seems to have rapidly gained the respect and admiration of his father's troops during this campaign, was then acclaimed Augustus and 'raised to the purple'.
However, events were to run far less smoothly when the Eastern Emperor Galerius was informed of Constantine's acclamation by his troops. He refused to recognise Constantine as Western Emperor, viewing him as a rebellious upstart, and would accept him only as a Caesar and therefore junior to him in rank. In the short term Constantine was prepared to accept the situation and ruled in Britain and Gaul for a period of five years. Upon the death of Galerius in 311 AD, a power vacuum was created and rivalry between the Caesars came to a head. In the meantime the former Emperor Maximian, who had abdicated with Diocletian, had come back to power in Italy, supported by his son Maxentius. It is thought that Constantine may well have been involved in the later death of Maximian who had tried to make the legions of Gaul overthrow the younger man. Rivalry and mutual dislike was, therefore, particularly intense between Constantine and Maxentius and soon escalated into open war when Maxentius publicly accused Constantine of the murder of his father. Constantine is said to have raised an army of around 98,000 troops and marched on Italy. He successfully took a series of cities in Northern Italy and advanced inexorably on Rome to confront Maxentius.
The Battle of Milvian Bridge
The subsequent meeting of the two armies at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge on 28 October 312 AD has come to be seen as one of the defining moments in the life of Constantine with colossal implications for the future of European history. According to popular legend, Constantine is said to have undergone a profound and mystical religious experience either before or actually during the battle, one that could be compared to Paul's experience on the road to Damascus. Accounts of Constantine's vision vary and have subsequently proven to be an extremely popular and effective piece of pro-Christian propaganda. In his Life of Constantine (De Vita Constantini, I) the historian Eusebius of Caesarea tells how the Emperor described the experience to him:
... a most marvellous sign appeared to him from heaven ... He said that about midday, when the sun was beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription 'Conquer by This'. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also.
(quoted in John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Years, p.39).
Similarly the historian Socrates, who wrote his account in the fifth century, states that:
... at about that time of day when the sun, having passed the meridian, began to decline towards the West, he saw a pillar of light in the form of a cross which was inscribed 'in this conquer'. The appearance of the sign struck him with amazement, and doubting his own eyes, he asked those around him if they could see what he did, and as they unanimously declared that they could, the emperor's mind was strengthened by this divine and miraculous apparition.
(quoted in John Holland Smith, Constantine the Great, p.102).
Socrates further explains that Christ himself appeared to Constantine in a dream the next night and commanded him to make a standard in the shape of a cross and to carry it into battle. If he did so, he would be assured of victory.
However, the first text to record the alleged mystical events around the Battle of Milvian Bridge was produced by a writer called Lactantius who actually knew Constantine and his family. Writing within a relatively short period after the battle, he describes the sleeping Constantine being directed in the course of a dream to order his troops to display the chi rho symbol. Constructed of the first two Greek letters of the name of Christ, this was a popular and well-known cipher for early Christians and can still be found in Christian contexts today. Historians now think that it is most likely that it was this symbol that Constantine utilised during the battle and that the vision of the cross was an elaboration which other contemporary accounts do not mention. It does seem, however, as if the Emperor did have some kind of experience that was meaningful to him and which he took to be of a divine origin and which greatly encouraged him before the battle took place.
When the two armies did meet it is thought that Constantine was leading the smaller of the two forces and yet he succeeded in forcing the troops of Maxentius into a disorderly retreat. The battle took place several miles from the city of Rome, near to the river Tiber and, in the melee, the army of Maxentius was pushed back to the Milvian Bridge, which was made of stone and fairly narrow. Knowing that it was possible that his troops might have to withdraw and would struggle to cross this bridge, Maxentius had ordered that a pontoon bridge be constructed next to it. Unfortunately, in the panic of retreat, the pontoon bridge was disassembled whilst men were still crossing it and it collapsed under their collective weight.
Many were drowned, including Maxentius himself, whilst the remaining men, who rushed to cross the stone bridge, became trapped and crushed by sheer weight of numbers. The army of Constantine emerged victorious, thus seeming to confirm the mystical dream or intuition of the Emperor.
The Edict of Milan
Following his victory at the Milvian Bridge and his acceptance by the Roman Senate as the Western Emperor, Constantine met with the Eastern Emperor Licinius in the city of Milan in early 313 AD. The subsequent talks between the two Emperors are best remembered today for producing the Edict of Milan which promised that there would be a new climate of religious tolerance and the cessation of persecution of individuals based on their beliefs. The edict was aimed particularly at protecting the Christians who had suffered greatly, particularly during the bloody and violent persecutions instituted by the Emperor Diocletian.
However, although Constantine was to legislate in favour of the Christians and had come to align himself with their cause, there is still considerable debate as to the extent to which he himself had embraced their religious beliefs. Clearly the events of the Battle of Milvian Bridge appear to show Constantine appealing to the Christian god for aid but a closer examination of what is known of the Emperor's religious beliefs during this period reveals a more complex spiritual identity. Constantine had in fact been variously a devotee of the cult of Apollo, of Mithras and of Sol Invictus or the 'Unconquered Sun'. Coins from the early part of his reign as Western Emperor depict Sol Invictus and it has been argued that, like his own father Constantius, he was increasingly becoming interested and moving towards the idea of a single supreme deity. Interestingly, however (and, arguably, entirely in keeping with attitudes of the time), Constantine seems to have felt reasonably comfortable with, and open to, the concept of this supreme deity taking more than one form or assuming more than one identity. It must also be remembered that it would have been politically unwise of Constantine to commit fully and publicly to the Christian cause and so upset the long-standing traditions of polytheistic worship in the Roman Empire.
Following his victory at the Milvian Bridge he seems to have been careful to remain reasonably ambiguous about his own religious beliefs, even adopting the tactic of appearing to be above such concerns. One particular inscription of the time, drafted by the senate and presumably approved by the Emperor, survives on the triumphal Arch of Constantine and describes him as being 'Instinct With Divinity'. Tellingly, it omits to say which divinity, suggesting a certain caution and wariness about proclaiming where exactly his convictions might lie. It is also possible that Constantine had not himself fully decided and, as we have seen, the worship and recognition of more than one God was perfectly normal for the time.
Following Constantine's acceptance as Western Emperor relations with his Eastern counterpart Licinius soon deteriorated. Tensions between the two finally resulted in war in 323 AD with Constantine emerging as the victor. At first Constantine showed clemency, exiling Licinius to Thessalonica, but within months he had him executed, perhaps sensing that, whilst he lived, he represented a threat to his authority.
The Arian Heresy
Perhaps the single greatest threat to the unity of the early Christian Church was the emergence and development of the heresy often known as Arianism. It was a Christian theology that took its name from a presbyter of Alexandria named Arius. He had been a pupil of Lucian of Antioch and his teachings were to send shockwaves through the hierarchy of the early Church. Arius was born in 256 AD and it is thought he was of Berber or possibly Libyan ancestry. He was made presbyter of Alexandria in 313 AD. The views of Arius were not, in fact, new or unique but, through his personal charisma and magnetism, they achieved great popularity throughout the Christian world. At the centre of his heretical teachings was the nature of Christ and his relationship to God. It must be remembered that what is known of Arius' teachings has survived largely in the writings and texts of those who were opposed to him. Arius argued that Christ was not of the same substance as God and that he was not eternal and had, in fact, been a creation of God. If God had created the son then there necessarily must have been a time when the son had not existed and therefore must be lesser than God and not co-eternal with him. The followers of St Alexander of Alexandria disputed this, saying that the Son and the Father were of the same substance and were co-eternal. St Alexander and his supporters were known as homoousians. A third theological position contested that Christ and God were of a 'similar' substance and adherents of this Christological viewpoint were called homoiousians. By arguing that Christ was not equal to God, Arius effectively questioned the Holy Trinity and contested the divinity of Christ. In Arius' view, Jesus had been created by God to perform a particular function on earth, the salvation of humanity, but was himself human in nature. His theology was hugely popular but, by 320 AD, Arius had been excommunicated for his heretical beliefs.
The Council of Nicaea
In response to the discord and disharmony that Arianism had created within the Church, in 323 AD Constantine sent an emissary, Bishop Hosius of Cordova, on a mission to Egypt to try and resolve a dispute which, from the Emperor's point of view, threatened the unity and stability of the Empire. Hosius had been Constantine's own personal advisor on Christianity but he was unable to resolve the issue.
A further attempt the following year also met with failure and Constantine ultimately took the decision to convene a universal church council to reach a final and decisive conclusion on the matter. This council began on 20 May 325 AD and continued until 19 June and was held at Nicaea, a place chosen as the meeting point because it was reachable without too much difficulty by all the delegates, particularly those at the centre of the dispute in the East. Estimates vary as to how many attended the council at the imperial palace in Nicaea. The chronicler Eusebius of Caesarea claims 270 bishops but it is thought, on the basis of other contemporary accounts, that a figure of between 300 and 318 is more likely. Most of these bishops had travelled from the East. Each bishop was also allowed to bring two presbyters and three deacons. Most significantly, Constantine himself attended the council, an action that drew the state and the Church together in a manner that would come to define the history of the Byzantine Empire. The council decided that the Father and the Son were co-substantial or of one substance, a rejection of Arian beliefs.
In recent years the findings and the events of the Council of Nicaea have been called into question, most notably in Dan Brown's best-selling The Da Vinci Code. In Brown's version of events, a character named Leigh Teabing states that until the Council of Nicaea, 'Jesus was viewed by his followers as a mortal prophet ... a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless' (Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, p.240).
Excerpted from Byzantium by Giles Morgan. Copyright © 2007 Giles Morgan. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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