The Roman emperor, Constantine the Great (c. 272/280-337), is commonly viewed with a positive light. This perspective is likely deserved—the man achieved a lot of impressive feats in his lifetime. He ended Christian persecution in the Roman Empire and was the only survivor in the civil war between the leaders of the Roman Tetrarchy. The tetrarchy divided the empire between two dominant emperors with the label, “Augustus” and two subservient “Caesars,” but Constantine’s victory in the civil war brought Rome, once again, under the rule of one strong emperor. Constantine also founded the city of Constantinople, the second great capital of the Roman Empire.
It is true that Constantine accomplished a lot of great things, and in many ways was a force for good, yet the darker side of Constantine cannot be forgotten—he was a brutal emperor. Brutality, however, should not be a surprising trait in Roman emperors, especially those involved in civil wars. Even the wise philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius had a few persecutions in his day. To be a successful civil war emperor, Constantine had to carefully craft his own image and tarnish the reputations of his enemies and, sometimes, make his rivals suspiciously disappear.
One of Constantine’s subtle skills was misinformation and distraction. The previous leader of the Roman Tetrarchy prior to Constantine, named Diocletian (emperor, 284-305), had carried out elaborate Christian persecutions during his reign. Diocletian’s persecutions, which occurred around 302-303, were in full swing when Constantine was in his thirties. At the time, Constantine’s father (Constantius Chlorus) was a member of the tetrarchy and Constantine was lobbying for a prestigious position in the court of Diocletian. In his successful bid to gain the support of the Christian population of Rome, however, Constantine later claimed he was younger than he actually was, separating himself from Diocletian’s policies of persecution, while exaggerating the abuses of his rivals, such as Maxentius and Licinius.
Yet, his old history was not all that Constantine could scratch out of existence. In one interesting story, Constantine reportedly executed two Frankish chiefs or kings in 307, by throwing them into an amphitheater in Trier that was filled with deadly animals. There are also several high-profile deaths in which Constantine had a hand. For one, Constantine’s rival, Emperor Maximian was forced to commit suicide in 310, during the civil war. After the war, Constantine controversially (and without much explanation) had his son charged with treason and executed in 326—an event that still baffles modern scholars. Soon after, Constantine’s second wife Fausta either committed suicide or was killed on Constantine’s orders.
One popular theory of what happened in 326 is that Fausta convinced Constantine that Crispus (her stepson) was treasonous, causing the chain of events leading to the execution. Yet, after the execution had occurred, rumor spread that Fausta’s claims were false. Once the public and the emperor believed the rumor, Fausta either committed suicide in shame, or Constantine took revenge for the wrongful execution of his son. This is only a theory, but it is a historical fact that Constantine did execute his son in 326, and his second wife, Fausta, suspiciously died within the same year as the execution of Crispus.
Again, it should not be too surprising that Constantine the Great had a cold and calculating side. All successful emperors of the Roman Empire had to have a certain ruthless grit and cunning to survive the deadly political climate of ancient Rome. Constantine, perhaps, was just a little less brutal than many of his imperial predecessors.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Introduction to Medieval Europe, 300-1500 (Second Edition) by Wim Blockmans and Peter Hoppenbrouwers. New York: Routledge, 2014.