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Ancient Rome

Biography of Constantine the Great

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The Arch of Constantine in Rome
Photo by Adrian Pingstone

Biography:

Where did Constantine grow up?

Constantine was born around the year 272 AD in the city Naissus. The city was in the Roman province of Moesia which is in the present day country of Serbia. His father was Flavius Constantius who worked his way up in the Roman government until he became the second in command as Caesar under Emperor Diocletian.

Constantine grew up in the court of Emperor Diocletian. He got an excellent education learning to read and write in both Latin and Greek. He also learned about Greek philosophy, mythology, and theatre. Although he lived a privileged life, in many ways Constantine was a hostage held by Diocletian to make sure that his father remained loyal.

Early Career

Constantine fought in the Roman army for several years. He also witnessed Diocletian's persecution and murder of the Christians. This had a lasting impact on him.

When Diocletian became sick, he named a man called Galerius as his heir. Galerius saw Constantine's father as a rival and Constantine feared for his life. There are stories that Galerius tried to have him killed in many ways, but Constantine survived each time.

Eventually Constantine fled and joined his father in Gaul in the Western Roman Empire. He spent a year in Britain fighting alongside his father.

Becoming Emperor

When his father became ill, he named Constantine as Emperor, or Augustus, of the western portion of the Roman Empire. Constantine then ruled over Britain, Gaul, and Spain. He began to strengthen and build up much of the area. He built roadways and cities. He moved his rule to the city of Trier in Gaul and built up the city's defenses and public buildings.

Constantine began to conquer neighboring kings with his large army. He expanded his portion of the Roman Empire. The people began to see him as a good leader. He also stopped the persecution of the Christians in his territory.

Civil War

When Galerius died in 311 AD, many powerful men wanted to take over the Roman Empire and civil war broke out. A man named Maxentius declared himself Emperor. He lived in Rome and took control of Rome and Italy. Constantine and his army marched against Maxentius.

Constantine has a Dream

As Constantine approached Rome in 312, he had reason to worry. His army was about half the size of Maxentius' army. One night before Constantine faced Maxentius in battle he had a dream. In the dream his was told that he would win the battle if he fought under the sign of the Christian cross. The next day he had his soldiers paint crosses on their shields. They dominated the battle, defeating Maxentius and taking control of Rome.

Becoming a Christian

After taking Rome, Constantine forged an alliance with Licinius in the east. Constantine would be Emperor of the West and Licinius in the East. In 313, they signed the Edict of Milan which stated that Christians would no longer be persecuted in the Roman Empire. Constantine now considered himself a follower of the Christian faith.

Emperor of All of Rome

Seven years later, Licinius decided to renew the persecution of Christians. Constantine wouldn't stand for this and marched against Licinius. After several battles Constantine defeated Licinius and became ruler of a united Rome in 324.

Building in Rome

Constantine left his mark in the city of Rome by building many new structures. He built a giant basilica in the forum. He rebuilt the Circus Maximus to hold even more people. Perhaps his most famous building in Rome is the Arch of Constantine. He had a giant arch built to commemorate his victory over Maxentius.

Constantinople

In 330 AD Constantine established a new capital of the Roman Empire. He built it on the location of the ancient city of Byzantium. The city was named Constantinople after Emperor Constantine. Constantinople would later become capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, also called the Byzantine Empire.

Death

Constantine ruled the Roman Empire until his death in 337. He was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople.

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