Constantine the Great was born 27 February 272 and died 22 May 337, also known as Constantine I, he was Emperor from 306 to 337. Well known for being the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. As one of the four generals to dispute for a unified rule of the divided empire, after final victory over his rivals he eventually brought peace in 324. To emphasize the new Empire, he shifted the ruling city from Rome to Byzantium in the East, he called the city Constantinople. He is still considered the founder of the Eastern Roman Empire.
Eusebius records a dramatic event in the life of Constantine in 312, during the time of the civil wars According to the story, Constantine looked up to the sun before the battle and saw a cross of light above it, and with it the Greek words “by this, win!”, often used in the Latin “in hoc signo vinces”. The story continues and Constantine directed his troops to paint the Christian symbol of the Chi-Rho on their shields, they were always victorious after this. Inspiring signs of the cross on the shields of crusaders for many centuries after.
His mother was a Christian believer, and, although criticized as merely a political move, it would seem Constantine’s conversion was a genuine one. He had a simple faith, and desired unity and peace in the empire, and he used his influence to promote the Christian faith to achieve these goals.
As a way to make a pact and join forces Constantine and Licinius announced in 313 “that it was proper that the Christians and all others should have liberty to follow that mode of religion which to each of them appeared best.” This was known as the Edict of Milan and marked an end to the organized persecution of the Christians.
In 324 he became sole ruler of the Empire, this is when he move to the East and renamed the city Constantinople, meaning, Constantine’s city. By 325 the disputes in Alexandria about the Trinity spread across the Empire and Constantine had to address the situation. He called the council of Nicaea and it met in may 325, focused clarifying the opposing views of Alexander and Arius. Constantine presided over the council and gave the opening speech. Nicaea affirmed the ‘homoousion’ the consubstantiation of Christ with God the Father, and Arius was condemned as a heretic.
Constantine died in April of 337, just twelve years later. He had vacillated, reinstating Arius to the bishopric of Alexandria, and he remained close to Eusebius of Nicomedia, an Arian teacher. Jerome records that Eusebius of Nicomedia baptized Constantinople in that same month of April, Constantinople later died, still wearing his baptismal robes.
Constantine began the construction of two major churches in Constantinople, Hagia Sophia (pictured above in modern Istanbul, meaning Holy Wisdom) and Hagia Eirene (Holy Peace); the foundation of a third, the Church of the Holy Apostles, may be attributed to him with a measure of certainty, all completed later. Unlike the Old Rome, which was filled with pagan monuments and institutions, the New Rome of Constantinople was essentially a Christian capital.
Although he was not a Father in the church I have snuck Constantine in this section of our history posts, it helps to understand what was going on in the Roman culture and how that informed the leaders of the church. Many criticize Constantine for trying to combine church and state, but we must remember how new everything was. 313 was so significant, putting an end to persecution, and likewise 324 when that was realized in the whole empire, up to this point the church was underground in some cities. Under Constantine there was peace and unity in the church and across the Empire, Christians could worship publically without fear.