Constantine the Great: The Years 327-335

Golden solidus of Constantine (Crypta Balbi, Rome).

In 327 Constantine was about 55 years old. By the standards of the day the emperor was an old man. But he had many reasons to be quite content. The Roman Empire had been united again under his rule and the introduction a couple of years back of a new gold coin, the solidus, had been a great economic success. Although during the final ten years of his reign Constantine frequently had to fight off foreign invaders, serious threats to the peace in the Empire were confined to the last two years, when the powerful Sassanids began stirring up trouble again. So things were looking bright, but nevertheless the emperor must have started thinking about his inevitable death one day. His mother Helena had died, as had his wife Fausta. Although it is unclear whether Constantine himself had a hand in her death, it is certain that he had ordered the execution of his son Crispus, the child of his previous partner Minervina. Although such an execution was not uncommon for a Roman emperor, it does seem that the murder (for it was just that) of his own flesh and blood had not left Constantine untouched. Haunted by remorse and guilt, the emperor dedicated himself to a reorganisation of the army, the administration of the Empire and the inauguration of a new capital, Constantinople.

Army and government

In a short passage that does not give any details the fourth-century historian Aurelius Victor states that Constantine reorganised the Roman army.[1] This reorganisation was not an isolated action. The emperor basically continued a process that had already been started under the emperors Valerianus and Gallienus, and that had gained momentum under Diocletianus. Since the days of Diocletianus and Constantine the army was composed of border troops or limitanei on the one hand, and units of the more mobile field army, the comitatenses, on the other. Integrated into the field army were the auxiliaries that did not possess Roman citizenship. Many of these were warriors from the Germanic tribes that had been invited by Roman emperors and governors to settle in the provinces. Although the term “auxiliaries” suggests that these units were of inferior quality, quite the opposite was true. In fact, the imperial auxiliaries or auxilia palatina were the pick of the army. Famous units were, for instance, the Cornuti and Brachiati. The mounted imperial bodyguards, the scholae palatinae, were usually composed of Germans as well.

The Porta Nigra in Trier.

In 328 Constantine and his eldest son Constantine II were at Augusta Treverorum (Trier). The young caesar, at the time about twelve years old, was given formal command of a campaign against the Alemanni. The Romans won a victory over their opponents, but it does not seem likely that the old Constantine played an active role in the expedition. In fact, he probably spent most of his time in his tent. In 332-334 the emperor was forced to intervene in the Danube area. The Sarmatians had asked him to fight off an army of Goths. A battle took place in 332, and the Goths suffered an ignominious defeat. According to the Origo Constantini Imperatoris it was again Constantine II who commanded the Roman army, but it is much more plausible that the commander was actually his younger brother Constantius II, who was his father’s favourite.[2] No fewer than 100,000 Goths were said to have perished from cold and hunger, but these numbers are so spectacular that it is probably best to ignore them. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that the Romans were victorious. The son of the Gothic king, one Ariaricus, was presented to Constantine as a hostage.

Around 334 Constantine fought another war, this time against the Sarmatians near Naissus (Niš), which happened to be his birthplace. Apparently the Sarmatians had shown themselves rather ungrateful for the help they had received against the Goths. In spite of this many Sarmatians were given permission to settle in the Roman provinces. This was apparently the result of a conflict between the “masters” and the “slaves” among the Sarmatians. The conflict cannot be reconstructed very well. We do not know who these Agaragantes and Limigantes were exactly and what their ethnic background was. What we do know is that the “masters” had been expelled and that many settled on Roman soil, although they cannot have numbered 300,000, as the Origo Constantini Imperatoris claims. Of course those who had settled in Roman territory were subject to certain obligations. Young Sarmatians were required to serve in the Roman army, where they must have proven their value by fighting as heavily armoured cavalry and mounted archers.

Roman soldiers and Moorish archers on the Arch of Constantine in Rome.

Statues of Constantine II as Caesar, Capitol, Rome.

Under Diocletianus the number of Roman provinces had more than doubled, from about 50 to over 100. These provinces had then been merged again into groups called dioceses that were administered by a vicarius. Presumably Constantine did not make any changes to the provincial borders that had been set by his predecessor. Some historians, citing a passage in the work of the sixth-century historian Zosimus, have assumed that the emperor split the Empire into four prefectures, that were in their turn composed of several dioceses.[3] The prefectures were supposedly to be administered by his three sons and his nephew Dalmatius, the son of his half-brother Flavius Dalmatius. The highest-ranking official of each prefecture was the praefectus praetorio, basically a new style praetorian prefect. While it is correct that Constantine made his youngest son Constans a caesar in 333 and in 335 granted the title to Dalmatius as well, most historians seem to assume that the creation of the four prefectures – Galliae, Italia, Illyricum en Oriens – took place after Constantine’s death. They see this creation as the result of a gradual process, not as the result of blueprint thinking.

On the other hand, the creation of a number of new and important offices can probably be attributed to Constantine, although it remains unclear when exactly he created what. Two army commanders were now associated with the imperial court, the magister peditum (responsible for the infantry) and the magister equitum (responsible for the cavalry). The office of magister officiorum was probably already known under Licinius, but under Constantine this highest-ranking court official was given a permanent position. The comes res privatae was made responsible for administering the emperor’s personal assets, while the comes sacrae largitiorum looked after the public treasury. Lastly, the quaestor sacri palatii assisted the emperor in writing laws and formulating answers or rescripta to requests.[4]

Distribution of money (largitio) by Constantine on his Arch in Rome.

From Byzantium to Constantinople

According to tradition Byzantium was founded in the year 658 BCE.[5] The city was surrounded on three sides by the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus and a natural harbour called the Golden Horn (Chrysokeras). Although it had always been of great strategic importance, Byzantium had never become powerful. On the contrary, the city had constantly been subservient to others. In 510 BCE the Persians under Darius had captured both Byzantium and Chalcedon, a town located almost directly opposite Byzantium.[6] Later the two cities had come under the dominion of Athens and the Delian League. After Athens had lost its position of power, Byzantium suffered a lot of misery due to attacks by Thracian tribes. The lands around the city were very fertile, but Thracian hordes often destroyed or stole the rich harvests. New problems arose in the third century BCE when the Galatians of Asia Minor began demanding an annual tribute of 80 talents. As the Byzantines were unable to raise such a sum, they were forced to levy a toll on ships passing through the Bosporus. In 220 BCE this led to a brief war with Rhodos, a mercantile power that was heavily dependent on trade in the Black Sea area and was therefore hit very hard by the new toll. In the end a peace treaty was signed and the Byzantines were prohibited from charging any more tolls.[7]

Replicas of the horses of San Marco in Venice. The originals were stolen from the hippodrome in Constantinople.

When it was part of the Roman Empire, Byzantium was no longer molested by Thracians and Galatians. It was, however, punished severely when it supported the losing side in the war between the emperors Septimius Severus and Pescennius Niger. After he had captured the city in 196, after a three-year siege, Severus had Byzantium sacked and then rebuilt again because of its strategic importance. He had also given Byzantium city walls again, which covered a slightly larger area than had previously been the case. Nevertheless, Byzantium would remain a provincial town. After having defeated Licinius in 324, Constantine decided to transform Byzantium – which he had besieged for a while and had studied well after its surrender – into a new Rome. On 8 November 324 he consecrated the terrain where Constantinople would one day proudly stand, his new capital. The terrain that the emperor had demarcated was at least four or five times larger than old Byzantium. It was clear that the city was built so that it could expand. Several kilometres beyond the walls of Septimius Severus the city was closed off by the new walls of Constantine, that stretched from the Golden Horn in the north to the Sea of Marmara in the south.

On 11 May 330 Constantinople was inaugurated. The date was probably chosen for a reason, as 11 May was the feast day of a certain Mocius (Mokios) of Amphipolis, a martyr who had died at the end of the third century under the emperor Diocletianus. A matter that is still dividing historians is whether Constantinople was an exclusively Christian city. One reason to doubt that this was the case is that Zosimus mentions a temple of Rhea and a temple of Fortuna Romae (the Fortune of Rome) in the city.[8] The fourth-century bishop and historian Eusebius of Caesarea, on the other hand, claims that the city had been purged of all forms of idolatry.[9] Of course it is no longer possible to check whether the temples mentioned by Zosimus were really used as pagan sanctuaries. It is possible that he was referring to two temples for Tyche, the patron goddess of the new city. Zosimus gives us a clue that this was the case by mentioning that Constantine ordered adjustments to be made to the statue of Rhea. A temple for a patron goddess in a Christian city may have been acceptable for the Christian inhabitants, so long as no burnt-offerings or animal sacrifices took place.

The Hagia Eirene (photo: Ninara, CC BY 2.0).

What is clear is that Constantinople was provided with Christian churches from the start. The oldest was the Hagia Eirene, the Holy Peace. It was followed by the church of the Hagia Sophia, the Holy Wisdom. It is remarkable that both churches were dedicated to qualities of God rather than to certain holy persons. Presumably the churches were not yet complete when Constantine performed the consecration ceremonies in May of 330. In fact, the Hagia Sophia would only be consecrated under his son and successor Constantius II. The two churches stood north of the Great Palace. On the west side that palace adjoined the great hippodrome, the stadium for chariot races. According to Zosimus Constantine incorporated the existing temple of Castor and Pollux – both closely linked to horses – into the hippodrome. Still further to the west, just outside the walls of Septimius Severus, Constantine had ordered the construction of a circular forum. This was also where the Senate House of Constantinople stood. The emperor invited Roman noblemen to settle in his new city and during his reign appointed hundreds of new senators. For the common people a grain dole was set up. Like in Rome, the people were entitled to bread and games.

In the vicinity of the palace a broad boulevard started, the Mese, which ran all the way to the walls of Constantine. Not far from these walls the construction began of the church of the Holy Apostles, where Constantine would find his final resting place. An important guest in the new city was the Persian prince Hormizd. He was a son of king Hormizd II, who had died around 309. After his death the nobles in the Sassanid Empire had actively tried to influence his succession. As a result of their actions the infant Shapur II had been placed on the throne, while Hormizd had been taken prisoner. Zosimus gives us a brilliant account of how the prince subsequently managed to escape.[10] His wife had first sent him a fish with a file hidden inside. Then she had sent a large quantity of wine and meat to the prison to distract the guards. While these men were having a party, Hormizd filed away at his chains, freed himself and escaped. Taking the route through Armenia, he ultimately ended up at Constantine’s court. The emperor granted him a palace close to the Sea of Marmara and the neighbourhood where he settled was later named after the prince.

Christianity in the east and west

Although Constantine favoured the Christian communities throughout the Roman Empire, in his treatment of the non-Christians he differentiated between the western and eastern halves. In the west – the border between the two halves was somewhere in the Balkans – Christians were still a minority. Although the “pagans” were anything but a coherent group, Constantine saw no reason to bother them with bans on sacrifices, the closing of temples or the destruction of statues of deities. Such measures would no doubt have met with great resistance and possibly public order disturbances. In the east, where in some parts the Christians probably already constituted a majority of the population, or in any case a highly influential minority, Constantine’s policies were different, and perhaps influenced by powerful local bishops. It is possible that shortly after his victory over Licinius in 324 the emperor issued a ban on sacrifices in the eastern provinces.[11] This ban cannot have been enforced everywhere, but it gave a clear message. Towards the end of his reign Constantine also had marble statues removed from pagan sanctuaries and taken to Constantinople. Once there the statues were obviously not venerated, they merely served to embellish the New Rome. Statues made of gold, silver and bronze were melted down to provide the material for minting coins.

Abraham and the three men at Mamre (Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome).

Eusebius claims that, towards the end of his reign, Constantine also had a number of pagan temples destroyed.[12] His first example is a sacred grove with a temple at Aphaka in Phoenicia. This was a place of worship for Venus (Aphrodite), and this worship was said to have gone hand in hand with prostitution, either ritual or profane. Constantine had the whole complex demolished and did the same to the temple of Asclepius in the Cilician town of Aegae and to the temple of Venus in Heliopolis (Baalbek). Heliopolis subsequently saw the construction of a Christian church. Of even greater importance were the churches that Constantine built in large cities such as Antioch and Nicomedia. According to Acts 11:26 it was in Antioch that the word “Christian” had been coined, while Nicomedia once had a church that had been destroyed by Diocletianus.

One remarkable action was, lastly, the construction of a church in Mamre, not far from modern Hebron. According to Genesis 18:1 God had appeared to Abraham at the terebinth of Mamre. Now it was the site of statues of deities and an altar for sacrifices. This was an outrage of course. Constantine instructed bishop Macarius of Jerusalem to remove everything and replace it with a Christian sanctuary. In this case the emperor had acted on the advice of his mother-in-law Eutropia, who suddenly enters the story again.[13] Eutropia must have been very elderly at the time, and her relationship with Constantine can never have been very cordial. After all, Constantine had killed both her husband Maximianus and her son Maxentius. Moreover, some accused him of having orchestrated the death of her daughter Fausta. It was faith, however, that united Constantine and Eutropia.

Although the Council of Nicaea had taken a number of important decisions, it had not been able to establish a permanent unity in the young Christian church. Arius had simply continued spreading the doctrine that Christ could not be consubstantial with God. As of 328 he was opposed by the new patriarch of Alexandria, the great Athanasius. Arius in his turn received support from bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, who was certainly no less important. Things really got out of hand when the pro-Arian synod of Tyrus of 335 upheld all sorts of wild accusations against Athanasius. The patriarch fled to Constantinople and appealed to the emperor, but Eusebius of Nicomedia managed to convince Constantine that Athanasius was about to orchestrate a strike of dock workers in Alexandria, which would jeopardise the shipping of grain to Constantinople. The emperor decided to send the patriarch into exile at Augusta Treverorum (Trier), where he would live until 337. Arius was summoned to Constantine for a meeting with Constantine, but died there in 336. According to Socrates Scholasticus, who was not a fan of Arius by a mile, the man passed away in a public toilet at the forum. His death did not end the Arian question. Arianism would survive until well into the sixth century.

Aula Palatina in Trier.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 359 and 396-427;
  • Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 657-661.


[1] Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus 41.

[2] Origo Constantini Imperatoris 6.31; Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 659; Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 429.

[3] Zosimus, Historia Nova, Book 2.33.

[4] Timothy Venning, A Chronology of the Roman Empire, p. 653.

[5] Herodotos, Histories, Book 4.144.

[6] Herodotos, Histories, Book 5.26.

[7] Polybius, Histories, Book 4.38-4.52.

[8] Zosimus, Historia Nova, Book 2.31.

[9] Eusebius, Vita Constantini, Book 3.48.

[10] Zosimus, Historia Nova, Book 2.27.

[11] Henk Singor, Constantijn, p. 359.

[12] Eusebius, Vita Constantini, Book 3.55-58.

[13] Eusebius, Vita Constantini, Book 3.51-53.

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