Friday, June 30, 2023

The City of Constantine

Constantine resolved to make the city a home fit for an emperor….

-          Zosimus, New History, c. 501

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, by Judith Herrin

Herrin starts at the beginning, with the founding of Constantinople and its namesake, the Emperor Constantine.  Looking for a new capital for the Roman Empire in the early fourth century, he found a location well-suited to control land and sea routes between Asia and Europe.

Born in the central Balkans, the son of one of the four rulers established by Diocletian – so divided as an attempt to bring some stability to the vast Roman world – Constantine was declared emperor by his troops upon his father’s death in York in 306.  Unfortunately, this would cause a problem as Galerius, the senior emperor in the east, did not recognize him as such.

Three men claimed the western throne, and Constantine would fight and defeat the others, culminating in the victory at the Milvian Bridge in 312.  He entered Rome triumphant, and was acclaimed by the Senate as emperor of the west.  But he did not thank the gods, claiming that his vision of the Cross in the sky offered the promise of victory.

A year later he would meet with Licinius, Emperor of the East.  They consolidated their relationship via marriage alliances, and issued the Edict of Toleration, proclaiming all religions could be celebrated freely as long as everyone offered prayers for the well-being of the Roman Empire and the emperor.

Eleven years later, Constantine defeated Licinius, exiled him, and then had him assassinated.  He was now ruler of both east and west, having fought his way from the far west in England to the far east of Byzantium.

And here he would build a new capital, closer to the major rival of Persia.  Byzantion, as the city was known, was built on an elevation surrounded on three sides by water, therefore requiring fortification only on the western side. 

In addition, Byzantion commanded the routes for the lucrative sea-borne transport of amber, furs, metal and wood from the north; oil, grain, papyrus, and flax from the Mediterranean; spices imported from the Far East, as well as overland trade between the West and Asia.

In 324, a line was ploughed to mark the new walls for the city that would bear his name, Constantinople.  The city would be inaugurated in 330, with ceremonies and horse and chariot races.  Bath houses were opened for public use and money was distributed to the inhabitants.

And then there were the gold coins, perhaps the most remarkable example of stable and honest money in history.  Constantine introduced the solidus (in Greek, numisma) in the West in 309.  It was a 24-carat gold coin, and it became the most reliable currency of Late Antiquity and the Byzantine world.

Until the early eleventh century, all emperors minted gold coins of comparable fineness and quality, maintaining a stable standard for over seven hundred years, an extraordinary achievement.

Yes, I would say.  No doubt contributing to the significant wealth and trade that came to and through the empire.  These Byzantine gold coins would be later excavated in places as far away as Scandinavia, western Europe, Russia, Persia, and Ceylon.

Constantine would grant land privileges to senatorial families who agreed to move east.  Lacking a traditional caste, as was the case in Rome, it was merit more than class that determined advancement.  Perhaps another reason for the significant wealth generated in the eastern empire.

Then there is the lingering question: just how Christian was Constantine?  Eusebius, the Bishop of Caesarea, would emphasize this above all else.  Other historians would note Constantine’s devotion to the unconquered son, Sol Invictus. 

It was conjectured that he converted because he came to understand that the Christian God would absolve him of his sins – for example, for killing his son for having improper relations with Empress Fausta, his stepmother, and then shutting her up in an overheated bath until she died.

He would be baptized only on his death bed, but per Herrin this was a common practice as it minimized the possibility of further sin before death. 

With all of this said, his actions toward Christians were positive.  Previously noted was the legalizing of all religions, including Christianity.  He would also instruct the governor of Carthage to return all possessions taken from the Christians in that region in a recent persecution.  He would support Christian leaders and funded the building of Christian churches.  Gradually, the sacrificial killing of animals would be eliminated.

In other words, whatever the reality of his conversion, he was without doubt a patron of Christianity, supporting the previously persecuted communities.  He endowed churches with precious metals and jewels, and he helped Christians to better clarify their faith more precisely.


On his death, Constantine would not be cremated, as the Roman way, but buried according to Christian rites.  He and his mother would become saints of the church, and are often depicted flanking the True Cross.

Eusebius would declare him equal to the Apostles, but Constantine believed himself even higher. 


As is always the case when considering the history of emperors, popes, and patriarchs, the names from here on in will start to get confusing.  Regarding the emperors and counting the namesake, there are eleven Constantines, eight Michaels, eight Johns, and six Leos.

I think even having a scorecard will not help me keep track of the players.


  1. Similarities noted between Constantine and Trump

    1. Is that an insult of Trump or a compliment?

      It would be nice to have a far-sighted, brilliant, ruthless Emperor with the Divine Right building a crown jewel of civilization from the ground up on the banks of the Potomac but I think those days are long gone.

      Twenty years hence, they'll build a statue to ugly, stupid George Floyd on the Washington Mall and order people to burn incense in front of it.

  2. Sounds like the church at the time thought that the sacraments infused grace in some temporary way. Otherwise why wait to be baptized at the end of life. Is it a sign of faith or a spiritual washing away of sin. I know what I believe, but I do admit there were some early practices that differed from what I have believed. Another was that in the Lord's Supper the wine was refused to the laity in the late Ancient period. Only priests took wine and bread.

  3. Baptism and other things commonly are called Rituals, or Rights.
    Calling them rights interested me because there is much talk and debate on rights, Natural ones, God Given ones, Forced ones even.
    Think the ritual at first means some particular thing or things.
    Baptism sort of means a crossing over , leaving one realm or jurisdiction to anther.
    Many times the ritual become unmoored from the meaning and cab become all sorts of things.
    So what ever , one puts one day over another , an other does all days the same.
    Either way what ever you do , do it as Unto the Lord.
    Would stop a lot of some times weary debating on how to's.
    Truly debate is good if we reason together in faith and love considering one another we can be strong.
    As an example :
    Spent the last week at my Daughter in Annapolis .
    Went down to bring my wife home after getting lots of work done down there.
    Things are well, even if not according to my personal expectations and still struggling there but that too is good.
    So any way the point my daughter and myself can really tangle over doctrinal stuff man we get down and nasty even , funny stuff man.
    But as we left this morning to come home.
    We did the usual and customary Hug and words.
    Thing was that in that one small moment in time all our thoughts on doctrines and how to's and how to not's!
    all melts away and we sense Gods Love for us and like a 3 stranded cord , (chord ) even that is what bonds (binds ) us together.
    Not in a legal istic controlling way but just love and caring and how can we help each other.
    Now sure that is Dad and his Daughter AND NOT SAYING.
    we all just going on like some fairy in the woods or peace love, fest like them jesus gets us billboards talk about.
    but just being mindful of others and how we all are growing up into something great and endless.
    Give place to one another.
    I think B.M. runs a good forum here.
    Keeps things on point and redirects with a type of grac- full nudging.
    That too is Good