Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
CONSTANTINE THE GREAT
 FOR more than a hundred years after the time of Marcus Aurelius none of the
Roman emperors did anything great or remarkable. They were nearly all bad
men, and many of them were put to death for their evil deeds.
In the year 307 A.D. the empire had been divided up through many quarrels
and wars between generals of the armies. Often an army would declare its
commander an emperor, and he would set himself up as ruler of part of the
empire. So in this way there came at last to be six persons who claimed to
None of them was in any way remarkable except the Emperor
Constantine, called Constantine the Great. He was the son of a former emperor named
Constantius. When Constantius died the army chose Constantine to be
emperor. But he did not go to Rome to be crowned. He remained in Gaul, for
he learned that five others had taken the title of emperor in different
parts of the empire.
 After a while, however, Constantine got messages from people in Rome begging
him to come and relieve them from the cruel government of
was acting as emperor there. But Constantine was a wise man. He thought it
would not be well for him to leave Gaul and enter into a fight with
Maxentius, so he paid no attention to the messages.
At last Maxentius openly insulted Constantine and threatened to kill him.
Then Constantine was aroused to anger, so he gathered a great army of good
soldiers and set out for Rome. He marched over the Alps and in a short time
was fighting the army of Maxentius on the plains of Italy.
The first battle took place near Turin. The soldiers of Maxentius were clad
in steel armor; but Constantine's men fought them so fiercely that their
armor was of little use to them, and they were speedily defeated. There was
another battle at Verona, where Constantine was again the victor.
BATTLE BETWEEN CONSTANTINE AND MAXENTIUS
The third battle took place on the banks of the Tiber, near Rome. Maxentius
had more soldiers than Constantine, but he was not a good general, so he was
easily beaten. He himself was drowned while fleeing across the Tiber.
After the battle Constantine entered Rome amidst the cheers of the people.
A little while afterwards
 he told an interesting story to a Christian bishop named Eusebius. He
said that while he was marching through northern Italy, on the way to Rome,
he was constantly thinking about the Christian religion. It had been
spreading in every civilized country for more than two centuries, and
Constantine thought that he, too, should become a Christian and no longer
worship pagan gods. But he could not make up his mind to do so.
One day while he was in front of his tent, with his officers and troops
around him, there appeared in the heavens an enormous cross of fire. A
little on one side of the cross were these words in the Greek language, "By
this, conquer." The words are sometimes given in the Latin form, In hoc
signo vinces, the translation of which is, "Through this sign thou shalt
Constantine was astonished at the wonderful vision, and he gazed at it until
it faded away. He could not understand what it meant and was greatly
troubled. But that night he dreamed that Christ appeared to him in robes of
dazzling white, bearing a cross in His hands, and that He promised him
victory over his enemies if he would make the cross his standard.
THE ARCH OF CONSTANTINE
Constantine now declared himself a Christian and had a standard made in the
form of a cross, with a
 banner attached to it bearing the initial letters of the name of Christ.
This banner was called the Labarum, and it was afterwards the standard
of the Roman emperors.
When Constantine became a Christian himself he began to take the Christians
into his favor. He made some of them high officers of the government; he
built Christian churches and destroyed the pagan temples. He also made the
Christian religion the religion of the empire, and he had the sign of a
cross painted on the shields and banners of the Roman armies.
Thus, after many, many years of terrible persecution, the Christians were
befriended by the Roman emperor, and soon they became very powerful.
Thousands of Romans were converted to Christianity, and the churches were
crowded with worshipers.
CONSTANTINE also very much improved the Roman laws and system of government.
He put a stop to the dishonest practices of the officers and established
just methods of carrying on public affairs. He disbanded the famous
Prætorian Guards, which had been an evil power in Rome for centuries. Many
other reforms were carried out by
Constan-  tine, who seemed anxious to do what was right and what was for the best interests
of the people.
Under Constantine's rule, therefore, Rome was happy and prosperous. To show
their gratitude to him for his noble deeds the people erected in his honor a
grand marble arch in the central square of the city and inscribed on it:
"TO THE FOUNDER OF OUR PEACE."
Four of the six emperors who had at one time ruled the empire were now dead.
But in the east there was one emperor named Licinius. Constantine
attacked him, scattered his armies, and took away from him the greater part
of his territory.
The two emperors then became friends, but after some time they had a quarrel
and went to war again. Each had a large army and a fleet of warships. Two
great battles were fought, and Constantine won both. Licinius soon
Now for the first time Constantine was sole emperor, and for more than
fourteen years he ruled the immense Roman empire. He built the most
magnificent palace Rome had ever seen. He surrounded himself with hundreds
of courtiers and lived in great splendor.
After a time he resolved to move the capital of the Empire to a more central
place than Rome,
 and he selected Byzantium, an ancient city of Thrace, at the entrance to
the Black Sea. To this city Constantine sent numbers of workmen to make
alterations and improvements, and he changed its name to Constantinople,
which means city of Constantine. He spent vast sums of money in
erecting gorgeous buildings, making aqueducts, constructing streets and
public squares, and in doing the many other things proper to be done in the
capital of a great empire. The finest statues and other works of art that
could be obtained in Greece, Italy, and the countries of Asia were brought
to make Constantinople beautiful.
When everything was ready Constantine with the officers of his government
removed to Constantinople. He lived for about seven years afterwards.
There were no further wars, except a slight conflict with a tribe called the
Goths, and the people of the empire were contented and prosperous.
Constantine died in Constantinople at the age of sixty-three, after a reign
of nearly thirty-one years. He was the first Christian emperor of Rome.