Constantine, the first Christian ruler of the Roman empire, was born, in the ancient city of Haissus, near the Danube River, in the year 274. He was the son of Constantius and his wife Helena, who is honored as one of the saints of the Church.
The Roman empire had become so vast in extent before the birth of Constantine, that it was difficult for one ruler to govern all of it, and, therefore, the realm was divided into four provinces, each governed by a Caesar. Constantine’s father was the Caesar of the West, a territory comprising, besides Spain and Britain, the ancient province of Gaul, now the countries of France, Belgium, Switzerland, and the western part of Germany. The four – Caesars were jealous of one another, and quarrels were frequent among them. The Emperor Diocletian, the principal of the four rulers, was so suspicious of Constantius, that Constantine was sent to Rome, as a pledge for his father’s loyalty. While the young hostage was in Rome, war broke out in Egypt, and he accompanied Diocletian and the Roman army to that country, serving with great distinction throughout the campaign. After the return of the army from Egypt, Constantine joined the forces of the Caesar of the East, Galerius, who was conducting a war against the Persians. Galerius was a man of ignoble and jealous nature, and when he saw that Constantine was very popular with the army, he repeatedly exposed the young soldier to unusual danger, in the hope of ridding himself of a rival whom he feared.
In the year 305, the two Roman rulers of superior rank abdicated, and were succeeded by Constantius, Constantine’s father, and by Galerius, the same who had commanded the Roman army in Persia. It was his province to appoint another Caesar, an honor which belonged, in all justice, to Constantine. But Galerius not only refused to give him the well-merited appointment, but actually detained him, a sort of prisoner in Rome, until compelled, by repeated letters from Constantius, to allow Constantine to return to Gaul.
Constantius desired his son’s aid in some military enterprises he was preparing to undertake, and Constantine joined him at Boulogne, where they embarked, with the army, for Britain. They landed safely and reached York without accident, when Constantius was suddenly taken ill and died, leaving Constantine at the head of the army, in a foreign land. The young prince was much beloved by the troops, who clamored that he be made Caesar in his father’s place. But this position was subordinate to the ruler in Borne, and Galerius was the deadly enemy of Constantine. He did not wish to offend Galerius, but it was also necessary to avoid losing the favor of the army, who wished him to succeed his father as Caesar of Gaul. At length, he allowed himself to be declared his father’s successor, writing, at the same time, a carefully worded letter to Galerius, explaining the circumstances of his assuming the purple, at the solicitation of the army, and regretting that the great distance from Borne had not permitted him to delay until the approbation of Galerius could be obtained. The receipt of this letter threw Galerius into a passion, and he at first declared that he would never recognize Constantine as Csesar of Gaul. Wise counsel prevailed, however, and Constantine returned unmolested with his army to Gaul, which he governed with wisdom and vigor. The barbarians of the North suffered several severe defeats at his hands, and a line of forts built along the River Rhine prevented their entrance into Gaul. The country became very prosperous, partly owing to Constantine’s wise policy of toleration towards the Christians, who came from Rome in large numbers to escape the persecutions of Galerius.
While Constantine was laboring for the welfare of his subjects in Gaul, great events were transpiring in distant Rome. A revolt took place against Galerius, resulting in the overthrow of the tyrant, and the elevation to power of six emperors, among them Maximian, whose daughter Fausta was Constantine’s wife. Maximian and his son Maxentius both claimed the sole right to reign over Italy, and an unnatural conflict between the father and son was begun. Maxentius finally triumphed and drove his father into Gaul. The fugitive sought protection at the court of his son-in-law Constantine, who received him kindly and caused him to be treated with the respect due to his rank, generosity which was repaid with treachery by the false Maximian.
During Constantine’s absence from his court at Arles, upon a necessary military expedition to the Rhine, Maximian basely tried to overthrow his son-in-law and usurp his place. When Constantine heard of this plot, he marched with all speed to Arles. Maximian fled to Marseilles, closely pursued by Constantine, who would have laid siege to the city, had not the frightened inhabitants consented to deliver the usurper into his hands. Maximian, upon learning of his betrayal, committed suicide. This was the first of a series of events which led to the establishment of Constantine, as the sole emperor of the West. His brother-in-law, Maxentius, wishing to depose the ruler of Gaul, and reign over that country in his place, was preparing for an invasion, when Constantine was warned, by an embassy from Rome, of this design against him. He anticipated Maxentius by marching into Italy with a large and well-drilled army. He had crossed the Alps, and was on the plain of Piedmont, in Northern Italy, before Maxentius knew that he had left Gaul. The two armies met, and, after Constantine had gained brilliant victories at Turin and Verona, there occurred the decisive battle of the Milvian bridge, near Rome. It was before this battle that Almighty God was pleased to work the miracle which was the means of converting Constantine, as well as thousands of his subjects, to the True Faith. The troops were preparing for the conflict, when a luminous cross appeared suddenly in the sky, having the words inscribed on it, “In hoc signo vinces.” By this sign, conquer. Constantine and his army gained a complete victory, by which he became sole emperor of the West. His colleague, Licinius reigned in the East, and the two emperors jointly issued a proclamation, revoking all former edicts against the Christians, placing them on an equal footing with other Roman subjects, and ordering all their confiscated property to be returned to them.
To understand how greatly the Church benefited by this proclamation, it is necessary to know something about her condition, during the three hundred and thirteen years that had elapsed from the time of Our Lord’s crucifixion to the reign of Constantine.
On the first Pentecost, when the twelve humble apostles began to preach the gospel in Jerusalem, the entire known world was practically under the dominion of the Roman emperor, whose power over his subjects, was almost without limit. The Romans were pagans, worshiping gods and goddesses, some of them the personification of various evil passions. When the Christian religion was brought to Rome, by the glorious apostles, Saint Peter and Saint Paul, many converts were made, who at once became the object of furious and unrelenting persecution. The emperor Nero began these persecutions in the year 64, the Christians were thrown to the wild beasts in the arena of the Coliseum, or covered with tar and pitch, they were set on fire and stationed in Nero’s gardens at night to light them in place of torches. It was during this persecution that Saint Peter and Saint Paul suffered martyrdom. Then followed ten persecutions of the Christians under various emperors, during which countless thousands of martyrs gave up their lives for the Faith. If there were nothing else to prove the divine origin of the Church, the fact that she survived these terrible persecutions, would be sufficient.
As it was necessary for the Christians to practise their religion secretly, churches were established in the catacombs, which were also used as burial-places for the dead. The catacombs were subterranean apartments under the city of Rome, where, on rude stone altars, the holy sacrifice of the Mass was daily offered up. The candles used on our altars to-day, are placed there, partly to remind us of the trials undergone by our fore- fathers in the Faith, who, being compelled to worship God secretly in the darkness of the catacombs, found it necessary to use candles to light the altar. The catacombs are filled with proofs of the antiquity of our holy Faith. Resides the altars, there are stone confessionals, very much like those in our churches to-day, – a proof that confession was practised among the early Christians.
The reign of Constantine was the beginning of a glorious era for the Church. Emerging from the catacombs, the Christians were at liberty to practise their holy religion openly and without fear. Constantine himself built the beautiful church of Saint John Lateran, and, in his eagerness to see it completed, he helped to dig the foundations with his own hands. The triumph of Christianity was complete, and the divine symbol of the cross was everywhere seen. It was inscribed on the shields of Constantine’s soldiers, as well as on the standard which was borne before them in battle. The emperor had himself enrolled among the catechumens or candidates for baptism, although he did not receive the sacrament until shortly before his death.
The next important event in the life of Constantine was a war, lasting several years, with his colleague, Licinius. The origin of this war is somewhat obscure, but it was probably brought about by Licinius’ treachery. In a battle fought at Adrianople, Constantine totally defeated his enemy, and became the sole emperor of the East as well as of the West.
It was the ardent desire of Constantine to found a city which had never been profaned by the worship of idols. After casting about for a site for the new city, he decided upon a beautiful location at the junction of the Bosporus and the Propontis, or Sea of Marmora as it is now called. Constantinople was built, a splendid city of churches, palaces, baths and gardens. The sum allotted to the building of the walls, porticos and aqueducts, incredible as it may seem, was equal to something over twelve million dollars of our money. Constantine urged the progress of the work, with so much energy, that, in a few years it was completed, and the birthday of Constantinople celebrated with a solemn consecration of the city to the Blessed Virgin.
Saint Helena, the pious mother of Constantine, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, while the city of Constantinople was being built. Although advanced in years, her desire to find the true cross of Our Lord, prompted her to undergo the fatigues and dangers of the journey to the Holy Land. After a weary search, three crosses were found, buried, and near them the inscription and nails used at the crucifixion. It remained to ascertain which of the three crosses was the one Saint Helena had gone in search of. At the suggestion of the bishop of Jerusalem, each one of the crosses was permitted to touch, in turn, a woman afflicted with an incurable disease. Immediately upon touching the third one, the woman was cured, and thus the True Cross was found. Saint Helena caused a portion of the holy relic to be sent to the new city of Constantinople, where it was received by Constantine with great reverence, and enshrined in the church of Saint Sophia.
In spite of the many pressing cares of his station, Constantine found opportunity to arrange, with infinite prudence and care, a plan of education for his five sons. Most of the Koman emperors who had preceded him, had been addicted to many vices, the result, Constantine thought, of their having been brought up in luxury and indolence. He inaugurated quite a different system of training for his sons. The young princes were compelled to rise early, to subsist on the plainest fare, and to practise all kinds of athletic exercises, such as leaping, running, and wrestling. They also became very proficient in horsemanship as well as in the use of all the weapons of that period. But, while their bodies were trained with care, the cultivation of their minds was not neglected. The most pious and learned prelates, as well as celebrated Greek and Homan teachers, were invited by Constantine to take up their residence at court, and to instruct his sons in the articles of the Christian Faith, and in all branches of profane learning. The emperor himself instructed the young princes in the science of government, and the knowledge of mankind. They were admitted to a share in the government of the Homan empire at a very early age. The young Constantine was appointed to hold his court in Gaul, where his father had first ruled. Constantins governed the East, and the third son Constans had Africa and Italy for his portion.
The Church which had enjoyed peace since the conversion of Constantine, was assailed, in the year 320, not, as in former times, by pagans, but by one of her own sons. Arius, a Catholic bishop, began to teach the Arian heresy, as it was called, which denied the divinity of Our Lord. To refute this dangerous heresy, which soon found many adherents, the first general council of the church was held at Hicsea, and the Hicene creed composed. Constantine was present at the council of Nicaea, and became a persistent enemy of Arianism. The emperor banished Arius to the remote country of Illyricum, but the heresiarch returned after a time to Constantinople, where he died a very sudden and terrible death.
In the year 336, Constantine celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of his prosperous and glorious reign, and, a few months after the joyous festival, was seized with an illness which proved fatal. He did not die in his beloved city of Constantinople, but in Nicodemia, a city of Asia Minor famed for its medicinal baths. It was in the vain hope of restoration to health, by means of these baths, that Constantine journeyed to Nicodemia. The great emperor was baptized upon his death-bed, and edified all the assembled prelates, by the fervor with which he received the holy sacrament. After his baptism, he refused to resume his robes of imperial purple, preferring the white garb of the catechumen, which he prized more highly, he said, than the insignia of his exalted rank. Having arranged all his affairs, and directed that his body be interred in the church of the Apostles at Constantinople, the great emperor peacefully breathed his last, 22 May 337, in the sixty-fourth year of his age, and the thirtieth of his reign. His body, dressed in the imperial robes, lay in state on a golden bed in the royal palace at Constantinople, where there was universal mourning over the loss of a ruler who was so justly beloved by all his subjects.
The reign of Constantine was glorious, not only temporally, but spiritually also. Besides professing his belief in the Catholic faith, he issued a proclamation, advising all his subjects to become members of the one true Church. Shortly after the battle of the Milvian bridge, he caused medals to be struck, on which the emperor was represented kneeling before a cross. In many other ways, he manifested his love for the Christian religion, and his zeal for its advancement. The city of Constantinople was placed under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and no pagan temple was permitted within its precincts.
Constantine is justly regarded as one of the true sons of the Church, and he is honored by the presence of his effigy in the vestibules of two of Rome’s most ancient and important churches, Saint Peter’s and Saint John Lateran.