Constantine the Great 272 to 337 AD
Constantine I (Constantine the Great) was a Roman Emperor, proclaimed Augustus by his troops in 206. Constantine rebuilt the city of Byzantium and renamed the city Nova Roma (New Rome), providing it with a Senate and civic offices similar to the older Rome. He earned his place as ruler of the Roman Empire by defeating Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. Following this, he became Western Augustus, ruler of the entire Western Roman Empire until his death in 337.
He is best remembered for being the first Roman Emperor to embrace Christianity. He is also remembered for issuing the Edict of Milan in 313, which fully legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire for the first time. He also presided over the Council of Nicaea in 325. These actions are considered major factors in the spread of Christianity.
The Byzantine Empire
Constantinople was built on the site of an ancient Greek trading city called Byzantium. It lay near both the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. The location protected the city form attacks and let the city control trade between Europe and Asia. It was an ideal place to grow in wealth and power. After Rome fell in 476, the emperors of the eastern Roman Empire dreamed of taking it back, and reuniting the old Roman Empire. An Emperor who ruled from 527 to 565, Justinian, reuniting the empire was his passion. He sent his army to retake Italy. The army conquered not only Italy but also much land around the Mediterranean. Justinian was just as passionate about the law and the church. He tasked his officials to examine all Rome’s laws and remove any out-of-date or unchristian laws. Then, he organized the laws into a legal system, called the Justinian’s Code, guaranteeing fair treatment for all his citizens. Along the way, Justinian made many enemies. Two groups joined forces and tried to overthrow him. This caused riots in the streets and fires to be set to many of the buildings. Justinian prepared to leave Constantinople.
Theodora, Justinian’s wife, was smart and powerful, and convinced him to stay. Together they ended the riots, and saved the emperor’s throne, although Justinian’s soldiers killed 30,000 rioting people.
After the death of Justinian in 565, the empire began to decline. Invasions from barbarians, Persians and Muslims, the later emperors lost all the land Justinian gained. Even though the empire remained a major power for several years, it never regained its former strength. In 1453, the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople, thus bringing the 1,000-year Roman Empire to an end.
Justinian was the last roman Emperor of the Eastern Empire. After he died, non-Roman influences took hold throughout the empire. People began speaking Greek, from the eastern empire, rather than Latin. Scholars studied Greek, not Roman philosophy. The empire lost its ties to the old Roman Empire and a new society developed. The people thought of themselves as Romans, but they were actually of the Byzantine Empire named after a Greek town of Byzantium. One reason the eastern and western societies were different was the Byzantines” interaction with other groups. Because Constantinople’s location was between Europe and Asia, it was an ideal location for trade. Merchants from all around Europe, Asia and Africa traveled to Constantinople for trade. Over time the Byzantine Society began to reflect these outside influences as well as the Roman and Greek roots.
Byzantine emperors held more power than the western emperors did. They liked to show off their great power. The power of an eastern emperor was greater because the emperor was considered the head of the church as well as the political leader. The Byzantines thought the emperor was chosen by God to lead both the empire and the church. In the west, the emperor was limited to political power, Popes and bishops were the leaders of the church.
Nearly all who lived in the Byzantine Empire were Christian. Christianity was central to the Byzantine’s lives. Byzantine artists created beautiful works of religious art, to show devotion to God and the Christian Church. The grandest of all were mosaics, made of pieces of colored stone or glass, some sparkled with gold, silver and jewels. More magnificent than the works of art were the churches, especially the Hagia Sophia. Built by Justinian in the 530s, the church has huge domes which rose high above Constantinople. Legend says when Justinian saw the church, he exclaimed, “Glory to God who has judged me worthy of accomplishing such a work as this! O Solomon, I have outdone you!”
In time, eastern and western Christianity presented differently. Eastern priests could marry, while western could not. Services in the East were performed in Greek, the west was in Latin. Although Christianity was viewed differently between East and West, the leaders worked together in spite of the views. In the 1000s, Christianity in the East broke away from the rest of the church and formed what later became known as the Eastern Orthodox Church. As a result, eastern and western Europe were completely divided.
Saint Helen Circa 248 AD to Circa 329 AD
constantine_helena The Order was founded by the Emperor of the Romans, Flavius Constantine, the Great to commemorate the discovery of the Holy Cross by his Mother, the Empress Saint Helen. The succeeding Emperors of Constantine the Great respected his mandate and the Order was continued in the Roman-Byzantine Empire, enduring over the centuries to this day. Its decorations are bestowed by the Imperial and Royal House of Byzantium. In accordance with ancient standards and to confirm established custom, it is awarded to ladies only. The Ladies of Saint Helen thus become the female counterpart of the Order of Constantine the Great.
Both Imperial Orders compliment each other historically and are branches of the same trunk. Both were founded by the same Emperor, sustained and conveyed by the same Empire and Imperial House.
Little is known of the origins of St. Helen, other than she was born of humble parentage, the daughter of innkeeper, in the middle of the 3rd century AD, most probably in the town of Drepanum (later known as Helenopolis, apparently so named by Constantine in honor of his mother) in the Nicomedian Gulf, a seaside resort in Turkey, although some sources believe that she was born in England. In any event, she became the wife of Constantius Chlorus, a Roman general. They had one son, Constantine, who was born in Naissus in Upper Moesia, in the year 274.
After 22 years of marriage, Helena’s husband was named Caesar under Emperor Maximianus Herculius, his patron and well-wisher, and immediately divorced Helena to marry Maximianus Herculius’s stepdaughter, Theodora, for political gain. Fourteen years later, in 308 AD, Constantius died, his son was proclaimed Caesar, and 18 months later, Emperor Constantine made up for the neglect his father paid to St. Helena, ordering all honor be paid to the mother of the sovereign, summoned her to the Imperial Court, conferred on her the title of Augusta and had coins struck bearing her effigy.
Helena Constantine’s influence caused his mother Helena to embrace Christianity after his victory over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge. She converted to Christianity at about the same time, when she was 63 years old, in the years 312-313. It was her son, Constantine, who issued the now famous “Edict of Milan”, permitting Christianity in the Empire.
Constantine sent his mother, Helena to Jerusalem to try to find the cross on which Jesus was crucified. When she arrived there, she requested all the Jewish Rabbis of the whole land to gather to meet her. They were terrified, suspecting that she sought the wood of the cross, a secret which they had promised not to reveal even under torture, because it would mean the end of Jewish supremacy.
Sure enough, she asked for the place of crucifixion and when they would not tell, she ordered them all to be burned. Frightened, they delivered up a man named Judas (not Iscariot) saying he would tell. She gave him a choice of telling or dying by starvation. Six days later, after total abstinence from food, he came to terms with her, and on the seventh day he promised to tell. He was brought to the place indicated, and in response to prayer there was a sort of earthquake, and a perfume filled the air. Judas immediately converted. There was a temple of Venus on the spot, which Helena had destroyed. Judas set to digging vigorously, and at the depth of 20 feet, found 3 crosses, which he brought to Helena.
The true cross was tested by its causing a man to rise from the dead, or, according to others, by finding the inscription of Pilate. st_helena After an exceedingly vigorous conversation between the devil and Judas, the latter was baptized and became Bishop Cyriacus.
Then Helena set him to hunting for the nails of the cross. He found them, shining like gold, and brought them to the Queen, who departed, taking them and a portion of the wood of the cross. She brought the nails for Constantine, who put them on his bridle and helmet, or according to another account, two were used in this way, and one was thrown into the Adriatic Sea.
St. Helen went to Palestine where she found the True Cross. She is depicted by Eusebius, a church historian, as being driven by religious enthusiasm, wanting to pray at the places where Christ’s feet had touched the ground, caring for the poor and needy, only doing good deeds and being generous and building churches and restoring shrines in Bethlehem, Egypt, the Mount of Olives, and Mount Calvary. Her name is particularly associated with churches at Rome and at Trier in Gaul. Some accounts say that Constantine was with her when she died, others say Helena died in Palestine during these activities. Her remains are now located at the church of the Abbey at Hautvillers in France.
Because of her alleged discovery of the Cross, Helena became a saint in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church. Her feast day in the Eastern church is May 21st and in the Western church on August 18th.
Battle of Milvian Bridge
mal_bridge The Battle of Milvian Bridge took place on October 28, 312 between the Roman Emperors Constantine the Great and Maxentius. When Constantine emerged victorious, the path of Western civilization as it had been known, was about to be changed forever.
The underlying cause of the battle was a five-year long dispute between Constantine and Maxentius over control of the western half of the empire. Although Constantine was the son of the western emperor Constantius Chlorus, the system in place at the time, the tetrarchy, did not necessarily provide for hereditary succession. When Constantius died on July 25, 306, his father’s troops proclaimed him as Augustus (October 29, 306), but in Rome the favorite was Maxentius, the son of Constantinius’ predecessor, Maximum. Both men continued to claim the title afterwards, although a conference to resolve the dispute in 308 resulted in Maxentius being named a senior emperor along with Galerius. Constantine was allowed to maintain rule of the provinces of Britain and Gaul, but was officially only a ‘Caesar’, or junior emperor.
By 312, the two men were engaged in open hostility to one another, although they were brothers-in-law. Much of this was the work of Maxentius’ father Maximiam, who had been forcibly retired as emperor in 305 by Diocletian. Maximiam schemed and double-crossed both his son and Constantine trying to regain power before the latter had his executed in 310. When Galetius died in 311, the power struggle was on. In the summer of 312, Constantine gathered his forces and decided to settle the dispute by force.
He easily overran northern Italy, and stood less than 10 miles from Rome when Maxentius chose to make his stand in front of the Milvian Bridge, a stone bridge (still standing today) which carries the Via Flaminia road across the Tiber River into Rome. Holding it was crucial if Maxentius was to keep his rival out of Rome, where the Senate would surely favor whoever held the city.
mal_bridgeConstantine, after arriving, realized he had made a miscalculation and that Maxentius had many more soldiers available than he did. Some sources say the advantage was 10-to-1 in Maxentius’ favor, but it was probably more like 4-to-1. In any case, Constantine had a tough challenge ahead of him.
On the evening of October 27, 312,with the armies preparing for battle Constantine reportedly had a vision as he looked toward the setting sun. The Greek letter ‘Chi-Ro’ (Christ) intertwined along with a cross appeared emblazoned on the sun, along with the inscription, “By this sign you will conquer.” Constantine, who was a pagan at the time, put the symbol on his solders’ shields. Constantine then chose fifty of the most pious knights of his personal imperial bodyguard, the Praepositi Laberorum, distinguished for personal strength, valor, and with first command of chivalric virtues, for the sole care and defense of the standard. There were thus no less than fifty men whose only duty was to surround and vigilantly defend the standard, which they carried each in turn on their shoulders.
The next day, the two armies clashed, and Constantine emerged victorious. Already known as a skillful general, Constantine began to push Maxentius’ army back toward the Tiber, and Maxentius decided to retreat and make another stand at Rome itself. But there was only one escape route, via the bridge, and Constantine’s men inflicted heavy losses on the retreating army. Finally, a bridge of boats set up alongside the Milvian Bridge, over which many of the troops were escaping, collapsed and these men stranded on the north bank of the Tiber were either taken prisoner or killed, with Maxentius numbered among the dead.
Constantine entered Rome not long afterwards and was acclaimed as sole western Augustus. He credited his victory at Milvian Bridge to the God of the Christians, the One True God, and ordered the end of any religious persecution within his realm, a step he had already taken in Britain and Gaul in 306. With the emperor as a patron, Christianity, which was already quite common in the empire, exploded in popularity.