Constantine the Great - The Roman Emperor in York
The year 2006, celebrated the 1,700th anniversary of the Proclamation of Constantine the Great as emperor of Rome in York, following the death of his father Flavius. The ceremony took place on July 25th 306 in the Roman army headquarter at Eboracum, as York was called in those days. The headquarters was situated on the site of the present Minster. In fact some of the remains of the building can be seen in the crypt of the Minster. A life size full body bronze statue of Constantine was erected in 1998 outside the South Transept of York Minster where he still sits to this day.
Lineage Brings Constantine the Throne While in York
Constantine was born around 272 A.D. to Flavius Constantius and Helena. It is not known whether his Greek born mother Helena had any other children. It is possible the couples domestic arrangement was that they lived in 'Concubinage'. In those days it was a socially acceptable arrangement for people of different beliefs or cultures to be able to live together. But their relationship broke up and Constantine's father married Theodora. In 305 Theodora's father, the Emperor Maximian, died and Constantius became Emperor. However, his reign was short. He came to Eboracum the following year where he died and his son became the Emperor Constantine.
Helena - Greek Mother of the Emperor
Little is known of Helena until her son became Emperor. After the events that lead up to this she came into prominence as a devout Christian. She promoted the faith in her charity work and on her pilgrimages to the Holy Land. On one such pilgrimage she is said to have found the cross that Jesus was crucified on. For this she was eventually proclaimed a Saint. She is remembered in York England through St Helen's church and it location in St Helen's square at the bottom of Stonegate York, named after her.
Helena was about eighty years old when she died in 329. She was buried in Rome but her remains were later transferred and she now rests in the Vatican.
He Conquers, Moves to Rome and Marries
Constantine was said to be an imposing figure, tall in stature and handsome. On becoming Emperor he immediately took control of Britain and then returned to Rome.
Back in Rome he married Fausta (Flavia Maxima Fausta). They had three sons and two daughters. Constantine also had an older son, Crispus, from a previous relationship before his marriage. He remained loyal to his mother and brought her back into his court, where she supported him in his interest in Christianity.
A Vision Converts
He is reported to have seen a vision which converted him to Christianity, in 312. The vision was of a cross against the sun with the words "By this thou shalt conquer". This was followed by a dream in which Christ told him to use the sign as a safeguard in battle. Constantine had the letters X and P put on the shields of his soldiers, the letters in Greek are the first letters of the word "Christ". He was generally thought to be devoted to his new found faith, although it has been suggested that it may also have been a clever political move to gain the support of the people, now that more were converting to Christianity.
The Roman Empire was at the time split into regions, and had several Emperors and many Caesars (the term given to co-emperors), each with his own ambitions and lust for power. The struggle for power was not fought through civilized elections in those days, but through wars and battles. Constantine worked his way through the Empire and in 324 he became the sole Emperor, the first to do this and bring stability into the lives of the roman people. He also abandoned Rome as the capital of the Roman Empire and built his own new and stronger capital, Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey).
His Vision Stayed With Us as a Model for British Society
He introduced many new laws, including the abolition of crucifixion as a way of execution (it was replaced by hanging). The crucifixion and cross then became symbols of Christianity. He also declared Easter to be worthy of celebration, and Sunday to be made a day of rest, banning the opening of public offices and trading in shops and markets.
He sought to safeguard the more vulnerable citizens. Prisoners, slaves, young girls and women were entitled to protection from harm, and brutal punishment was given if the laws were disobeyed. The law he had great trouble enforcing though, was a ban on gladiatorial games.
His Popularity Was Waning
An event which took place in 326, (and may have dented his popularity further), was the order for his wife and son to be executed. There are several theories as to why. It was suspected that Fausta and Crispus were involved in an affair. So Constantine ordered the execution of his son. Shortly afterwards he also ordered his wife to die.
An obvious thought comes to us here. In removing Crispus he was removing an illegitimate heir. Constantine would rather be succeeded by a son born in wedlock. But why would he execute Fausta? Perhaps he thought they were plotting against him?
Another theory was that Crispus was accused of immoral deeds by Fausta and was executed. Then Constantine discovered the accusations were false and Fausta was killed in revenge, probably suffocated in an over-heated bath. Fortunately Helena went on another of her pilgrimages, and possibly distracted the people from her son a little!
The Last Years - His Baptism Before Death
After his mothers death in 329 Constantine reigned for a good number of years. he conquered and batted until is demise. There are many different accounts of his death and thus a single date and place for it will n=probably never be agreed upon. For our purposes we will say he died from natural causes after Easter circa 337. He is said to have tried to get to the river Jordan to be baptized before his death but ill health may have prevented this. So he was baptized on his deathbed which was a common practise in those days. Baptism involved asking God to use water to wash away the sins and give them new life as one of God's people. So the later they were baptized the less chance of sinning again. Even in death he was still striving to change the traditions of the Old Roman Empire and became the first Roman Emperor to be buried rather than cremated.