Constantine the Great - Roman Emperor in York England
The year 2006, will celebrate the 1,700th anniversary of the Proclamation of
Constantine the Great following the death of his father in York. The
ceremony took place in the Roman headquarter at Eboracum,
as York was called in those days, on July 25th 306. Situated on the site of the present
Minster, some of the remains of the building can be seen in the crypt of the
Minster. A Bronze statue of Constantine erected in 1998, resides outside the South Transept of York Minster as a tribute.
Constantine was born around 272 A.D. to Constantius and Helena. It is not
known whether Helena had any other children, and it is possible their
domestic arrangement was that they lived in 'Concubinage'. In other words 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 her 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
Little is known of Helena until her son became Emperor, after which she came
into prominence as a devout Christian, promoting the faith in her charity
work and for taking part in pilgrimages to the Holy Land. For this she was
eventually proclaimed a Saint, and is remembered in York England by having St Helen's church, which is in St Helen's square at the bottom of Stonegate York, named after her.
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 where 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.
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,
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 one he had trouble
enforcing though, was a ban on gladiatorial games.
An event which took place in 326, (and may have dented his popularity), 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, followed shortly
afterwards by the order for his wife to die. An obvious thought in removing
Crispus was that he was an illegitimate heir and 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!
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. Constantine reigned for a further eight years and died through
natural causes on May 22nd 337. He chose to be baptized on his deathbed, 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.