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The Emperor Constantine I was the sole ruler of the Roman world between 324 and 337 C.E. His reign was likely the most crucial of all the Roman emperors in determining the future course of western civilization. Constantine began the process of making Christianity the religious foundation of Europe. Also, his Constantinople replaced the city of Rome as the center of imperial power. This set the stage for the occurrences of the Middle Ages. His philosophical view of monarchy became the foundation for the concept of the divine right of kings, which prevailed in Medieval Europe.
In 324, after his defeat of Licinius, Constantine decided to rename Byzantium after himself and make it a governmental rival of the old Empire. For the first time a Christian emperor had ascended the Roman throne. Although there is some dispute about the depth of his faith, it is not disputed that Constantine did much to entrench Constantinople and eventually much of Europe in Christianity.
Among the basic criteria for choosing Byzantium as the location were it?s strategic geographical position between Europe and Asia and it?s strategic value for the command of the seas and of the main routes over land from all directions.
The new capital was to be the characteristic expression of the new Christian spirit of the Empire. The exhaustion of the old Rome had been already widely realized. Surprisingly, in spite of this obvious imbalance in wealth, power, population and general vibrancy, The Byzantium Empire and old Rome briefly participated equally with the political status of one imperial capital. They equally participated in the royal authority of the bearers in the east and west. Gregory the Theologian has expressed this synergy of the two cities with interesting imagery:
“Nature did not give two suns, but there are two cities of Rome, both luminaries of the entire Ecumene, the ancient and the new state, differing among themselves inasmuch as the one shines before the sun and the other after it, one beauty matching another beauty by means of a synergy?” (Carmina, 562ff, PG 37).
Costantine had built Constantinople to mirror the original empire. It had it?s own slaves, poor masses, hippodrome, and religion. It grew and developed during the fourth and the fifth centuries to such an extent, that it came to be the brightest single expression of the identity of the Empire. This was obviously coupled with a steep decline in resources in the west.
However, Constantinople would quickly overshadow all the elements of brilliance of old Rome and become the new head of the Empire. As a center of administrative economic and spiritual life, Constantinople gradually acquired its own distinctive elements of brilliance, wealth and influence.
This incredible building plan put a strain on finances. Constantine may have sold Licinius’ war chest, which he had captured in battle, to pick up some of the slack. The sixth century Greek historian Zosimus notes that Constantine’s taxes were initially so excessive that fathers were forced to hire out their daughters as prostitutes to pay taxes. The emperor seems to have been an easy target of criticism for his financial dealings.
Christianity in Constantinople
When Constantine I had come to power, the empire was tormented by economic hardship and insecurity. The impoverished masses had been failed by their gods and searched for salvation. Christianity, a religion which had been originated by the tired, poor and meek outcasts, was finally ready to be embraced by these hungry masses. St. Paul?s promises of a new life after death and elimination of the old Jewish restrictions made this move possible. Constantine simply institutionalized it. The ecumenical dynamism of Christianity emerged as a power for the renewal of the structures and the institutions of the disorganized Empire.
Constantine made some other major institutional changes, which would change Christianity forever. For one, he published two edicts. One provided compensation for anyone who had been persecuted for his Christian beliefs by the old empire, the other was law that gave Christianity a preferential status in the empire. Although proclaiming tolerance for the old religions, Constantine asserted that ritualistic purity and sanctity were conditional for the righteous and obedience to God’s sacred laws that were to be taught within the church.
Because Constantine wanted to replace paganism with Christianity as the official state religion, he needed a unified faith, which would serve as the religious backbone of the empire. He quickly found that persuasion was not enough to forge a solid, unified faith. In an attempt to resolve the Arian controversy, he convened the first Ecumenical Council in the history of the church. It may be the most profound event of his reign because it set a precedent that remains in place today. When the church had inner conflicts to resolve, they would convene an ecumenical council to settle the matters in dispute.
The peculiar ecumenical policy of Constantine I gave rise to the exceptional role of the capital, the seat of the bearer of the God-given royal authority, for the realization of the vision of Christian Ecumene. This was known as dominus et deus or ?lord and god? status. In step, Constantine sapped the senate of all it?s power. This, of course, was another long-reaching concept. It set the tone for the forthcoming Medieval kingdoms.
In this new Christian atmosphere, the combats of gladiators, which had for years given entertainment to the masses, gave way to the less violent sport of chariot racing. Crucifixions were quickly stopped. Constantine I eventually became lauded as the thirteenth apostle, the master of the church, and the divinely chosen ruler of all of Rome.
Emperor Constantine?s campaign against Maxentius guaranteed him an important place in the history of western civilization because he attributed his victory to Jesus Christ. This was another Christian first, which premised the crusades to come. He claims to have seen the Chi-Rho, the sign of Christ, in the heavens outside of the city of Rome.
Incidentally, Constantine also uncovered the supposed site of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem, and built on it the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Jerusalem was quickly transformed from a marginal pagan town into a flourishing Christian city and became a powerful magnet for pilgrims from the whole Roman Empire. This also effects modern Jerusalem, as everyone seems to want ownership of this holy city.
Though Christianity renewed the empire, there were some other big differences between old Rome and Constatinople. Roman legislation and administration, Greek philosophy, scientific thinking, and the withdrawal of senate power were appropriated and gave rise to the new criteria for ecumenical perspectives.
Constantine, having founded a new Christian Roman Empire, died on 22 May 337 near Nicomedia on his way East to fight the Persians. Constantine II, Constantius II,Constans I, Constantina, and Helen, born of his union with Fausta, survived him, whereas Crispus, his son by Minervina, was executed along with Fausta for reasons that are not clear.
His rule was monumental in the history of the world. Constantine changed the institutions of religion, maintained an otherwise doomed Greco-Roman culture, built a city which stood for hundreds of years and set trends which would influence the world up to and including the present.
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