“With such impiety pervading the human race, and the Senate threatened with destruction, what relief did God devise?…I myself was the instrument he chose…Thus, beginning at the remote Ocean of Britain, where the sun sinksbeneath the horizon in obedience to the law of Nature, with God’s help I banished and eliminated every form of evil then prevailing, in the hope that the human race, enlightened through me, might be recalled to a proper observence of God’s holy laws.” -Emperor Constantine the Great. (a quote from Eusebius that appears in John Julius Norwich’s Byzantium: The Early Centuries).
Background: Emerging from the Crisis of the Third Century
In the opinion of 20th century historian George Ostrogorsky “the beginning of Byzantine history can be traced back to the Roman Empire as it emerged from the crisis of the third century (Ostrogorsky, pg. 29).” The Roman Empire nearly collapsed during this time, splitting into the three warring factions in a chaotic period that lasted from 235–284 AD (see map above). This period seriously disrupted the Roman economy, but this was far more pronounced in the Western half of the Empire. The East did suffer, but it retained it’s population levels and a higher level urbanization than much of the West did.
When the Roman Empire was reunited by Aurelian in 275 under the rule of one Emperor, it did not last long. Chaos lasted until 284 when Diocletian took power and immediately implanted massive reforms. He divided the Empire into four regions ruled by four Emperors, and created a vast civil bureaucracy which was to be a defining feature of the Byzantine state. Ostrogorsky wrote that “the important reforms of Diocletian were designed to meet the new situation which had been created during the disturbances of the third century. He used what was of value from the earlier system, but accepted or introduced necessary changes, so that the result of his work was a fundamental reorganization of the whole imperial administration. Constantine the Great was responsible for the further development and completion of Diocletian’s work. Thus a new system grew up which was to be the basis of Byzantine administration (Ostrogorsky, pg. 33).”
Constantine was born in Naissus (modern Nis), in the province of Dacia, most likely in 274AD. He was the son of Constantius Chlorus, a successful Roman general, and a Greek woman named Helena from Bithynia. Constantius Chlorus eventually became one of the Tetrarchs, the four rulers who governed the Roman Empire in the system set up by Diocoletian. Rome had not been a strategic center of the Empire for some time by this point. Diocletian ruled from Nicomedia, Maximian from Milan, Galerius in Thessalonika, and Constantius Chlorus ruled from Trier.
This system set up by Diocletian was doomed to fail with him to hold it in place. The idea that the Empire could have four rulers and remain a unified state seems impossible to have believed. Constantine spent much of his youth in Diocletian’s court, giving him a good idea on how to wield power. It was probably he was a hostage to ensure Constantius Chlorus did not go rogue. Constantine gained valuable experience during this time, going on campaigns to Egypt and in wars against the Persians. He met the young Eusebius in Palestine en route to Egypt, a Christian scholar who would play a huge role in the story of Constantine later on.
Foundation of Constantinople:
John Julius Norwich – Byzantium: The Early Centuries (1988)
Peter Brown – The World of Late Antiquity AD 150-750 (1971)
Timothy Barnes – Constantine: Dynasty Religion and Power in the Later Roman Empire (2011)
H.A. Drake – Constantine and the Bishops: The Politics of Intolerance (2002)
George Ostrogorsky – History of the Byzantine State (Revised Edition, 1969)