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You are in: North Yorkshire > History > Archaeology > Constantine the Great

Constantine statue

Constantine statue, photo: John Randles

Constantine the Great

In AD306, Constantine was hailed emperor in the Roman city of York, known as Eboracum. Historian James Gerrard charts the rise of this remarkable figure, from a usurper in York to the first Christian emperor.

The year is AD306 and the white-walled fortress of Eboracum (York) bustles with activity. For Eboracum is, and has been for over a year, the imperial capital and campaign base of the Emperor Constantius. Constantius has been successful, leading his troops to victory over the barbarians north of Hadrian's Wall, but he is old.
Surrounded by his family Constantius dies and his son Constantine, in an act whose symbolism is obvious to all, dons his father's robe of imperial purple. The assembled troops, prompted perhaps by one of their officers, a Germanic king called Crocus, hail the emperor's son as Imperator and Augustus (emperor) and the reign of a man whose shadow stretches across seventeen centuries has begun.

The makings of an emperor

Constantine was born on 27 February AD272 or 273 in Naissus (Nis) on the Danube. His father, the future emperor Constantius, was at that time a junior army officer and it was claimed that Constantine's mother, Helena, was the daughter of an inn keeper.

When the troops at York hailed Constantine as emperor, probably in the principia or headquarters building of the fortress which now lies beneath York Minster, he was already in his thirties with a distinguished military career behind him. Yet his blood, experience and army did not guarantee his succession.

"Constantine was a usurper and his actions at York plunged the Roman Empire into a deep and bloody civil war."

James Gerrard

Scramble for a successor

Constantine was a usurper and his actions at York plunged the Roman Empire into a deep and bloody civil war. A hard-drinking and violent man named Severus had already been chosen to succeed Constantius and was, in legal terms, the legitimate emperor.

However, to complicate matters further the death of Constantius had spawned another usurper linked to the imperial family, but located in Rome and named Maxentius. Severus marched against Maxentius but his army deserted him and he was forced to surrender. Soon after Severus took his own life leaving the field open for Constantine to move against Maxentius, who was busy seducing the wives of leading senators.

"by this sign conquer"

In AD312 Constantine moved against Maxentius and their armies met just outside the gates of Rome at the Plain of Milvian. The story that has survived centuries describes how Constantine, worried by the size of his enemy's army, sought aid from the gods and was rewarded by the appearance in the sky of a flaming cross. Later that night God came to the pagan Constantine in a dream and told him to "by this sign conquer".

Roman column

Roman column in York

The next day when Constantine went into battle with Maxentius his troops bore crosses on their shields and carried a Christian standard before them. They were victorious and Constantine, after another murderous bout of civil war, emerged in AD324 as the sole, and first Christian, ruler of the Roman World.

The first Christian emperor

Constantine, a usurper from York, was a man who went on to change the world. Constantinople, or Constantine's City (Istanbul) was his new and Christian Rome. His support for Christianity led to it becoming the religion of Western Europe.

Yet Constantine is also an unlikeable man. A marble head of Constantine found in Stonegate (now in the Yorkshire Museum) contrasts sharply with the modern statue outside York Minster. Rather than an effete and relaxed fop as he is portrayed today, the Roman version shows him with alert staring eyes - the military leader and far seeing reformer, the man who would later have one of his own sons executed.

The site of Constantine's elevation was long remembered and two centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, in AD627 King Edwin of Northumbria, newly converted to Christianity from paganism, built the first church dedicated to St. Peter on the ruins of the Roman principia. That seventh-century church was the first Minster, the forerunner of the great cathedral that dominates York today. Such a choice of site was surely no coincidence and later legends built on York's Constantinian connection.

A long vanished church in York, dedicated to Constantine's mother St. Helen, stood in Aldwark and claimed, though this is no more than legend, to be the place of Constantine's burial. Seventeen centuries past these events may be, but their importance was not forgotten and nor should their impact on the modern world.

About the author

James Gerrard read Archaeology and Prehistory at the University of Sheffield before undertaking a Masters at the University of York. Currently he is writing a PhD on the end of Roman Britain and has worked extensively in Britain as a field archaeologist. James is also an extremely well informed tour guide for Yorkwalk, an organisation which provides guided historical tours of York.

last updated: 31/03/2008 at 14:05
created: 27/09/2005

You are in: North Yorkshire > History > Archaeology > Constantine the Great

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