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.
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.
makings of an emperor
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.
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.
Roman column in York
for a successor
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.
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.
this sign conquer"
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
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.
first Christian emperor
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.
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.
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
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.
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.