Famous Men of Rome - John Haaren

Constantine the Great


For more than a hundred years after the time of Marcus Aurelius none of the Roman emperors did anything great or remarkable. They were nearly all bad men, and many of them were put to death for their evil deeds.

In the year 307 A.D. the empire had been divided up through many quarrels and wars between generals of the armies. Often an army would declare its commander an emperor, and he would set himself up as ruler of part of the empire. So in this way there came at last to be six persons who claimed to be emperors.

None of them was in any way remarkable except the Emperor Constantine, called Constantine the Great. He was the son of a former emperor named Constantius. When Constantius died the army chose Constantine to be emperor. But he did not go to Rome to be crowned. He remained in Gaul, for he learned that five others had taken the title of emperor in different parts of the empire.

After a while, however, Constantine got messages from people in Rome begging him to come and relieve them from the cruel government of Maxentius, who was acting as emperor there. But Constantine was a wise man. He thought it would not be well for him to leave Gaul and enter into a fight with Maxentius, so he paid no attention to the messages.

At last Maxentius openly insulted Constantine and threatened to kill him. Then Constantine was aroused to anger, so he gathered a great army of good soldiers and set out for Rome. He marched over the Alps and in a short time was fighting the army of Maxentius on the plains of Italy.

The first battle took place near Turin. The soldiers of Maxentius were clad in steel armor; but Constantine's men fought them so fiercely that their armor was of little use to them, and they were speedily defeated. There was another battle at Verona, where Constantine was again the victor.

The third battle took place on the banks of the Tiber, near Rome. Maxentius had more soldiers than Constantine, but he was not a good general, so he was easily beaten. He himself was drowned while fleeing across the Tiber.

After the battle Constantine entered Rome amidst the cheers of the people. A little while afterwards he told an interesting story to a Christian bishop named Eusebius. He said that while he was marching through northern Italy, on the way to Rome, he was constantly thinking about the Christian religion. It had been spreading in every civilized country for more than two centuries, and Constantine thought that he, too, should become a Christian and no longer worship pagan gods. But he could not make up his mind to do so.

One day while he was in front of his tent, with his officers and troops around him, there appeared in the heavens an enormous cross of fire. A little on one side of the cross were these words in the Greek language, "By this, conquer." The words are sometimes given in the Latin form, In hoc signo vinces, the translation of which is, "Through this sign thou shalt conquer."

Constantine was astonished at the wonderful vision, and he gazed at it until it faded away. He could not understand what it meant and was greatly troubled. But that night he dreamed that Christ appeared to him in robes of dazzling white, bearing a cross in His hands, and that He promised him victory over his enemies if he would make the cross his standard.

Arch of Constantine


Constantine now declared himself a Christian and had a standard made in the form of a cross, with a banner attached to it bearing the initial letters of the name of Christ. This banner was called the Labarum, and it was afterwards the standard of the Roman emperors.

When Constantine became a Christian himself he began to take the Christians into his favor. He made some of them high officers of the government; he built Christian churches and destroyed the pagan temples. He also made the Christian religion the religion of the empire, and he had the sign of a cross painted on the shields and banners of the Roman armies.

Thus, after many, many years of terrible persecution, the Christians were befriended by the Roman emperor, and soon they became very powerful. Thousands of Romans were converted to Christianity, and the churches were crowded with worshipers.


Constantine also very much improved the Roman laws and system of government. He put a stop to the dishonest practices of the officers and established just methods of carrying on public affairs. He disbanded the famous Prætorian Guards, which had been an evil power in Rome for centuries. Many other reforms were carried out by Constantine, who seemed anxious to do what was right and what was for the best interests of the people.

Under Constantine's rule, therefore, Rome was happy and prosperous. To show their gratitude to him for his noble deeds the people erected in his honor a grand marble arch in the central square of the city and inscribed on it:


Four of the six emperors who had at one time ruled the empire were now dead. But in the east there was one emperor named Licinius. Constantine attacked him, scattered his armies, and took away from him the greater part of his territory.

The two emperors then became friends, but after some time they had a quarrel and went to war again. Each had a large army and a fleet of warships. Two great battles were fought, and Constantine won both. Licinius soon afterwards died.

Now for the first time Constantine was sole emperor, and for more than fourteen years he ruled the immense Roman empire. He built the most magnificent palace Rome had ever seen. He surrounded himself with hundreds of courtiers and lived in great splendor.

After a time he resolved to move the capital of the Empire to a more central place than Rome, and he selected Byzantium, an ancient city of Thrace, at the entrance to the Black Sea. To this city Constantine sent numbers of workmen to make alterations and improvements, and he changed its name to Constantinople, which means city of Constantine. He spent vast sums of money in erecting gorgeous buildings, making aqueducts, constructing streets and public squares, and in doing the many other things proper to be done in the capital of a great empire. The finest statues and other works of art that could be obtained in Greece, Italy, and the countries of Asia were brought to make Constantinople beautiful.

When everything was ready Constantine with the officers of his government removed to Constantinople. He lived for about seven years afterwards. There were no further wars, except a slight conflict with a tribe called the Goths, and the people of the empire were contented and prosperous.

Constantine died in Constantinople at the age of sixty-three, after a reign of nearly thirty-one years. He was the first Christian emperor of Rome.