Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris

The Deeds of Constantine

In the century that followed the reign of Maximin great changes came upon the empire of Rome. The process of decline went steadily on. The city of Rome sank in importance as the centre of the empire. The armies were recruited from former barbarian tribes; many of the emperors reigned in the field; the savage inmates of the northern forests, hitherto sternly restrained, now began to gain a footing within the borders; the Goths plundered Greece; the Persians took Armenia; the day of the downfall of the great empire was coming, slowly but surely. One important event during this period, the rebellion of Zenobia and the ruin of Palmyra, we have told in "Tales of Greece." There are two other events to be told: the rise of Christianity, and the founding of a new capital of the empire.

From the date of the death of Christ, the Christian religion made continual progress in the city and empire of Rome. Despite the contempt with which its believers were viewed, despite the persecution to which they were subjected, despite frequent massacres and martyrdoms, their numbers rapidly increased, and the many superstitions of the empire gradually gave way before the doctrines of human brotherhood, infinite love and mercy, and the eternal existence and happiness of those who believed in Christ and practised virtue. By the time of the accession of the great emperor Constantine, 306 A.D., the Christians were so numerous in the army and populace of the empire that they had to be dealt with more mercifully than of old, and their teachings were no longer confined to the lowly, but ascended to the level of the throne itself.

The traditional story handed down to us is that Constantine, in his struggle with Maxentius for the empire of the West, saw in the sky, above the midday sun, a great luminous cross, marked with the words, "In hoc signo vinces" ("In this sign conquer"). The whole army beheld this amazing object; and during the following night Christ appeared to the emperor in a vision, and directed him to march against his enemies under the standard of the cross. Another writer claims that a whole army of divine warriors were seen descending from the sky, and flying to the aid of Constantine.

It may be said that both these stories, though told by devout authors, greatly lack probability. But, whatever the cause, Constantine became a professed Christian, and as such availed himself of the enthusiastic support of the Christians of his army. By an edict issued at Milan, 313 A.D., he gave civil rights and toleration to the Christians throughout the empire, and not long afterwards proclaimed Christianity the religion of the state, though the pagan worship was still tolerated.

This highly important act of Constantine was followed by another of great importance, the establishment of a new capital of the Roman empire, one which was destined to keep alive some shadow of that empire for many centuries after Rome itself had become the capital of a kingdom of barbarians. On the European bank of the Bosphorus, the channel which connects the Sea of Marmora with the Black Sea, had for ages stood the city of Byzantium, which played an important part in Grecian history.

On the basis of this old city Constantine resolved to build a new one, worthy of his greatness. The situation was much more central than that of Rome, and was admirably chosen for the government of an empire that extended as far to the east in Asia as to the west in Europe, while it was at once defended by nature against hostile attack and open to the benefits of commercial intercourse. This, then, was the site for the new capital, and here the city of Constantinople arose.

We have, in our first chapter, described how Romulus laid out the walls of Rome. With equally impressive ceremonies Constantine traced those of the new capital of the empire. Lance in hand, and followed by a solemn procession, the emperor walked over a route of such extent that his assistants cried out in astonishment that he had already exceeded the dimension of a great city.

"I shall still advance," said Constantine, "till He, the invisible guide who marches before me, thinks proper to stop."

From the eastern promontory to that part of the Bospherus known as the "Golden Gate," the city extended along the strait about three Roman miles. Its circumference measured between ten and eleven, the space embraced equaling about two thousand acres. Upon the five hills enclosed within this space, which, to those who approach Constantinople, rise above each other in beautiful order, was built the new city, the choicest marble and the most costly and showy materials being abundantly employed to add grandeur and splendor to the natural beauty of the site.

A great multitude of builders and architects were employed in raising the walls and building the edifices of the imperial city, while the treasures of the empire were spent without stint in the effort to make it an unequalled monument. In that day the art of architecture had greatly declined, but for the adornment of the city there were to be had the noblest productions the world had ever known, the works of the most celebrated artists of the age of Pericles.

These were amply employed. To adorn the new city, the cities of Greece and Asia were despoiled of their choicest treasures of art. In the Forum was placed a lofty column of porphyry, one hundred and twenty feet in height, on whose summit stood a colossal statue of Apollo, supposed to be the work of Phidias. In the stately circus or hippodrome, the space between the goals, round which the chariots turned in their swift flight, was filled with ancient statues and obelisks. Here was also a trophy of striking historical value, the bodies of three serpents twisted into a pillar of brass, which once supported the golden tripod that was consecrated by the Greeks in the temple of Delphi after the defeat of Xerxes. It still exists, as the choicest antiquarian relic of the city.

The palace was a magnificent edifice, hardly surpassed by that of Rome itself, The baths were enriched with lofty columns, handsome marbles, and more than three score statues of brass. The city contained numbers of other magnificent public buildings, and over four thousand noble residences, which towered shove the multitude, of plebeian dwellings. As for its wealth and population, these, in less than a century, vied with those of Rome itself.

With such energy did Constantine push the work on his city that its principal edifices were finished in a few years,—or in a few months, as one authority states, though this statement seems to lack probability. This done, the founder dedicated his new capital with the most impressive ceremonies, and with, games and largesses to the people of the greatest pomp and cost. An edict, engraved on a marble column, gave to the new city the title of Second or New Rome, but this official title died, as the accepted name of the city, almost as soon as it was born. Constantinople, the "city of Constantine," became the popular name, and so it continues till this day in Christian acceptation. In reality, however, the city has suffered another change of name, for its present possessors, the Turks, know it by the name of Istanbul.

An interesting ceremony succeeded. With every return of the birthday of the city, a statue of Constantine, made of gilt wood and bearing in its right hand a small image of the genius of the city, was placed on a triumphal car, and drawn in solemn procession through the Hippodrome, attended by the guards, who carried white tapers and were dressed in their richest robes. When it came opposite the throne of the reigning emperor, he rose from his seat, and, with grateful reverence, paid homage to the statue of the founder. Thus it was that Byzantium was replaced by Constantinople, and thus was the founder of the new capital held in honor.