Previous page Page 3 of 3  
Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Augustus to Domitian
Trajan to Constantine
Christian Rome
     Battle of the Milvian Bridge
     A new Rome
     Three sons of Constantine
     Julian the Apostate
     Revival of the pagan cult
     The frontiers of empire
     Emperor and bishop
     Rome and Constantinople
     Independent barbarians
     Odoacer, king of Italy
     End of the Roman empire?

Bookmark and Share
Battle of the Milvian Bridge: AD 312

A mysterious decision by Constantine in October 312 can be seen now as one of the great turning points of history. He is camped just north of Rome, about to do battle with his rival for control of the western empire. He decides that his men shall wear on their shields a Christian symbol - the monogram known as the Chi-Rho, formed from the first two Greek letters of the word Christ.

Constantine wins the battle of the Milvian Bridge. His rival dies fleeing back over the Tiber when a bridge of boats collapses. In Constantine's mind he has won this crucial engagement in alliance with the god of the Christians. The results are dramatic.


Formally acknowledged by the senate as the Augustus of the west, Constantine immediately takes steps to favour the persecuted Christians. He restores confiscated church property and offers public funds to churches in need. In AD 313 he arranges a meeting in Milan with Licinius, one of two claimants to the title of Augustus in the east. He persuades him to follow the same policy.

Later in that year Licinius defeats his rival in the east. He too now proclaims a policy of religious toleration, offering compensation to the Christians for the wrongs done to them.


Within a year or two of suffering severe persecution, the Christians suddenly find themselves a favoured group within the empire. They win tax concessions, and Roman basilicas are constructed for their use as churches. There are career advantages within Constantine's administration if one is a professing Christian. Conversions follow.

But Licinius is less fully committed to the cause. In 320 he reverts to a mild persecution, dismissing Christians from the army and the civil service. Constantine marches against him, in 324, and again the Christian banner is victorious. Licinius surrenders after a defeat near Byzantium. A year later he is executed on a charge of attempted rebellion.


A new Rome: AD 330

Constantine, now in firm command of the entire Roman empire (the first man for a long while to be in that position), is planning another initiative as significant as his adoption of Christianity. Immediately after the defeat of Licinius he sets about rebuilding Byzantium as a Christian capital city - one in which pagan sacrifice, the central rite of imperial Rome until this time, is specifically forbidden.

The city is ready by AD 330 for a ceremony of inauguration. Byzantium acquires two new names - New Rome and Constantinople, the city of Constantine. The Roman empire, within eighteen years of Constantine's first victory, has a new religion, a new centre of gravity and a significant change of culture.


Greece has always been the main cultural influence on Rome, and Greek is the language of the inhabitants of Byzantium. With the founding of Constantinople, the older culture effectively absorbs its vigorous younger challenger. Even the name Constantinopolis is Greek (polis meaning city).

Yet Constantinople is also the new Rome, capital of the Roman empire. The Greeks of this city will long continue to describe themselves as Romans. For several centuries Constantinople represents both the end of the Roman empire and the beginning of the Byzantine empire. Meanwhile Rome gradually establishes a new identity - as the seat of the Christian pope.


Three sons of Constantine: AD 337-361

On the death of Constantine, in AD 337, the empire is divided between his sons Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans. Since the time of his father, Constantius, the family has had a streak of constancy in its choice of names.

The sons inherit the parts of the empire which they have already ruled, on behalf of their father, as Caesars. Constantius II, though not the eldest, has the lion's share - Greece, Constantinople and the entire eastern empire. His elder brother, Constantine II, has Spain, Gaul and Britain. The youngest, Constans, controls Italy and Spain.


Peace and wisdom, in honour of which churches are now rising in Constantinople, do not make the brothers any more loving than other imperial families. Large numbers of their male relations are butchered at the start of the reign, and Constantine II meets his death in Italy in 340 when marching against Constans. Ten years later Constans is murdered in Gaul by an army commander with an eye on the throne. From AD 350 Constantius II is the only legitimate emperor.

With difficulty he recovers control of the entire empire. But from the point of view of Christianity, on which he is as keen as his father, he makes one cardinal error. He gives command of the west to his cousin Julian.


Julian the Apostate: AD 337-361

Son of a half-brother of Constantine the Great, Julian escapes the massacre of male members of the family which follows Constantine's death - probably because he is only six at the time. In his early 20s he studies in Athens, which still retains its status as the centre of Greek learning and pagan philosophy. Brought up strictly as a Christian, Julian now becomes a devotee of Greek culture. He is himself a talented writer in Greek, and several of his works survive.

Little of this would be remembered today, but for the unexpected accident of his becoming emperor. Subsequent events, in the two brief years of the 'apostate' on the throne, have mesmerized Christian historians.


In AD 356, when Julian is twenty-five, the emperor Constantius II appoints him Caesar in command of the Roman armies in Gaul. To everyone's surprise the young intellectual proves a brilliant general, winning a succession of victories over powerful tribes along the Rhine border.

In 359, needing reinforcements against Persia, Constantius orders many of Julian's best legions to march east. Instead, the troops stationed near Paris mutiny and proclaim Julian emperor. He moves slowly eastwards with them to what would have been a rebellious confrontation. But in 361 Constantius, moving westwards to meet him, dies in Asia Minor. Julian is emperor.


The revival of the pagan cult: AD 361-363

It is not known exactly when the new emperor, Julian, decides to reinstate the ancient gods of Rome and Greece . At first he behaves with religious tolerance - returning to their sees, for example, Catholic bishops who have been exiled by Constantius, a committed follower of Arius. But by 362 Julian is making a prominent display of the ritual sacrifices which he carries out personally at revived pagan temples.

When Christians protest, he removes their relics from ancient shrines, imposes special taxes on Christian priests and gives preference to pagans in the civil service.


Julian is repeating, in reverse, the actions of his uncle Constantine in favouring Christianity. He intends to put in place a network of pagan priests and officials throughout the empire of the kind established by the Christians. This view of tomorrow does not appeal to yesterday's elite.

To what extent the young emperor might have achieved his aim is one of history's interesting speculations. In Christian eyes God gives a swift and decisive answer when Julian is killed, in 363, in a skirmish against the Persians. A rumour, first heard a century later, offers wry satisfaction. It is said that in his dying words the apostate cedes victory to Christ: Vicisti, Galilaee (Thou hast conquered, Galilean).


The frontiers of empire: AD 364-378

The death of Julian in warfare with Persia leads indirectly to a rare spell of peace on that frontier. The army selects as emperor a member of the royal household, by the name of Jovian, who extracts the Roman legions from a dangerous situation by making major concessions. Large tracts of territory in Mesopotamia and Armenia, long disputed, are abandoned to Persia.

Jovian dies of natural causes less than a year after becoming emperor. His concessions are regarded as shameful in Constantinople, but it is another forty years before war with Persia resumes.


On the other permanently threatened frontiers of empire, the Danube and the Rhine, the situation is very different. The pressure of barbarian tribes, themselves suddenly under threat from the Huns, is at last about to break down the barriers and flood the western empire.

The catastrophe begins when the emperor Valens is defeated and killed by the Visigoths at Adrianople in 378. His successor, Theodosius - an emperor subsequently accorded the title 'the Great' - solves the problem in the short term by settling the Visigoths as federates within the empire, or allies. But the intrusion of Goths, Vandals and Huns will over the next century disturb and finally destroy the Roman empire in the west.


Christian emperor and Christian bishop: AD 379-390

Theodosius becomes the eastern emperor in AD 379 and rapidly settles the religious splits within the empire by declaring pagan worship and Christian heresies (such as Arianism) to be illegal. A law of 380 orders all citizens to subscribe to the Catholic doctrines agreed under the chairmanship of Constantine the Great at the Council of Nicaea in 325.

A close link between church and state, with the state giving the lead, becomes a characteristic of the eastern or Byzantine empire. But Theodosius discovers, in a famous clash, that western bishops have authoritarian ideas of their own.


The cleric who sets a high standard for the western church in its relationship to the secular powers is Ambrose, bishop of Milan. In AD 390, when Theodosius is in Milan, there is a riot in Greece by supporters of a popular charioteer. A city governor is killed, and Theodosius sends orders for a brutal reprisal.

The charioteer's fans are invited into a circus for a special performance. Then the gates are locked. More than 5000 are slaughtered by troops in a massacre lasting three hours.


When news of the atrocity reaches Milan, Ambrose refuses to give communion to the emperor unless he does public penance for the crime. Theodosius at first stays away from church. But eventually he appears, bare-headed and wearing sackcloth in place of his sumptuous imperial robes. He repeats the performance on several occasions before Ambrose relents, finally giving his emperor the sacrament on Christmas Day.

In the threat of excommunication the western church discovers a powerful weapon for dealing with wayward rulers.


Rome and Constantinople: 4th - 5th century AD

The balance between Rome and Constantinople, and the potential for an upset, is becoming more clearly defined. Two imperial courts, east and west, have been a familiar part of the empire's history. In effect they are more like two army camps, permanently on the move. If they come too close to each other, the result has often been war.

With two rival cities, both interested in political and religious priority, the situation is more complex. In the mid-4th century, under Constantius II, the senate in Constantinople is given equal authority with that of Rome. A few years later, at the Council of Constantinople in 381, it is stated that the bishop of Constantinople is of equal status to the bishop of Rome.


On the religious front an uneasy truce is maintained for several centuries. The final schism between Rome and Constantinople, acknowledging the separate Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, becomes only gradually evident during the Middle Ages.

In the military sphere the pace is forced by events largely beyond the emperors' control. Theodosius rules the entire empire with considerable skill until 395, and his descendants remain at least nominally in control of both east and west until 455. But any measure of peace in the west has been bought by compromise with German tribes.


Independent barbarians: AD 475-476

It has become clear, during the 5th century, that the Romans are now powerless to keep the barbarian rulers in any subordinate role. The Visigoths control an area stretching from the Loire in the north to the Rhone in the east, extending south over the Pyrenees to include much of northern Spain. The ruler of such a territory no longer needs to be a federate ally of Rome. In 475 Euric, king of the Visigoths, declares his independence.

The Ostrogoths, subdued for many decades by the Huns, begin after the death of Attila to move south and west round the Black Sea. But it is lesser groups of barbarians who bring Rome her final indignity. In 476 there is the first German king of Italy.


Odoacer, king of Italy: AD 476-493

German mercenaries by now form an important part of any Roman army, and Roman armies play a major role in the making and breaking of emperors. This is the case in a fairly normal putsch of AD 476, but it is followed by an unusual demand from the mercenaries. They want to settle in Italy. They suggest that a third of every landowner's estate should be made over to them.

The suggestion is not as unreasonable as it sounds. Roman soldiers have in the past been rewarded with land, and barbarian tribes have been settled in provinces of the empire as federates. But it is a shocking thought to Romans that this provincial system might apply to Italy itself. The mercenaries' demand is rejected.


There is an immediate mutiny. The tribesmen elect one of their number, Odoacer, as their king. He leads them to a rapid victory, but immediately makes it clear that his intention is not to destroy the western empire. He wants to be part of it. He sends ambassadors to the emperor Zeno in Constantinople, acknowledging the emperor's rule but asking to be allowed to govern Italy as king of his own people. Zeno reluctantly agrees, subject to certain points of protocol.

The senate in Rome accepts the fait accompli with better grace, for Odoacer proves an effective ruler within the traditional Roman system. He even finds land for his German tribesmen without causing undue upheaval.


The end of the Roman empire? AD 476

The acceptance of Odoacer as king of Italy in 476 causes this year to be seen as the end of the Roman empire. And in a real sense it is. Kings and popes, neither of them part of Roman imperial tradition, will henceforth wield power in the Italian peninsula.

But this is the perspective of hindsight. To historians Constantinople is by this time the capital of the young Byzantine empire. To Europeans in the 5th century it is still the centre of the very ancient Roman empire. In imperial terms there is nothing new about chaos and upheaval in the west, and Roman emperors in Constantinople will continue to take active steps to reassert their authority. In 488 this is done with the help of the Ostrogoths.


Previous page Page 3 of 3