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FLAVIUS CONSTANTINUS, afterwards called CONSTANTINE THE GREAT, the son of Constantius and Helena, was probably born at Naïssus, on February 27, about A.D. 274 ;* and was above thirty at this time. Being already of military age at the time of his mother's divorce (A.D. 292), he remained with the army of Pannonia, served with distinction in the Persian campaign of Galerius, and was made by Diocletian military tribune of the first rank. He was present both at the fire of the palace of Nicomedia, and at the abdication of the emperor, when Lactantius says that all eyes were turned upon him. The jealousy of Galerius, after already exposing Constantine to special dangers on the battle field, endeavoured now to detain him. Unable at last to refuse the urgent invitations of Constantius, Galerius one evening gave Constantine his signetring, and bade him come in the morning to take leave, intending probably to delay his journey till orders could be sent to Severus to intercept him. But Constantine started the moment the emperor had retired to rest, and by pressing all the relays of posthorses into his service, distanced his pursuers, evaded Severus, who was on his march to Italy, and thus traversing the length of Europe, from the Bosporus to the Straits of Dover, reached his father at Boulogne. Constantius was just setting out on his last visit to Britain, to repel the Caledonians; and he reached York only to die, on July 24, A.D. 306. With his last breath, according to Lactantius, he transmitted the empire to his son, and commended him to the soldiers. At all events the army of Britain, composed of the flower of the western legions, proclaimed Constantine immediately after his father's death, and he had no choice but to accept their nomination. “The throne was the object of his desires ; and, had he been less actuated by ambition, it was the only means of safety. He was well acquainted with the character and sentiments of Galerius, and sufficiently apprised that, if he wished to live, he must determine to reign.” After affecting a vehement resistance, he announced his father's death and excused the mode of his election to the purple which he claimed as his birthright, in a letter to Galerius, whose first transports of rage were checked by the sense of a nearer danger.
· Eusebius places his birth in A.D. 272. Naïssus (now Nissa), the birthplace of Constantine, and the scene of the great victory of Claudius over the Goths (see p. 631), was a town of Upper Moesia, situated on an eastern tributary of the Margus (Morava). It is sometimes spoken of as in Dacia ; that is, the new Dacia of Aurelian. It was. enlarged and beautified by Constantine ; destroyed by Attila ; and rebuilt and forti. fied by Justinian.
In strict accordance with the order arranged by Diocletian, he raised the Cæsar Severus to the dignity of Augustus, and named Constantine as Cæsar over the western provinces. Though Constantine was not made Augustus till two years later, the years of his reign are dated from his proclamation by his troops on July 25th, A.D. 306. Content with the position that his father had held under Diocletian, till the conflicts of the other princes should invite his interference, Constantine engaged in successful war with the Franks, Alemanni, and other Germans; and proved that his father's mild training had not extirpated the cruelty of his Illyrian nature. After an immense slaughter of the barbarians, their captive chiefs and young men were thrown to the wild beasts in such numbers that, his very panegyrist declares, the brutes were weary with killing.
The elevation of Severus to the supreme rank in Italy filled up the measure of indignation in the breasts of Maximian and his son; and the humiliated Roman people, oppressed by the taxes which they now first shared with the provinces, made a last effort to shake off the dictation of the eastern prince. The Prætorians, as the Herculian guards of Maximian were now again called, rose against the party of Severus, and slew the magistrates and the prefect of the city; and the Senate once more assumed the prerogative of conferring the purple upon MAXENTIUS, who was residing in a villa near Rome (Oct. 26, A.D. 306). Whether through his son's invitation or his own restlessness, Maximian emerged from his retirement; and preparations were made to resist Severus, who was advancing by the orders of Galerius upon Rome. Encamping before the walls, he soon found himself deserted by a body of Moors formerly levied by Maximian, and by other troops who acknowledged the authority of their old leader and the Senate. Severus retired to Ravenna, where he was secure behind marshes and fortifications, and could receive aid by sea. But the arts of Maximian alarmed him into a capitulation; and, after resigning the purple on the promise of his life, Severus found that the sacrifice had only purchased the choice of a mode of death, which he accomplished by opening his own veins (Feb. A.D. 307).* After this victory, Maximian crossed the Alps in person, to win over Constantine to his party by the hand of his daughter Fausta, and the offer of the rank of Augustus. Both gifts were accepted by Constantine; but he kept aloof from any active part in the contest with Galerius, who marched into Italy, and advanced to Narnia in Umbria. But he found that he had to deal with the spirit of a united people, and his soldiers could scarcely be kept from deserting to Maximian. He was compelled to retreat, marking by the ravages of his troops the track in which he was closely pursued by Maxentius, who, however, avoided an engagement.
* So inconsistent, however, are the accounts of these events that, as Manso observes, two totally different narratives migl. framed, almost upon equal authority.
On his advance into Italy, Galerius had entrusted the command upon the Danube to LICINIUS, his old comrade in arms, and originally a Dacian peasant, on whom he now conferred the title of Augustus, vacant by the death of Severus, with the government of the Illyrian provinces * (Nov. 11, A.D. 307). The importunity of Maximin, who was in fact saluted Augustus by his army in Syria, extorted the same dignity for himself, and policy demanded its extension to Constantine, whom Galerius still hoped to win over. “For the first, and indeed for the last time," says Gibbon, “ the Roman world was administered by sis emperors. In the West, Constantine and Maxentius affected to reverence their father Maximian. In the East, Licinius and Maximin honoured with more real consideration their benefactor Galerius. The opposition of interest, and the memory of a recent war, divided the empire into two hostile powers; but their mutual fears produced an apparent tranquillity and even a feigned reconciliation, till the death of the elder princes, Maximian, and more particularly of Galerius, gave a new direction to the views and passions of their surviving associates.”
Strange to say, the seeming concord was first broken by a contest for power between Maximian and Maxentius. The father's claim, that the direction of the government should be left to his experience, was spurned by the coarse and brutal son, who required Maximian again to resign his power. The case was heard by the prætorian guards, who had felt the weight of Maximian's discipline, and had been raised to new consequence by Maxentius. Driven into exile by their decision, and repulsed from Illyricum by the distrust of Galerius, the aged emperor retired to his last refuge in Gaul with Fausta and Constantine, who received him with real or affected kindness. He consented once more to resign the purple; but the absence of Constantine on an expedition against the Franks offered too tempting a bait to the old intriguer. He seized the treasure deposited at Arles ; squandered it in bribing
* The full name of the new Augustus was now Publius Flavius Galerius Valerius Licinianus Licinius. VOL. III.
the troops ; and was opening communications with Maxentius, when Constantine returned with marvellous rapidity from the Rhine. Maximian had only time to throw himself into Marseille, when Constantine arrived, and began to press the siege with a vigour prompted by the fear that the enemy might either escape or receive succour by sea from his son. The Massaliots relieved him of his anxiety by the surrender of Maximian; and the announcement that he had strangled himself in remorse for his crimes covered a deed on which Gibbon has pronounced a just judgment : “ He deserved his fate; but we should find more reason to applaud the humanity of Constantine, if he had spared an old man, the benefactor of his father, and the father of his wife. During the whole of this melancholy transaction, it appears that Fausta sacrificed the sentiments of nature to her conjugal duties" (Feb. A.D. 310.)
In little more than a year Galerius also died; and the Christians could not fail to remark that the author of the greatest persecution perished, like Antiochus Epiphanes and Herod Agrippa, a prey to loathsome vermin* (May, 311). His dominions were divided between Maximin and Licinius, the former taking the Asiatic provinces, the latter the European, while they formed secret alliances respectively with Maxentius and Constantine, between whom war was now impending. The tyranny and profligacy of Maxentius had long made his subjects in Italy and Africa look to Constantine as a deliverer, when the former gave a pretext for war by throwing down the statues of the latter, in revenge for the like indignities to the memorials of Maximian. Constantine in Gaul received a deputation from the Senate and people of Rome; and resolved, against the advice of his council, to march to their deliverance. Leaving half his forces to guard the Rhenish frontier, he crossed the pass of Mt. Cenis at the head of about 40,000 men. The forces of Maxentius consisted of the prætorian guards, whom he had raised by new levies throughout Italy to the number of 80,000, a body of 40,000 Africans, and a large levy from Sicily; making, with his other troops, a total of 170,000 foot and 18,000 horse, to maintain which he had the wealth of Italy, and the corn-fields of Africa, Sicily, and Sardinia. But the activity of Constantine went far to counterbalance the disparity of force. He had descended from the Alps and taken Susa, before Maxentius had any certain knowledge of his movements. It was in the plains of Turin that he encountered the first army of Italy under the lieutenants of Maxentius. “Its principal strength consisted in a species of heavy cavalry, which the Romans, since the decline of their discipline, had borrowed from the nations of the East. The horses, as well as the men, were clothed in complete armour, the joints of which were artfully adapted to the motion of their bodies. The aspect of this cavalry was formidable, their weight almost irresistible; and as, on this occasion, their generals had drawn them up in a compact column or wedge, with a sharp point and with spreading flanks, they flattered themselves that they should easily break and trample down the army of Constantine. They might, perhaps, have succeeded in their design, had not their experienced adversary embraced the same method of defence which, in similar circumstances, had been practised by Aurelian. The skilful evolutions of Constantine divided and baffled this massy column of cavalry. The troops of Maxentius fled in confusion towards Turin; and, as the gates of the city were shut against them, very few escaped the sword of the victorious pursuers.”
* His disease was that which is described as the morbus pediculosus.
The prize of the battle of Turin was the capital of Milan and the whole of northern Italy, except the fortress of Verona, which Constantine took after gaining a second great victory over Pompeianus. He was advancing to Rome along the Flaminian Road, before the taunts of the people and the remonstrances of his officers roused Maxentius from his indolent pleasures. Constantine was relieved from the fear of suffering the delay, and inflicting on Rome the horrors, of a siege, by finding the army of Maxentius drawn up at the Etrurian village of Saxa Rubra (the Red Rocks), a few miles from Rome, on the little river Cremera, which had long since been reddened with the blood of the three hundred Fabii. The battle, involving an issue, of which even Constantine himself had but a mysterious presentiment, was decided by his charge in person, at the head of his Gallic horse, upon the cavalry of Maxentius, whose flight left the infantry exposed upon both flanks. The prætorians alone made a desperate resistance. The flying troops were driven into the Tiber; and, as Maxentius attempted to escape to Rome over the Milvian bridge (Ponte Mollo), the crowd of fugitives forced him into the river. His body, sunk deep into the mud by the weight of his armour, was found with difficulty next day; and his head was exposed to the rejoicing Romans. Constantine put to death the two sons of Maxentius, and took measures to extirpate his family, but there his vengeance ceased. Those who had been exiled by Maxentius