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Christian Emperors

The reign of the Christians was begun not long after the fall of the Military Emperors. According to the Bible Timeline Chart with World History, this began between the years of 325 and 375 AD. The Tetrarchy played a major role in this transition.

The Tetrarchy

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The rule of the military emperors was closely followed by the Tetrarchy of Diocletian, Maximian, Constantius, and Galerius. After he had defeated the last of the soldier emperors, Diocletian proved to be a clever and prudent ruler who knew that he would not be able to maintain his power over the vast empire if he were to reign alone. During this period, the Roman Empire was close to bursting at the seams as its territory spanned from Britain in the north, the borders of Africa in the south, Hispania in the west, and Syria in the east. To protect the empire from disintegration, Diocletian gave most of his power away to three men he appointed as his co-rulers.

To this end, he declared a trusted military officer named Maximian as co-emperor and gave him the title Augustus. Some time later, he appointed Constantius Chlorus and Galerius as junior emperors and gave them the title of Caesar. To ensure that the Caesars’ loyalty belonged only to this Tetrarchy, Diocletian gave his daughter in marriage to Galerius and Maximian’s to Constantius Chlorus

“Bronze statue of Constantine I in York, England, near the spot where he was proclaimed Augustus in 306”

In 305 AD, Diocletian surprised Rome with the announcement of his retirement and insisted that Maximian also announce his abdication. With great reluctance, Maximian did, and they made a public abdication in favor of the two junior Caesars. Constantius received the Western Empire, which included Italy, Gaul, Hispania, Numidia, Britain, and Mauretania, while Galerius ruled the Eastern Empire which included Libya, Egypt, and Asia. Constantius Chlorus died of an illness in 306 AD in York—only a year after he became emperor, and his troops declared his son Constantine as the heir to the father’s power.

The Rise of Constantin

Galerius wanted to follow Diocletian’s rule and declared Severus (the new Augustus for the Western Empire and Galerius’ old friend) to replace Constantius. The plan to keep the Tetrarchy failed when Maximian returned from retirement and sided with Constantine. Severus was defeated and killed by Constantine’s troops, which added to the mess the supposed Tetrarchy entered. Throw in Maxentius (Maximian’s son who also wanted to be an emperor) into the chaotic mix and several years of full-scale civil war ensued.

Rome was under the rule of Maxentius in 312 AD when Constantine decided to cross the Alps to attack the now-unpopular ruler. Before they met, Constantine had this vision:

“about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, CONQUER BY THIS. At this sight, he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle… He said, moreover, that he doubted within himself what the import of this apparition could be. And while he continued to ponder and reason on its meaning, night suddenly came on; then in his sleep the Christ of God appeared to him with the same sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to make a likeness of that sign which he had seen in the heavens, and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies. ” (Eusebius of Caesaria)

For the first time in the empire’s history, a high-ranking military official adopted the first two letters of Christ’s name (chi and rho) and embossed them onto his helmet and his standard. He also had the chi-rho sign embossed on the shields of his soldiers, according to Roman Christian author Lactantius. Constantine’s adoption of the symbols would be the start of a new chapter in the life of 4th century Christians and a turning-point in faith’s history itself.

Maxentius and his troops took their stand at the Milvian Bridge on the Tiber River to block Constantine and his troops from the passage to Rome. Constantine was greatly outnumbered, but they rallied and forced Maxentius’ troops to turn back to Rome. The Milvian Bridge’s narrow design could not accommodate Maxentius’ troops when they tried to retreat. This forced them to build a pontoon bridge beside it. As they tried to escape, many of the soldiers drowned after the artificial bridge sank; Maxentius was one of the casualties of the Battle of Milvian Bridge.

Constantine executed many of Maxentius’ supporters when he arrived in Rome and dissolved the Praetorian Guard. He now had the time to deal with the two co-emperors: Licinius, who held the central part of the empire and Maximinus Daia whole ruled the eastern half of the empire. To remove Maximinus Daia, he entered into an alliance with the less-powerful Licinius. Constantine had dangled an offer too hard for the elderly Licinius to refuse: the marriage to his younger half-sister Constantia.

Licinius accepted, and his troops met Maximinus Daia’s in battle under the banner of the chi-rho, which Constantine himself used against the doomed Maxentius. Maximinus Daia and his troops marched under the banner of Jupiter. He was defeated in battle and forced to flee to the city of Tarsus where Licinius cornered him. Maximinus poisoned himself, but it took him four days to die because of the large full meal he ate before he ingested the poison. The bloodshed, however, did not stop there as Licinius was determined to get rid of the other claimants to the eastern throne, which included Maximinus’ wife and young children.

Christianity Made Legal in the Roman Empire

Constantine and Licinius met at Mediolanum to celebrate the latter’s marriage to Constantia and to issue the Edict of Milan which made Christianity legal in the empire. This act further endeared Constantine to the Roman Christians. His use of Christian symbols and the legalization of this relatively new religion was also a clever move to keep the empire intact. The Roman Empire was made up from different ethnic identities. To keep it from disintegration, he needed a reason to keep it intact, and a Christian identity that transcended ethnic ones did just that. He, however, continued to use Sol Invictus (Roman sun god) on his coins and was not baptized until he was on his deathbed.

Constantine waited for the perfect timing to get rid of Licinius and become the empire’s sole ruler. Licinius handed Constantine the excuse he needed when the former accused the Christians in his court of spying for Constantine. Constantine took advantage of this to accuse his co-emperor of persecution of Christians. This was illegal under the Edict of Milan, and Constantine promptly declared war against Licinius. He was defeated by Constantine in the Chrysopolis, but was only spared after his wife, Constantia, pleaded on his behalf to be exiled instead to Thessalonica.

Constantine was now the sole ruler of the empire, and he became more involved in Christianity as shown by his participation in the First Council of Nicaea. He also allowed the Christians to build churches not only in Rome but also in the Palestinian province. They were also given lands by the emperor, and it could be said that this was the start of Christianity’s golden age in the empire. He also built and dedicated a new capital in the east, then named it Constantinople (modern Istanbul) after himself. Constantine died on May 22, 337 AD in the city of Nicomedia of an unknown illness.

Constantinian Dynasty

The death of Constantine left a power vacuum in the empire as he did not name a successor while he was alive. The empire had no ruler for three months until the troops in Pannonia declared Constantine’s three sons as co-emperors. His eldest son Constantine II received the northern territories of Hispania, Gaul, and Britain; Constantius ruled the eastern portion of the empire; and the youngest, Constans, ruled Italy, Northern Africa, and Illyria.

The peace they sought didn’t last long after tensions rose up between the brothers, which ended in the death of Constantine II. The relationship between the two remaining brothers was peaceful even when their religious beliefs differed—Constantius was a believer in Arianism while Constans was not. Over the years, Constans proved to be an unpopular ruler with his imposition of high taxes and his corrupt practices. He had lost the support of the people and a coup by Magnentius in the city of Autun in Gaul forced him to flee to Hispania. He took refuge in a church in Helena (modern Elne and named after his grandmother) on the border between Gaul and Hispania and was killed in the church’s sanctuary. Constantius had already appointed Gallus (one of their first cousins) as a junior emperor, but he was killed in a brutal manner some time later. Constantius was now the sole ruler of the Roman Empire.

Gaul was far from peaceful and to stabilize the situation, Constantine appointed Gallus’ half-brother, Julian, as the ruler of the territory. Julian was an accomplished military man with many victories against the Germanic tribes and was very popular among the people after he lowered the taxes imposed upon them. Some time later, his troops revolted against Constantius and proclaimed him as emperor because of his popularity. Constantius was torn whether he should face the Persian forces which invaded the Near East territories or subdue the revolt when the news reached him. He chose to face the Persians first, and as luck would have it, the Sassanid troops retreated temporarily.

He hurried back home as soon as the Persian threat was minimized, but he came up with a high fever when they started the journey west in the fall of 361 AD. He never made it to Rome or Gaul, and he died in Mopsuestia, Cilicia where he was baptized. He proclaimed Julian as his heir before his death as he had no children of his own (except a daughter who was born afterward). His body was taken to Constantinople and buried at the Church of the Holy Apostles where the body of his father was also interred.

Brief Rule of Julian the Apostate

The events of Julian’s early life molded his religious views and caused him to abandon Christianity altogether, which earned him the title “the apostate.” Constantius, in an effort to remove other claimants to the throne except his brothers, ordered a purge of his grandfather’s children with his second wife, Theodora, which left only Julian and his half-brother Gallus alive. He received a Christian education early in life, but the violence of Constantius’ purge during his childhood led him to paganism. Julian did not persecute Christians, but he revoked their tax-exempt status and confiscated their church properties—a clear divergence from the policies of Constantine and his sons.

His reign was short—nearly eighteen months—and he died after a disastrous expedition against the Persians in Ctesiphon. He was struck by a spear on his side as he pursued the retreating Persians. It pierced his internal organs and caused his death at the age of thirty-two. Julian was buried in Tarsus, but his body was transferred to Constantinople a century later as decreed by Emperor Leo I.

Emperor Jovian and Revival of Christianity

Julian died young and with him, the Constantinian dynasty. As expected, he did not name an heir, so it was up to the troops to choose the next emperor. They chose Jovian, a Moesian general who brought the body of Constantius to Constantinople from Cilicia. His reign was also woefully short at eight months. He also gave away a large chunk of the empire’s territory east of the Tigris river to the Persians during peace negotiations. Jovian and his troops returned west after this, but he died in Dadastana, Galatia for unknown reasons. He would be remembered as the one who brought Christianity back as Rome’s state religion after the brief resurgence of paganism under Julian. Just like the earlier Constantinian emperors, he was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles.

Valentinian Dynasty

After the short-lived reign of Jovian, the troops at Nicaea declared the Tribune of elite infantry regiment named Valentinian as emperor. He was born in Cibalae in Pannonia from an Illyrian family and rose steadily through the ranks during his military career. Upon his accession, he appointed his younger brother, Valens, as emperor of the eastern half of the empire while he managed the western part. Valens, however, joined the army later than his brother and remained subordinate to him for most of their joint rule.

Valentinian was victorious against the Alemanni through his general Jovinus and against the various tribes in Britain through the general Theodosius. He fortified the Roman territories on the Rhine for many years. He died of a stroke or heart attack after berating the Quadi envoys sent to him in 375 AD. Before he died, he appointed his young son Gratian as co-Augustus of the west.

Meanwhile, Valens needed to deal with the rebellion of Procopius, one of the last members of the Constantinian dynasty, who challenged his rule of Constantinople. Procopius was later defeated in the Battle of Thyatira after he was betrayed by his own men to Valens. He fled the battlefield and was executed in 366 AD. Valens launched successful military campaigns against the

Valens launched successful military campaigns against the Visigoths and was forced to face the Persian threat in Mesopotamia. The battles against the Persians ended in a truce, and he provided asylum to Visigoth refugees who were displaced by the Hunnic invasions. Unfortunately for Valens, the same Visigoths later rebelled against him, and he died in the Battle of Adrianople along with many of his troops. Both brothers were Christians, but Valentinian believed in Nicene Christianity while Valens favored Arianism.

The 8-year old Gratian was appointed by his father as Augustus in 367 AD. He was proclaimed the new ruler of the Western Empire when his father died in 375 AD. He ruled the western half of the empire alone for some time but recognized his brother Valentinian II after he was declared emperor by the troops stationed in Aquincum. Gratian launched military campaigns in Gaul and appointed Theodosius as emperor of the East after the death of his uncle Valens in the disastrous Battle of Adrianople.

Gratian started out well in the early years of his reign but was later influenced by the bishop Ambrose of Milan as well as the Frankish general Merobaudes. As a result, his popularity was extremely low. He was so unpopular among the Roman troops that it pushed them to declare Magnus Maximus as emperor in Britain. Gratian, in an effort to crush the rebellion and put the usurper in his proper place, hurried to Gaul to reach Britain. His troops deserted him on the way, and he was killed in Lugdunum after he tried to flee.

After the death of Gratian, Magnus Maximus invaded Italy, which forced Valentinian to flee to Thessalonica. The Greek city was ruled by the emperor of the East, Theodosius I, and Valentinian came back to rule after Theodosius overthrew Maximus. He did not stay in Italy, however, and moved to a palace in Vienna, which was under the regency of a Frankish general named Arbogast. Valentinian II was found dead in his palace in the city after he publicly dismissed Arbogast because of the latter’s opposition to him leading an army into Italy to counter the barbarian forces.

Picture By NewTestLeper79 –,_York_Minster.jpg, GFDL,
“Eusebius of Caesarea The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine.” Internet History Sourcebooks. Accessed June 10, 2016.
Meijer, Fik. Emperors Don’t Die in Bed. London: Routledge, 2004.
Bauer, S. Wise. The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007.
Bauer, S. Wise. The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.
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