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Constantine, called The Great by Joseph Kleinman

Throughout history there have been men (and women too) who have shaped our world and then are seldom even thought of as great historical figures. Such a man is Constantine. How many of us even know when he governed the vast Roman Empire and shaped the very foundations of our civilization? To write a chronicle of his reign in a journal such as this would be impossible. Only commentary is possible. I chose to write about this man at this time because I wanted a figure from the classical world whose coinage anybody of modest means could collect. Additionally, I needed a person who truly changed the direction of history, a person whose policies touch our very lives even today. Constantine easily qualifies on every point.

This then is my commentary. Civilization can be likened too a stool having three legs (this according to Gibbon) The Family, The State and The Alter. In our modern western nations they tend too be somewhat distinct. Not so in the ancient world. In ancient times each state had an official religion. In some nations, Egypt for example, the king was also a living god. In The Roman Empire, some of the worst emperors demanded divine honors from their subjects and many of the good ones were deified after their deaths.

Constantine changed that. Constantine favored the Christians as a consequence of his victory over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge just outside of Rome in AD 312. He is considered to be the first Christian emperor but wasn’t baptized until just before his death in the year AD 337. However, he took a keen interest in church affairs and was instrumental in directing the future course of church history and that of Europe and the world.

In AD 324 Constantine defeated the rival emperor in the east (who was later killed) and became ruler of a united empire. In AD 325 he called a general council of the church in order to settle the Arian Controversy. The church had been split over the doctrine of the Trinity or Catholic view as opposed to the opinion of the Arians who held that the Son was not co-equal and co-eternal with the Father. This controversy involved the very nature of the godhead. Out of this council (which Constantine presided over) came the Nicaean Creed which is recited in most of our churches today.

In AD 326 Constantine experienced his darkest ordeal. His eldest son Crispus was implicated in a plot against Constantine by his stepmother the Empress Fausta. Thereupon, Constantine ordered the execution of Crispus. When in due course the plot was proven to be fabricated by Fausta, Constantine ordered her to be executed by having her scalded to death by steam. Later, Constantine had a golden statue of Crispus erected to the memory of the son that he wrongly condemned. A medallion (illustrated) was also issued in honor of the unfortunate Caesar.

The reforms of Constantine were not all beneficial in my opinion. His new economic policies included the debasement of the coinage. His social and religious reforms led to a new despotism based on the Persian model and as defender of the “True Faith” he became more powerful then any of his predecessors ever were. He can be credited (at least in part) with the establishment of feudalism in Europe. His division of the empire among his three surviving sons further weakened the imperial system especially in the West. However, on balance, given the circumstances that existed at that time, I would have to say that Constantine changed the world for the better. One would have to wonder who at that time could have done a better job.

The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon gives an excellent overview of the reign of Constantine. Also covered in The Decline and Fall is an account of the rise of Christianity within The Roman Empire. Most of the coins of Constantine and his family can be secured for very little money.

Medallion issued in memory of Crispus, son of Constantine. (See text for description.)
Image courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.
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