THE GREAT (CONSTANTINUS, CAIUS FLAVIUS VALERIUS AURELIUS), son of the emperor Constantius Chlorus and of his wife Helena, was born Feb. 27, 272 or 274, SEE HELENA, at Naissus (now Nissa) in Illyricum, or, according to other traditions, in Britain. He first distinguished himself by his military talents under Diocletian, in that monarch's famous Egyptian expedition, 296; subsequently he served under Galerius in the Persian war. In 305 the two emperors, Diocletian and Maximian, abdicated, and were succeeded by Constantius Chlorus and Galerius. Galerius, who could not endure the brilliant and energetic genius of Constantine, took every means of exposing him to danger, and it is believed that this was the period when he acquired that mixture of reserve, cunning, and wisdom which was so conspicuous in his conduct in after years. At last Constantine fled to his father, who ruled in the West, and joined him at Boulogne just as he was setting out on an expedition against the Picts in North Britain. Constantius died at York, July 25, 306, having proclaimed his son Constantine his successor. The Roman soldiers, in the Praetorium at York, proclaimed Constantine emperor. He now wrote a conciliatory letter to Galerius, and requested to be acknowledged as Augustus. Galerius, however, would not allow him the title of Augustus, and gave him that of Caesar only. Constantine took possession of the countries which had been subject to his father, viz., Gaul, Spain, and Britain; and, having overcome the Franks, he turned his arms against in axentius, who had usurped the government of Italy and Africa. He conquered Maxentius in three battles, the last at the Milvian bridge, under the walls of Rome. Constantine was now declared by the senate Augustus and Pontifex Maximus (Oct. 28, 312). It was in this campaign that he is said to have seen a flaming cross in the heavens, beneath the sun, bearing this inscription, In hoc signo vinces, i.e. "By this sign thou shalt conquer;" and on the same authority it is stated that Christ himself appeared to him the following night and ordered him to take for his standard and imitation of the fiery cross which he had seen. He accordingly caused a standard to be made in this form, which was called the labarum (q.v.). This account rests chiefly on the testimony of Eusebius (Vita Constantini. 1:29, 30), said to be founded on a communication from Constantine himself. "Lactantius, the earliest witness (De mortibus persecutorum, c. 44, a work which may not have been written by Lactantius, but yet was composed about A.D. 314 or 315), speaks only of a dream, in which the emperor was directed to stamp on the shields of his soldiers 'the heavenly sign of God,' that is, the cross, with the name of Christ, and thus to go forth against his enemy" (Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 2, § 2, where this point, and indeed the whole relation of Constantine to the Church, is admirably treated). In January, 313, he published the memorable edict of toleration in favor of the Christians, by which all the property that had been taken from the Christians during the persecutions was restored to them. "They were also made eligible to public offices. This edict has accordingly been regarded as marking the triumph of the cross and the downfall of paganism. Having defeated Licinius, who showed a mortal hatred to the Christians, Constantine became sole head of the Eastern-and Western empire in 325, the year noted for the oecumenical council which he convened at Nice, in Bithynia, and which he attended in person, for the purpose of settling the Arian controversy. Towards the close of his life he favored the Arians, to which he was induced by Eusebius of Nicomedia, in consequence of which he banished many orthodox bishops. Though he professed Christianity, he was not baptized till he fell sick in 337, in which year he died in Nicomedia" (Buck, Theol. Dict. s.v.). The senate of Rome placed him among the gods, and the Christians of the East reckoned him among the saints: his festival is still celebrated by the Greek, Coptic, and Russian churches on the 21st of May.
"Whatever may have been the true character of Constantine's conversion to the Christian faith, its consequences were of vast importance both to the empire and to the Church of Christ. It opened the way for the unobstructed propagation of the Gospel to a wider extent than at any former period of its history. All impediments to an open profession of Christianity were removed, and it became the established religion of the empire. Numerous, however, in various points of view, as were the advantages accruing to it from this change, it soon began to suffer from being brought into close contact with the fostering influence of secular power. The simplicity of the Gospel was corrupted; pompous rites and ceremonies were introduced; worldly honors and emoluments were conferred on the teachers of Christianity, and the kingdom of Christ in a great measure converted into a kingdom of this world. The character of Constantine has been the object of various and contradictory judgments, according to the religious and political spirit of the various writers. Eusebius, Nazarius, and other Christian contemporaries, grateful for the protection afforded by the emperor to the Christian religion, may be considered his panegyrists, while Zosimus and other heathen writers, animated by an opposite feeling, were his enemies. The brief summing-up of Eutropius is perhaps nearest the truth: 'In the first part of his reign he was equal to the best princes, in the latter to middling ones. He had many great qualities; he was fond of military glory, and was successful. He was also favorable to civil arts and liberal studies; fond of being loved and praised, and liberal to most of his friends. He made many laws; some good and equitable, others superfluous, and some harsh and severe'" (Hend. Buck). See Gibbon, Decline and Fall, 1:454 sq.; Manso, Leben Konstantin's (Breslau, 1817); Keim, Uebertritt Konstantins zum Christenthunm (Zurich, 1862); Burckhardt, Die Zeit Konstantin des Grossen Schaff, Ch. Hist. l. c.; Neander, Ch. Hist. (Torrey's ed.), 2, 3; Stanley, Eastern Church, Lecto 6. SEE DONATION.