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ERA THE SIXTH.
THE LIFE OF CONSTANTINE THE GREAT.
THE CONVERSION OF THE ROMAN EMPERORS TO CHRISTIANITY,
AND THE DOWNFALL OF PAGANISM.
1. This Emperor, whose history presents itself as one of the most striking and brilliant in the page of human renown, is called the Great, to distinguish him from many others who bore the same name, but without any of its original lustre. The family from which he sprung was that of Claudius, surnamed the Gothic; and this was made still more noble and princely, by his father Constantius having been one of the four Emperors who first reigned together. From him was derived a name which transmitted its honours to several generations. The mother of Constantine was Helena; but whether she was the daughter of a British king or of an innkeeper is uncertain. He was born, most probably in Dacia, and not in Britain, as some have supposed. The last of the illustrious exploits of bis father was in that island, where he distinguished himself against the barbarians of Caledonia. Constantine was bred a soldier, and in the early part of his life, had little leisure to bestow upon the acquisition of knowledge. His time was spent in camps, and in the business of war.
His mother having been divorced for state reasons, when his father married the daughter of Maximian, he did not follow Constantius into the west, but remained in the service of Diocletian, signalizing his valour in the wars of Egypt and Persia, and thus gradually attaining the station of a tribune of the first order.
2. Constantine was formed by nature to excel, and to make his way in the hearts of mankind. His figure was tall and majestic, and full of that manly and noble beauty which the Greeks have ascribed to their Apollo. In the sculptures of a somewhat later period, he was represented with the symbols of that pagan deity, who was supposed to be the god of light and of poetry. Intrepid in war and affable in peace, he was also endowed with an habitual prudence; and while he pursued the career of an honourable ambition with energy, he was enabled to control his passions, and to resist the allurements of pleasure. He was therefore highly popular with the soldiers and the people, who were eager to see him placed in the rank of Cæsar-a circumstance which gave no small jealousy to Galerius, his father's partner in the empire. That subtle tyrant was anxiously awaiting the death of Constantius, to confer this rank upon one of his own favourites. But the latter, anticipating the near approach of death, earnestly desired the presence of his son, and sent to Galerius repeated letters to that effect. The permission was at length reluctantly granted ; and, though orders were craftily sent to stop him on the road, yet Constantine, by his foresight and rapid journey through the eastern provinces, reached Britain in time to receive his father's last embraces, and his dying recommendation to the choice of the soldiers (A.D. 306).
3. Constantine was in the thirty-second year of his age, at the time of his father's death; and the army having at once acknowledged the son of their victorious general as his successor in the empire, Galerius was constrained to admit his claim to be the sovereign of the provinces beyond the Alps ; but he gave him only the title of Cæsar, and the fourth rank among the Roman princes.
Without disputing his right to a higher dignity at that time, Constantine awaited, without impatience, for a future opportunity of obtaining the supreme power.
4. This opportunity was soon afforded him by the civil war which Maxentius bad raised in Rome, to vindicate his right to the place of Emperor in opposition to Severus, one of the four rulers, and the adopted son of Galerius (A.D. 306). About six years afterwards, the usurper having succeeded in making good his title to this dignity, by the defeat and
death of his rival, resolved to reign the entire sovereign of the West, and treated with indignity the statues that had been erected in Italy and Africa in honour of Constantine. This was a declaration of war which the latter could not mistake. An embassy also from the Senate and people of Rome, invited him to deliver them from a tyrant whom they detested. He therefore lost no time in raising his standard against Maxentius. Breaking through the armies which met him on his descent from the Alps, our hero now rushed onward until he saw
of his enemy
before the gates of Rome. At this time one of the most memorable events which the world has ever witnessed took place. It can scarcely be regarded in any other light than that of a miraculous interposition, intended to rescue Constantine and his empire from the power of Paganism.
5. Constantine's army was in numbers far inferior to that of his enemy. This fearless soldier had crossed the Alps with an army of 40,000 men, but the force of Maxentius amounted to 175,000 foot, and 18,000 horse. Constantine was the first soldier of his age; yet even his undaunted courage might well have hesitated to engage an enemy not only so greatly superior in appearance, but one who was believed to have strengthened his arms by magic. On this occasion, however, his courage did not desert him, and religion came to his aid. Eusebius tells us, that he began to reflect that those emperors who had relied like Maxentius on the multitude of their gods, had come to an evil end, and had been deceived by their oracles; while his father Constantius who, during his whole life, had honoured one sovereign God, had received evident marks of his protection. He now considered that it was a folly to honour gods which were nothing, and that he ought to worship the God of his father. He then invoked him, praying fervently that he would make himself known and help him. Eusebius further relates that while the Emperor was thus praying, he saw an extraordinary sign in the heavens, and that Constantine himself had confirmed to him with an oath the truth of this story, and he could not therefore refuse to believe it. This sign was the appearance in the sky of a pillar of light in the form of a cross, and round about it the inscription, “By this conquer." Constantine was startled at the sight, as likewise his whole army, who beheld it, and many of
them looked upon it as an unfortunate omen, portending the defeat of his expedition. The Emperor himself knew not what to understand by it, but at night he had a dream in which a divine personage appeared to him, and commanded him to make a royal standard like that which he had seen in the heavens, and to engrave the figure of it on the shields of his soldiers; and that this should be a token of safety and victory. This Constantine immediately did, himself directing the workmen according to the pattern he had
The standard formed on this occasion, and called the Labarum, was a long pike intersected by a transverse piece at the top, so as to form the figure of a cross. A silken veil hung from the beam, and was curiously inwrought with images of the reigning monarch and his children. The summit of the pike supported a crown, which enclosed the sacred monogram or initial letters expressive of the name of Christ. With a banner of this kind it was, according to the testimony of Eusebius, that Constantine and his army now marched on to meet Maxentius. Figures of it are seen on coins of this Emperor which exist to the present day. When the armies met, that of Maxentius was after å fierce struggle driven from the field. In his retreat to Rome, the tyrant himself was forced into the Tiber with the flying multitude, and drowned by the weight of his own armour. Constantine pursued without further opposition his march to Rome, and took possession of the imperial city, after thus achieving the most splendid enterprise of his life (Oct. 28, A.D. 312).
6. There were two other wars besides this, in which Constantine distinguished himself as the first military hero of that age. About ten years after the event just described, he was called to vindicate the empire from the incursions of the barbarians, who now, by a peace of long duration, had recovered their strength. A new generation also had arisen, who no longer remembered the misfortunes of former days. The Sarmatians, near the Lake Mæotis, followed the Goths in this invasion, and their united forces were poured upon Illyricum and the neighbouring countries. After an obstinate resistance Constantine drove them back into their own country, and compelled them to restore their plunder and their prisoners. Not content with this advantage, he resolved still further to chastise them by carrying the war