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An Alternate History of the Roman Empire: Constantine and Sons

By Tim Venning

This long Series of Articles discusses a hypothetical history of the Roman Empire wherein Marcus Aurelius lives longer and so it's more stable. In the first thirteen articles this took us to 324. We join the story in the aftermath of Constantine's reunification of the Empire.

Satellite view of the Bosphorus strait and the city built there

As the new sole Emperor, the first such since 286, Constantine had to decide what to do about an Eastern capital. He abandoned his first thoughts of rebuilding Ilium/Troy, the ‘ancestral’ home of the Roman race, as his new Eastern capital and chose Byzantium which had the magnificent natural harbour of the ‘Golden Horn’ and controlled the Bosphorus with its land-route between Asia and Europe and sea-route between the Mediterranean and the Euxine. He renamed the city the ‘New Rome’, and made it the principal ‘colony’ of Rome whose prominent families were encouraged to move there; he used the marble-quarries at Proconnessus and Cyzicus and Thracian forests in building of a magnificent new city as his Eastern capital.

Under his ambitious plans, a duplicate of Rome was created (supposedly on seven hills too), with a ‘Forum of Constantine’ on the site of his camp before the Battle of Chrysopolis. It would also include two Senate Houses, one there and a second one at the Eastern end of the ‘Mese’ avenue to hold a Senate of several hundred members duplicating that at Rome, and a cathedral of the ‘Holy Wisdom’ (‘Hagia Sophia’) and Imperial (‘Sacred’) Palace at the Eastern end of the ‘Mese’ avenue. There were fourteen regions and a grain-dole for the citizens as in Rome, a Hipppodrome West of the Palace adorned with Egyptian obelisks and the ‘Serpent Column’ from Plataea commemorating the Greek victory over the Persians there in 479 BC, and a comprehensive collection of all the best antique Greek sculptures and statues (including the colossal statues of Athene from the Parthenon and Zeus from Olympia) which were collected and moved there. He also created a new supreme administrative post for the civil government based in the Imperial court, the ‘Magister Officiorum’ (’Master of Offices’), two supreme financial officials to control the Emperor’s private and State treasuries (‘Comes Res Privatae’ and ‘Comes Sacrae Largitiorum’), and a supreme legal official, the ‘Quaestor Sacri Palatii’). The newly unified Imperial system also had two new supreme military commanders, attached to the court – the ‘Magister Peditum’ (infantry commander) and ‘Magister Equitum’ (cavalry commander).

Early in 325 Licinius was executed on suspicion of a plot to escape, aged around 60. Constantine went East to Antioch to secure the Eastern frontiers, and received a warm welcome from the heartland of Christianity as the first firmly pro-Christian Emperor. He was, however, dismayed by the number of theological and administrative disputes in the local Churches which he was asked to resolve. He decided to regularise the organisation of the Christian Church to match that of the civil and military establishments of the Empire now that it was reunited, and to end the disputes over theology and the rightful holders of Bishoprics. He called an Empire-wide Church Council to meet at Ancyra while he was on a tour of the Holy Land where he wanted to be baptised in the Jordan. His leading Western clerical ally Bishop Hosius of Cordoba headed Constantine’s mission to Alexandria to interview Bishop Alexander and his theological opponent Arius and try to sort out their differences before the Council met.

He decided in favour of Alexander, who was seen as a loyal and suitably deferential administrator of avowedly orthodox views who would do what he was told, but Arius and his party did not accept this verdict. Going on to Syria to hold a local church council there and deal with Arius’ growing Syrian support, Hosius upheld the orthodox theological position on the Trinity against Arius’ views on Christ’s nature and angrily excommunicated Arius’ supporter Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea (the eminent Church historian and recorder of the persecutions) who did not share the controversial cleric’s theology but wanted him kept within the Church and so the threat of a schism avoided. Eusebius argued for a tolerant and comprehensive Church to put on a united front, and duly put this to Constantine who was exasperated at Hosius for excommunicating Eusebius but as a rigorous believer in unity and discipline did not want ‘loose cannon’ clerics to be able to defy the orders of their seniors.

Arius arguing for the supremacy of God the Father, and that the Son had a beginning as a true Firstborn

The Emperor had appeared in the West from 312 and now appeared in the East from

324 as the Church’s saviour and its long-term partner, and was the beneficiary of a clear

campaign of propaganda as the favored protégé of Christ. This adapted the ‘pagan’

propaganda of Emperors from Aurelian to Diocletian as the partner and protégé of the

sun-god or Hercules. The way in which the partnership of Emperor and Church was set

up in 325 owed much to the precise circumstances of that year. Constantine was

annoyed at the seemingly abstruse and unimportant theological row between the

mainstream ‘Catholics’ and their ‘Arian’ opponents in Alexandria which he faced as he

took over the East in 324-5, and in the run-up to his eastern Church Council sent the

feuding Egyptian bishops envoys with a robust letter rebuking them for behaving in such a manner and evading the need for concord and unity. Indeed, he put the sensible point that knowing the truth about the precise nature of Christ and God was beyond Man’s comprehension so the clergy should concentrate on work to fulfil their duties as

representatives of Jesus and set a good example of mutual goodwill. If the clergy had

taken any notice, generations of theologians would have been put out of work but they did not. The letter failed to nudge them into a compromise, and their continuing rows and the controversy over whether Easter should be celebrated on the accepted ‘Western’ date or as per the Jewish calendar (as seen in certain Eastern churches) persuaded him to ‘upgrade’ a planned Eastern Church Council in 325 (at the relatively minor and isolated central Asia Minor town of Ancyra/ Ankara) into a full Church Council of all sees across the Empire. This would be held at easy-to-reach Nicaea instead, close to the Propontis and to the extant Eastern ‘capital’ Nicomedia where he had taken up residence until ‘New Rome’ was ready for him to move into. If these disputes had not been so apparent and so intractable in 325 – much to Constantine’s surprise - he would have never have held an ’all-Empire’ Council and so doctrine would be less firmly defined.

Theologically, the fact that his envoys (led by Bishop Hosius) had been closer to

Arius’ ‘Catholic’ rival in Alexandria, Bishop Alexander, in accepting that Christ must be

part of the ‘essence’ of God not just an especially favoured human being – and duly

reported this conclusion of theirs to the Emperor - meant that the Council backed Arius’ opponents. The results of the Council would also bind the State administrative system and the Church for the first time, setting in motion the path to the indissoluble linkage of the two throughout the coming era. Constantine also backed the proposal that as the majority of the Empire’s church communities calculated Easter as occurring on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox this should be made compulsory for all, and made ominous remarks about the deserved fate of the Jews who had rejected the Messiah and been driven out of Judaea by Titus and Hadrian. (They still had a major settlement-area in Galilee.)

By establishing a definite and binding Christian liturgy and dogma and affirming the combination of a human and divine nature in Christ, the ‘official’ or Catholic/Orthodox dogma was created under the sponsorship of the State and by extension any divergent dogma came under the threat of State legislative action. In fact Constantine did denounce the principle of coercion of another’s beliefs as inimical to Christianity and the reason why God had showed His disfavour to the recent pagan emperors by bringing them to civil war and miserable ends, but he did approve of a campaign to ‘persuade’ defaulters to voluntarily give up their false beliefs (letter to the

Christian churches of Palestine, spring 325).

The precise form of the Bible was also delineated, though on the basis of the existing

consensus among the majority of ‘Catholic’ bishops present at Nicaea. The earlier efforts

of some theologians (especially Tertullian around 200) to limit the ‘acceptable’ books of

the Bible to a definitive list and and outlaw those of historically or theologically dubious

origin – e.g. those influenced by Gnosticism – were from now on backed by the State.

The final classification was confirmed by Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria c.367. Objectors and those who continued to use the condemned books were now guilty of

defying the State rather than just the senior orthodox clergy, with all that that implies of

the encouragement for officious bishops to encourage use of State legal machinery for

prosecutions. Ultimately, the ‘tidying-up’ of theology and State backing for Church

authority at Nicaea was a major step on the road to a persecutory mindset in the State-

aided Church, though the same mindset had already been apparent in the State’s approach to religion earlier – as aimed at Christianity itself.

The process was not, however, as simple as Constantine ‘hijacking’ the Church to turn it into a repressive instrument of State and thus altering its original nature as a community of idealists unconcerned with secular matters. Worried orthodox writers and bishops had been opposing a multitude of self-generating groups of enthusiasts and their Gnostic interpretations of Christ’s message for centuries. It was more a matter of preventing the break-up of the Church into a mass of rival sects, each claiming a monopoly on truth, than of enforcing one message and one order of mutually-supportive orthodox bishops for the sake of power. But the crisis of the ‘Great Persecution’ had now created a whole new set of divergent sects, this time over

the issues of whether or not a bishop who had surrendered his sacred books to the civil

authority should be barred from office and what penalties to enforce on lay defaulters.

The ‘Donatist’ crisis in North Africa, with two rival lines of bishops each barring the

other from communion, was a warning of what could happen if order was not restored –

so the senior clergy needed Constantine to use State power to assist their ‘official’ positions on such matters. From there, the suppression of erroneous thought on such matters as Christ’s divine or human nature was a logical development.

(Above is as in OTL)

The Council of Nicaea also declared a neat hierarchy of bishoprics across the Empire in parallel with the civil provinces – the bishop of each provincial capital, the governor’s seat, was to be the ‘Metropolitan’ i.e. superior bishop of the province and in turn he would owe loyalty to the archbishops of the capitals of the ‘vicarates’, the over-provincial commands. The supreme authorities in this hierarchy were to be the Pariarchates, each of which had been founded (or so it was declared) by one of the Apostles – Rome (founded by St Peter who had been martyred there by Nero), Antioch (also founded by Peter), Jerusalem (founded by Christ’s human brother James), and Alexandria (founded by Mark). The overall authority in the Church would belong to the four Patriarchs, as advised when it was sitting by irregular Church Councils that the Emperor would call to rule on doctrine and disciplinary matters – and Constantine was declared to be the ‘Thirteenth Apostle’ and the equal of the Apostles in authority which he duly appreciated and added to his titles.

Constantine also declared that as he had been the humbly-born ‘ordinary but Divinely-favoured’ boy who had risen to supreme authority over God’s people by virtue and by God’s support and his tyrannical predecessor, who had sought to keep him out of power (ie Diocletian), had been confounded by God then he was the ‘new David’ (whose humiliated foe had been King Saul) and had Old Testament proof that he, like David, was God’s chosen one and God’s instrument. This would justify his taking on religious as well as secular authority – and it justified his keeping the old Imperial title of ‘Pontifex Maximus’ ie chief priest.

(This is my addition, though a logical extension given Constantine’s OTL beliefs and actions and his better position here; this gives him and his successors more and the Pope less authority than in OTL.)

Council of Nicaea in 325

The Council of Nicaea and its decisive theological definitions posed problems for

any new ‘developer’ of original Christian thought that contradicted the newly authorised

official doctrine, even if his views were logical developments of existing ideas or

appealed to a particular ‘constituency’ among the laity. This most immediately affected was the 320s Alexandrian theologian Arius, who was arguing that Christ was more of a

special sort of human, a ‘man with divinely-granted qualities’ than an integral part of

the ‘Divine Being’ – which denied Christ’s ‘Godhead’. A ‘battle of ideas’ followed to

win Constantine over to either back or sack him – and what Constantine decided a future Emperor could reverse. Constantine and his advisers now sought to enforce a suitable degree of unity in the Church by preparing the way for a State campaign against heresy’ – a word meaning ‘choice’, but which now implied anti-State dissidence – that was to mark the world of Christian states for one-and-a-half millennia, and Constantine’s own efforts to persuade or intimidate theologians with potentially unassimilable views (especially Arius) provided another precedent. The struggle for the crucial backing of the State apparatus was to be fought over by Catholic and ‘Arian’ ecclesiastics for some decades, and was then to spread to the new ‘Monophysite’ sects.

In early 326 Constantine left Asia Minor for ‘New Rome’, which was by now being unofficially called ‘Constantinople’ after him though he did not agree to adopt this name for it for another couple of years, to check on the progress of the building there and oversee the arrival of shiploads of famous Ancient Greek statuary from Athens, Corinth and Megara to be put on display in his new capital. Many of the statues ended up around his grand square of the ‘Augustaeon’ on the North side of the Imperial Palace at the eastern end of the city, adjacent to the Senate House and the cathedral of Hagia Sophia. He then proceeded to Thessalonica for military manoeuvres for his new Balkan and Lower Danube military recruits and on by sea to Italy for celebrations of Constantine’s twenty years’ rule, to be held in Rome. In July 326 Constantine, with his family in attendance, celebrated his twenty years in power with grand Games in Rome, presiding in the Circus Maximus like his predecessors but only holding wild-beast hunts in the Colosseum performances as under Church pressure he had banned gladiatorial combat as cruel in 320, and then he moved on to Northern Italy for a tour before returning his court to Mediolanum.

As a sign of the increasingly autocracy and paranoia that most emperors suffered from, he, to great surprise, also had his popular eldest son Crispus, now aged around 25, arrested, imprisoned, and executed at Pola in Istria on suspicion of a plot – probably due to jealousy by Empress Fausta, who feared the prince’s threat to her under-age sons’ inheritance. It was said that she accused Crispus of trying to seduce her (as hinted at by the early 5th century historian Zosimus),and that Constantine’s mother Helena discovered the truth when she arrived at court a month or so later. The enemies of Fausta mourned the popular prince as a lost heir, and even sniped that Constantine had wanted to be the new King David but was really the new Theseus – a former youthful hero turned into a paranoid tyrant. Constantine also executed of Licinius’ son Licinius II, which was apparently linked to Crispus’ fall and was said to be out of fear that as a proposed co-‘Caesar’ from the early 320s he might demand his rights to a regional command with military support in the East and so cut back the amount of land available to be shared by jealous Fausta’s sons.

Subsequently, on Constantine’s return to Gaul later in 326 to secure Crispus’ former dominions in case of resentment there and to install his eldest surviving son Constantine II (aged 14) as the new ‘Caesar’ at Trier, Fausta was arrested in turn - supposedly on the exposure of her lies about Crispus. She was executed too, aged around 48 - supposedly being suffocated in a bath-house at Trier. Meanwhile Constantine’s mother the ‘Augusta’ Helena, emerging after years in obscurity, led a major pilgrimage by court Christian nobles and leading western bishops to Jerusalem to tour the sites of Christ’s Passion and ministry. The official sites were established and buildings there tidied up or rebuilt ready to become centres for the growing ‘pilgrim’-trade and relics of the saints and famous Old Testament figures were collected for veneration. In particular Christ’s tomb near ‘Golgotha’ was identified in what is declared by local experts to have been a quarry used for tombs outside the walls of Jerusalem at his time; it was chosen to be the site of a magnificent new Imperially-funded ‘Cathedral of the Holy Sepulchre’. Another large church was erected at the site of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem after a visit to the site and formal identification by Helena and her entourage, and Helena also visited the reputed site of his baptism in the Jordan. The ‘True Cross’ was also supposedly identified over the next year or so, and was earmarked for removal to Constantinople where it was to be placed in the new cathedral of the ‘Holy Apostles’ at the North West end of the city where Constantine had decided that he and his dynasty would be buried. In effect, the old pagan shrines in Syria and Palestine as centres of munificent temple-cults run by dynasties of fee-collecting priests and locations for huge popular festivals were to be replaced as ‘tourist sites’, places of popular veneration, and money-spinning festivals by the new network of Christian holy sites around Jerusalem. Constantine and Helena hoped that way to eclipse the old pagan shrines and their pro-Maximin or pro-Licinius priests and cut off their sources of revenue and take away their public support. Other shrines for great Christian martyrs, often from the recent persecutions but some 1st Century and linked to the Apostles, were to be set up at other major cities, mainly in the East, and a major ‘martyrium’ was to be built in the late 320s for the Apostle St Mark, alleged founder of the local bishopric, at Alexandria by Bishop Alexander to undercut Arius’ local popularity with his own munificence.

(This is largely as in OTL; the bizarre story of Crispus and Fausta is a mixture of fact and reasoned guesswork.)

Bishop Alexander was succeeded in Alexandria in 328 by the equally inflexibly orthodox and obstreperously authoritarian Bishop Athanasius, who wrecked Constantine’s abortive attempt to sort out the problem of Arius. The Emperor had summoned Arius to Mediolanum in 327 to sign a vaguely-worded statement about Christ’s nature that could be passed off as orthodox, declared him reconciled to the Church, and sent him off to a minor see in upper Egypt to minister to his ‘hard-liners’ there well away from Alexandria. Alexander had been prevailed upon to accept this, but Athanasius now insisted on receiving a copy of Arius’ statement, picked over it to declare it insufficient, and sent him orders to sign a much stricter document and when he predictably refused sacked him and took over his see for a loyal follower of his own. Arius and his followers continued to hold unofficial services in non-Church buildings which they consecrated as churches themselves and Constantine’s attempts at reconciliation were foiled, but at least he had restored civil if not religious peace and in 328-9 he toured Gaul and Spain before heading on to Greece for the winter and spending the new ‘Christ’s Mass’ season (the official birthday of Jesus Chris, set at 25 December by the Council of Nicaea on no clear evidence and taking over the pagan Saturnalia festival) at Corinth. He then arrived at ‘Constantinople’ with a fleet loaded with more important works of art in time for the planned official inauguration of his new capital there in May 330. On 11 May the dedication-ceremony of Constantinople took place - a traditional Roman foundation-rite on the old ‘Acropolis’ (citadel hill) at the Eastern end of the city, next to the cathedral of Hagia Sophia, but assisted by bishops. Alexander became Bishop of the new capital, which for the moment was subject to the local provincial ‘metropolitan’ of Thrace based at the old regional capital of Adrianople but which was made equal to it as an autonomous see of its own in 334 and in 359 was raised to a Patriarchate equal in status to those of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem.

(As in OTL)


Timothy Venning is a respected Historian who won the London University History Prize in 1979 and whose latest straight history book is Cromwell's Failed State. He has also written multiple books of counter factual essays including Caesars of the Bosphorus, Eternal Caesars, King Charles or King Oliver and King Henry IX, all published by Sea Lion Press, and If Rome Hadn't Fallen.


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