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Troubles After The Abdication Of Diocletian. - Death Of Constantius. - Elevation Of Constantine And Maxen Tius. - Six
Emperors At The Same Time. - Death Of Maximian And Galerius. - Victories Of Constantine Over Maxentius And Licinus. -
Reunion Of The Empire Under The Authority Of Constantine.
The balance of power established by Diocletian subsisted no longer than while it was sustained by the firm and dexterous hand of the founder. It required such a fortunate mixture of different tempers and abilities, as could scarcely be found or even expected a second time; two emperors without jealousy, two Caesars without ambition, and the same general interest invariably pursued by four independent princes. The abdication of Diocletian and Maximian
was succeeded by eighteen years of discord and confusion. The empire was afflicted by five civil wars; and the remainder of the time was not so much a state of tranquility
as a suspension of arms between several hostile monarchs, who, viewing each other with an eye of fear and hatred, strove to increase their respective forces at the expense of their subjects. As soon as Diocletian and Maximian
had resigned the purple, their station, according to the rules of the new constitution, was filled by the two Caesars, Constantius
, who immediately assumed the title of Augustus. 1
Footnote 1: M. de Montesquieu (Considerations sur la Grandeur et La Decadence des Romains, c. 17) supposes, on the
authority of Orosius and Eusebius, that, on this occasion, the empire, for the first time, was really divided into two parts. It is
difficult, however, to discover in what respect the plan of Galerius differed from that of Diocletian.
The honors of seniority and
precedence were allowed to the former of those princes, and he continued under a new appellation to administer his ancient
department of Gaul, Spain, and Britain.
The government of those ample provinces was sufficient to exercise his talents and to satisfy his ambition. Clemency
, and moderation
, distinguished the amiable character of Constantius
, and his fortunate subjects had frequently
occasion to compare the virtues of their sovereign with the passions of Maximian
, and even with the arts of Diocletian
Instead of imitating their eastern pride and magnificence, Constantius
preserved the modesty of a Roman prince. He declared,
with unaffected sincerity, that his most valued treasure was in the hearts of his people, and that, whenever the dignity of the
throne, or the danger of the state, required any extraordinary supply, he could depend with confidence on their gratitude and
The provincials of Gaul, Spain, and Britain, sensible of his worth, and of their own happiness, reflected with
anxiety on the declining health of the emperor Constantius
, and the tender age of his numerous family, the issue of his second
marriage with the daughter of Maximian
Footnote 2: Hic non modo amabilis, sed etiam venerabilis Gallis fuit; praecipuc quod Diocletiani suspectam prudentiam, et
Maximiani sanguinariam violentiam imperio ejus evaserant. Eutrop. Breviar. x. i.
Footnote 3: Divitiis Provincialium (mel.
provinciarum) ac privatorum studens, fisci commoda non admodum affectans; ducensque melius publicas opes a privatis haberi,
quam intra unum claustrum reservari. Id. ibid. He carried this maxim so far, that whenever he gave an entertainment, he was
obliged to borrow a service of plate.
The stern temper of Galerius
was cast in a very different mould; and while he commanded the esteem of his subjects, he seldom
condescended to solicit their affections. His fame in arms, and, above all, the success of the Persian war, had elated his haughty
mind, which was naturally impatient of a superior, or even of an equal. If it were possible to rely on the partial testimony of an
injudicious writer, we might ascribe the abdication of Diocletian to the menaces of Galerius
, and relate the particulars of a
private conversation between the two princes, in which the former discovered as much pusillanimity as the latter displayed
ingratitude and arrogance. 4
But these obscure anecdotes are sufficiently refuted by an impartia view of the character and
conduct of Diocletian. Whatever might otherwise have been his intentions, if he had apprehended any danger from the violence
, his good sense would have instructed him to prevent the ignominious contest; and as he had held the sceptre with
glory, he would have resigned it without disgrace.
Footnote 4: Lactantius de Mort. Persecutor. c. 18. Were the particulars of this conference more consistent with truth and
decency, we might still ask how they came to the knowledge of an obscure rhetorician. But there are many historians who put
us in mind of the admirable saying of the great Conde to Cardinal de Retz: "Ces coquins nous font parlor et agir, comme ils
auroient fait eux-memes a notre place."
Note: This attack upon Lactantius is unfounded. Lactantius was so far from having been an obscure rhetorician, that he had
taught rhetoric publicly, and with the greatest success, first in Africa, and afterwards in Nicomedia. His reputation obtained him
the esteem of Constantine, who invited him to his court, and intrusted to him the education of his son Crispus. The facts which
he relates took place during his own time; he cannot be accused of dishonesty or imposture. Satis me vixisse arbitrabor et
officium hominis implesse si labor meus aliquos homines, ab erroribus iberatos, ad iter coeleste direxerit. De Opif. Dei, cap. 20.
The eloquence of Lactantius has caused him to be called the Christian Cicero. Annon Gent.
After the elevation of Constantius
to the rank of Augusti
, two new Caesars were required to supply their place,
and to complete the system of the Imperial government. Diocletian
, was sincerely desirous of withdrawing himself from the
world; he considered Galerius
, who had married his daughter, as the firmest support of his family and of the empire; and he
consented, without reluctance, that his successor should assume the merit as well as the envy of the important nomination. It
was fixed without consulting the interest or inclination of the princes of the West. Each of them had a son who was arrived at
the age of manhood, and who might have been deemed the most natural candidates for the vacant honor. But the impotent
resentment of Maximian
was no longer to be dreaded; and the moderate Constantius
, though he might despise the dangers, was
humanely apprehensive of the calamities, of civil war. The two persons whom Galerius
promoted to the rank of Caesar, were
much better suited to serve the views of his ambition; and their principal recommendation seems to have consisted in the want
of merit or personal consequence. The first of these was Daza
, or, as he was afterwards called, Maximin, whose mother was
the sister of Galerius
. The unexperienced youth still betrayed, by his manners and language, his rustic education, when, to his
own astonishment, as well as that of the world, he was invested by Diocletian with the purple, exalted to the dignity of Caesar,
and intrusted with the sovereign command of Egypt and Syria. 5
At the same time, Severus, a faithful servant, addicted to
pleasure, but not incapable of business, was sent to Milan, to receive, from the reluctant hands of Maximian
, the Caesarian
ornaments, and the possession of Italy and Africa. According to the forms of the constitution, Severus acknowledged the
supremacy of the western emperor; but he was absolutely devoted to the commands of his benefactor Galerius
, who, reserving
to himself the intermediate countries from the confines of Italy to those of Syria, firmly established his power over three fourths
of the monarchy. In the full confidence that the approaching death of Constantius
would leave him sole master of the Roman
world, we are assured that he had arranged in his mind a long succession of future princes, and that he meditated his own
retreat from public life, after he should have accomplished a glorious reign of about twenty years. 7
Footnote 5: Sublatus nuper a pecoribus et silvis (says Lactantius de M. P. c. 19) statim Scutarius, continuo Protector, mox
Tribunus, postridie Caesar, accepit Orientem. Aurelius Victor is too liberal in giving him the whole portion of Diocletian.
Footnote 6: His diligence and fidelity are acknowledged even by Lactantius, de M. P. c. 18.
Footnote 7: These schemes, however, rest only on the very doubtful authority of Lactantius de M. P. c. 20.
But within less than eighteen months, two unexpected revolutions overturned the ambitious schemes of Galerius
. The hopes of
uniting the western provinces to his empire were disappointed by the elevation of Constantine, whilst Italy and Africa were lost
by the successful revolt of Maxentius
The fame of Constantine has rendered posterity attentive to the most minute circumstances of his life and actions. The place
of his birth, as well as the condition of his mother Helena, have been the subject, not only of literary, but of national disputes.
Notwithstanding the recent tradition, which assigns for her father a British king, 8
we are obliged to confess, that Helena was
the daughter of an innkeeper; but at the same time, we may defend the legality of her marriage, against those who have
represented her as the concubine of Constantius
The great Constantine was most probably born at Naissus
, in Dacia
and it is not surprising that, in a family and province distinguished only by the profession of arms, the youth should discover very
little inclination to improve his mind by the acquisition of knowledge. 11
He was about eighteen years of age when his father
was promoted to the rank of Caesar; but that fortunate event was attended with his mother's divorce; and the splendor of an
Imperial alliance reduced the son of Helena to a state of disgrace and humiliation. Instead of following Constantius
in the West,
he remained in the service of Diocletian, signalized his valor in the wars of Egypt and Persia, and gradually rose to the
honorable station of a tribune of the first order. The figure of Constantine was tall and majestic; he was dexterous in all his
exercises, intrepid in war, affable in peace; in his whole conduct, the active spirit of youth was tempered by habitual prudence;
and while his mind was engrossed by ambition, he appeared cold and insensible to the allurements of pleasure. The favor of the
people and soldiers, who had named him as a worthy candidate for the rank of Caesar, served only to exasperate the jealousy
of Galerius; and though prudence might restrain him from exercising any open violence, an absolute monarch is seldom at a loss
now to execute a sure and secret evenge. 12 Every hour increased the danger of Constantine, and the anxiety of his father,
who, by repeated letters, expressed the warmest desire of embracing his son.
For some time the policy of Galerius
with delays and excuses; but it was impossible long to refuse so natural a request of his associate, without maintaining his refusal
by arms. The permission of the journey was reluctantly granted, and whatever precautions the emperor might have taken to
intercept a return, the consequences of which he, with so much reason, apprehended, they were effectually disappointed by the
incredible diligence of Constantine. 13
Leaving the palace of Nicomedia
in the night, he travelled post through Bithynia
, and Gaul
, and, amidst the joyful acclamations of the people, reached the port of Boulogne in the
very moment when his father was preparing to embark for Britain. 14
Footnote 8: This tradition, unknown to the contemporaries of Constantine was invented in the darkness of monestaries, was
embellished by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and the writers of the xiith century, has been defended by our antiquarians of the last age,
and is seriously related in the ponderous History of England, compiled by Mr. Carte, (vol. i. p. 147.) He transports, however,
the kingdom of Coil, the imaginary father of Helena, from Essex to the wall of Antoninus.
Footnote 9: Eutropius (x. 2) expresses, in a few words, the real truth, and the occasion of the error "ex obscuriori matrimonio
ejus filius." Zosimus (l. ii. p. 78) eagerly seized the most unfavorable report, and is followed by Orosius, (vii. 25,) whose
authority is oddly enough overlooked by the indefatigable, but partial Tillemont. By insisting on the divorce of Helena,
Diocletian acknowledged her marriage.
Footnote 10: There are three opinions with regard to the place of Constantine's birth. 1. Our English antiquarians were used to
dwell with rapture on the words of his panegyrist, "Britannias illic oriendo nobiles fecisti." But this celebrated passage may be
referred with as much propriety to the accession, as to the nativity of Constantine. 2. Some of the modern Greeks have
ascribed the honor of his birth to Drepanum, a town on the Gulf of Nicomedia, (Cellarius, tom. ii. p. 174,) which Constantine
dignified with the name of Helenopolis, and Justinian adorned with many splendid buildings, (Procop. de Edificiis, v. 2.) It is
indeed probable enough, that Helena's father kept an inn at Drepanum, and that Constantius might lodge there when he
returned from a Persian embassy, in the reign of Aurelian. But in the wandering life of a soldier, the place of his marriage, and
the places where his children are born, have very little connection with each other. 3. The claim of Naissus is supported by the
anonymous writer, published at the end of Ammianus, p. 710, and who in general copied very good materials; and it is
confirmed by Julius Firmicus, (de Astrologia, l. i. c. 4,) who flourished under the reign of Constantine himself. Some objections
have been raised against the integrity of the text, and the application of the passage of Firmicus but the former is established by
the best Mss., and the latter is very ably defended by Lipsius de Magnitudine Romana, l. iv. c. 11, et Supplement.
Footnote 11: Literis minus instructus. Anonym. ad Ammian. p. 710.
Footnote 12: Galerius, or perhaps his own courage,
exposed him to single combat with a Sarmatian, (Anonym. p. 710,) and with a monstrous lion. See Praxagoras apud Photium,
p. 63. Praxagoras, an Athenian philosopher, had written a life of Constantine in two books, which are now lost. He was a
Footnote 13: Zosimus, l. ii. p. 78, 79. Lactantius de M. P. c. 24. The former tells a very foolish story, that Constantine caused
all the post- horses which he had used to be hamstrung. Such a bloody execution, without preventing a pursuit, would have
scattered suspicions, and might have stopped his journey.
Note: Zosimus is not the only writer who tells this story. The younger Victor confirms it. Ad frustrandos insequentes, publica
jumenta, quaqua iter ageret, interficiens. Aurelius Victor de Caesar says the same thing, G. as also the Anonymus Valesii. - M.
Manso, (Leben Constantins,) p. 18, observes that the story has been exaggerated; he took this precaution during the first stage
of his journey. - M.
Footnote 14: Anonym. p. 710. Panegyr. Veter. vii. 4. But Zosimus, l. ii. p. 79, Eusebius de Vit. Constant. l. i. c. 21, and
Lactantius de M. P. c. 24. suppose, with less accuracy, that he found his father on his death-bed.
The British expedition, and
an easy victory over the barbarians of Caledonia
, were the last exploits of the reign of Constantius
. He ended his life in the
Imperial palace of York
, fifteen months after he had received the title of Augustus, and almost fourteen years and a half after he
had been promoted to the rank of Caesar. His death was immediately succeeded by the elevation of Constantine. The ideas of
inheritance and succession are so very familiar, that the generality of mankind consider them as founded, not only in reason, but
in nature itself. Our imagination readily transfers the same principles from private property to public dominion: and whenever a
virtuous father leaves behind him a son whose merit seems to justify the esteem, or even the hopes, of the people, the joint
influence of prejudice and of affection operates with irresistible weight. The flower of the western armies had followed
into Britain, and the national troops were reenforced by a numerous body of Alemanni
, who obeyed the orders of
, one of their hereditary chieftains. 15
The opinion of their own importance, and the assurance that Britain, Gaul, and
Spain would acquiesce in their nomination, were diligently inculcated to the legions by the adherents of Constantine. The
soldiers were asked, whether they could hesitate a moment between the honor of placing at their head the worthy son of their
beloved emperor, and the ignominy of tamely expecting the arrival of some obscure stranger, on whom it might please the
sovereign of Asia to bestow the armies and provinces of the West. It was insinuated to them, that gratitude and liberality held a
distinguished place among the virtues of Constantine; nor did that artful prince show himself to the troops, till they were
prepared to salute him with the names of Augustus and Emperor. The throne was the object of his desires; and had he been
less actuated by ambition, it was his only means of safety. He was well acquainted with the character and sentiments of
, and sufficiently apprised, that if he wished to live he must determine to reign. The decent and even obstinate resistance
which he chose to affect, 16
was contrived to justify his usurpation; nor did he yield to the acclamations of the army, till he had
provided the proper materials for a letter, which he immediately despatched to the emperor of the East. Constantine informed
him of the melancholy event of his father's death, modestly asserted his natural claim to the succession, and respectfully
lamented, that the affectionate violence of his troops had not permitted him to solicit the Imperial purple in the regular and
constitutional manner. The first emotions of Galerius
were those of surprise, disappointment, and rage; and as he could seldom
restrain his passions, he loudly threatened, that he would commit to the flames both the letter and the messenger. But his
resentment insensibly subsided; and when he recollected the doubtful chance of war, when he had weighed the character and
strength of his adversary, he consented to embrace the honorable accommodation which the prudence of Constantine had left
open to him. Without either condemning or ratifying the choice of the British army, Galerius accepted the son of his deceased
colleague as the sovereign of the provinces beyond the Alps; but he gave him only the title of Caesar, and the fourth rank
among the Roman princes, whilst he conferred the vacant place of Augustus on his favorite Severus. The apparent harmony of
the empire was still preserved, and Constantine, who already possessed the substance, expected, without impatience, an
opportunity of obtaining the honors, of supreme power. 17
Footnote 15: Cunctis qui aderant, annitentibus, sed praecipue Croco (alii Eroco) Alamannorum Rege, auxilii gratia Constantium comitato, imperium capit. Victor Junior, c. 41. This is perhaps the first instance of a barbarian king, who assisted
the Roman arms with an independent body of his own subjects. The practice grew familiar and at last became fatal.
16: His panegyrist Eumenius (vii. 8) ventures to affirm in the presence of Constantine, that he put spurs to his horse, and tried,
but in vain, to escape from the hands of his soldiers.
Footnote 17: Lactantius de M. P. c. 25. Eumenius (vii. 8.) gives a rhetorical turn to the whole transaction.
The children of Constantius
by his second marriage were six in number, three of either sex, and whose Imperial descent might
have solicited a preference over the meaner extraction of the son of Helena. But Constantine was in the thirty-second year of
his age, in the full vigor both of mind and body, at the time when the eldest of his brothers could not possibly be more than
thirteen years old. His claim of superior merit had been allowed and ratified by the dying emperor. 18
In his last moments
bequeathed to his eldest son the care of the safety as well as greatness of the family; conjuring him to assume both
the authority and the sentiments of a father with regard to the children of Theodoric
. Their liberal education, advantageous
marriages, the secure dignity of their lives, and the first honors of the state with which they were invested, attest the fraternal
affection of Constantine; and as those princes possessed a mild and grateful disposition, they submitted without reluctance to
the superiority of his genius and fortune. 19
Footnote 18: The choice of Constantine, by his dying father, which is warranted by reason, and insinuated by Eumenius, seems
to be confirmed by the most unexceptionable authority, the concurring evidence of Lactantius (de M. P. c. 24) and of Libanius,
(Oratio i.,) of Eusebius (in Vit. Constantin. l. i. c. 18, 21) and of Julian, (Oratio i)
Footnote 19: Of the three sisters of Constantine, Constantia married the emperor Licinius, Anastasia the Caesar Bassianus,
and Eutropia the consul Nepotianus. The three brothers were, Dalmatius, Julius Constantius, and Annibalianus, of whom we
shall have occasion to speak hereafter.
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To cite original text:
Gibbon, Edward, 1737-1794. The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.
1st ed. (London : Printed for W. Strahan ; and T. Cadell, 1776-1788.), pp. 400-407.