Monday, July 24, 2017

Death of Constantius I, the father of Constantine the Great ~ Primary Accounts

A gold aureus of Constantius I Chlorus, ca. AD 303.
On July 24 (or July 25 in some sources), AD 306, the Roman emperor Flavius Valerius Constantius Chlorus passed into eternity at Eboracum (York) in Roman Britain at the age of 56.

Reputed to be related to the emperor Claudius II Gothicus, Constantius Chlorus was made a Caesar in AD 293 and was a junior member of Diocletian's original tetrarchy. He ruled as Augustus of the West after the resignation of Diocletian and Maximian in AD 305.

Of course, Constantius is best known as the father of Constantine the Great who followed him as emperor. But Constantine's succession was a close-run thing, considering he had resided in the East for much of his young life under the dubious protection of Diocletian and his Caesar, Galerius. In reality, it seems that Constantine was a hostage whom the eastern tetrarchs were using to exert influence over their colleague in the West. When Constantius fell ill in AD 305, and requested the presence of his son, it is perhaps not surprising that Galerius was not quick in granting permission.

Here are two accounts of the situation at the end of Constantius's life. In the first one, by Eusebius in his Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine, is dramatic, but lacking in details:
The emperors then in power, observing [Constantine's] manly and vigorous figure and superior mind, were moved with feelings of jealousy and fear, and thenceforward carefully watched for an opportunity of inflicting some brand of disgrace on his character. But the young man, being aware of their designs, the details of which, through the providence of God, more than once came to him, sought safety in flight...
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Immediately, therefore, on his escape from the plots which had been thus insidiously laid for him, he made his way with all haste to his father, and arrived at length at the very time that he was lying at the point of death. As soon as Constantius saw his son thus unexpectedly in his presence, he leaped from his couch, embraced him tenderly, and, declaring that the only anxiety which had troubled him in the prospect of death, namely, that caused by the absence of his son, was now removed, he rendered thanks to God, saying that he now thought death better than the longest life, and at once completed the arrangement of his private affairs. Then, taking a final leave of the circle of sons and daughters by whom he was surrounded, in his own palace, and on the imperial couch, he bequeathed the empire, according to the law of nature, to his eldest son, and breathed his last. [Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine, Book I, Chapters XX-XXI]
It should be pointed out here that Constantius had a total of seven children, with Constantine being the eldest from his first marriage with Helena, whom he was forced to repudiate in order to take the throne. His second marriage with Theodora, the daughter of the senior Western emperor, Maximian, produced a further six children, including Julius Constantius who was the father of the Emperor Julian the Apostate.

Lactantius's account of Constantine's escape to his ailing father, while also dramatic, contains a few additional details:
Constantius, having become exceedingly ill, wrote to Galerius, and requested that his son Constantine might be sent to see him. He had made a like request long before, but in vain; for Galerius meant nothing less than to grant it. On the contrary, he laid repeated snares for the life of that young man, because he durst not use open violence, lest he should stir up civil wars against himself, and incur that which he most dreaded, the hate and resentment of the army. Under pretence of manly exercise and recreation, he made him combat with wild beasts. But this device was frustrated, for the power of God protected Constantine, and in the very moment of jeopardy rescued him from the hands of Galerius.
At length, Galerius, when he could no longer avoid complying with the request of Constantius, one evening gave Constantine a warrant to depart, and commanded him to set out next morning with the imperial despatches. Galerius meant either to find some pretext for detaining Constantine, or to forward orders to Severus for arresting him on the road. Constantine discerned his purpose; and therefore, after supper, when the emperor was gone to rest, he hasted away, carried off from the principal stages all the horses maintained at the public expense, and escaped. Next day the emperor, having purposely remained in his bed-chamber until noon, ordered Constantine to be called into his presence; but he learnt that Constantine had set out immediately after supper. Outrageous with passion, he ordered horses to be made ready, that Constantine might be pursued and dragged back; and hearing that all the horses had been carried off from the great road, he could hardly refrain from tears. Meanwhile Constantine, journeying with incredible rapidity, reached his father, who was already about to expire. Constantius recommended his son to the soldiers, delivered the sovereign authority into his hands, and then died, as his wish had long been, in peace and quiet. [Lactantius, Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died, Chapter XXIV].
Both of these accounts seem to be remiss in mentioning that Constantine reached his father not at the brink of death, but just as the latter was embarking on a new campaign in Britain. The two then campaigned in the far north together for over a year, achieved a victory, and then returned to York where Constantius perished. For these facts, we are indebted to the Latin Panegyricist of AD 310, who wrote:
The day would end before my speech, if I were to recapitulate all the deeds of your father…For it was not that he who had accomplished so many great feats thought it worthwhile to acquire—I won’t mention the forests and swamps of the Caledonians and the other Picts—either nearby Hibernia or Farthest Thule, or the Isles of the Blest themselves, if they exist, but rather…when he was about to join the gods, he gazed upon the Ocean…so that when about to enjoy thereafter perpetual light, he might now see there almost continuous daylight.
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What is more, he was immediately asked his opinion as to whom he would decree the command, and he spoke as befitted Constantius Pius: for manifestly you were chosen, O Emperor, by your father’s vote….For you were summoned even then to the rescue of the State by the votes of the immortals at the very time when your father was crossing the sea to Britain, and your sudden arrival illuminated the fleet which was already making sail, so that you seemed not to have been conveyed by the public post, but to have flown in some divine chariot. [Nixon and Rodgers, In Praise of Later Roman Emperors: The Panegyrici Latini, page 277].
The praise of the panegyricist may sound over-the-top to modern ears, but the accomplishments of Constantius I Chlorus should not be understated. He lived a largely commendable life, was an able defender of the Roman Empire, a tolerant man in an age of grotesque anti-Christian persecution, and the sire of a heroic son who would go on to be ranked among the greatest Roman emperors.

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