Portrait of Constantius II, distributing largesse from the Chronography of 354.
“And close kinsmen as we were, how this most humane Emperor (Constantius) treated us ! Six of my cousins and his and my father who was his own uncle and also another uncle of both of us on my father’s side and my eldest brother, he put to death without trial” – Emperor Julian 361 AD
Constantine ruled the Roman Empire on his own for the last thirteen years of his life. In the years before, he temporarily suspended the division of the empire, but had always had his eye on the future. The future involved a succession plan that saw the division of the empire between his three surviving sons and two of his nephews, whom all had been named Caesar in the previous years. Unfortunately, this plan would never see the light of day.
Years earlier Constantine had committed a violent act that probably haunted him for the rest of his life. The murder of his eldest son Crispus and wife Fausta are remembered by historians as Constantine’s greatest ‘sin’ and stain upon his rule and character as a person. As an extension of this same vile nature, his sons would commit their own shameful crimes to stain their own legacies. Raised as the first Christian princes, their legacy would begin with a family massacre.
Constantius II, at only twenty years of age, would play the pivotal role in this bloody purge. Whether he was encouraged by the soldiers (of his father) or by members of the church, or by selfish reasons of his own, we will never truly know. Though it is probably saved to say, that the popularity of Constantine’s house and making sure it continued on, was of utmost importance in everyone’s mind. The army would have undoubtedly wanted to see a smooth transition of power (without civil war) to Constantine’s sons and the Church likewise, would have wanted to maintain favor with this first generation of Christian born emperors- the three brothers Constantine II, Constans and Constantius II.
So what happened ? In May 337 AD, Constantine the Great died at Nicomedia with his loyal soldiers likely around him. At first, it is said that they did nothing, suppressing the news of the death of the Emperor until his son Constantius arrived at the scene. In due course, strangely many months later in September, Constantius presided over the funeral of his father at Constantinople, where he was buried at the Church of the Holy Apostles. Throughout this whole period, the generals closest to Constantine and now loyal to Constantius controlled the situation keeping an eye on events and any threats that may arise from a possible usurper. Following the funeral and only once the three brothers had received their applause as emperors, the generals acted to secure the rise of Constantine’s sons. Whatever the mindset was of Constantius and the army, both likely agreed that there was no need for up to five emperors to rule the empire. The brothers alone were capable of ruling its vast expanse or so they thought ?
To justify the horrible plan that lay ahead, a conspiracy was hatched where a rumour was circulated around that Constantine was poisoned by his half brothers. Edward Gibbon best describes the course of events by saying that:
“From the hands of the bishop of Nicomedia, Constantius received a fatal scroll, affirmed to be the genuine testament of his father, in which the emperor expressed his suspicions that he had been poisoned by his brothers and conjured his sons to revenge his death and to consult their safety, by the punishment of the guilty.”
Armed with this scroll Constantius ordered the arrest and execution of his two uncles, Julius Constantius and Delmatius who were implicated in the conspiracy. Unfortunately the killing didn’t stop here. Six more cousins were ruthlessly silenced by the soldiers. Whether or not Constantius remained in control of the purge is doubtful. The lust for blood by the soldiers had gone too far. Only two members of Flavian household were spared, and very likely because of their young age. Both Gallus and Julian would be locked away, out of reach of any mischief. Ironically, later as young men they will be recalled by Constantius in crisis.
Many stories that recount the massacre manage to implement Constantius’ brothers too. Though Constantine II and Constans were in Gaul and Italy at the time of the purge, their later conduct indicated that they likely didn’t care about what had taken place, so as long it benefitted them. They certainly didn’t hinder or speak out against the purge.
By September the three sons of Constantine had eliminated their so called rivals. They safely took the title of Augustus, which was acclaimed by the army and senate on September 9th 337. In the same month they met on the Danube to discuss what spoils they would each take. Constantius would rule the east which included the imperial capitals of Constantinople and Antioch; Constans would rule Italy, Africa, the Danube and Thrace; while the eldest brother Constantine would remain in control of Gaul, Britain and Spain.
How long this union or cooperation between brothers would last we will discuss next time. If they are anything like their father, it wont be long before their jealousies resurface and throw the empire into chaos.
Notes and further Reading
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edited, Abridged and with a Critical Foreword by Hans-Friedrich Mueller, The Modern Library, 2013.
Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West: The Death of the Roman Superpower, Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 2009
John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, Viking, 1988.
David Potter, The Emperors of Rome, Quercus, 2007.
Paul Stephenson, Constantine, Quercus, 2009.