Constans: champion of the Trinity or enemy of Gaul ?

 

Last time we left Constans, he had emerged triumphant against his older brother Constantine II in 340 AD. It may have come as a surprise, but he was very pleased with himself, particularly with the acquisition of two-thirds of the empire. Though we will come to see, that this soon to be beleaguered man would fall from favour very quickly amongst his own men and subjects in the west.

Although first, before we get to the end, the early 340’s were good years for Constans. Beginning in 341 AD,  Constans first gained striking victories against the Franks in his dominion. He also regularly travelled throughout his western provinces from Naissus, Sirmium to Trier in Gaul. Earlier on, he also managed to cross into Britain in 343 to suppress a possible revolt. It is unclear whether it was an emergency against the native Picts or Scots ? It was his first and only time he would visit Britain. However, it was along the empire’s Danube borders that Constans would spend a better part of the next ten years.

To his credit and his brothers (Constantius II), peace would ensue throughout the empire without civil war during his reign. Peace was something that we all know reading Roman history was a rare event. Nonetheless, under Constans watch, he and his brother Constantius resisted from spilling more Roman blood in this period, but a different sort of conflict was carried out along religious lines. Two camps were set up, Constans, on the side of the Orthodox view of the Trinity (along the lines outlined by the Nicene Creed) and Constantius II’s, support of Arianism (Jesus was not God but only the Son of God). Constantius was the first to really stir up trouble with his brother by treating Nicene bishops with contempt. One of the most famous of these bishops was Athanasius of Alexandria, who was exiled by three emperors in his lifetime. Firstly, by Constantine the Great, then Constantius II and finally by Valens.

constans.jpg

This is a very rare gold solidus, struck in Siscia mint circa 340-350 AD. It features a mule with Constans on the observe and two victories holding a wreath on the reverse.

By 343 AD, the cordiality between the brothers was deteriorating along this fault line between Orthodoxy and Arianism, that a council in Serdica was formed to thrash out the differences. Improvements around the Nicene Creed were proposed and amongst other things, bishop Athanasius was a hot topic of discussion. Unfortunately, the council in the end was a complete failure. Constantius refused to compromise on many important issues, but gave in to demands that Athanasius should be allowed to return to his see in Alexander. It is believed that Constans threatened Constantius with war if he didn’t give in to some of the concerns of the western bishops in regards to Athanasius. So Constantius thought it would be in his best interests to kowtow to Constans demands around Athansius. He couldn’t afford to fight both a civil war and Sassanians on his eastern border. In regards to religious tolerance, the two brothers agreed to disagree on religious issues and in the interim, support the bishops of their chosen creed.

Constans may have felt comfortable with the support he received from his western Christian subjects, unfortunately the tide was now turning against an increasingly troubled emperor. His lack of attention to the western province of Gaul was becoming a sore point amongst his soldiers. An increasing feeling of resentment had grown, fueled by his ‘selling of government offices, domination by pampered favourites’ and acts of ‘debauchery and pederasty’. His personal conduct in the final years of his rule were also mistakenly cruel. Did Constans finally reveal his true self, or was this simply a curse of the Constantinian dynasty ? As discontent grew in Gaul, Flavius Magnus Magnentius, a very capable commander of the Rhine armies, decided to lead a rebellion in 350 AD.

Constans was already in Gaul in 349 on a rare visit west, when he heard the news that Magnentius had donned the imperial purple. Panic struck Constans as a team of assassins hunted him like a wild boar. He got as far south as the small village of Vicus Helena, in the foothills of the Pyrennes, before he was eventually caught and slain to death. Will the blood-letting of Constantine the Great’s family ever cease ? Magnentius, now stood commanding the loyalty of Gaul, Spain and Britain. Swiftly he took control of Africa and Italy and stood on the brink of consolidating his power in the remaining provinces. Unfortunately, one major problem confronted him in the east- Constantius, the last remaining son of Constantine the Great. If Magnentius thought that Constantius was going to willingly just hand over his eastern provinces, he was sadly mistaken. For now Magnentius would control the west as usurper because Constantius was tied up fighting in the east. But when the time was right Constantius would strike with furious anger.

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.

Photo Credit: Image of Emperor Constans bust in the Louvre Museum, Paris is used under the Attribution-Non Commercial-Share alike 4.0 International license.