In part 1 and part 2, we looked at some of the stories that can be found in Roman Britain and what they had to say to us today.
Let’s begin our final visit to Roman Britain by retasking our Keyhole satellite to the north of England. This is York.
Let’s do the exercise we started with. Just by looking at the street patterns, can you see where medieval York was? Here’s a rough outline.
There’s more to it though. York was founded by the Romans in 71 AD, about 30 years after they first arrived in Britain. Some of the local tribes were becoming increasingly hostile and Rome felt it needed a military presence in the area. A legion (the Ninth Legion, the so-called Lost Legion) marched up there and built a fort, and built it like they knew how. It’s a bit harder to see, but here’s a very rough outline of where what they called Eboracum was, at the point where the two rivers come together. York’s magnificent cathedral sits within the footprint of the fort.
In 306 AD, Constantine was in York serving in the legion under his father Constantius. This was during the relatively brief period of the Tetrarchy. A discussion of this is beyond the scope of our chat today, but very briefly, the Roman Empire nearly collapsed in the 3rd century after a series of inept emperors, rampant assassinations, and military and economic calamities. In response, Diocletian instituted the Tetrarchy in 293. In this system, for purposes of governing, the Roman Empire was split in two, west and east, and each had a senior emperor, the augusti. Those two emperors chose a successor, the caesares. (The four of them forming the “Tetra-” in Tetrarchy.)
In addition to the east-west split, each half was itself divided into two, and each of the four rulers was responsible for one of these quarters. In 306, the senior leaders were Constantius (who had Gaul and Britain) and Galerius (who had the eastern Adriatic), and the junior leaders were Severus and Maximinus.
Constantius died in 306, and Constantine was in York at the time. He was popular with the troops and those troops declared Constantine as emperor, the successor to Constantius. Now, a close reading of the previous paragraph reveals that Constantine was not one of the junior emperors, and he was not in line to be named a senior emperor. Nonetheless, he accepted the “nomination”. This likely took place in the Basilica in York, which is under the cathedral. A well-known statue of Constantine sits outside the south entrance of the cathedral and a pillar from the Basilica, excavated from beneath the cathedral, stands nearby.
The quarters where Constantine likely would’ve stayed while in York is also probably underneath the cathedral. I doubt that while Constantine rested in his bed he imagined this Christian cathedral spinning down out of the sky and landing on his head. There was much to come yet in his future, including his famous conversion. (And no, I’m not casting Constantine in the role of the Wicked Witch of the East in this imperfect metaphor.)
To make a long long story short, Constantine’s usurpation of the title of senior emperor touched off a series of civil wars against both the legitimate rulers and their successors, and other would-be usurpers. When the dust settled after the Battle of Chrysopolis in 324 against Licinius, the legitimate senior ruler in the east, Constantine was the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. He then did away with the Tetrarchy. Returning to hereditary rule, his sons would be his successors.
With the appellation “the Great” attached to his name, it’s tempting to view Constantine as a dream candidate for the GOP nomination for President. In some respects he seems like a model conservative. He ended the public persecution of Christianity, he was a strong military leader, he implemented economic reforms to end inflation, he made efforts to separate the military from civil matters, and with the establishment of his new capitol while Rome itself was in its final decline, he’s a symbol for preserving our cultural heritage.
1n 2012, Biden’s former boss President Obama made his infamous remark warning about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, saying “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.” In August 2013 chemical weapons were used in Syria, and instead of taking military action, Obama, in conjunction with Russia, negotiated a framework to eliminate chemical weapons in Syria. Six months later, Putin annexed Crimea, a brazen act that was prelude to the brutality currently being unleashed in Ukraine. Again, if you think Putin saw weakness in the Obama-Biden administration throughout this episode and calculated accordingly, I won’t stop you. It’s tempting to wish for a leader like Constantine and his military brazenness.
The study of history is the process of answering two questions. What did people want? What did they do to get it? Similarly, understanding current events involves the same two questions. What do people want? What are they doing to get it? Words can be untrue or deceptive, but if you tell me what people do over time, I’ll tell you what they really want. It’s clear from what the Left does today what they want, and I want no part of it.
There’s a cautionary tale here, though. Undoubtedly Constantine changed the course of history by making room for Christianity in Europe and by establishing the foundation of the Byzantine Empire. However, Constantine has been a bit slippery for history to pin down. Was his conversions genuine or a cynical ploy to coopt a growing influence? (I lean to the side of genuine.) Was he a great ruler or a short-tempered despot who took power by violence? It’s fair to infer what he wanted by what he did.
In today’s fractured political and cultural environment, there is even semi-serious talk about the United Status dividing in two. The sophisticates can have the coasts and teach kindergartners all about gender identity, the ones that aren’t aborted anyway, while we stump-toothed hillbillies live in squalor in Flyover Jesusland. Again, Constantine is a tempting model. He left a weak Rome behind and created something based on what Rome used to stand for that lasted a millennium.
There are (at least) three problems with that. First, we have nowhere to go. Constantine had room to expand in the east and a defensible location in Byzantium. Second, Constantine arguably weakened the western empire even further and ensured its fate. A divided United States would be weaker as well, in many ways, even if a split could be accomplished peacefully. Third, Constantine achieved his power through civil war and military force, not exactly the ideal small-d democrat. As tempting as it is to say “will no one rid of us of these troublesome leftists?”, we should pray we never see civil war.
When the Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453, and the city had fallen, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror entered the city through a gate in the northwest corner of the city. The road that led into the city from that gate ran right past the Church of the Holy Apostles.
Built by Constantine on one of (now) Istanbul’s seven hills, the Church of the Holy Apostles was the second grandest church in the city, behind the Hagia Sophia. (Constantine also built the original Hagia Sophia, but Justinian built the unparalleled structure that exists today.) Constantine and indeed most of the early Byzantine emperors were buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles.
In a steely act of “I’m the big dog on the porch now”, Mehmed destroyed the Church of the Holy Apostles and its tombs and built his own gargantuan mosque on the spot. I doubt Constantine ever dreamed that one day the ponderous bulk of a house of worship of a hostile faith would one day come spinning down out of the sky and land on his sarcophagus.
Decline is like the tide. It is relentless and will always push against us. It takes willpower and preemptive action to resist it and turn it aside. For me, the way forward is not to separate from our troubles but to take them head on. Let’s build the kinds of walls we talked about previously and preserve the legacy that Constantine helped hand down to us in the combination of the ideals of Roman civilization and the ideals of a Christianity that says the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves.
And with that, I’ll try to squelch my inner Debbie Downer for awhile 🙂 I’ve been a regular reader here for a very long time, I’ve just been more of a lurker. Y’all are a lively bunch around here and you generate some great comment threads. I’ll have to be on my toes to keep up with you. Mitch has been fighting the good fight here for 20 years, and has his own section of the wall he works on. Mr. D and my erstwhile fellow blogger First Ringer have theirs. I too will get to some other things that interest me. But, your voices are just as important and instructive. I’m quite pleased with the chance to make a small contribution here.