York Civic Trust plaques

Constantine the Great

Roman emperor, proclaimed in York in 306 AD. First Christian emperor

Location of plaque: Minster Yard, beside statue of Constantine

THE Roman Empire 1700 years ago was divided. A vast, sprawling domain stretching from York across southern and western Europe to North Africa, Egypt, the Middle East and modern-day Turkey, it had no fewer than four rulers.

The Empire was divided into two halves, East and West. And each half had two emperors - a senior emperor, the Augustus, and a junior Emperor, the Caesar.

The man who became Constantine the Great was the son of Constantius (the 'Caesar' or junior emperor of the west who, in the year 305, had raised himself to the rank of senior emperor, or Augustus) and his consort Helena (after whom St Helen's Square is named). In 306, Constantius, who was campaigning in the north of Britain, died. His son Constantine was acclaimed emperor by his father's army - very possibly right here in York - even though he wasn't the official heir.

Legitimate heir or not, he proved a hugely capable ruler and general. He waged a series of civil wars against his rival emperors, Maxentius and Licinius, and was so successful that by 324 AD he had become recognised as the sole ruler of both east and west. As emperor, he restructured the government, to separate military and civil authorities, and introduced a new gold coin in an attempt to combat inflation. He also moved the capital of his empire to Byzantium, a city on the border between Europe and Asia which was renamed Constantinople after him.

As sole Roman emperor, Constantine was the most powerful man in the western world, a colossus who bestrode three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa.

But perhaps even more important from our perspective, he was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. He was baptised only on his deathbed in modern-day Turkey in 337AD, but more than 20 years earlier he had played a crucial role in the proclamation of the Edict of Milan, which declared religious tolerance for Christianity in the Roman empire, and so ended centuries of persecution of Christians.

To that extent, it could be argued that his proclamation as Roman emperor here in York was one of the most important moments in the history of Christianity.

Stephen Lewis

To read the story behind more York Civic Trust plaques, visit yorkcivictrust.co.uk