The heirs of Constantine the Great, the first of the basilei

160 years ago, in 1863, Prince William, second son of King Christian IX of Denmark, became George I, King of the Hellenes. He then resumed the ancient title of basileus, that of the Byzantine emperors, whose enthusiasts of the pan-Hellenic “Great Idea” dream of restoring the lost power. And when an eldest son was born to him, five years later, in Athens, it was not by chance that he gave him the first name of Constantine, worn by the founder of Constantinople and ten other sovereigns, for a millennium, until to Constantine XI, the last Christian monarch to reign over the second Rome…

Son of Emperor Constantius Chlorus and his concubine Helena, Flavius ​​Valerius Constantinus was born in Dardania, probably in Naissus – present-day Nis in Serbia – between 270 and 274. As part of the Tetrarchy, established by Diocletian, the he empire was then governed by two augusts and two Caesars, whose rivalries caused incessant internal struggles. Thus, in 311, Constantine, who married Fausta, the daughter of the former august Maximian, had his father-in-law killed in Marseilles…

Rid of this competitor, Constantin turns against the son of his victim, Maxentius, who holds Italy. In the fall of 312, Constantine and his army encamped on the outskirts of Rome, near the Milvian Bridge. It was there that, during his sleep, the emperor was “advised to have the celestial sign of God inscribed on the shields”. Obeying this supernatural advice, he ordered his troops to “trace” the letter X set across, with its curved top”.

“By this sign you will overcome!”

Rufinus of Aquileia, in his Latin translation of theEcclesiastical history of Eusebius of Caesarea, recounts that under cover of a “drowsiness”, while he was riding towards Rome, Constantine saw “shining from the side of the East in the sky, in a line of fire, the sign of the Cross”. Frightened and troubled, he soon sees next to the apparition “angels who say to him: ‘Constantinos, alla nika’ that is, ‘Overcome by this'”.

The following night, Christ appears to the sleeping emperor. He explains the celestial sign to him and instructs him to have a military ensign made in his likeness. In the fights to come, this laboratory will be the pledge of salutary protection. At the top of the pole of the standard, next to the portraits engraved in gold of the reigning emperors, another medallion features the monogram of Christ: an “x” crossed by a “rho”, that is to say the first two letters of the Greek word Christos.

On October 27 or 28, 312, the decisive confrontation took place under the walls of the Eternal City. Maxence is defeated. He flees and drowns in the Tiber. Constantine enters Rome triumphantly. The senate confers on him the dignity of first august and that of high priest of Jupiter, without there being any question of his adherence to Christianity.

Constantine, the first Christian emperor

The edict of Milan, in 313, promulgated by Constantine and his colleague from the East, Licinius, grants all forms of worship the free right to practice. Having subsequently become the sole master of the Empire, Constantine transferred his capital to the East. From the end of 324, the town of Byzantium, on the Bosphorus, enlarged and embellished, took the Greek name of Constantinople: the city of Constantine.

Faced with the Arian heresy, which was tearing Christianity apart, the emperor convened the first ecumenical council at Nicaea on May 20, 325. After having delivered the opening speech in Latin, Constantine left the 300 bishops present free to deliberate and to state the symbol of the Catholic faith and the disciplinary canons. However, he himself will then lean towards the Arian party…

For the thirtieth anniversary of his accession, Constantine inaugurates the sumptuous basilicas of Jerusalem, where his mother Hélène very opportunely “discovered” the precious relic of the Cross of Christ. On May 22, 337, in agony, Constantine was finally baptized by the heterodox bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia. Buried in the white robe of neophytes, Constantine “Isapostole” – similar to the apostles – will be buried in Constantinople. His tomb, placed in the middle of a circle of twelve cenotaphs, stands in the Basilica of the Holy Apostles, which he had built for his eternal rest.

From Constantine II to Constantine X…

Worn by the second son of the first Christian emperor, the first name of Constantine will be taken up later by nine basilica byzantines. Constantin III Heraclius only reigned for three months in 641. His grandson Constantin IV (650-685) is often wrongly called “Pogonate” – “the Bearded” – in confusion with his father Constant II. The nickname of Constantin V (718-775), “Copronyme” is otherwise difficult to bear! It literally means… “shitty name”. Constantine V was adorned with it after the 2nd Council of Nicaea, as one of the main supporters of iconoclasm. It is also called, slightly less pejoratively, caballinos – “the Filth”.

Constantin VI the Isaurian (771-797) will go down in history as “the Blind” because, dethroned by a conjuration, his eyes were gouged out and he died shortly afterwards of his wounds in a monastery. Constantine VII (905-959), of the Macedonian dynasty, was the son of basileus Leo VI the Wise and his concubine Zoé Carbonopsina. Having been born during the reign of his father, and despite his illegitimacy, he is known as the “Porphyrogenete” – “Born in the purple”.

Constantin VIII (960-1028) is the last ruler of the prestigious Macedonian dynasty. First co-emperor with his brother Basil II, he lost interest in politics to indulge in pleasures.

Constantine IX Monomakh (1000-1055), sometimes nicknamed the “Gladiator”, was a senator and civil servant, who became emperor in 1042 thanks to his marriage to Zoé Porphyrogenète, the last princess, with his sister, of the Macedonian line. The Eastern Empire begins with him a period of decline.

Constantin X (1006-1067) is the founder of the short-lived Doukas dynasty. Affable and not very authoritarian, he abandoned the last Byzantine possessions in Italy to the Normans, retreated before the Hungarians in the Balkans and the Turks in Asia Minor.

Constantine XI and the fall of Constantinople

On May 29, 1453, the Ottomans seized Constantinople and completed the long-dead Eastern Roman Empire after more than a thousand years of existence. the basileus Constantine XI Paleologus tries to organize the resistance, even if the situation is desperate. At daybreak, the Muslim invaders broke through the walls, mercilessly massacring soldiers and civilians.

According to Georges Sphrantzès, friend and adviser of the monarch, this one would have been killed in the fight. But the fate of Constantine XI remains the subject of rumours.

His critics will claim that he would have stripped himself of sovereign insignia to get lost in the crowd and flee. A contemporary author, Critobule d’Imbros, affirms on the contrary that he would have taken off his shining armor in order to fight a final battle, with some faithful, near the Saint-Romain gate. His corpse would have been identified thanks to the purple boots that he was the only one who could wear. His head would have been displayed like a trophy…

King Constantine I of Greece around 1915.
King Constantine I of Greece around 1915. He reigned from 1913 to 1917 and from 1920 to 1922. © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nevertheless, the idea will spread that Constantine is not really dead. While a Janissary was going to pierce him with his sword, an angel miraculously saved him and transformed him into a stone statue. Hidden in an underground cave, near the Golden Gate, he will resurrect to lead the Greeks to the reconquest of Asia Minor, and chase the Turks to the mythical Kokkini Milia – the “Red Apple Tree” –, the solitary tree of their origins, on the borders of Persia.

On December 19, 1920, Constantine, the son of King George I, ascended the throne of Greece under the name of Constantine I. Third Greek sovereign of the modern era, he is the first of this generation to bear this first name. His grandson, the future Constantine II, will be baptized in his honor.

The heirs of Constantine the Great, the first of the basilei