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usually called the Great, is memorable for having been the first emperor

, usually called the Great, is memorable for having been the first emperor of the Romans who established Christianity by the civil power, and was born at Naissus, a town of Dardania, 272. The emperor Constantius Chlorus was his father; and was the only one of those who shared the empire at that time, that did not persecute the Christians. His mother Helena was a woman of low extraction, and the mistress of Constantius, as some say; as others, the wife, but never acknowledged publicly: and it is certain, that she never possessed the title of empress, till it was bestowed on her by her son, after the decease of his father. Constantine was a very promising youth, and gave many proofs of his conduct and courage which however began to display themselves more openly a little before the death of his father; for, being detained at the court of Galerius as an hostage, and discerning that Galerius and his colleagues intended to seize upon that part of the empire which belonged to his father, now near his end, he made his escape, and went to England, where Constantius then was. When he arrived there, he found Constantius upon his death-bed, who nevertheless was glad to see him, and named him for his successor. Constantius died at York in 306, and Constantine was immediately proclaimed emperor by the soldiers. Galerius at first would not allow him to take any other title than that of Csesar, which did not hinder him from reigning in England, Gaul, and Spain: but having gained several victories over the Germans and Barbarians, he took the title of Augustus in 308, with the consent of Galerius himself. Some time after, he marched into Italy, with an army of 40,000 men, against the emperor Muxentius, who had almost made desolate the city of Rome by his cruelties; and after several successful engagements, finally subdued him. Eusebius relates, that Constantine had protested to him, that he had seen in that expedition a luminous body in the heavens, in the shape of a cross, with this inscription, Tola vixat, “By this thou shall conquer:” and that Jesus Christ himself appeared to him afterwards in a dream, and ordered him to erect a standard cross-like; which, after his victory, he did in the midst of the city of Rome, and caused the following words to be inscribed on it: “By this salutary sign, which is the emblem of real power, I have delivered your city from the dominion of tyrants, and have restored the senate and people of Rome to their ancient dignity and splendour.” This, which is one of the most striking events in ecclesiastical history, has also been one of the most contested. Gibbon endeavours to explain it thus: While (says this historian) his anxiety for the approaching day, which must decide the fate of the empire, was suspended by a short and interrupted slumber, the venerable form of Christ, and the well-known symbol of his religion, might forcibly offer themselves to the active fancy of a prince who reverenced the name, and had perhaps secretly implored the power of the God of the Christians; and with regard to the credit due to Eusebius, be thinks Eusebius sensible, that the recent discovery of this marvellous anecdote would excite some surprize and distrust amongst the most pious of his readers. Much has certainly been said against the credibility of this story by authors less prejudiced against the Christian religion than Gibbon. By some the whole is regarded as a fiction, a stratagem and political device of Constantine, yet it is related by Eusebius, a grave historian, who declares that he had it from the emperor, who confirmed the narration by an oath. By Fabricius, we are told, that the appearance in the heavens was generally looked upon as a reality, and a miracle: but for his own part, he is inclined to consider it as the result of a natural phenomenon in a solar halo; he accordingly admits of the reality of the phenomenon, but does not suppose it to be properly miraculous. Upon a full and candid review of the evidence, Dr. Lardner seems inclined to doubt the relation given by the emperor, upon whose sole credit the story is recorded, though it was twenty years after the event, when Eusebius wrote his account, during which period he must have heard it frequently from eye-witnesses, if the emperor’s relation were accurate that the appearance was visible to his whole army as well as to himself. The oath of Constantine, on the occasion, with Dr. Lardner, brings the fact into suspicion, and another striking circumstance is that Eusebius does not mention the place where this wonderful sight appeared. Without, however, entering, at present, farther into the discussion, we may observe, that Eusebius has led us to the period, when the sign of the cross began to be made use of by Constantine, among his armies, and at his battles; this was probably the day before the last battle with Maxentius, fought on the 27th of October, 312. About this period, it is admitted, that Constantine became a Christian, and continued so the remainder of his life, taking care also to have his children educated in the same principles. His conversion seems to have been partly owing to his own reflections on the state of things, partly to conversation and discourse with Christians, with whom, the son of Constantius, their friend and favourer, must have been some time acquainted, but perhaps, chiefly to the serious impressions of nis early years, which being once made can never be wholly obliterated. Constantine was however a politician as well as a Christian, and he probably hit upon this method to reconcile the minds of his army to the important change in their religious profession and habits, as well as making use of it as a mean of success in his designs against his enemies, for which purpose he rightly judged, that the standard of the cross, and the mark of it as a device on his soldier’s shields, would be of no small service.