CONSTANTINE THE GREAT was the eldest son of the Roman Emperor Constantius and the British Princess Helena, or Elena, and was brought up as a devout worshipper of the many gods of Rome. The lad grew up strong and handsome, of a tall and majestic figure, skilled in all warlike exercises, and, as he fought in the civil wars between the various Roman emperors, he showed himself a bold and prudent general in battle, a friendly and popular leader in time of peace. The popularity of the youthful Constantine was dangerous to him, and he needed, and showed, great skill in evading the deadly jealousy of the old Emperor Diocletian, and the hatred of his father's rival, Galerius. At last, however, his position became so dangerous that Constantius felt his son's life was no longer safe, and earnestly begged him to visit his native land of Britain, where Constantius had just been proclaimed emperor and had defeated the wild Caledonians. The excuse given was that Constantius was in bad health and needed his son; but not until the young man was actually in Britain would his anxious father avow that he feared for his son's life.
When the half-British Constantius died, Constantine, who was the favourite of the Roman soldiery of the west, was at once acclaimed as emperor by his devoted troops. He professed unwillingness to accept the honour, and it is said that he even tried in vain to escape on horseback from the affectionate solicitations of his soldiers. Seeing the uselessness of further protest,
[paragraph continues] accepted the imperial title, and wrote to Galerius claiming the throne and justifying his acceptance of the unsought dignity thrust upon him. Galerius acquiesced in the inevitable, and granted Constantine the inferior title of "Cæsar," with rule over Western Europe, and the wise prince was content to wait until favouring circumstances should destroy his rivals and give him that sole sway over the Roman Empire for which he was so well fitted. He had now reached the age of thirty, had fought valiantly in the wars in Egypt and Persia, and had risen by merit to the rank of tribune. His marriage with Fausta, the daughter of the Emperor Maximian, and his elevation to the rank of Augustus brought him nearer to the attainment of his ambition; and at length the defeat and death of his rivals placed him at the head of the world-wide empire of Rome. It is to some period previous to Constantine's elevation to the supreme authority that we must refer the following story, told by Gower in his "Confessio Amantis" as an example of that true charity which is the mother of pity, and makes a man's heart so tender that,
but in order to give pleasure to others would bear his own trouble alone.
The noble Constantine, Emperor of Rome, was in the full flower of his age, goodly to look upon, strong and happy, when a great and sudden affliction came upon him: leprosy attacked him. The horrible disease showed itself first in his face, so that no concealment was possible, and if he had not been the emperor
he would have been driven out to live in the forests and wilds. The leprosy spread from his face till it entirely covered his body, and became so bad that he could no longer ride out or show himself to his people. When all cures had been tried and had failed, Constantine withdrew himself from his lords, gave up all use of arms, abandoned his imperial duties, and shut himself in his palace, where he lived such a secluded life in his own apartments that Rome had, as it were, no lord, and all men throughout the empire talked of his illness and prayed their gods to heal him. When everything seemed to be in vain, Constantine yielded to the prayer of his council, that he would summon all the doctors, learned men, and physicians from every realm to Rome, that they might consider his illness and try if any cure could be found for his malady.
A proclamation went forth throughout the world and great rewards were offered to any man who should heal the emperor. Tempted by the rewards and the great fame to be won, there came leeches and physicians from Persia and Arabia, and from every land that owned the sway of Rome, philosophers from Greece and Egypt, and magicians and sorcerers from the unexplored desert of the east. But, though Constantine tried all the remedies suggested or recommended by the wise men, his leprosy grew no better, but rather worse, and even magic could give him no help.
Again the learned men assembled and consulted what they should advise, for all were loath to abandon the emperor in his great distress, but they were all at a loss. They sat in silence, till at last one very old and very wise man, a great physician from Arabia, arose and said:
"Now that all else has failed, and naught is of any avail, I will tell of a remedy of which I have heard. It will, I believe, certainly cure our beloved emperor, but it is very terrible, and therefore I was loath to name it till every other means had been tried and failed, for it is a cruel thing for any man to do. Let the Emperor dip himself in a full bath of the blood of infants and children, seven years old or under, and he shall be healed, and his leprosy shall fall from him; for this malady is not natural to his body, and it demands an unnatural cure."
The proposal was a terrible one to the assembly, and many would not agree to it at first, but when they considered that nothing else would heal the emperor they at length gave way, and sent two from among themselves to bring the news to Constantine, who was waiting for them in his darkened room. He was horrified when he heard the counsel they brought, and at first utterly refused to carry out so evil a plan; but because his life was very dear to his people, and because he felt that he had a great work to do in the world, he ultimately agreed, with many tears, to try the terrible remedy.
Thereupon the council drew up letters, under the emperor's hand and seal, and sent them out to all the world, bidding all mothers with children of seven years of age or under to bring them with speed to Rome, that there the blood of the innocents might prove healing to the emperor's malady. Alas! what weeping and
wailing there was among the mothers when they heard this cruel decree! How they cried, and clasped their babes to their breasts, and how they called Constantine more cruel than Herod, who killed the Holy Innocents! The; eastern ruler, they said, slew only the infants of one poor village, but their emperor, more ruthless, claimed the lives of all the young children of his whole empire.
But though the mothers lamented bitterly, they must needs bow to the emperor's decree, whether they were lief or loath, and thus a great multitude gathered in the great courtyard of the imperial palace at Rome: women nursing sucking-babes at the breast, or holding toddling infants by the hand, or with little children running by their sides, and all so heart-broken and woebegone that many swooned for very grief. The mothers wailed aloud, the children cried, and the tumult grew until Constantine heard it, where he sat lonely and wretched in his darkened room. He looked out of his window on the mournful sight in the courtyard, and was roused as from a trance, saying to himself: "O Divine Providence, who hast formed all men alike, to! the poor man is born, lives, suffers, and dies, just as does the rich; to wise man and fool alike come sickness and health; and no man may avoid that fortune which Nature's law hath ordained for him. Likewise to all men are Nature's gifts of strength and beauty, of soul and reason, freely and fully given, so that the poor child is born as capable of virtue as the king's son; and to each man is given free will to choose virtue or vice. Yet thou givest to men diversity of rank, wealth or poverty, lordship or servitude, not always according to their deserts; so much the more
virtuous should that man be to whom thou hast put other men in subjection, men who are nevertheless his fellows and wear his likeness. Thou, O God, who hast put Nature and the whole universe under law, wouldst have all men rule themselves by law, and thou hast said that a man must do to others such things as he would have done to himself."
Thus Constantine spoke within himself as he stood by the window and looked upon the weeping mothers and children, the very sentinels of his palace pitying them, and trying in vain to comfort them; and a strife grew strong within him between his natural longing for healing and deliverance from this loathsome disease which had darkened his life, and the pity he felt for these poor creatures, and his horror at the thought of so much human blood to be shed for himself alone. The great moaning of the woeful mothers came to him, and the pitiful crying of the children, and he thought: "What am I that my health is to outweigh the lives and happiness of so many of my people? Is my life of more value to the world than those of all the children who must shed their blood for my healing? Surely each babe is as precious as Constantine the Emperor!" Thus his heart grew so tender and so full of compassion that he chose rather to die by this terrible sickness than to commit so great a slaughter of innocent children, and he renounced all other physicians, and trusted himself wholly to God's care.
He at once summoned his council, and announced to them his resolution, giving as his reason, "He that will be truly master must be ever servant to pity!"
and without delay the anxious mothers were told that their children were free and safe, for the emperor had renounced the cure, and needed their blood no longer. What raptures of rejoicing there were, what outpouring of blessing on the emperor, what songs of praise and thanks from the women wild with joy, cannot be fully told; and yet greater grew their joy and thankfulness when Constantine, calling his high officials, bade them take all his gathered treasures and distribute them among the poor women, that they might feed and clothe their children, and so return home untouched by any loss, and recompensed in some degree for their sufferings. Thus did Constantine obey the behests of pity, and try to atone for the wrong to which he had consented in his heart, and which he had so nearly done to his people.
Home to all parts of the Roman Empire went the women, bearing with them their happy children, and the rich gifts they had received. Each one thanked and blessed the emperor, and sang his praises, where before she had passed with tears and bitter curses on his head; each woman shared her joy with her neighbours; and the very children learnt from their mothers and fathers to pray for the healing of their great lord, who had given up his own will and sacrificed his own cure for gentle pity's sake. Thus the whole world prayed for Constantine's healing.
Lo! it never yet was known that charity went unrequited and this Constantine now learnt in his own glad experience; for that same night, as he lay asleep, God sent to him a vision of two strangers, men of
noble face and form, whom he reverenced greatly, and who said to him: "O Constantine, because thou hast obeyed the voice of pity, thou hast deserved pity; therefore shalt thou find such mercy, that God, in His great pity, will save thee. Double healing shalt thou receive, first for thy body, and next for thy woeful soul; both alike shall be made whole. And that thou mayst not despair, God will grant thee a sign--thy leprosy shall not increase till thou hast sent to Mount Celion, to Sylvester and all his clergy. There they dwell in secret for dread of thee, who hast been a foe to the law of Christ, and hast destroyed those who preach in His Holy Name. Now thou hast appeased God somewhat by thy good deed, since thou hast had pity on the innocent blood, and hast spared it; for this thou shalt find teaching, from Sylvester, to the salvation of both body and soul. Thou wilt need no other leech." The emperor, who had listened with eagerness and awe, now spoke: "Great thanks I owe to you, my lords, and I will indeed do as ye have said; but one thing I would pray you--what shall I tell Sylvester of the name or estate of those who send me to him?" The two strangers said: "We are the Apostles Peter and Paul, who endured death here in thy city of Rome for the Holy Name of Christ, and we bid Sylvester teach and baptize thee into the true faith. So shall the Roman Empire become the kingdom of the Lord and of His Christ." So saying, they blessed him, and passed into the heavens out of his sight, and Constantine awoke from his slumber and knew that he had seen a vision. He called aloud eagerly, and his servants waiting in an outer room ran in to him quickly, for there was urgency in his voice. To them Constantine told his vision and the command which was laid upon him.
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They filled the great vessel of silver with pure water
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''Havelok sat up surprised''
Messengers rode in hot haste to Mount Celion, and inquired long and anxiously for Sylvester. At last they found him, a holy and venerable man, and summoned him, saying: "The Emperor calls for thee come, therefore, at once." Sylvester's clergy were greatly affrighted, not knowing what this summons might mean, and dreading the death of their dear bishop and master; but he went forth gladly, not knowing to what fate he was going. When he was brought to the palace the emperor greeted him kindly, and told him all his dream, and the command of the Apostles Peter and Paul, and ended with these words: "Now I have done as the vision bade, and have fetched thee here: tell me, I pray, the glad tidings which shall bring healing to my body and soul." When Sylvester heard this speech he was filled with joy and wonder, and thanked God for the vision He had sent to the emperor, and then he began to preach to him the Christian faith: he told of the Fall of Man, and the redemption of the world by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, of the Ascension of Jesus and His return at the Day of Judgment, of the justice of God, who will judge all men impartially according to their works, good or bad, and of the life of joy or misery to come. As Sylvester taught, the monarch listened and believed, and, when the tale was ended, announced his conversion to the true faith, and said he was ready, with his whole heart and soul, to be baptized.
At the emperor's command, they took the great vessel of silver which had been made for the children's blood, and Sylvester bade them fill it with pure water
from the well. When that was done with all haste, he bade Constantine stand therein, so that the water reached to his chin. As the holy rite began, a great light like the sun's rays shone from heaven into the place, and upon Constantine; and as the sacred words were being read there fell now and again from his body scales like those of a fish, till there was nothing left of his horrible disease; and thus in baptism Constantine was purified in body and soul.