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Constantine was born in 272 at Naissus, Moesia. In 306 he was declared emperor by his troops. Constantine took power over the whole Roman empire by 324. That year Constantine moved the capital from Rome to the town of Byzantium in the eastern empire, founding what is called the Byzantine empire, which lasted until 1453. In six years, he built a new city at Byzantium, later called Constantinople. The official name of Constantinople was New Rome, formally founded by Constantine in May 330 amid great celebrations, including spectacular games in the new stadium. Treasures from all over the empire adorned new buildings. The citizens preserved Greek and Roman culture: Greek books filled the libraries, and magistrates practised Roman law.

Constantine had granted toleration to Christians in 313; he became a Christian after seeing a cross of light in the sky before a battle at Milvian Bridge, near Rome. He put a Christian symbol on the shields and standards of his army and defeated his rival for the empire just outside Rome. He reversed many of Diocletian's policies on religion, and encouraged people to convert by giving them rewards and jobs. Constantinople was a city of Christian worship from its foundation. The emperor was regarded as head of the Christian church, and religion was central to Byzantine life. People sought the church's blessing for many daily activities, and all art and architecture was meant to glorify God. Representations of Christ and the Virgin Mary in sculpture or painting were worshipped in churches, public places, and at home. The artists does not try to make these 'icons' look original, but copied conventional poses and colours most beautifully.

Constantine also founded St Peter's cathedral in about 330, in Rome. It is still the largest and most important cathedral in the Christian world.

Constantinople became the crossing point for trade routes between Europe and Asia, and grew extremely rich. To support a huge army and the luxurious lifestyle of the imperial court, Emperor Constantine decided to follow Diocletian's policy of high taxation. If the wealthy remained wealthy, most people became poorer, and the division between the two parts of the empire increased as the west grew weaker. Big cities, which had always been the centres of traditional Roman life, declined as artisans and merchants were poverty-stricken. Farmers could not escape their heavily taxed farms, as the law demanded they stay on the land to ensure food supplies. Constantine died in 337, and was baptized on his deathbed. The empire which he had reunited was divided between his three sons, Constantius, Constantine II and Constans I. Of his successors, only Theodosius I (388-395) kept control of the whole empire.

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