...And a happy Saint Constantine the Great Day to you, too.
Oh my. Can this be? Is it really? A venerated saint day AND a Latin lesson wrapped all into one? You bet your sweet bippies it is. Unless your bippies aren't so sweet, in which case, take them off the table.
Anyway, you might remember Constantine as being that chain-smoking cynic who could see angels and demons and dedicated his life to sending demons and half-demons back to Hell in order to atone for a botched suicide attempt earlier in his youth. Wait, no. That was a shitty movie titled Constantine starring Keanu Reeves and Shia LaBeouf. What? Those two in a movie together? How could it have possibly been shitty, right?
No, the Constantine of whom we speak (and celebrate) today was the Roman Emperor who served as Emperor (in various forms) from 306 AD until his death in 337. He was, mostly, a pretty good Emperor for the Romans, helping to reunite a nation that had begun to come apart under the tetrarchy. He is probably best known for being the man who "brought" Christianity to the empire, or at least tolerated its open practice by the citizenry.
Constantine himself most likely didn't convert until he was on his deathbed--he certainly didn't convert fully to Christianity until after he was 42--but he had been tolerant of Christians his whole life, mostly because his mother, Helena (who also is celebrated today, especially in the Eastern Orthodox churches), was Christian. The big event that tied Constantine to Christianity occurred at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, fought in 312 against his rival Maxentius. As Constantine was leading his army toward the fight, he looked up at the sun--most likely to judge the time--and saw a cross of light in the clouds. He wasn't sure exactly what it meant, but later that night he had a dream in which the man himself, Jesus H. Christ, showed up and explained the vision to him. Constantine, upon waking, ordered that his men paint the sign of the chi rho on their shields (it's that funny p superimposed on an x symbol), as the chi and rho were the first two letters of Christ's name, rendered in the Greek alphabet.
Remember, in the same way that we use Latin nowadays to sound more profound, the Romans used Greek. That's why Caesar's final words (reportedly) were in Greek (and not the Shakespearean version).
Anyway, the shields got painted, and Constantine went on to defeat Maxentius (with a little help from the Tiber river, in which Maxy drowned), putting him on the road not only to the Emperorship of the Empire, but also to the conversion to Christianity.
From this turn of events, we get one of the most familiar symbols of Christianity, one of the more readily-used Christian acronyms (IHS), and one of the most familiar phrases from Roman history:
Pronounced: "In hoke seeg-noh ween-case"
In case you missed it, there is a cross in an inspirational location in that picture...
The acronym IHS is used often as a Christian symbol, usually tied with the cross in some manner. As I learned it growing up in the protestant church, it stood for "In His Service", because, you know, the only people who speak Latin are devil worshippers--I wish I was making this up. The acronym's true origin comes from the first three words of Constantine's motto, "In Hoc Signo" (in this sign, by this symbol). IHSV was also worked into several heraldic symbols, in order to call upon the same power from on high that helped Constantine achieve victory and reunite the empire.
Constantine later went on to do two more big things for which he should also be remembered. In 312, Constantine, along with Licinius (who, at the time, ruled the eastern half of the Empire) issued the Edict of Milan, which officially made the Empire neutral in regards to all religions. It didn't make Christianity the state religion, but neither did it allow for the persecutions seen under that rapscallion, Diocletian. Okay, "rapscallion" is probably not the right word; utter and complete douchebag might work, though he was probably a bit more like a colostomy bag that had been left on a little too long, if you know what I'm saying.
The other thing that Constantine did was found the city of Constantinople...right on top of the Greek city Byzantium. Seeing that it essentially sat astride the eastern and western halves of the empire as well as providing ready access to the Danube and the Euphrates cores of the Empire, as well as shipping lanes to Africa and the western Mediterranean, it was a perfect city to build an empire around...except the empire was already built. It also was an especially poignant influence for a certain They Might be Giants song.
Of course, Constantinople no longer exists, at least by that name. So, if you have a date this weekend, remember that she'll be waiting in Istanbul, not Constantinople.