Costantius II is an extremely controversial figure. As a mass murderer for some and an incapable despot for others, Costantius undeniably stamped his name into history with blood.
He was the middle child of emperor Costantine the Great and Fausta; physically fit, Costantius was a formidable runner, jumper and fighter, but was bored by philosophy and was arrogant at times. Upon his father’s death in May of 337 AD, Costantius ascended the imperial throne with his two brothers and co-emperors Costantine II and Costans. After massacring two uncles and six cousins, the brothers planned to rule the empire together with the backing of the army. In Sirmium, Pannonia Costantius received the eastern provinces of the empire while his two brothers ruled the western half. During his reign in the east, Costantius was attacked by the Persian Sassanid King of Kings Shapur 2, an able general and dynamic ruler who was to become Costantius’s main adversary. Shapur however, despite having assembled huge numbers of cataphracts (heavy knights) and war elephants, could not break the roman lines and resultingly left a lot of his dead soldiers in the dusty deserts of northern Syria. Meanwhile, in the west, Costantine II sought to gain control over Costans’s territories (most likely because he was the eldest) but was killed in an ambush near Aquileia, in northern italy, by his brother’s men.
Costans (who was infamous for his homosexuality) therefore proceeded to annex his dead brother’s territory. The situation escalated quickly in the western half of the empire during 350 AD, when the general Magnus Magnentius, captain of the Herculiani and Ioviani guard legions, rebelled against Costans. His men succeeding in killing Costans near the Pyrenees shortly after the rebellion began. Seeing Magnentius as a potential threat to his rule, Costantius immediately marched west and defeated the rebel forces in a spectacular battle near Mursa Maior, in modern day Croatia.
70.000 men died during the battle, and after some other minor clashes, Magnentius committed suicide, thereby solidifying Costantius’s reign.
Having dealt with his internal rivals, Costantius initiated a series of successful campaigns against the tribes on the Danube frontier. While he was fighting the Alamanni on the frontier, Costantius summoned one of his remaining cousins named Gallus, who was known for his good looks, and had him executed. The circumstances of the death of Gallus are a bit of a mystery, but it is certain that Costantius gave the order. After a failed series of plots and revolts in the west, Costantius realized that it was impossible for him to rule the empire alone. He therefore elevated his last remaining cousin Julian to the rank of Caesar, and placed him in charge of the western half of the empire. After successful campaigns against the Quadi and the Sarmatians on the Danube, Costantius went to the east to face yet another invasion by Shapur II.
While he was in the east, the gallic Comitatenses (professional troops) proclaimed Julian Augustus and ruler of the entire empire. To counter this new threat to his legitimacy, our poor Costantius had to mobilize his forces once again, this time however it would be his last. When he reached Cilicia he became ill and, realising his death imminent, declared Julian his rightful successor. When emperor Julian came to see the corpse of the ruthless Costantius, he cried without restraint. Do you think Costantius was bloodthirsty, or simply a man of his time? He massacred half of his own family, yet was he truly a cruel person? Would you have done the same in his place, knowing that your very actions determined the fate of an empire that was starting to crumble under its own feet? I personally believe that Costantius and his brothers were simply men of their times, today we would consider them monsters but, I say, who are we to judge them?