June 21, 2006


Constantine: Britain’s Roman Emperor: 1,600 years ago this month, York saw the proclamation of a man who changed the course of the history of the world. (Christopher Kelly, july 2006, History Today)

At noon on October 28th, ad 312, God dramatically intervened in the course of human history. At least according to Eusebius (bishop of Caesarea on the coast of Palestine) the self-appointed biographer of the newly Christian Roman emperor, Constantine. In late October 312 Constantine advanced on Rome, the culmination of a swift and bloody civil war against Maxentius, a rival claimant to the imperial throne.

The armies met at the Milvian Bridge outside the city. Maxentius’ forces crossed the Tiber on boats lashed together. They were quickly routed by Constantine’s more experienced troops. Attempting to retreat to the safety of the city walls, the crush of panicked men fleeing for their lives caused the pontoon-bridge to break up. Maxentius and his bodyguard were pitched into the river and swept away in its swift-flowing current.

In Eusebius’ view this was a memorable moment of Christian triumph. Above all, it recalled the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea. Constantine’s defeat of Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge replayed the Biblical account in Exodus. Constantine was a modern Moses. Maxentius failed like Pharaoh before him. Drowned in the turbulent waters of the Tiber, he ‘sank to the bottom like a stone’.

For Eusebius, victory at the Milvian Bridge was inevitable. Before the campaign Constantine had prayed for divine aid. One day at noon the Emperor and his men saw a shining cross of light with the sun behind it. From a banner attached to the cross blazed forth the words, ‘By this conquer’. Eusebius continues: ‘Amazed by this marvellous sight, and determined to worship no other god than the one who had appeared, he summoned those expert in his words and asked who this god was.’

The meaning of this sign was confirmed that night in a dream. According to Constantine, Christ had appeared and urged him to make a copy of what he had seen in the sky. The next morning the imperial goldsmiths and jewellers were hurriedly summoned. A huge cross was swiftly constructed. From it hung a costly golden tapestry with the Emperor’s portrait fixed above. Under such a battle-standard, Constantine’s success was now divinely assured.

This version of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and of events at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge has not always been believed. In his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (first published in 1776), Edward Gibbon sneeringly dismissed the whole account. In Gibbon’s view the ‘interest of religion’ was irreconcilable with the duty of a rational historian. [...]

Modern historians have not been persuaded. On the one hand, confronted with Eusebius’ account of a glittering cross in the noonday sky there has been a reluctance to replace rational explanation with divine intervention; on the other, presented with Zosimus’ tale of a family at war, modern historians have expressed a clear distaste for the kind of wild and unsubstantiated stories which inevitably collect around any bloody dynastic feud. In the end, whatever the most plausible explanation – perhaps somewhere between the dramatically miraculous and the desperately cynical – Constantine’s open and enthusiastic support for Christianity should not be doubted.

For Constantine, his religious experience before the Milvian Bridge and his success in battle were inextricably linked. The Christian God had supported the victor. Fifteen years later (in the mid-320s) the Emperor was to claim that the final, bloody show-down against Maxentius on the outskirts of Rome was the culmination of a much longer process of conversion. On this pious re-telling of events, it had all begun six years before, when Constantine had accompanied his father – the emperor Constantius I – on a military expedition to northern Britain. [...]

[I]mportantly, for Constantine that sense of Roman history, and of his own place in ensuring its continuance, was not incompatible with his own commitment to fulfilling a divine Christian mission, entrusted to him on his accession in York and confirmed by his vision at the Milvian Bridge. Flushed with success after his defeat of Licinius in 324, he issued a public letter to the people of Palestine. This is one of the most uncompromising statements of Constantine’s faith.

Beginning from Britain in the far west where it is decreed by Heaven itself than the sun should set, I have repelled and scattered those horrors which held everything in subjection, so that the human race, taught by my obedient service, might restore the religion of the most dread Law … I could never fail to acknowledge the gratitude I owe, believing that this is the best of tasks … Indeed, my whole soul and whatever breath I draw, and whatever goes on in the depths of my mind, that, I am firmly convinced, is owed by us wholly to the greatest God.

The text of the letter was preserved by Eusebius, but its authenticity has often been doubted. Such a defiantly Christian Constantine seemed unlikely. The same clarity and purpose so powerfully conveyed by Eusebius’ version of the events before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge was for some scholars a sure indication of forgery. This letter was simply too good to be true.

Any doubts were definitively silenced in 1953 with the publication of a battered scrap of fourth-century papyrus from Egypt (now in the British Library) on which a scribe had copied out part of Constantine’s letter to the people of Palestine. This contemporary document confirmed that Eusebius’ version of the text was accurate. Clearly, not all of Constantine’s unambiguously Christian pronouncements are the result either of wishful thinking or artful fakery on the part of his supporters. [...]

Under Constantine it was clear that Christianity – and not paganism – enjoyed the Emperor’s explicit support. The Christian clergy was given legal privileges and tax immunity. Christian bishops were now a trusted part of the imperial entourage. Strikingly, Christian language, symbols and rituals became part of the vocabulary of imperial power. On 25th July 336, celebrating the anniversary of the Emperor’s accession thirty years before in York, Eusebius of Caesarea delivered a series of grand orations before the assembled court in Constantinople. His imagery was arresting. In its magnificence, the Emperor’s palace might be compared to Heaven. In his compassionate concern for the welfare of the empire and its people, Constantine might be compared to Christ Himself.

Arrayed as he is in the image of the kingdom of heaven, the Emperor pilots affairs here below, following – with an upward gaze – a course modelled on that ideal form ... Let those who have entered the sanctuary within these holy halls, that innermost, most inviolate of places, having shut the doors to profane hearing, declare the sovereign’s secret mysteries to those alone who are initiated in such things. Let those whose ears have been purified by these flowing streams of piety ... celebrate the ruler of all, performing these sacred rites in respectful silence.

These themes were repeated by Christians around the empire. In the mid fourth century – a long generation after Milvian Bridge – the owner of a grand villa at Hinton St Mary (in Dorset, not far from Dorchester) had one of its principal rooms decorated with a magnificent floor mosaic. At its centre a roundel displays the bust of a young, clean-shaven Christ whose appearance seems deliberately to parallel portraits of Constantine or his sons. Behind his head the Chi-Rho, a monogram made up of the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek. On either side are pomegranates, ancient symbols of eternal life.

Sixty years before such a clear affirmation of Christian belief by a wealthy landowner would be unthinkable. At the beginning of the 290s, at imperial command, Roman officials launched their most systematic and effective attempt to suppress Christianity. This was a time of state-sponsored terror remembered by Christians as the ‘Great Persecution’. That less than twenty-five years later a Roman emperor should himself publicly proclaim his own belief in the Christian God marks one of the great turning points in European history. It is Constantine’s lasting legacy.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 21, 2006 1:20 PM

Not the best translation of "In hoc signo vinces".

Posted by: jdkelly at June 21, 2006 2:28 PM

Where's the tie-in with science?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at June 22, 2006 11:30 AM

I see no connection.

Posted by: Liandra at June 28, 2006 10:48 AM
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