On Oct. 27, 312, on the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine had a vision assuring him of victory in the name of the Christian God. As emperor, Constantine served as a patron for the church, contributing to its rapid growth in the fourth century.
Constantine’s Vision and the Battle of the Milvian Bridge
Constantine was the son of Constantius, who had served as a Caesar (a junior emperor) of the Western Roman Empire under Maximian before succeeding Maximian as Augustus (senior emperor) in 305. Constantius’ death in 306 sparked a conflict over who would succeed him. Though Constantine had the support of his father’s army, he allowed Severus, his father’s Caesar, to become Augustus.
Maxentius, the son of Maximian, was angered that he was passed over and declared himself Augustus. He defeated the Severus and Galerius, the Augustus of the East, in 306 and 307. In 311, Maxentius declared war on Constantine, the greatest threat to his power.
In the spring of 312, Constantine led his army toward Maxentius in in Rome. After routing Maxentius’ forces in northern Italy, Constantine approached Rome in October.
According to legend, on Oct. 27, the day before the two armies would battle outside of Rome near the Milvian Bridge, Constantine had a vision instructing him to fight in the name of Christ, with his soldiers’ shields bearing the symbol of Christ. The symbol was either a cross or the labarum, an intersection of the chi (X) and rho (P), the letters of Christ.
Christian author Lactantius, writing several years after the battle, described, “Constantine was directed in a dream to cause the heavenly sign to be delineated on the shields of his soldiers, and so to proceed to battle. He did as he had been commanded, and he marked on their shields the letter Χ, with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round thus at the top, being the cipher of Christ. Having this sign (ΧР), his troops stood to arms.”
The author Eusebius, a Constantine apologist, also described the event in “Life of Constantine,” which he wrote after Constantine’s death in 337. According to Eusebius, Constantine saw a vision of a cross rather than the letters of Christ.
“He saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, CONQUER BY THIS. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle,” wrote Eusebius.
The following day, Constantine’s outnumbered forces defeated Maxentius’ forces, which tried to retreat over the Tiber River on a pontoon bridge. In the chaos of the retreat, the bridge collapsed, leaving only the too-narrow Milvian Bridge as a route to escape. Maxentius and many of his men would drown or be trampled to death in the escape. Constantine rode into Rome with the head of Maxentius.
“There, at around the age of twenty-four, Constantine was hailed as emperor, of the western half of the empire,” writes historian Frank E. Smitha. “He was hailed as a man of boldness and a man favored and guided by the gods.”
Constantine and Christianity
Sources in this Story
- Wisconsin Lutheran College: Fourth-Century Christianity: Evolution of the Tetrarchy
- Christian Classics Ethereal Library: Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, Homily
- Fordham University: Eusebius of Caesarea: The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine
- Macrohistory and World Report: Rome’s Christian Emperors: Emperor Constantine Supports Christianity
- The BBC: Christianity and the Roman Empire
- New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia: Constantine the Great
- PBS: From Jesus to Christ: Legitimization Under Constantine
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Council of Nicaea
- De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Rulers and Their Families: Constantine I (306-337 A.D.)
- University of Chicago: History of the Later Roman Empire by J. B. Bury: Chapter III: Constantinople
Christians in the Roman Empire had been persecuted by several Roman emperors in the first, second and third centuries, dating back to Nero in 64 A.D. In the early fourth century, Diocletian and Galerius made Christianity illegal, and called for the burning of churches and torture of Christians who refused to recant.
Constantine’s rise to power marks a turning point in the history of Christianity. “Constantine can rightfully claim the title of Great, for he turned the history of the world into a new course and made Christianity, which until then had suffered bloody persecution, the religion of the State,” said the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Constantine did not immediately make a full conversion to Christianity, however. He retained many of his pagan beliefs and customs, and the Arch of Constantine, which he commissioned to commemorate the Battle of Milvian Bridge, contained no references to Christianity. He also ordered the persecution of Christians who did not include the Old Testament in their beliefs.
He served as a patron for the church. He ordered the toleration of Christians in the Edict of Milan of 313. He also granted powers and funding to Christian bishops, allowing them to build churches, restore pilgrimage sites, and spread a unified belief structure.
“What is originally a movement oppressed by Caesar … becomes an imperial religion,” says University of Texas religious studies professor L. Michael White to PBS. “Now, Jesus had been transformed into the Lord Christ of Heaven and Constantine, the emperor, ruled in his name.”
In 325, Constantine hosted the Council of Nicea, the first ever Ecumenical council, to settle a dispute primarily between Alexander and Arius over whether Jesus was as divine as God. Constantine oversaw a compromise, called the Nicene Creed, that said Jesus was of the same substance as God.
“The emperor then exiled Arius, an act that, while manifesting a solidarity of church and state, underscored the importance of secular patronage in ecclesiastical affairs,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
Christianity spread slowly over the next two centuries, as only one emperor (Julian in the 360s) tried prohibit it. “But there was no ‘triumph,’ no one moment where Christians had visibly ‘won’ some battle against pagans,” writes Dr. Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe for the BBC. “Progress was bitty, hesitant, geographically patchy.” By the end of the fourth century, Christianity was the dominant religion in the Roman Empire.
Biography: Constantine the Great
Constantine I is considered the father of the Byzantine Empire and one of the most influential figures of Western history.
Though he did allow for the spread of Christianity, Constantine did not oversee “a radical reordering of society or to a systematic revision of the legal system,” according to Hans A. Pohlsander of SUNY Albany. He did introduce new coins, establish measures improving the welfare of citizens and slaves, and defend the empire’s frontiers on several occasions.
Constantine was often brutal in his efforts to retain power, eliminating many political rivals. He also had his son Crispus and wife Fausta killed in 326 for uncertain reasons.
He took full control of the Roman Empire after defeating Licinius, the Augustus in the East, in 324. Soon after, he looked to move the capital from Rome to the empire’s eastern frontier, selecting the Greek city of Byzantium (present-day Istanbul). Byzantium was rebuilt over the next six years and consecrated in 330 as Constantinople.
Listen to a two-part podcast on the life of Constantine by Lars Brownworth, author of “Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization.”