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HISTORY CORNER: The Roman Emperor and battle that changed history

by SYD ALBRIGHT
| October 11, 2020 1:06 AM

Three centuries after Christ’s crucifixion, Roman Emperor Constantine was crossing the Alps to battle co-emperor Maxentius who controlled Rome when he and his troops saw a cross of light above the sun with the inscription In Hoc Signe Vinces — “With this symbol you shall conquer.”

That night he dreamt that he was commanded to mark the shields carried by his troops with a sign “denoting Christ.”

Constantine immediately had the Greek letters Chi and Rho — the first two letters in “Christ” — painted on the shields.

All of this was reported by the great Roman historian Eusebius who heard the story directly from Constantine who told it under oath.

A more likely version of the story however is from early Christian author Lactantius, “the Christian Cicero,” as described in his Vision of Constantine:

"At length Constantine, with steady courage and a mind prepared for every event, led his whole forces to the neighborhood of Rome, and encamped them opposite to the Milvian bridge. The anniversary of the reign of Maxentius approached… and the fifth year of his reign was drawing to an end.

“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 X, with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round thus at the top (P), being the cipher of CHRISTOS. Having this sign, his troops stood to arms.”

Those were complicated times in Roman history. There were emperors and sub-emperors called “Caesars” controlling different parts of the Roman Empire that then stretched from Britain to the Middle East.

Constantine was born Flavius Valerius Constantinus around 280 A.D. in what is now Niš, Serbia.

His father, Flavius Valerius Constantius, was an officer in the Roman army, and his mother Helena was either his wife or concubine. She would later play a huge role in the history of Christianity after being abandoned by Constantius for another woman — the stepdaughter of Maximian, the Western Roman emperor who later promoted him to deputy emperor.

Constantine himself was assigned to the court of the cruel Emperor Diocletian, ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire. It was there that Constantine learned Latin and Greek — and likely also witnessed Christians being persecuted.

Maximian abdicated in 305 A.D. and Constantine's father became Emperor Constantius I. Constantine then fought alongside his father in military campaigns as far away as Britain.

When his father died in today’s Yorkshire, England, his troops declared Constantine emperor, but he would have to fight in a Roman civil war to make the title official.

Standing in his way was Maxentius who controlled Italy, Sardinia, Corsica, the Iberian Peninsula and half of Mediterranean North Africa.

Constantine controlled Britain and Gaul.

They would meet in mortal combat on the Milvian Bridge over the Tiber River near Rome on Oct. 28, 312 A.D.

Before that, Constantine led his troops south from the Rhineland, headed for Rome, crushing Maxentius forces at Turin and Verona along the way.

Maxentius was provisioning Rome for a fortress stand but changed his mind — based on favorable pagan omens — and waited for Constantine at the Tiber. He partially destroyed the Milvian Bridge so it couldn’t be used by the enemy and built a pontoon bridge for his own troops.

Big mistake.

Maxentius had a larger force — probably between 40,000 and 80,000 — but no one knows the exact numbers.

With the Christian symbols Chi-Rho on their shields, Constantine’s men attacked, with the cavalry and infantry pushing Maxentius’ troops back to the river. Realizing the battle was lost, Maxentius called for a retreat — hoping to continue the fight closer to Rome and reinforcements.

His panicked soldiers overloaded the pontoon bridge, causing it to collapse under the weight. The men stranded on the north bank were taken prisoner or killed, and Maxentius drowned while trying to swim to safety.

Constantine quickly captured Rome, solidifying his position as emperor.

They fished Maxentius’ body out of the river, decapitated it and paraded the head through the streets in a victory celebration. Then it was sent to Carthage in North Africa as proof that Constantine was their new emperor.

The battle was a victory for Constantine and for Christianity.

The following year, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, legalizing freedom of worship throughout the Roman Empire.

But trouble was brewing with Licinius, emperor in the eastern part of the empire. The two emperors jockeyed for power for about 10 years, a period interspersed with military confrontations and peace — no doubt a nervous time for Licinius’ wife Flavia Julia Constantia, Constantine’s half-sister.

Finally, in 324 A.D. Constantine caught Licinius at Thessalonica fleeing to the Goths and had him hanged for allegedly raising troops from among the barbarians.

Constantine was then sole emperor of a reunited empire.

Then he founded Constantinople in Byzantium (Istanbul in today’s Turkey), and appointed his mother Helena as Augusta Imperatrix, before sending her to Palestine with unlimited access to the imperial treasury to find relics of the Christian tradition.

During that trip from 326 to 328 A.D., she was responsible for the construction or beautification of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem where Christ was born, and the Church of Eleona on the Mount of Olives, where Jesus taught and is believed to be the site of His ascension.

Helena is credited with discovery of the true cross on which Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem, and may also have built a church in Egypt to identify the Burning Bush of Sinai.

Three crosses were found during an excavation of a site of a former pagan temple in Jerusalem. To determine if any one of them was the true cross, Helena had a woman near death touch all three. On touching the third cross, she immediately recovered.

On that site, Helen ordered the building of today’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, identified as both the place of Christ’s crucifixion and tomb.

Helena died around 330 A.D., with her son Constantine at her side and is buried in the Mausoleum of Helena outside Rome on the Via Labicana.

In the years that followed, Constantine stayed strong to his new Christian faith, while strengthening his regime by reorganizing his army to face increasing attacks by outside tribes including the Visigoths and the Sarmatians.

While Constantine was visiting Helenopolis, now in Turkey by the Black Sea, planning a campaign against Persia, he fell ill. Then as he was heading back to Constantinople, his condition grew worse, forcing him to stop.

He had been delaying his baptism into the Christian faith, but because of his deteriorating health delayed it no further.

The great Emperor died on May 22 in 337 A.D. in Ancyrona, near Nicomedia in Turkey around the age of 57 and was buried in Constantinople at the Church of the Holy Apostles.

In 380 A.D. — 68 years after the Battle of Milvian Bridge — Emperor Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica, establishing Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.

It was not an altogether smooth transition, however. The official religion was Nicene Christianity. All other Christian sects were considered heretical and therefore illegal, with the state confiscating their property.

Nicene Christianity emerged after the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., where the Nicene Creed was created and adopted as a statement of faith used in Christian liturgy. After later changes, the Creed has since been accepted by most Christian denominations.

As persecuting Christians was ending in the Roman Empire, doctrinal conflicts within the growing Christian Church would sadly create its own persecutions.

Near the Coliseum in Rome stands the Arch of Constantine commemorating his victory at Milvian Bridge. An inscription in Latin says:

“To the Emperor Caesar Flavius Constantinus, the greatest, pious, and blessed Augustus because he, inspired by the divine, and by the greatness of his mind, has delivered the state from the tyrant and all of his followers at the same time, with his army and just force of arms, the Senate and People of Rome have dedicated this arch, decorated with triumphs.”

Those triumphs changed the course of Western civilization — and by extension, world history.

It all started with a vision and a dream.

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Contact Syd Albright at silverflix@roadrunner.com.

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In Constantine’s time…

“Christianity also got its social structure right. Not only did they appeal to the vital lower middle classes, but they also provided what we might call social services – support for widows and orphans, and for unmarried ladies who were always a problem in Roman society. The Christian built up an extremely effective network of bishops: a bishop was not just a holy man, but very much a practical organiser who would organise his flock; and once Constantine had recruited them to the services of the state, they soon provided an alternative, and indeed additional support for the municipal authorities.”

– Andrew Selkirk, editor-in-chief, Current Archeology and Current World Archeology

Helen and the True Cross…

When Constantine’s mother Helena returned to Rome, she brought with her large parts of the True Cross and other relics, which are now stored in the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem in Rome.

Emperor orders a Sabbath…

Constantine decreed on March 7, 321 A.D. that Solis Invicti (sun-day) would henceforth be a day of rest in the Roman Empire. "Let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country however persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits because it often happens that another day is not suitable for grain-sowing or vine planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost."

First Christian nation…

Armenia became the first country to adopt Christianity as its state religion in 301 A.D., while it was still illegal in the Roman Empire until 380 A.D., when the Empire under Emperor Theodosius also adopted it as the official state religion.

Love locks continue elsewhere…

Rome authorities removed all padlocks from the Milvian Bridge because their weight collapsed parts of the bridge. Violators are now fined €50 for attaching locks to the bridge. However, the love lock tradition has since spread around Italy, Europe and across the globe.

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OXFORD CLASSICAL DICTIONARY

The Roman Empire during the reign of Emperor Constantine (306-337 A.D.).

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Statue of Emperor Constantine at Basilica of Maxentius in Rome.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The Battle of the Milvian Bridge painting (1520-24) by Giulio Romano.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Gérard Audran etching and engraving after a painting by Charles Le Brun (1619-1690) of Milvian Bridge over the Tiber River collapsing under Maxentius troops being slaughtered by Emperor Constantine’s legions in 312 A.D.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Depiction of Emperor Constantine’s dream seeing the Christian cross and the words “In hoc signo vinces” — or “In this sign, you shall conquer.”

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Ponte Milvio over the Tiber River in Rome today, site of the 312 A.D. battle that changed history.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

A tradition of lovers attaching a padlock to the Milvian Bridge and throwing the key into the river was adopted from a novel to symbolize eternal love, but is now banned by authorities who have removed the locks, considering them vandalism.

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CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA

Pendant owned by Holland-born American priest Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin (1770-1840), believed to contain a fragment of the true cross on which Jesus was crucified that was discovered by Roman Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helen.

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

St. Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother who went to the Holy Land to preserve sacred sites, and is credited with discovering the true cross.

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GOOGLE IMAGES

During Roman Emperor Julian’s short reign (361-363 A.D.), the last imperial reign to persecute Christians, pagans martyred virgin Christian women at Heliopolis (now a suburb of Cairo, Egypt).

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre sits on the site of the pagan temple ordered destroyed by Roman Emperor Constantine in 4th century A.D. (photo c. 1905).

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The Milvian Bridge.

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The Christian symbol.