Many thanks to the editors of Military Heritage, who published a new essay of mine in their in their latest issue. It tells the story of the early years of Byzantine history, the rise of Constantine the Great, and his victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.
The magazine can be found at Barnes & Noble and other retailers, and you can also subscribe to the magazine here.
Since this blog has an occasional focus on religious history the excerpt below in on Constantine’s famous vision a few months before the battle:
This takes us to the spring of 312, on the eve of Constantine’s entry into Italy, and it is worth mentioning here the nature of our major sources: two church historians and theologians (Eusebius and Lacantius), and two orators (one anonymous, another named Nazarius), all but the last of whom were Christian, and all of whom witnessed the Great Persecution, and wrote their accounts of Constantine when Christianity was still a new and potentially perilous presence as a favored religion in the empire. The orators were also the authors of publically performed panegyrics, or speeches of praise, and at least one of them likely performed before Constantine himself. To the cynic, all of these circumstances might throw their accounts into suspicion, but a reliable narrative can be found.
Before the campaign began, Constantine’s soothsayers oversaw a divinatory sacrifice which clearly made any military action in Italy ill-omened, but by this point Constantine was beyond confident, and ignored their warnings. As history knows, he was given a boost thanks to an event that probably dates from the months before he crossed the Alps with his army. Collating all the accounts together, we can say that, fervently pious towards the religious cult of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus, one of the most popular deities in the Roman army), Constantine one day at noon was in prayer, with the sun at its highest point in the sky, when “he saw with his own eyes, up in the sky and resting over the sun, a cross-shaped trophy formed from light, and a text attached to it which said, ‘By this, conquer.’” The company of soldiers with him also witnessed the event; but as if the author of this vision was aware of its vagueness, that night Christ himself appeared in a dream and was more specific, saying that he and his men should fight beneath the symbol of the Chi Rho, a monogram of the first two letters in the Greek word for Christ (ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ), a sign familiar all over the world today: ☧.A standard, or labarum, topped by the Chi Rho was then constructed and placed before the advancing army, and Constantine also told his soldiers to paint it on their shields.
Yet combining the accounts, as later streamlined tradition inevitably does, results in a nonexistent clarity over the event: one account places the vision on the day before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, another leaves out the night dream and betrays neither a Christian or pagan slant, while the earliest account of the Italian campaign mentions no vision or dream at all, but does assume Constantine was divinely guided: “You must share some secret with that divine mind, Constantine, which has delegated care of us to lesser gods.” Perhaps counterintuitively, the inconsistencies in the accounts may speak to the genuinely strange nature of the experience, which was remembered, retold, and reinterpreted, throughout Constantine’s life.
And of course the standard of Sol Invictus was not left behind in light of this new one; rather, they were both taken together, and Constantine’s allegiance to Sol—whether personally or bureaucratically—is still reflected years later. Neither the divine visions of emperors or generals, or the painting of apotropaic symbols on shields or armor, was anything new; and neither did Christianity have a monopoly on using cross-shaped signs for good fortune or protection (the Greek chrestos of course simply means “good luck”). The man who only a few years earlier had had a vision of the sun god Apollo, and who said Sol had carried his father off after death, and who no doubt knew of the Christians in his train who associated Christ and his resurrection with the risen sun, could not miss the connections, or refuse the support of whatever gods he could get. His self-assurance must have been overwhelming as he crossed what today are called the Cottian Alps, taking only a quarter of his army with him and leaving the rest behind in Gaul. He emerged in northern Italy with around forty thousand men who wouldn’t be satisfied until they reached Rome.