I said in my post about the Council of Nicaea that I would return to the subject of the emperor Constantine I, known as “The Great” and to give him his full Roman name, Caesar Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus.
Popularly known as the first Christian emperor, Constantine was a complex figure and one whose legacy was undoubtedly the continuation of the Roman Empire as a political entity and a state that endured until the 15th century.
Much is made of Constantine’s Christianity and his “miraculous” adoption of Christianity following his victory over his rival Maxentius, the rebellious western emperor, at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 CE. This is what I shall discuss here.
The political struggles of the Tetrarchy, post-Diocletian, are a complex issue.
Constantine’s father, Flavius Valerius Constantius, also known as Constantius Chlorus, was the western Augustus following the abdication of Diocletian and Maximian, with Galerius Maximianus as the Augustus of the eastern empire.
Constantine had expected to be named as Caesar when his father assumed the purple in the western empire but Galerius had decreed that the Caesar of the West should be Flavius Valerius Severus, who, on the death of Constantius, became the Augustus of the West, again on the orders of Galerius.
At the same time, in Britain where Constantine was stationed with his father’s legions, the Army proclaimed Constantine Augustus. However, Constantine accepted the lesser post of Caesar, when this was offered to him by Galerius.
The situation became even more complicated when Maximian came out of retirement and became the effective ruler of the West again, aiding his son Maxentius’ rebellion against Galerius’ appointee Severus.
After much shifting of loyalties and with up to six different men claiming the tile of Augustus, the two halves of the Roman Empire became the setting for Civil war between the main claimants.
Eventually, these Civil Wars resolved themselves into two parallel conflicts between Constantine and Maxentius in the West and Licinius and Maximinus Daia (successors to Galerius) in the East.
The culmination of the power struggle between Constantine and Maxentius came at the Milvian Bridge, outside Rome, on 28 October 312.
The battle resulted in a victory for Constantine and the death of Maxentius.
The legend that arose around this victory is that before the battle Constantine had a vision of a cross of light, accompanied by the Greek words Ἐν Τούτῳ Νίκα, in Latin In Hoc Signo Vinces, “By This Sign You Will Be Victorious”.
This account was recorded by Eusebius of Caesarea in his Life of Constantine, which was written much later, when Constantine was the sole ruler of the Roman Empire.
In an earlier account, the Historia Ecclesiae, Eusebius merely stated that Constantine triumphed with God’s protection.
A third account exists, in the De Mortibus Persecutorum by Lactantius, that records that, in a dream, Constantine was instructed to “delineate the heavenly sign on the shields of his soldiers”.
This symbol was described by Eusebius as the Chi Rho, a well-known early Christian symbol, but one that was not used by Christians prior to the Milvian Bridge.
What is clear is that Constantine did later employ the Chi Rho on his standards, and that a year after his victory over Maxentius, Constantine and his Eastern co-Augustus Licinius jointly issued the Edict of Milan, which proclaimed religious tolerance towards Christians and the return of Church property confiscated under the Persecutions of Diocletian. Lactantius records in his De Mortibus Persecutorum;
We thought it fit to commend these things most fully to your care that you may know that we have given to those Christians free and unrestricted opportunity of religious worship. When you see that this has been granted to them by us, your Worship will know that we have also conceded to other religions the right of open and free observance of their worship for the sake of the peace of our times, that each one may have the free opportunity to worship as he pleases; this regulation is made that we may not seem to detract from any dignity or any religion.
Licinus, the Augustus of the East, was to go back on the Edict within a few years and started to persecute Christians again, culminating in open Civil War between Constantine and Licinus, with the latter and his Gothic allies espousing the cause of classical Roman Paganism and Constantine with his Frankish foederati marching under the Labarum and Chi Rho.
This was clearly a war of religious ideology as much as anything else and it culminated with the final defeat of Licinus, leaving Constantine as the sole master of the Roman world. Licinus surrendered to Constantine and was allowed to retire to private life, but in 325 he was accused of trying to raise an army from barbarian tribes and Constantine had him and his son killed.
The most interesting aspect of the legend of the divine revelation before the Battle of The Milvian Bridge is that the most explicit linkages to the Christian God were only made much later. There is only one full text that contains Lactantius’ account (which was written some time before 320) and Eusebius’ two versions date to around 325 for the Historia Ecclesiae and the Life of Constantine remained incomplete at the time of Eusebius’ death in 339.
Previous to the conflict between Constantine and Maxentius, Constantine had linked himself to the cult of Apollo, the Roman Sun God, in the form of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, and issued coinage in his name with a dedication explicitly linking himself to Sol Invictus.
He continued to do this well after his vision at the Milvian Bridge and in 321 decreed that the dies Solis, Sunday, should be the Roman day of rest. Aurelian, Roman Emperor between 270 and 275 had previously elevated Sol Invictus to the highest level of the Roman pantheon, with the aim of making The Sun the supreme deity of the Empire, and had made the Cult of Sol Invictus something approaching an official state religion.
Therefore, it is not impossible that Constantine himself saw a distinct linking between the Risen Christ and the Unconquered Sun, to the extent that the two deities could have been synonymous in his mind.
Eusebius, naturally, as a Christian, would have preferred to envisage the whole thing as a vindication of the primacy of the God of the Christian Church.
What is clear though, is that Constantine was neither a wholly Christian emperor nor that he made the Roman Empire a Christian one.