A short history of Byzantium History Religion

A short history of Byzantium: No. 3 The Vision of Constantine the Great.

What are we to believe of the amazing vision of Constantine I on the eve of his battle with Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge? It is without doubt a pivitol moment in Roman and Christian history. Imagine the unbearable turmoil and prosecution that the early Christian would have gone through in its first three hundred years of existence, to then find a turn of events so great that it would become the most popular religion in the empire by the four century and eventually the official religion of the empire in 391 AD. Would this turn of events have happened if it wasn’t for the illegitimate son of a Roman general and his mistress? Was Constantine’s timing for Christianity a matter of remarkable luck or divine intervention? We may never really know or completely understand the events of the 27th October 312 AD, when Constantine saw in the midday sky a great cross of light, superimposed over the sun that he had previously once worshipped as Sol Invictus, carrying the inscription “conquer by this sign”.

Leading to this moment, Constantine was one of four emperors in the Roman empire. He saw how hopeless things had become with the empire, ready to implode at any given moment, and with this in mind he decided to strike, and rid the empire of the decay that had set in. First on his ‘hit list’ was Maxentius and before long he had crossed the Alps from Gaul into Italy, where a nervous and unpopular Maxentius from across the Tiber River by the old Milvian Bridge lay waiting for Constantine.

The day before the battle of the Milvian Bridge both men searched for a sign of divine favour. Across the camp from Constantine, he could see Maxentius’s soothsayers and magicians trying to gain the favour of the gods. This had troubled Constantine greatly, surely both men could not receive the same good fortune from the gods? He needed a miracle to trump Maxentius. As he looked up at the sky and begged the gods for the ‘true God’ to reveal himself to Constantine, it was then that he received his vision.


Did Constantine simply change his favourite pagan sun god ‘Sol Invictus’ to Jesus? The Sol Invictus (on the left), the “Unconquered Sun” was the official sun god of the Roman empire and a patron of the soldiers from 274 AD. 

The account is complex and has been debated forever, but that night the emperor stunned by what he had seen, had a dream that helped him explain what he should do. In his dream Christ had directed him to place a sign on the shields of his soldiers and banners, a monogram of the Greek letters chi (X) and rho(P). With the first two letters of Christ’s name as his symbol of divine intervention, he obediently did as he was told and marched onto victory by smashing Maxentius and his forces.

If we are to believe this story, we have the account of two contemporaries, one from Lactantius, the Christian scholar and tutor of Constantine’s son Crispus and Eusebius, a Roman historian and later Bishop of Caesarea. Lactantius, possibly a few years after the battle of the Milvian Bridge, only wrote of the dream of Constantine (as mentioned above) but not of the vision. Even more astonishing is perhaps the fact that Eusebius himself does not mention either the vision or the dream is his Ecclesiatical History of 325 AD. He only later records a fuller version of Lactantius account in his ‘Life of Constantine’ after the emperor’s death.

In all honesty it’s possible to conclude that these accounts are simply humbug. In truth it makes for a good story, right? And even without his alleged famous vision would Constantine have gone on to win his battle against Maxentius? The likelihood is yes and the same events would possibly have played out the same way bringing Christianity to the forefront anyway.

The header image is ‘The Vision of the Cross’ by Raphael, 1520-24. 
Notes and Further Reading
Lars Brownworth, Lost to the West, Crown, 2009.
Michael Grant, The Emperor Constantine, Phoenix, 1993.
John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, Viking, 1988.
Paul Stephenson, Constantine, Quercus, 2009.

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