Skip to comments.“Constantine can not be overcome!” ~ Constantine enters Rome in triumph after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, October 28, AD 312
Posted on 10/28/2021 12:26:10 PM PDT by Antoninus
When Constantine entered Rome on October 28, AD 312 after crushing the superior forces of Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, it marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. There are several accounts of the battle and its aftermath recorded in ancient times, and two in particular stand out as being written by immediate contemporaries who certainly spoke with the participants. One of those who recorded the battle was Lactantius, a scholar who had served at the court of Diocletian and later became the tutor of Constantine’s son, Crispus.
Here is his account as drawn from his invaluable work, On the Deaths of the Persecutors (Chapter XLIV):
And now a civil war broke out between Constantine and Maxentius. Although Maxentius kept himself within Rome, because the soothsayers had foretold that if he went out of it he should perish, yet he conducted the military operations by able generals. In forces he exceeded his adversary, for he had not only his father’s army which deserted from Severus, but also his own which he had lately drawn together out of Mauritania and Italy. They fought and the troops of Maxentius prevailed.
Other ancient accounts give additional details. Zosimus, a pagan historian hostile to Constantine writing in the early 6th century, indicates in his New History that the forces of Maxentius at the start of the campaign numbered some 170,000, while those of Constantine were about 98,000. Eusebius, writing in Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine, says that Maxentius positioned his forces throughout Italy to ambush the army of Constantine as it made its way south. An anonymous panegyricist who wrote soon after Constantine’s victory says that Constantine was able to successfully fight through these ambushes, winning battles at the towns of Susa, Turin and Verona before approaching Rome.
However, when he reached Rome, Constantine was faced with the task of besieging the huge city with an army still likely inferior in numbers to his opponent – a losing proposition when facing an entrenched enemy. Thus, he stood outside the city stymied. It is in this sense that we should understand Lactantius’s claim above that the forces of Maxentius prevailed, at least at first. Considering the situation from a military perspective, the prospects of Constantine were indeed grim upon reaching Rome. It should be recalled that Maxentius had easily defeated the previous attempts by Severus and Galerius to remove him from Rome. In both cases, Maxentius was able to bribe the soldiers of his opponents and his efforts were so successful that both emperors were to forced to flee in successive campaigns. In the case of Severus, his whole army defected to Maxentius and he was ignominiously captured and put to death. No doubt, Maxentius hoped to thwart Constantine’s attack using similar tactics while remaining safely ensconced in the Eternal City.
It was then that something wholly unexpected and incredible happened. Lactantius continues:
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—that is, the sixth of the kalends of November—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, being the cipher of Christ. Having this sign, his troops stood to arms.
A bronze follis of Constantine showing the labarum or Christian standard topped by the chi-rho on the reverse side.
This is, of course, the chi-rho symbol indicating the first two letters of the word "Christ" in Greek. Here Lactantius is describing the theophany experienced by Constantine and this account is certainly the earliest to record the event. It should be noted that this telling of the story is less detailed than the account of Eusebius of Constantine's vision of a cross in the heavens. However, the accounts do not conflict. Eusebius also records the dream, saying that Constantine experienced the dream on the night following the vision and that the dream served to explain what he had seen in the heavens—a cross with the words, “By this sign, thou wilt conquer.”
Lactantius describes what happened next:
The enemies advanced but without their emperor [Maxentius], and they crossed the bridge. The armies met and fought with the utmost exertions of valor, “neither this side or that marked by flight.”
In the meantime a sedition arose at Rome and Maxentius was reviled as one who had abandoned all concern for the safety of the commonweal. And suddenly, while he exhibited the Circensian games on the anniversary of his reign, the people cried with one voice, “ Constantine cannot be overcome!” Dismayed at this, Maxentius burst from the assembly, and having called some senators together, ordered the Sibylline books to be searched. In them it was found that:
“On the same day the enemy of the Romans should perish.”
Led by this response to the hopes of victory, he went to the field. The bridge in his rear was broken down. At sight of that the battle grew hotter. The hand of the Lord prevailed, and the forces of Maxentius were routed. He fled towards the broken bridge, but the multitude pressing on him, he was driven headlong into the Tiber.
Drawing from earlier sources, Zosimus provides some additional details, claiming that Maxentius had erected a pontoon bridge over the Tiber which was divided into two parts held together by pins. This structure was purposely built as part of a stratagem to lure the Constantinian army over the bridge, as the pins were meant to be withdrawn once the enemy was on the bridge, precipitating the whole into the river. Both Aurelius Victor and Eusebius confirm that this stratagem had been put into place in the hopes of destroying all or part of Constantine’s army. However, the “engine of destruction” ended up being turned on Maxentius when Constantine refused to cross the pontoon bridge and offered battle on the far side of the Tiber.
Zosimus also mentions a most peculiar prodigy that took place before the battle, saying that Constantine’s decision to hold his ground was made because a great flock of owls had suddenly descended upon the walls of Rome. Seeing that Constantine refused to cross the river, Maxentius advanced and set his army in ranks to give battle. But his formations had hardly been arranged when Constantine’s cavalry attacked and a furious fight ensued. At this moment, Zosimus says that the morale of Maxentius’s troops failed because few among them were willing to risk their lives for a man they considered a tyrant. (See Zosimus, New History, Book II, Chapter 16.)
Lactantius concludes his account as follows:
This destructive war being ended, Constantine was acknowledged as emperor with great rejoicings by the senate and people of Rome. And now he came to know the perfidy of [Maximin] Daia, for he found the letters written to Maxentius and saw the statues and portraits of the two associates which had been set up together. The senate, in reward of the valor of Constantine, decreed to him the title of Maximus (the Greatest), a title which Daia had always arrogated to himself.
We can reconstruct some of what happened in Rome after the defeat of Maxentius from other sources. The anonymous panegyricist mentioned above says that the body of Maxentius was retrieved from the Tiber and hacked to pieces, his head placed on a spear and paraded around the city. Constantine then made a triumphal procession through Rome, concluding with a visit to the imperial palace and a speech in which he restored to the Senate their former privileges. Eusebius tells us that Constantine embellished Rome with monuments and inscriptions celebrating his victory, including a statue of himself with the cross beneath his hand which bore an inscription in Latin, saying:
“By virtue of this salutary sign, which is the true symbol of valor, I have preserved and liberated your city from the yoke of tyranny. I have also set at liberty the Roman senate and people, and restored them to their ancient greatness and splendor.” [see Eusebius: Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine, Book I, Chapter 40]
One can imagine that for the people of Rome, jaded by centuries of imperial superlatives making similar claims of liberation, change, glorious restoration and perpetual felicity, these words may have rung somewhat hollow. But for Rome and the Romans, the events of October 28, AD 312 were truly revolutionary. Nothing would ever be the same again.
For more posts on the reign of Constantine, see:
Constantine — Military Hero and Christian Emperor
Constantine's Vision of the Cross ~ Early Accounts and Backstory
September 18, AD 324 -- Constantine defeats Licinius at the Battle of Chrysopolis
Maxentius and His Ill-Fated Reign ~ The last pagan emperor to rule from Rome or a usurper and "inhuman beast"?
Catholic history ping!
Amen. Not a stretch to suggest that Constantine saved the Church, and the magnificent infrastructure he put in place sustains us to this day.
By this sign you shall see victory.
The Church (on Earth) was being extinguished at this point in history.
Thanks for posting that.
Yes, a new Constantine.
Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, except for about 1200 years beginning around 280 years from now, even unto the end of the world. Amen. -- Matthew 28:20 KJV [slightly edited]
Just to add on to your excellent article - Constantine did do a lot to promote Christianity. He officially legalized Christianity in February 313 AD with the Edict of Milan, which allowed Christianity to spread. He ordered the construction of Christian churches such as the Old Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the original Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and the original Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople.
He also appointed Christians to positions of prominence in the Roman government and gave certain privileges to Christian clergy. He even called Christian bishops together to settle the issue of the Arian controversy with the First Council of Nicaea in 325, which he attended as an observer but did not partake in.
That being said, there are a still a lot of things Constantine didn’t do; he never outlawed traditional Greco-Roman religious practices, he never forbade people from worshipping the traditional Greco-Roman deities, and, as I discuss in this article from August 2019
, he certainly had nothing to do with the creation of the New Testament canon.
In other words, Constantine didn’t tell everyone to convert to Christianity or die; instead, he simply implemented policies that allowed Christianity to spread.
Ultimately, Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire, but not by Constantine. On 27 February 380 AD, nearly half a century after Constantine’s death, the Roman emperors Theodosius I, Gratian, and Valentinian II signed the Edict of Thessalonica, which declared Nicene Christianity the official, state religion of the Roman Empire.
By this point, though, the vast majority of people in the Roman Empire were already at least somewhat Christian. Although many people remained unbaptized, many of them worshipped the Christian God.
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