Today is the 1700th anniversary of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, which took place on Tuesday, 28 October 312. On the eve of the battle, the Emperor Constantine had a vision of the symbol of Christ, and a voice said, ‘In this sign you will conquer.’ He adopted the sign, the Chi-Rho, the intertwined Greek letters signifying ‘Christ,’ as his battle ensign and conquered.
This battle, so significant for Constantine and for Christianity, was a part of the complex and confusing history of the Tetrarchy, the system of Roman government at the time. There were four emperors, two Augusti and two Caesars, an Augustus and Caesar acting in the western half of the empire, with its capital at Milan, and an Augustus and Caesar acting in the eastern half of the empire, with its capital at Nicomedia in Bythinia, although all were responsible for the empire as a whole. The Caesars were a sort of junior emperor. The main job of an emperor at the time was to defend the frontiers of the empire against barbarian incursions—and there was more than enough work for four of them.
At the beginning of A.D. 305, the Augustus of the West was Maximian and of the East, Diocletian (who had unleashed the great persecution of the Church in 303, still continuing). The Caesar of the West was Constantius, the father of Constantine. The Caesar of the East was Galerius. On 1 May, Maximian and Diocletian retired and Constantius and Galerius were promoted to Augusti. Constantine was disappointed in his hope of becoming Caesar. Instead, Diocletian and Maximian made Severus and Maximinus Daia Caesars of the West and East respectively. Scarcely a year later, on 25 July 306, Constantius died. He was in Britain at the time. On the following day, the army acclaimed Constantine as imperator at York. Severus was promoted to Augustus and Constantine agreed to be Caesar.
In 307, the army in Italy acclaimed Maxentius, the son of Maximian, as imperator. Severus was killed and Maxentius assumed the mantle of Augustus but was regarded as a usurper by the other emperors. Constantine now claimed to be Augustus but Galerius attempted to impose his friend Licinius as Augustus of the West. He offered the caesarship to Constantine but Constantine refused it. Constantine and Licinius maintained an uneasy truce, Constantine ruling in Gaul, on the Rhine and in Britain and Licinius ruling on the Danube and in the Balkans. The usurper Maxentius controlled Italy, Spain and North Africa from Rome.
In 310, Galerius died and Maximinus Daia succeeded him as August in the East. There would be no more Caesars—the tetrarchy was reduced to a dyarchy.
In 312, Maximinus Daia concluded an alliance with Maxentius in an effort to extend his rule to the West. Constantine responded by crossing the Alps and invading Italy in the spring with an army scarcely a quarter the size of Maxentius’s. A successful campaign brought him to Rome by October, and to the battle fought to gain control of the bridge leading across the Tiber about a mile and half north of the city’s Flaminian Gate.
Photograph of the Milvian Bridge, taken 29 October 2005 by Anthony Majanlahti, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence. From Wikimedia Commons.
‘Giving thanks to God for this victory that inaugurated a new era of human history, Constantine made a triumphal entry into Rome, which greeted him as its liberator, saviour and benefactor. He immediately had the Sign of the Cross placed high on the principal buildings in the city, and a statue of the Emperor was erected, with him holding the Cross in his hand as a sign of victory and an emblem of the authority he had received from Christ. From that time, Constantine began to receive instruction in the Christian faith and applied himself assiduously to the reading of the Holy Books.’ (Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra, The Synaxarion (Ormylia, 1998), V, p. 229.)
It was the first day of Christendom.
The Feast of the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Œcumenical Council is commemorated on the Sunday falling on or after 11 October.
The council, which condemned the heresy of iconoclasm, was convoked by the Empress Irene and presided over by St Tarasius, Patriarch of Constantinople. It met at Nicæa in Bithynia from 24 September to 13 October 787. As it was the second œcumenical council to meet there, it is sometimes called ‘II Nicæa.’
The Emperor Leo III the Isaurian had forbidden the veneration of icons in A.D. 730 and was also opposed to monasticism. His son, the Emperor Constantine V Copronymus, summoned a council in Constantinople in 754 under the presidency of Patriarch Constantine of Constantinople that declared images of Christ to be blasphemous, as his divinity could not be represented, and all images, including those of the Mother of God and the saints, to be pagan and idolatrous. It anathematised the defenders of icons, Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople from 715 until deposed by Leo in 730, John Damascene (c. 675–c. 750) and a monk, George of Cyprus. Following this synod, the persecution of iconophiles and monks redoubled.
The Seventh Œcumenical Council confirmed the orthodox teachings of Patriarch Germanus and Saint John Damascene—to claim that the divinity of Christ cannot be iconised is to deny the two Natures in the one Person of the Incarnate Word—and anathematised Anastasius, Constantine and Nicetas, the Patriarchs of Constantinople who had supported iconoclasm.
From the Decree of the Council: ‘… we keep unchanged all the ecclesiastical traditions handed down to us, whether in writing or verbally, one of which is the making of pictorial representations, agreeable to the history of the preaching of the Gospel, a tradition useful in many respects, but especially in this, that so the incarnation of the Word of God is shewn forth as real and not merely phantastic …
‘We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Catholic Church … define with all certitude and accuracy that, just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross [the only sacred image allowed by the iconoclasts], so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honourable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people.
‘For, by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them; and to these should be given due salutation and honourable reverence, not indeed that true worship of faith which pertains alone to the divine nature; but to these, as to the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospels and to the other holy objects, incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom. For the honour which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented.’ (Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, XIV, p. 550.)
Unfortunately, the council did not succeed immediately in putting an end to the iconoclast heresy. The Emperor Leo V the Armenian resumed the persecution of the iconophiles in A.D. 814 and it was not until the Empress Theodora restored the veneration of icons on the first Sunday of Lent in 843, ever after the Feast of Orthodoxy, that the heresy was finally expelled from the Church.
‘The second Council of Nicæa is the seventh and last Ecumenical Council recognized by the Orthodox Church … [I]n holding the seventh place, the Council of Nicæa has taken to itself the symbol of perfection and completeness represented by this number in holy Scripture … It closes the era of the great dogmatic disputes which enabled the Church to describe, in definitions excluding all ambiguity, the bounds of the holy Orthodox Faith. From that time, every heresy that appears can be related to one or another of the errors that the Church, assembled in universal Councils, has anathematized from the first until the second Council of Nicæa.’ (Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra, The Synaxarion (Ormylia, 1998), I, p. 369.)
Seventeenth-century icon of the Seventh Œcumenical Council. The holy fathers are assembled in the nave of the Church of Hagia Sophia in Nicæa, with the Gospel book in their midst. The iconostasis behind them bears the customary icons of Christ and the Mother of God to either side of the Royal Doors and above them the Deesis, the icon of the Mother of God and St John the Forerunner praying to Christ. Above the Deesis in turn is the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove. In the town behind the church are laypeople and monastics with icons on their walls. (Icon of the Novodevichy Convent, Moscow. Photograph from Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain.)
Occasional comments by a convert to Orthodoxy.