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.
Occasional comments by a convert to Orthodoxy.