Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Constantine and the Battle at the Milvian Bridge

Battle of the Milvian Bridge by Giulio Romano, 1520-24
On October 28, 312 AD, the Battle of the Milvian Bridge between the Roman Emperors Constantine I and Maxentius took place. Constantine won the battle and started on the path that led him to end the Tetrarchy and become the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. According to historians, the battle marked the beginning of Constantine's conversion to Christianity and thus fostered the rise of Christianity.

So, just another of those Roman Battles? Well, some consider it as THE decisive battle in the rise of Christianity - and therefore also responsible for the course of development of the entire so-called 'Western' world. But, let's first look at the historical facts. The underlying causes of the battle were the rivalries inherent in Diocletian's Tetrarchy. The power was divided among four rulers, a system instituted by Roman Emperor Diocletian in 293 AD, marking the end of the Crisis of the Third Century and the recovery of the Roman Empire. The four Tetrarchs based themselves not at Rome but in other cities closer to the frontiers, mainly intended as headquarters for the defence of the Empire against bordering rivals and barbarians at the Rhine and Danube. The four Tetrarchic capitals were: Nicomedia in northwestern Asia Minor (modern Izmit in Turkey), Sirmium (modern Sremska Mitrovica) in the Vojvodina region of modern Serbia, Mediolanum (modern Milan, near the Alps), and Augusta Treverorum (modern Trier, in Germany, where I was doing my PhD by the way....).

After Diocletian stepped down on 1 May 305, his successors began to struggle for control of the Roman Empire almost immediately. Although Constantine was the son of the Western Emperor Constantius, the Tetrarchic ideology did not necessarily provide for hereditary succession. When Constantius died on 25 July 306, his father's troops proclaimed Constantine as Augustus in Eboracum (York). In Rome, the favorite was Maxentius, the son of Constantius' imperial colleague Maximian, who seized the title of emperor shortly after on 28 October 306. But whereas Constantine's claim was recognized by Galerius, ruler of the Eastern provinces and the senior emperor in the Empire, Maxentius was treated as a usurper. Galerius ordered his co-Augustus, Severus, to put him down in early 307. Once Severus arrived in Italy, however, his army defected to Maxentius. Severus was captured, imprisoned, and executed. Galerius himself marched on Rome in the autumn, but failed to take the city.

Constantine avoided conflict with both Maxentius and the Eastern emperors for most of this period. By 312, however, Constantine and Maxentius were engaged in open hostility with one another, although they were brothers in law. In the spring of 312, Constantine gathered his forces and decided to oust Maxentius himself. He easily overran northern Italy, winning two major battles: the first near Turin, the second at Verona.

It is commonly stated that on the evening of 27 October with the armies preparing for battle, Constantine had a vision which led him to fight under the protection of the Christian God. The details of that vision, however, differ between the sources reporting it. From Eusebius, two accounts of the battle survive. The first, shorter one in the Ecclesiastical History promotes the belief that God helped Constantine but does not mention any vision. In his later Life of Constantine, Eusebius gives a detailed account of a vision and stresses that he had heard the story from the Emperor himself. According to this version, Constantine with his army was marching, when he looked up to the sun and saw a cross of light above it, and with it the Greek words "Εν Τούτῳ Νίκα", En toutō níka, usually translated into Latin as "in hoc signo vinces," both phrases have the literal meaning "In this sign,[you shall] conquer;" At first he was unsure of the meaning of the apparition, but in the following night he had a dream in which Christ explained to him that he should use the sign against his enemies. Eusebius then continues to describe the labarum, the military standard used by Constantine in his later wars against Licinius, showing the Chi-Rho sign.

When the two armies clashed at the Milvian Bridge in Rome, Constantine won a decisive victory. The dispositions of Maxentius may have been faulty as his troops seem to have been arrayed with the River Tiber too close to their rear, giving them little space to allow re-grouping in the event of their formations being forced to give ground. The temporary bridge set up alongside the Milvian Bridge, over which many of the Maxentian troops were escaping, collapsed, and those stranded on the north bank of the Tiber were either taken prisoner or killed. Maxentius was among the dead, having drowned in the river while trying to swim across it in a desperate bid to escape or, alternatively, he is described as having been thrown by his horse into the river.

Constantine’s victory gave him total control of the Western Roman Empire paving the way for Christianity to become the dominant religion for the Roman Empire and ultimately for Europe. The following year, 313, Constantine and Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, which made Christianity an officially recognised and tolerated religion in the Roman Empire.

At yovisto you can learn more the Roman Empire under emperor Constantine in the lecture series of Prof Diana Kleiner on Roman Architecture about 'Rome of Constantine and a New Rome'.

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