In our May 2007 pilgrimage to Rome, we’ll be staying fairly close to the Milvian Bridge. I hope you’ll be able to join us, because great things happen there.
A little background … In the early years of the fourth century, Maximin, the ruler of the Eastern regions of the empire, had renewed the persecution against the Christians with bloody enthusiasm. He was as superstitious as Maxentius, who ruled the west, but superstitious on a more regular plan. He squandered the public treasury building new temples, restoring old ones, and setting up a regular state-supported system of pagan priests. Every fake and charlatan who could produce an authentic-looking pagan miracle was promoted to a high-paying government job. Maximin was also a raving drunk, and in his ravings he often issued lunatic orders that he could hardly remember the next day.
Eventually, Maxentius found himself facing just one contender in the West — the young Constantine — and popular feeling was on Constantine’s side. But Maxentius still held Rome and the Italian peninsula. The battle lines were drawn, and Italy prepared for another of those destructive but ultimately meaningless battles between rival emperors that litter the history of the Empire. But this time something different happened. On the eve of the battle, Constantine made a decision that changed the Empire forever.
On October 28, 312, the battle lines were drawn, when suddenly Constantine had a vision. Eusebius, who heard it from the lips of Constantine himself, tells it this way: “About midday, when the sun was beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription CONQUER BY THIS. He himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also.”
Did Constantine really see that vision? Some modern historians doubt it; they think Constantine made up the story to justify his decision. Really, they said, he saw which way the wind was blowing, and realized that Christians were by far the largest religious group in the Empire. If he had their support, he had an advantage that none of the other Augusti had. And it’s interesting that Eusebius doesn’t mention the vision at all in his History of the Church, written shortly after Constantine’s victory. Only years later, when he was writing his Life of Constantine, did Eusebius tell that famous story.
But it’s quite possible that Constantine did see that vision. Certainly most of the Church has believed the story for most of history. Either way, his decision to fight under the sign of Christ changed the history of the world. Constantine won the battle of the Milvian Bridge, and freed Rome from the tyrannical grip of the madman Maxentius.
In fact, Constantine had approached the problem of religion like a pagan Roman. He had invested in the god he thought might do him the most good, and his investment paid big dividends. But he at least lived up to his agreement with God, and he began to show special favor to the Christians right away. He immediately had a statue of himself with the cross set up in the center of Rome, where everyone would see it, and this inscription was written under it in large letters: “By this saving sign, the true proof of courage, I saved your city from the yoke of the tyrant and set her free; furthermore I freed the Senate and People of Rome and restored them to their ancient renown and splendor.”
When Constantine met Licinius at Milan in 313, the two Augusti issued an edict proclaiming freedom of religion for everyone. For the first time in human history, absolute freedom of religion was the official policy of a great world power. The Edict of Milan was something truly new in the world, and it was really Constantine’s idea—Licinius just went along with it because it seemed best to do what Constantine said.
The drunken pagan Maximin still ruled part of the East, but he was afraid enough of the combined power of Constantine and Licinius that he grudgingly accepted the decree. Anyway, it wasn’t long before Licinius had eliminated him; and when Licinius (who never really liked Christians) found an excuse to begin persecuting the Christians in the East in 320, Constantine eliminated him in turn. By 324 Constantine was sole Emperor of the whole Roman Empire, and the Christian Church was free everywhere to come out into the open.