1700 years ago this very day two young Roman generals faced each other in battle on the outskirts of Rome. Both men were sons of former Roman Emperors. Both men had been overlooked in favor of different generals when the time came to replace their fathers. Neither man was pleased by this rejection, and now both were marching out at the head of their armies to take by force what was theirs by right. The date was October 28, 312 AD, and Constantine and Maxentius were about to collide in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. The course of world history would be forever changed by the outcome.
The battle ended up being a rout. Constantine’s army pushed the army of Maxentius up against the Tiber River. Some of Maxentius’ men fled back to Rome, but many, including Maxentius, either drowned in the river or died in a desperate last stand on the north bank. Constantine had decisively beaten his rival, and before him laid a clear path to becoming sole Emperor of the Roman Empire.
However, the Battle of the Milvian Bridge is remembered not for its political significance but for its religious significance. In later years, Constantine would claim that before the battle, he received a vision promising divine assistance and assurance of victory if he would conquer in the name of the Christian God. Constantine’s family had been friendly to Christians for some time (his father did not enforce the Diocletian persecutions in Western Europe, where he was headquartered). And though Constantine had shown a growing interest in Christianity, he had never become a convert. That was about to change.
Rewind the clock back one day before the battle to Constantine praying in his camp as his army prepared for battle. Constantine, still a pagan, wanted to pray for success the next day. The early Christian historian Eusebius recorded an account of what happened next, as related to him by Constantine himself. Eusebius tells us that on the day before the battle, Constantine decided not to pray to pagan deities as would have been the custom, but to the Christian God, a God respected by his father and commended to him by the lives of Christians he had seen throughout the Empire.
Eusebius writes, “And while he was thus praying with fervent entreaty, a most marvelous sign appeared to him from heaven, the account of which it might have been hard to believe had it been related by any other person…He said that about noon, when the day was already 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. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle.”
Though there are several conflicting stories about what Constantine actually saw and who actually was there with him to see it, the bottom line is that Constantine entered battle the next day under a new emblem, the Chi-Rho symbol we still see in many churches today. (I even saw one on a Christmas tree at church last year.)
Suddenly the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, a relatively minor battle in the middle of a dynastic power struggle, takes on all sorts of religious overtones. When Constantine won, he credited the Christian God for giving him victory. Soon he was Emperor, and by that time he was no longer a mildly interested observer of Christianity; he was giving the Church his full support.
First he issued the Edict of Milan in 313 which legalized Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. For 300 years Christianity had been an underground movement persecuted by Jews and Gentiles alike. All of a sudden it could come out in the open, and the most powerful man in the world was its biggest fan. Christendom had been born overnight, all thanks to a pre-battle vision and a vague command to “conquer in this sign.”
Constantine did not outlaw other religions in the Empire (although his successors would make that move in less than 100 years.) He did favor the Christian movement over all other religions, and as previous emperors had done before him with their pet religions, he started funneling money into the Church. Soon church buildings were popping up all over the empire, bishops served as advisors at the imperial court, and Constantine’s devout Christian mother Helena embarked on one of the earliest pilgrimages to the Holy Land. (She made one of the earliest identifications of the sites of Golgotha and Jesus’s tomb.)
Constantine himself was not baptized until he lay on his deathbed. Many in that day waited until they were at death’s door to be baptized. They didn’t want to sin again after baptism, and Constantine definitely would have sinned post-baptism if he had been baptized in 313. He may be called a saint, but he sure didn’t always act like one.
In spite of the mixed legacy of this man, I don’t think we can understate how dependent our current world is on these events. Whether you hate the church of Christendom because of the corruption and the use of force or you embrace the legacy of Christendom because of its morals and the way it saved European culture, we are what we are today because of the institution Constantine started.
Christendom probably actually ended after the enlightenment and even more after the separation of Church and State in politics. Yet many in the Church still look mournfully back to the days when the Church ruled the West. We may lament that our influence in Europe and America is waning, but let us not forget the words of Jesus in John 16:21, “In this world you will face trouble. But take courage, I have conquered the world!” Christ, not Constantine, is conqueror, and he has already completed his job.
I have a feeling that Constantine missed the point, a feeling that any vision from God asking him to “conquer in this sign” didn’t involve armies and swords and blood and death. I have a feeling that Jesus would have spoken to Constantine the same words he spoke to Pilate in John 18:36, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
I have a feeling that if Constantine missed this point, we sometimes miss it too. I have a feeling that when we get discouraged by the world around us and wonder how we can hope in the midst of the mess, we forget that it’s not up to us to conquer the world by force. I have a feeling we forget that we are more than conquerors through the power of Christ who loved us.
Right or wrong, Christendom was born 1700 years ago today. It may now be dead, but the Church still grows all over the world, much more resembling the Kingdom of God than it ever did in the days of Christendom. I have a feeling that, even if we never again in our day see the Church in power as it was for centuries after Constantine, we are going to be alright.
Happy Birthday, Constantine. You’re really old.