The institution of Christianity may well owe its existence to Constantine’s victory over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge on October 28th, 312 A.D. Had Constantine lost, we might be Pagans singing the praises of Jupiter.
Diocletian (244 – 311 AD) became emperor of the Roman Empire in 285 AD. The empire was on the verge of collapse because of inflation and an influx of enemies, most notably Barbarians and Persians, on its borders. Diocletian shored up the empire and instituted the Tetrarchy, which divided the Empire into four parts, each ruled by either an Augustus or a Caesar. Diocletian had hoped that this arrangement would prevent civil war after he retired.
Well, the best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray. The course of events gets quite complex. Suffice it to say that soon after Diocletian retired, there were as many as six would-be emperors vying for the throne.
One of these would-be emperors was Constantine (272 – 337 AD), son of Constantius (250 – 306 AD), who himself was an Augustus of the northwestern region of the Roman Empire. Constantine succeeded Constantius upon his death in 306 AD.
Maxentius was the son of Maximian, who had been an Augustus alongside Diocletian and had been persuaded to retire to Rome by Diocletian when he himself also retired. Maxentius, with the help of the Praetorian Guard, publicly announced himself emperor in Rome in 306 AD.
Things came to a head in 312 AD. Constantine marched his army toward Rome. Maxentius and his army ventured out of Rome, and the two met at the Milvian bridge.
Before the battle, Constantine experienced a revelation of sorts. According to Eusebius, Constantine looked skyward, the heavens opened up, a cross of light appeared, and a voice thundered, “In this sign, you shall conquer!”
Constantine took the hint (when a voice from heaven commands you to do something, you’d be a fool not to, right?). He ordered his troops to paint the Chi Rho, a christogram, on their shields. The Chi Rho also became Constantine’s military standard.
When God has your back, what do you have to fear? Constantine carried the day and was victorious. Maxentius fell off his horse while retreating over the Milvian bridge and fell into the Tiber river and drowned. Bummer. The next day, Constantine fished him out, decapitated his corpse, and paraded his severed head through the streets of Rome.
Ouch! Talk about adding insult to injury.
As an aside, I’m currently reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (an abridged version; the full set would be a rather major undertaking).
I found this passage interesting. Gibbon comments on the general decline of the arts during this period of Rome’s history:
The triumphal arch of Constantine still remains a melancholy proof of the decline of the arts, and a singular testimony of the meanest vanity. As it was not possible to find in the capital of the empire a sculptor who was capable of adorning that public monument, the arch of Trajan, without any respect either for his memory or for the rules of propriety, was stripped of its most elegant figures. The difference of times and persons, of actions and characters, was totally disregarded. The Parthian captives appear prostrate at the feet of a prince who never carried his arms beyond the Euphrates; and curious antiquarians can still discover the head of Trajan on the trophies of Constantine.