Exactly one thousand, seven hundred years ago yesterday, the Battle of Milivian Bridge took place on the northern outskirts of Rome. Constantine was the victor of the battle and soon became the undisputed Emperor of Rome. We now know that he eventually became the first Christian Emperor and, with his favor of the Church, completely changed the course of history.
But before the famed battle, there was a vision. Or a dream -- the sources aren't quite clear. But something seems to have happened to Constantine. Something which inspired him to credit the one true God for his victor over his rival Maxentius. And something that transformed the image of the Cross from a ignominious sign of state-sponsored execution into a symbol of hope and an image of victory.
The Time Before Constantine
Imagine a Christianity without the Cross--at least without the visual symbol of the Cross. Believe it or not, the Cross was not widely used by the earliest Christians. In fact, for the first few decades of her history, the Church and her members operated largely without any artwork or graphic symbology, except that which was borrowed from the pagan Roman culture and re-constituted for Christian use.
So what designs and themes were popular among the earliest Christians? Well, the image of a shepherd tending his sheep is one good example.
The shepherd was a popular motif among pagans in Rome and throughout the Empire. For them, it could hold secular or sacred meaning. But by the second century, Christians began decorating their baptistries and tombs with this image in fresco (pictured at left), mosaic and sculpture. For Christians, the image symbolized Christ as the Good Shepherd (in reference to John 10:1-21). Both plant and animal imagery was also popular among both pagans and Christians in the earliest centuries of the Church, but Christians soon attached sacred meaning to many of the popular classical motifs of the time: grapevines had Eucharistic meaning for Christians while peacocks became symbols of heavenly paradise. Christians also developed use of their own symbols not found in pagan artwork of the time: extensive use of the fish (a symbol of Christ), the symbol of Jonah and the fish (taken from the story found in Genesis) and depictions of a ritual meal with loaves and fish on the table (early symbols of the Eucharist).
What you don't find often in these early centuries, however, are artistic representations of the Cross. We know from the writings of the early Church Fathers that early Christians used the Sign of the Cross (i.e. the gesture of signing one's forehead, body and/or objects with the symbol of the Cross). But the symbol of the Cross is very rare from the earliest-known examples of Christian artwork. That all changed on the after the Battle of Milivan Bridge.
The Night Before the Battle
On the evening of October 27th, 312, the forces of Constantine and Maxentius--both claimants to Roman imperial title--had converged on either side of the Tiber River, just north of the city of Rome.
Maxentius had accepted the imperial purple six years earlier, in 306. Now, six years later, he had become a leader barely tolerated among the people of Rome. Constantine had also been acclaimed emperor in 306, at York (in present-day England) at the death of his father. He had moved slowly towards Italy, shoring up his support first in Roman Britain and then in western Europe, over the course of six years. But now he had arrived at the doorstep of Rome, challenging Maxentius's claim as Emperor of the West.
Maxentius had prepared Rome for a long siege by shoring up supplies and removing most of the bridges across the Tiber River that provided access to the ancient city. In addition to this, despite his unpopularity, Maxentius had amassed an army twice the size of Constantine's. But on the evening of October 27th, both men's armies were converged at the one point of access across the Tiber: the Pons Milvius or Milvian Bridge; poised for battle the next day.
As the sun set on the gathered armies of the opposing leaders on the banks of the Tiber, a mysterious event occurred which has both inspired and baffled every generation since: Constantine, encamped along the Tiber with his men, experienced some sort of vision or dream which inspired him, a non-Christian, to adopt a symbol of the Christians as his battle standard.
The Christians--a persecuted minority in the Roman Empire of 312; the scorned followers of a crucified Jewish messiah from the backwaters of the Empire; the group who was distrusted and disdained by their fellow Romans. This was the group whose symbol Constantine was inspired to adopt on that fateful evening. And the next day, Constantine's troops marched into battle, outnumbered two-to-one and against tremendous odds, against the army of Maxentius. Less than a decade after the start of the Empire's most fierce and most widespread persecution of Christians, a Roman army marched into battle under the symbol of the Christians... and they were victorious.
Which Christian symbol was it, anyway?
In the popular mind and in pop history, Constantine has become associated with the Cross. Romantic paintings, centuries removed from the actual event, show Constantine gazing towards the heavens, focused on a blazing cross. Constantine's association with the symbol of the Cross has become part of accepted lore in both Eastern and Western culture and, has inspired countless works of art through the centuries. In an odd twist of history, Constantine's cross even became a popular inspirational theme of Protestant fraternal groups in eighteenth and nineteenth century England and America
But the facts aren't quite that clear.
Actually, there are two accounts of the event which differ slightly in details. According to Lactanius, a contemporary of Constantine and Christian who later became the tutor of Constantine's son, Constantine experienced a vivid dream on the night of October 27th. Here is Lactinius' record of the what happened, which he penned in about the year 321:
"Constantine was directed in a dream to cause the heavenly sign to be delineated on the shields of his soldiers, and so to proceed to battle. He did as he had been commanded, and he marked on their shields the letter X, with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round thus at the top, being the cipher of Christ. Having this sign, his troops stood to arms." (Lactanius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors, Ch. 44, Vs. 5)
So, according to Lactanius, who presumably heard this account from the lips of Constantine himself, Constantine experienced a dream wherein he was commanded (by an angel? by Christ himself?) to have the "Chi-Rho"painted on the shields of his soldiers before the battle.
The "Chi-Rho" (pictured at right) was a very ancient symbol of the Christians. In Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written and the most common language of the Church until the third century, the letters Chi and Rho were the first two letters of the Greek title Christos, or Christ. Early Christians adopted these two letters, interlocked in a unique symbol, as a sign of their Savior and as a symbol of their faith. In fact, the "Chi-Rho" was a widespread Christian symbol by the time of Constantine. According to Lactanius, it was this symbol which was shown to Constantine in a dream and which he had his soldiers paint on their shields the following morning before their battle. Conspicuously absent from Lactanius' account is any mention of the Cross. In its place, Lactanius stresses the use of the "Chi-Rho" by Constantine and his soldiers as the "symbol of victory."
The other account of the events was recorded by Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea and another contemporary of (and later advisor to) Constantine, who emphasizes Constantine's adoption of the Cross. In his Ecclesiastical History, which he completed around the year 323, Eusebius recounts the event just as Constantine told him. They start a few days before the Battle of Milvian Bridge, in an unrecorded location where the following occurred:
"He [i.e. Constantine] 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, EN TOUTO NIKA ["In this, conquer"]. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle." (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Ch. 28, Vss. 4-5)
After this initial vision, according to Eusebius, Constantine did not understand its meaning. Later, in his sleep, Constantine had a dream in which Christ himself appeared to him "with the same sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to make a likeness of that sign which he had seen in the heavens, and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies."
Eusebius continues in his account:
"At dawn of day [Constantine] arose, and communicated the marvel to his friends: and then, calling together the workers in gold and precious stones, he sat in the midst of them, and described to them the figure of the sign he had seen, bidding them represent it in gold and precious stones. ... [I]t was made in the following manner: A long spear, overlaid with gold, formed the figure of the cross by means of a transverse bar laid over it. On the top of the whole was fixed a wreath of gold and precious stones; and within this, the symbol of the Savior's name, two letters indicating the name of Christ by means of its initial characters, the letter P being intersected by X in its center ... From the cross-bar of the spear was suspended a cloth, a royal piece, covered with a profuse embroidery of most brilliant precious stones; and which, being also richly interlaced with gold, presented an indescribable degree of beauty to the beholder. This banner was of a square form, and the upright staff, whose lower section was of great length, bore a golden half-length portrait of the pious emperor and his children on its upper part, beneath the trophy of the cross, and immediately above the embroidered banner." (Ibid, Ch. 31)
So, according to Eusebius, Constantine responded to an appeal from Christ himself, who commanded Constantine to construct "the same sign which he had seen in the heavens," i.e., the Cross. In response, Constantine had his workers construct a cross of gold (made with a wooden spear as the vertical shaft, onto which was affixed another, horizontal shaft of wood, all covered in gold) and, at the top of this, the Chi-Rho symbol surrounded by a wreath. To this, Constantine had affixed an embroidered tapestry.
Both Lactanius and Eusebius were contemporaries of Constantine and were in his consort. Both of them were certainly familiar with the story of his marvelous visions and dreams. Both men also, as Christians, were familiar with how the fortunes of Christians had changed 180 degrees under Constantine's leadership. And whether it was the Cross or the "Chi-Rho" which inspired Constantine to victory over Lactanius at the Milvian Bridge on that October day, it's obvious that we modern Catholic Christians should recognize the power and importance of our Christian symbol.