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Constantine's Vision of the Cross | Battle of Milvian Bridge

Constantine's Vision of the Cross

In 312, Emperor Constantine was victorious over his rival, Maxentius, at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, on the banks of the Tiber. According to legend, the victory was due to a vision that appeared to Constantine during his sleep, the night before the decisive fight.

"By this sign you will overcome" said the angel

The night before the battle, a sign came from heaven announcing to Constantine his future victory over Maxentius. A splendid fresco from the Church of San Francesco, in Arezzo, painted by Piero della Francesca, represents the scene. Constantine is resting in his tent, a valet is standing by his side. The space is invaded by a very strong light that comes from an angel descended from heaven, which can be seen at the top and to the left of the fresco. This figure descends towards the future sleeping emperor and, with outstretched arm, sends him a message.

The texts tell us that the angel pronounces these words: "By this sign you will overcome. This "sign", according to Lactantius, is an X crossed by the letter I inflected towards its summit. Some historians see it as an arrangement of a pagan symbol; others, the Constantinian monogram interpreted as the first two Greek letters of the name of Christ.

Constantine unites the Roman Empire

The next day, Constantine ordered his soldiers to reproduce this sign on their shield. Piero della Francesca represents the various episodes of the battle: on the banks of the Tiber, Maxentius flees on his horse and, on the other side of the river, the army of Constantine advances victoriously behind its leader, who brandishes a small white crucifix.

The following day, we find the body of Maxentius in the waters of the Tiber, and Constantine makes a triumphal entry into Rome; he is now alone at the head of the Western Roman Empire. However, he still has to establish his supremacy over the entire Roman Empire. Indeed, after 312, he still has to eliminate an enemy in the East - it is the Emperor Licinius, who designates his own son, Caesar, as heir to power after his death.

In 324, Constantine defeated Licinius in Adrianople then in Chrysopolis and had him and his son put to death. Remaining only emperor, Constantine designates his son, Constans, as his successor. The Empire is reunited and imperial power becomes hereditary.

The end of persecutions

The other major consequence of these events is the conversion of Constantine to Christianity. As early as 311, Emperor Galerius had an edict proclaimed that Christianity is recognized, provided that Christians do not come and disturb the order and pray to their God for the prosperity of the emperor. In 313, the famous Edict of Milan was enacted, not by Constantine, but by Licinius, who at that time sought the support of the Christian populations of his provinces. Surely Constantine only approved of these texts.

It is attested by the study of coins that Constantine does not incline very clearly towards Christianity until from 320. If he converts in 312, he will not receive baptism until the eve of his death in 337. Is his rapprochement with Christianity linked to his fight against Licinius who continues, despite the edict he himself proclaimed, to persecute Christians in the East?

Was Constantine's victory at Adrianople, as Christian tradition has it, a victory against paganism? Not really since the emperor does not seek to impose Christianity as the official religion and gives Orientals the possibility of freely practicing their beliefs.

Some visions of historical significance

In the bible

God appears repeatedly to tell the characters about upcoming events. The most famous vision evoked in the sacred book is that of Abraham: as he expects to die without an heir, God visits him to show him his future descendants, the entire Hebrew people. "Look up to the sky, and count the stars if you can count them. Such will be your seed. Likewise, to address Moses and give him the mission of bringing the Hebrews out of Egypt, God sends an angel who manifests himself in the famous Burning Bush: "The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire, in the middle of a bush. Moses looked, and behold, the bush was all on fire, and the bush was not consumed. " God then calls out to him by name and makes himself known to him:" Moses! I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”.

In Roman antiquity

The cases of visions during sleep are very common and usually serve as omen. Thus Julius Caesar, the day before his death, is warned of the danger he is running: he sees himself in a dream, "flying above the clouds and shaking the hand of Jupiter", according to the testimony of the Roman historian Suetonius. The same author also describes the Emperor Galba, successor to Nero, warned of his own assassination. When he was to offer a pearl necklace to the goddess Fortuna, he changes his mind and ultimately dedicates it to Venus. Fortuna then appears to him in a dream, "complains of being frustrated with the present that was intended for her and threatens to snatch from him in turn the gifts she had given him".