I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that there is another day, so close to Reformation Day, All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day, of importance in the history of Christendom.
And that day is today.
Today marks the 1703rd anniversary of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, at which Constantine defeated Maxentius and by which he gained control of the Western part of the Roman Empire.
There are important account of the battle in the writings of both Eusebius and Lactantius. Here is that of Lactantius, from On the Deaths of the Persecutors 44:
And now a civil war broke out between Constantine and Maxentius. Although Maxentius kept himself within Rome, because the soothsayers had foretold that if he went out of it he should perish, yet he conducted the military operations by able generals. In forces he exceeded his adversary; for he had not only his father’s army, which deserted from Severus, but also his own, which he had lately drawn together out of Mauritania and Italy. They fought, and the troops of Maxentius prevailed. At length Constantine, with steady courage and a mind prepared for every event, led his whole forces to the neighbourhood of Rome, and encamped them opposite to the Milvian bridge. The anniversary of the reign of Maxentius approached, that is, the sixth of the kalends of November, and the fifth year of his reign was drawing to an end.
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 Χ, with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round thus at the top, being the cipher of Christ. Having this sign (ΧР ), his troops stood to arms. The enemies advanced, but without their emperor, and they crossed the bridge. The armies met, and fought with the utmost exertions of valour, and firmly maintained their ground. In the meantime a sedition arose at Rome, and Maxentius was reviled as one who had abandoned all concern for the safety of the commonweal; and suddenly, while he exhibited the Circensian games on the anniversary of his reign, the people cried with one voice, “Constantine cannot be overcome!” Dismayed at this, Maxentius burst from the assembly, and having called some senators together, ordered the Sibylline books to be searched. In them it was found that:—
“On the same day the enemy of the Romans should perish.”
Led by this response to the hopes of victory, he went to the field. The bridge in his rear was broken down. At sight of that the battle grew hotter. The hand of the Lord prevailed, and the forces of Maxentius were routed. He fled towards the broken bridge; but the multitude pressing on him, he was driven headlong into the Tiber.
This destructive war being ended, Constantine was acknowledged as emperor, with great rejoicings, by the senate and people of Rome.
Perhaps today, then, if you’re not an Anabaptist, you will raise a pint (an imperial one, natch) to the memory of IMPERATOR CAESAR FLAVIVS CONSTANTINVS PIVS FELIX INVICTVS AVGVSTVS.
E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.
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