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Saturday, November 3, 2012

1,700th Anniversary of Milvian Bridge: The Most Influential Battle in History

Situated just outside of Rome, and stretched across the Tiber River is an old stone bridge named Ponte Milvio.  Originally built in 206 B.C., this bridge served as a main thoroughfare to the capitol city of the Roman Empire.  It is a peaceful and well-preserved monument that serves as a beautiful ornament to the natural beauty of the Roman countryside. 

But 1,700 years ago this week, the Milvian Bridge was anything but a calm and peaceful place.  In fact, it was the sight of arguably the most important and influential battle in world history: The Battle of Milvian Bridge.

To be able to truly understand and appreciate the importance of this battle, we need to travel back in time to an era when Roman might was at its peak.  The year is 285.  The Roman Empire is under the reign of Emperor Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus (Dioletian).  Emperor Dioletian had just delivered Rome from a period marked by military and social anarchy, and a long-awaited, but unsettling sense of peace had finally fallen upon the great empire.  Unsettling due to the fact that “Barbarians” lay and wait at nearly all of Rome's borders.  Franks and Goths surround the Rhine region in the North, while Persian invaders are a constant threat in the south.  War was on the minds and hearts of nearly every Roman frontiersman.  Emperor Dioletian was also troubled with the lack of cohesion that infested his army and empire  The Western (Latin) world had all but separated itself (culturally and socially) from the Eastern (Greek) portion of the empire, and both seemed content to live without the other.  In addition, a newly emerging movement, originally started by an unlikely but charismatic peasant Jew named Jesus of Nazareth, had begun to spread throughout the empire, angering pagan traditionalists like Emperor Diocletian.

As a result, Emperor Dioletian elected to open a new chapter in Roman History by creating what he saw as a permanent solution to Rome's problems.  By creating what became known as the Roman "Tetrarchy" (rule by 4), Diocletian divided the empire in half (the Western Latin and Eastern Greek), and assigned two rulers to each half: an "Augustus" to rule, with a "Caesar" to assist.  Diocletian assigned himself ruler of the Eastern portion, while his friend, Maximianus, ruled the west.  Under this system, each Augustus/Caesar duo would (ideally) be able to address the needs of the empire with greater efficiency.  And for Diocletian, he would be able to more successfully eradicate the "infection" that was Christianity.

To assist Maximianus in the west as Caesar was a young but very successful military man named Constantius Chlorus.  Chlorus was your typical rags to riches story.  As the son of poor peasants, Chlorus should never have become a great leader, but his military prowess and bravery proved irresistible to the Empire.  Chlorus quickly climbed the ranks of power, eventually becoming second in command (Caesar) of the West.  To keep him loyal, however (you could never TRULY trust a peasant), Diocletian had Chlorus' oldest son, Constantine, live with him in the East. 


As a "hostage"/guest in the East, Constantine grew up seeing first-hand the progression and attempted suppression of this strange new religion called Christianity.  Like many earlier emperors, Diocletian saw Christianity as a vulgar and lame movement of the ignorant masses.  It's doctrine of forgiveness and suppression of worldly wealth surely appealed to the peasantry, making Christianity a possible threat to the security of the empire.  It is therefore no surprise as to why so many Roman leaders sought its eradication.  In addition, Constantine benefited from living in the East by experiencing a culture different than his own.  It would be an experience that would define him for the rest of his life.  

Now, fast forward a few decades.  Diocletian is dead and Rome has (once again) plunged itself into Civil War.  Constantine, who was finally reunited with his father, was busy fighting the "savage" Picts, who were natives of a strange island called Britannia. Sadly, Constantine's father had fallen mortally wounded on the battlefield, leaving his son in change of the army.  Back home in Rome, things were even worse.  A young man named Maxentius had taken control of the capitol city and proclaimed himself the ultimate ruler of the empire.  There was only one problem: Constantine was his father's son, and he (along with his army) didn't want to see Rome fall into the hands of Maxentius.  Long story short, Constantine turned his army towards Rome to "liberate" the empire.

"BY THIS SIGN YOU SHALL CONQUER"   

For nearly 5 years Constantine and Maxentius remained at constant odds with each other over the throne of the Western Roman Empire.  While Constantine had the love and backing of his father’s army, and had proved a very capable military leader, he still lacked one very important asset: control of Rome itself.  Maxentius had not only the backing of the Roman Senate (who would have backed anyone that ruled the city) but he also had the luxury of being on the defensive.  Constantine had the massive burden of having to bring the fight to Rome’s doorsteps. 

Finally in late October of 312, Constantine's army was greeted by the forces of Maxentius on the outskirts of Rome.  The final decisive battle was just days away, and Constantine had to quickly figure out a way for his army (outnumbered 3-1) to defeat the entrenched forces of his foe.  Legend has it that on the eve of the great battle (October 27th) Constantine separated himself from his army to find a moment of solitude and reflection.  It was during those moments that Constantine, according to his historian Eusebius, looked up to the sky and saw a burning cross upon the sun with the Greek letters XP (Or the “Chi-Rho,” the first 2 letters in the Greek word for Christ) entwined with the cross.  Constantine then claimed he heard a voice say to his heart, “In hoc signo vinces” meaning “By this sign, you shall conquer.” 

Knowing that this sign represented Jesus Christ, the hero of Christianity, Constantine took the heavenly manifestation as a sign that the Christian God would lead him to victory.  As a result, Constantine ordered the Chi-Rho image to be placed on the shields and uniforms of his soldiers.  These first "Christian soldiers" would be the first to march into battle with the cross at their vanguard...even though most probably had no clue what it represented. 

THE BATTLE

Very little is known about the actual Battle of Milvian Bridge.  What we do know (again, most coming from Eusebius) is that Maxentius' superior numbers and entrenched forces were unable to stop the onslaught of Constantine's army, which forced Maxentius and him men to flee across the Milvian Bridge.  Unfortunately for Maxentius (and certainly a "divine" intervention to Constantine), the Milvian Bridge suddenly collapsed under the weight of the fleeing army.  Maxentius' body, which had plummeted with his men into the depths of the Tiber, was fished out on Constantine's orders, beheaded, and put on a pike as a trophy for Constantine's triumphant march into Rome (VERY Christian of him). 

But not only did Constantine and a decapitated Maxentius march through Rome's gates on that cold October day 1,700 years ago.  Christianity, which amounted to maybe 10-15% of the population (but was growing fast), received its greatest victory.  With his victory at Milvian Bridge, Constantine (forever after remembered as Constantine the Great) became the premiere leader of Rome.  And remembering his supernatural experience at Milvian Bridge, Constantine granted Christianity the chief seat at his table.  The religion that had primarily been a movement and belief of persecuted peasants was now the sanctioned faith of the most powerful man on the planet.  Eventually the entire western world and billions across the globe would convert to its teachings and embrace the Christ as the one and only true God. 

To truly appreciate the importance of Constantine’s victory at Milvian Bridge one should imagine the world as it would have become had he lost.  Maxentius would have been hailed the supreme emperor of Rome, and the pagan gospel of his ancestors would likely have continued as the premiere faith of the empire.  Christianity would have continued to be an institution that in the eyes of most aristocrats was undesirable and evil.  Its patrons would have most certainly continued to be persecuted and hunted like dogs.  The Nicean Creed, along with the formation of the Papacy (which all took place under Constantine's eye) and other institutions would have never occurred.  This in turn would mean that the invading Germanic tribes, like the Franks and the Goths, would never have become Christians to the massive degree that they became.  

Sure, Christianity was a growing and flourishing movement at the time of Constantine, and one could argue that eventually the faith would have spread even further.  However, there is little doubt that Constantine's stamp of approval gave Christianity an advantage it had never before experienced.  The subsequent evolution and development of Christianity (primarily through its Roman Catholic roots) would never have happened without Constantine and his victory at Milvian Bridge.  As a result, the Christianity we have today would have looked VERY different (if it would have survived at all) without Constantine's initial spark. 

Christians today owe their FAITH to Christ.  His doctrine and teachings are the defining markers in the lives of billions.  With that said, Christians today owe their CHRISTIANITY to Constantine.  The brand of Christianity, with its 1,700 years of evolution and development, all trace back to a random little bridge that spans the Tiber River.  Without Milvian Bridge, it is likely that you, me and every other professing Christian would have a VERY different type of faith today, even if that faith were still Christianity.  Of course, I'm not saying that Constantine was somehow more important than Christ himself; only that his impact (starting at Milvian Bridge) should have its due recognition. 

Milvian Bridge: the most influential battle in world history!

1 comment:

Gerald said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.