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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.