Constantine’s Vision (312 CE)

Does it matter if the history we know was fabricated? Pfft! Of course it matters. The past teaches us not to repeat mistakes! The past teaches us who we are, etc.! But, really—once history is old enough to become the dust we walk on, what difference does it make in our daily lives if the things we know are not the things that were? How far from the truth can we wander and not get hurt by our unawareness? And even if we want to know the truth, are there any trustworthy sources?

I’m pouring my fascination with these questions into the alternate history novel I’m working on. As part of my research into big shifts in religious order, I recently watched a History Channel documentary series called Secrets of Christianity produced in 2010 by New York Times bestselling author and Emmy-winner for Outstanding Investigative Journalism Simcha Jacobovici. The episode about Constantine the Great (272–337 CE), who legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313 through the Edict of Milan, speaks to my question about trustworthy sources.

Constantine left for posterity a flattering biography written by Christian Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea. He also built an arch in the middle of Rome, mere feet away from the Coliseum, to celebrate his victory against the Emperor Maxentius (278–312 CE), a victory sealed with the Battle of the Milvian Bridge over the River Tiber, north of Rome.

The Milvian Bridge, Italy

The Milvian Bridge over the River Tiber, Italy

But that battle wasn’t like any other. The day before it, Constantine, a pagan, had a vision (emphasis added):

And while he was thus praying with fervent entreaty, a most marvelous sign appeared to him from heaven, the account of which it might have been hard to believe had it been related by any other person. But since the victorious emperor himself long afterwards declared it to the writer of this history, when he was honored with his acquaintance and society, and confirmed his statement by an oath, who could hesitate to accredit the relation, especially since the testimony of aftertime has established its truth? He 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, CONQUER BY THIS. 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 of Caesarea, Life of Constantine, Chapter 28

That night, Jesus himself appeared in Constantine’s dream and told him that, even though outnumbered, he would win the battle. By the sign of the cross he would win. In the morning, Constantine ordered his soldiers to paint their banners and shields with the symbol of the cross. He then carried his army to victory.

If this story is true, then Constantine is technically a prophet for receiving divine signs and having Jesus appear to him. Yet Constantine the Great is a saint only in the Eastern Orthodox Church, while in the Catholic Church he hasn’t been canonized. A closer look at the emperor’s later years, when he killed his firstborn son, Crispus, and his second wife, Fausta, complicates the picture of a saintly Constantine even more.

Raphael, c.1508, Museum of Vatican, Rome

Raphael, c.1508, Museum of Vatican, Rome, Italy

Is there any doubt about what happened at the Milvian Bridge in 312 CE? A close look at the archeology left behind points to yes.

The Arch of Constantine, Rome, Italy

The Arch of Constantine, Rome, Italy

The Arch of Constantine was finished in 315 CE, three years after Jesus appeared to Constantine. It was topped with a bronze statue of the emperor riding in Apollo’s chariot. There are no crosses on banners and shields, and no images of Jesus. But there are carvings of pagan gods. The arch is decorated with eight columns, each topped with a statue of a Dacian nobleman repurposed from Emperor Trajan’s Forum (built during the 2nd century CE). The eight statues of Dacians (of which seven survive today, plus one replica from the 18th century) were probably picked because they looked like magi wearing the Phrygian caps of the Mithraic priesthood (a cult many Roman officers belonged to in the 4th century CE). Constantine had his name carved with the words “divinely inspired” on the frontispiece, but it was the giant statue of Apollo that overlooked the arch.

Simcha Jacobovici, with help from archeologists and professors from all over the world, proposes the theory that Constantine fabricated the episode of his vision of the cross years after the fact in order to win the allegiance of the Christian soldiers in Maxentius’s army. To secure the help of Roman officers in eliminating other claims to his crown, he also embraced their Mithraic cult, all the while worshipping the sun-god Apollo, the supreme god of the empire at the time. He then mixed all the cults into one in order to bring about unity among his subjects.

Those cults were not that different to begin with. The Mediterranean sun-god Mithras was worshipped for giving his blood for the eternal salvation of the souls of his followers. He died and was resurrected. Apollo had a halo around his head, soon to be lent to Jesus in Christian depictions of the Savior. Mithras’s birthday was December 25, the beginning of Saturnalia—soon to become Jesus’s birthday, even though there is no note of it in the Bible. The new capital of the empire was named—as not to take sides—not after Jesus or Mithras or Apollo, but after Constantine. In the heart of Constantinople, a huge column stood, with a bronze statue of Apollo bearing Constantine’s face on top and a relic of the true cross inside.

In Remembering Constantine at the Milvian Bridge, Prof. Raymond Van Dam of University of Michigan states that in Bishop Eusebius’s first account of the battle there is no mention of divine visions and dreams. Constantine’s biographer only learned about them thirteen years after the battle, at a banquet the emperor held for the Christian church leaders. Constantine convinced Bishop Eusebius to rewrite history and Eusebius was happy to comply with the request of an emperor who endorsed the Christian faith.

It was not the first time Constantine reshaped history to suit his needs. He rewrote Maxentius’s rule in the books, turning a good emperor into a Christian persecutor and an incompetent tyrant. Recent discoveries by, among others, archeologists at the University of Rome La Sapienza show that Maxentius never oppressed Christians, and that many Roman buildings attributed to Constantine had been in reality erected by Maxentius.

It’s no surprise that the history emperors left behind is not reliable. But even when investigative archeologists have a strong case to revisit that history, does it matter to a world built on those centuries-old tales? For myself, I’ll answer yes.

13 thoughts on “Constantine’s Vision (312 CE)

  1. The claim that the vision of Constantine was added 13 years after the battle and so is a rewriting of history ignores the fact that we also have an account of the vision in Lactantius *On the Deaths of the Persecutors* 44.5, which was written just after the Edict of Milan. So your claim is not correct. There are multiple other errors in this article – we have no evidence that Constantine was ever a Mithraist, Mithras was not associated with Dec 25th and the idea that the Dacian figures recycled for the Arch of Constantine were chose because of their hats is fanciful. Simcha Jacobovici may have won an Emmy but he’s a notorious crackpot theorist and not a reliable source of anything much. Constantine may not have had a sophisticated grasp of Christianity, especially initially, but the idea that he was “really” a pagan does not stand up to scrutiny.

    • Could be. We all can choose which experts to listen to, since none of us have access to primary sources. Lactantius was a close adviser of Constantine’s who helped the emperor define his religious policies for ruling the empire. Simcha Jacobovici, like all documentarians, will pick and choose his data to prove his point. But the point of my article was a question: is it plausible that Constantine’s vision was a device used by an absolute monarch in order to consolidate power over a fractured empire (look around you today and see if this idea applies in the real world) or was it a sign from the gods meant to influence the events on the ground (again, look around and tell me how that works in the real world)?

  2. Great article, as always, Roxana. For me, after research, soul searching and continued questioning, truth begins where what we think we ‘know’ ends. Truth is in my heart, what I believe, what millions have believed and always will. As much as we are learning about how history has been rewritten, we are also learning how many stories, tales and myths, were/are true, or at least that they happened, we’ll never know full truth because we weren’t there, but understanding the politics of the time, the egos involved, the many many agendas, the essences of ‘truth’ is what rises from that dust and lives on in hearts of believers.
    Great conversation Roxana. Keep writing. Mindy

    • Thanks, Mindy. It is this transition you’re talking about – from seeing to believing – that fascinates me. I think lots of great stories live in between. A rich gray area for a writer to explore.

    • Quote: “For me, after research, soul searching and continued questioning, truth begins where what we think we ‘know’ ends. Truth is in my heart, what I believe, what millions have believed and always will.”

      I could not have expressed it any better than that. This is exactly how I feel. One might ask: what is truth! Science continually changes its maxims so truth appears to be of a temporary nature. Historical truth appears to hinge upon the findings and research of archaeologists at any particular time and open to re-interpretation with later findings.

      A very long time ago a governor in a backwater of Palestine asked this same question: what is truth? For me it is not a “what” but rather a divine Person which cannot be proven with scientific data or historical findings but rather embraced in the inner person. And yes.. it’s a very intimate and private affair.

      Anyway… I appreciated Mindy’s response. AND I enjoyed the blog, Roxana. You keep us thinking and that’s a good thing.

  3. The Church (i.e. Catholic Church) did not have a formal canonization process in that era of history. In the Eastern and Oriental Churches, Ss Constantine and Helen are usually commemorated together. On the Maronite calendar, for example, the joint commemoration is May 21st. St Constantine, pray for us.

    Interesting blog post, Roxana.

    • May 21st is a big day in Romania too. I celebrate it every year with friends and family whose names are Constantin or Elena. You can imagine my fascination with the history behind such an important date.

      • Your entire theme for the blog is most interesting. Take the last entry as an example. How can you know for a certainty that “any” written history is accurate? If you weren’t personally there at the time in which the event occurred, how can you know that what has been recorded is accurate? Even ‘investigative archaeologists revisiting some recorded historical events have their own prejudices and preconceived opinions and will doubtless put their unique spin on events. In addition, regardless of their qualifications they might still unwittingly misrepresent the events and/or misinterpret them. In the final analysis, it seems to me to come down to a measured degree of faith that we decide to put into the histories (whether original or re-interpreted) passed on to us in whatever form. Furthermore, what is considered “right” at the present time, may indeed be found to be false a few years later by the very same scientists that made the claims in the first place. Early on in my “Orthodox journey” (for want of a better term), I discovered St Vincent of Lerins. He is best known for his Commonitorium, which he wrote as an aid to distinguish the true teachings of the Church from the confusions of heretics. His most memorable saying is that all Christians must follow that Faith which has been believed “everywhere, always, and by all.” In other words, universality of belief is a strong indicator of truth (yes… not necessarily complete truth but an indicator nevertheless). This position, like any other, can be argued. For me, I choose to stay with what most have believed, everywhere and in all times.

        Roxana, keep on writing. You really have a talent and we enjoy reading your material.

        • Thank you so much for posting, Wayne. I’m excited to have such engaging conversations about history.
          What is a trustworthy source is one of my biggest questions. In this post, I called what I learned in that documentary a theory proposed by investigative archeologists. The two strongest arguments in its favor, which I chose for this post from among a few others, are the arch with no Christian marks and the revised biography of Constantine. As I highlighted in that quote by Eusebius, the bishop himself leaves some doubt, but defers to the emperor, who swore an oath as to the truth of his vision. These two things (the arch and Vita Constantini) come as close as we can get to valid evidence about that distant time. And they do pose an interesting question about what happened.
          I had a line in my post (but deleted it) that went something like: “When will the British give up on austerity and start the production of the Tardis?” Wouldn’t that be nice?

          • Quote: “Prof. Raymond Van Dam of University of Michigan states that in Bishop Eusebius’s first account of the battle there is no mention of divine visions and dreams. Constantine’s biographer only learned about them thirteen years after the battle, at a banquet the emperor held for the Christian church leaders. Constantine convinced Bishop Eusebius to rewrite history and Eusebius was happy to comply…”

            In a sense, the above illustrates what I was trying to question (but poorly) in my previous entry. There are so many mitigating factors that one cannot be 100% certain the good professor “got it right.” How do we know that we have “all” of Bp Eusebius’ writings and if we have to answer that we cannot, then how can the professor say unequivocally that were no mentions of dreams or visions in his writings? He’s making a calculated guess but in the end… it’s a judgment call. And who says that the emperor convinced Eusebius to rewrite the history… Raymond Van Dam?

            Did 300 Spartans really manage to hold off the million-man Persian army seven days? Says who? On what authority? And the list could go on indefinitely as you can well imagine. At some point, we’re forced to place our trust somewhere… with some “authority” based upon our own best judgment after doing our own research. But in the end… we could all be wrong…eh? (he said in his best Canadian)

            • When I said that the emperor convinced Eusebius to rewrite the history, I simplified. In the documentary, Prof. Van Dam actually shows the texts he compares. I have to go back and see which library he was in and if the texts were originals or copies from later centuries. But I did provide links to all the info compiled in these posts, so that people can check for themselves.
              Indeed, your question about whose authority to eventually trust is key to this discussion. I’m going to write a post about it starting from Barbara Tuchman’s assertion in “Practicing History” that only primary sources should ever be considered by real historians. Since I have no access to primary sources myself, I’m forced to use other historians’ works, and assume they are doing their job. Also, I usually look at more than one historian when I check a subject.
              Now, the fact that I’m not a real historian, just passionate about history, could disqualify me from ever talking about the past. But I find the act of researching and sharing very rewarding, so I think I’ll continue. Conversations such as this make me question what I know even more. They make me grow. Thank you, Wayne!

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