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.
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.
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 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.