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C. Gregory                                         
Lactantius, "Constantine's Victory and Conversion


  This excerpt recounts the final battle between Constantine and Maxentius for control of the Roman Empire.  Maxentius was in the city of Rome itself, while Constantine's army was encamped outside the city.  Maxentius's forces outnumbered those of Constantine, and he was winning the war.  However, Constantine "with steady courage" kept his forces from being routed and camped at the foot of the Milvian Bridge.  There he had a dream, in which he was told that if he placed "the cipher of Christ," a modified X, on the shields of his forces, they would defeat Maxentius.  Constantine did as the dream directed, and won the battle. They were helped by a riot of the populace within Rome, as the people rejected Maxentius.  In reward, Constantine was awarded the title of Maximus (Emperor) by the Senate of Rome.  
            This story recounts the first time a Roman Emperor acknowledged the power of Christianity; in fact, Constantine was the first emperor to convert to the new faith. As the battle took place in 312, just three centuries after the Christian faith began, the use of Christian symbols in the battle, and the willingness of Constantine to convert, shows that the relatively new faith had become very powerful in Rome.  The Roman state, and in particular the Emperor as its head, was traditionally tied to the pagan Roman religion; in fact, the Emperors were recognized as living deities.  That one Emperor was willing to convert to a monotheistic religion (and thus deny part of his own power by rejecting his own divinity) was a radical shift in Roman thinking. 
            The story also presents Constantine as a particularly courageous, wise ("a mind prepared for every event") leader whom the people trusted, unlike Maxentius, whom Lactantius describes as "reviled."  Constantine will later be called the Great, and credited with rescuing the Roman Empire; by emphasizing how outnumbered Constantine was and therefore how impressive was his victory; Lactantius is implying that Constantine was great even before he became emperor.  Thus Lactantius emphasizes the bravery of Maxentius's troops as well as Constantine; the author wants the victory of Constantine to be recognized as a hard won effort.
            Clearly to fourth century Christians, such as Lactantius, the victory at Milvian Bridge was more than a victory for the faith; it was also a miracle.  It is clear that Lactantius is himself a Christian; his tone is approving of Constantine's decision, and he says at one point of the battle that the "hand of the Lord prevailed."  Yet it is also apparent that Christianity still had to compete with the older pagan Roman beliefs; both Maxentius and the Senate consult the Sibylline books for a prophecy about the battle.  Because Constantine viewed his dream as a prophecy as well, this document reveals that early Christians and pagan Romans shared some religious beliefs, such as that of prophecy and divine intervention.  Furthermore, both pagan and Christian Romans believed that their gods or God wanted military victory for their side.  Neither seems to recognize the concept of a pacifist God.  For early Roman Christians, the martial character of the Roman culture in general was continued on, even after they converted.