How We Got Here

Battle of Milvian Bridge

The Arch of Constantine commemorates the emperor Constantine's victory over Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian bridge on October 28, 312. By virtue of its function as a triumphal arch, it stands along the route taken by Constantine when he entered the city of Rome in triumph on the day following the battle. However, this arch did not yet exist. Only in the mid-summer of 315 (July 25, to be exact) was the arch in a state of completion so that it could be dedicated by the Senate and Roman people to the emperor who, "through divine inspiration and magnanimity", had freed "the state of a tyrant as well as his followers". While most of the artwork upon this triumphal arch consists of pieces taken from other, earlier imperial monuments -- the Forum of Trajan and a triumphal arch erected for Marcus Aurelius in 176, for example -- there are pieces that are Constantinian in date, and one of these (a frieze running around all four sides of the arch) has a scene depicting the battle of the Milvian bridge. In this scene showing the decisive encounter, we see Constantine's troops victorious and driving the defeated soldiers of Maxentius backwards into the Tiber river. Amid the confused waters of the Tiber, Maxentius' heavily armed troops are drowning. This is happening because the bridge was cut prior to the battle. As we learn from written sources, Maxentius himself was among those to drown. His lifeless body was later recovered; the defeated emperor's head was severed, stuck upon a pole, and paraded about the Italian peninsula and north Africa so as to make manifest Constantine's victory. All of this was to happen after the battle, however, and it is the moment at which the battle has turned distinctly in Constantine's favour that the artist has chosen to represent.

The battle of the Milvian bridge derives its importance from its legendary connection to Constantine's conversion to Christianity. Christian authors, such as Lactantius (a rhetorician who had been teaching Latin at the imperial capital of Nicomedia towards the beginning of the fourth century) and Eusebius (a bishop in charge of the community of Caesarea in Palestine) variously report the vision that Constantine had before the decisive battle of the Milvian bridge. Nonetheless, their different accounts are unanimous about the emperor's envisioning a Christian symbol in the heavens. Whether this vision was a solar halo or a hallucination induced by stress or a genuine miracle is a question that must remain unanswered. In the end, the battle and its preceding omen came to be seen as a turning point in Rome's conversion to Christianity through the person of her first Christian emperor. When Constantine celebrated his triumph, he did not conclude it in time-honoured fashion by ascending the Capitoline Alley so as to sacrifice to Jupiter Optimus Maximus.

The battle also possesses importance because of its place within Constantine's move towards monopolizing power within the Mediterranean basin. With this battle, Constantine became undisputed master of the whole western half of the Mediterranean. The emperor Diocletian (284-305) had established a system of collegial rule by four emperors in 293, and this system had continued after his abdication in 305. However, the system had broken down by mid-306, and by 308 there were six individuals laying claim to the title of emperor. By 313, the number was reduced to two: Constantine in the West and Licinius in the East. By 324, Constantine was alone supreme ruler of the Roman world. Within this context, the battle of the Milvian bridge appears as the opportunity for Constantine to aggrandize his position. Italy and the upper reaches of the Danube constituted a useful stepping-stone for conquest of the Balkans and the Near East. Moreover, possession of Rome gave Constantine the symbolic edge as emperor: he held the old capital of empire and could now claim supremacy in rank over his colleagues. To conclude this sample, let us attend to the significance of the location of this commemorative monument. The Arch of Constantine lies along the street that passes from the Circus Maximus to the Roman Forum between the Caelian and Palatine hills. This is to say that it lies directly on the route used by triumphal processions as they moved in counter-clockwise fashion about the city of ancient Rome. Reflecting further on the arch's monumental context, we find that there is a juxtaposition between the victory monuments of the first Flavian dynasty (Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian) and that of the second Flavian dynasty (Constantine). Both Vespasian and Constantine gained control of Rome through civil war. Moreover, the Arch of Titus celebrates the sack of Jerusalem, whereas the Arch of Constantine recalls the aid given to a Roman emperor by that deity whose temple had been desecrated by Roman forces during the fighting of 66-70. The Arch of Constantine is rich with political and religious significance, and is appropriate to its place along the triumphal route.


The Edict of Milan

Constantine Augustus
and Licinius Augustus

The persecution of Christians ended in 313 when Constantine of the West and Licinius of the East proclaimed the Edict of Milan, which established a policy of religious freedom for all.

This is an English translation of the edict:

When I, Constantine Augustus, as well as I, Licinius Augustus, fortunately met near Mediolanurn (Milan), and were considering everything that pertained to the public welfare and security, we thought, among other things which we saw would be for the good of many, those regulations pertaining to the reverence of the Divinity ought certainly to be made first, so that we might grant to the Christians and others full authority to observe that religion which each preferred; whence any Divinity whatsoever in the seat of the heavens may be propitious and kindly disposed to us and all who are placed under our rule. And thus by this wholesome counsel and most upright provision we thought to arrange that no one whatsoever should be denied the opportunity to give his heart to the observance of the Christian religion, of that religion which he should think best for himself, so that the Supreme Deity, to whose worship we freely yield our hearts) may show in all things His usual favor and benevolence. Therefore, your Worship should know that it has pleased us to remove all conditions whatsoever, which were in the rescripts formerly given to you officially, concerning the Christians and now any one of these who wishes to observe Christian religion may do so freely and openly, without molestation. We thought it fit to commend these things most fully to your care that you may know that we have given to those Christians free and unrestricted opportunity of religious worship. When you see that this has been granted to them by us, your Worship will know that we have also conceded to other religions the right of open and free observance of their worship for the sake of the peace of our times, that each one may have the free opportunity to worship as he pleases; this regulation is made we that we may not seem to detract from any dignity or any religion.

Moreover, in the case of the Christians especially we esteemed it best to order that if it happens anyone heretofore has bought from our treasury from anyone whatsoever, those places where they were previously accustomed to assemble, concerning which a certain decree had been made and a letter sent to you officially, the same shall be restored to the Christians without payment or any claim of recompense and without any kind of fraud or deception, Those, moreover, who have obtained the same by gift, are likewise to return them at once to the Christians. Besides, both those who have purchased and those who have secured them by gift, are to appeal to the vicar if they seek any recompense from our bounty, that they may be cared for through our clemency. All this property ought to be delivered at once to the community of the Christians through your intercession, and without delay. And since these Christians are known to have possessed not only those places in which they were accustomed to assemble, but also other property, namely the churches, belonging to them as a corporation and not as individuals, all these things which we have included under the above law, you will order to be restored, without any hesitation or controversy at all, to these Christians, that is to say to the corporations and their conventicles: providing, of course, that the above arrangements be followed so that those who return the same without payment, as we have said, may hope for an indemnity from our bounty. In all these circumstances you ought to tender your most efficacious intervention to the community of the Christians, that our command may be carried into effect as quickly as possible, whereby, moreover, through our clemency, public order may be secured. Let this be done so that, as we have said above, Divine favor towards us, which, under the most important circumstances we have already experienced, may, for all time, preserve and prosper our successes together with the good of the state. Moreover, in order that the statement of this decree of our good will may come to the notice of all, this rescript, published by your decree, shall be announced everywhere and brought to the knowledge of all, so that the decree of this, our benevolence, cannot be concealed.

* From Lactantius, De Mort. Pers., ch. 48. opera, ed. 0. F. Fritzsche, II, p 288 sq.
(Bibl Patr. Ecc. Lat. XI).


Flavius Valerius Constantius (c. 285-337), Constantine the Great, was the son of Emperor Constantius I and his concubine, Helena. When his father died in July 306, Constantine became emperor of Britain, Gaul (now France), and Spain. Gradually he gained control of the entire Roman empire.

Constantine I invaded Italy in 312. Constantine claimed that he had a dream in which he saw the Chi-Rho symbol (a monogram composed of the first two Greek letters for the word Christ, X and P) and the words, "By this sign you will conquer." The holy monogram was painted on the shields of his soldiers. Constantine's action had an "...unfortunate and abiding effect; for the first time Christ became a god of battles."

Just outside of Rome, Constantine won the Battle of Milvian (Mulvian) Bridge against Maxentius. He was made senior Augustus by the Roman senate, which welcomed him. In 313, Constantine and Licinius, who married Constantine's sister Constantia, agreed to end the persecution of Christians and issued the Edict of Milan. Constantine was ruler of the West; Licinius became ruler of the East after defeating Maximim.

Trouble arose between the two rulers. Licinius, a pagan who never was a Christian, began to restrict the public life of the Eastern churches. As a "champion of Christian faith," Constantine invaded Licinius' territories in 323 and forced Licinius to abdicate in 324. Licinius was executed. "Constantine became sole ruler of the empire, and the churches awoke to find that the cause of Rome and the cause of Christ had become one."

Constantine was involved in ecclesiastical politics, including the Donatist and Arian controversies. He convened and presided over the first "ecumenical" council at Nicea in 325 to respond to the teachings of Arius. The bishops (clergy), most of whom had been persecuted for their Christianity and all but six of them from the East, created a foundation for orthodoxy by establishing the anti-Arian Nicene Creed, (to which minor changes were made by the Council of Constantinople in 381).

Constantine was baptized by Eusebius of Nicomedia in 337, just before he died. (Deathbed baptisms were common at the time.) During his life he had brought Christianity from the position of being a persecuted minority to the dominant power in religious life in the Roman Empire.


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