Unique historical events in the Christian religion

 The Battle at Milvian Bridge 

Politics and warfare seem to be the background "wallpaper" for all world religions. The vision of the founders, including Jesus, are soon entangled in seemingly random events that engage the darker sides of society. For Christianity, delivery from being an illegal religion demanded a price that continues to be paid. The drama reached a critical point at a bridge across a river. 

On October 28, 312 c.e. a battle at the Milvian (Mulvian) Bridge between Constantine and Maxentius resulted in victory for Constantine. Many traditions agree on two things -  there was a vision of the Christian Cross superimposed on the sun; and the words  "In This Sign, Conquer", "In hoc signo vinces", were experienced by Constantine. Some say it did not happen this way. 

Constantine went on to become the Emperor of the Roman Empire. His experience with the Christian Way led him to make Christianity legal in the Empire. No longer were believers in Christ to be persecuted. Now the believers were recognized and honored by the imperial government. 

At first seen as a great benefit to the Christian community, entanglements with the political realm and with persons of great secular power soon burdened the church with problems. Today there is debate over the relationship of Church and State and concern over the use of power to enforce religious belief and practice. Christianity has survived as a faith that makes itself at home in all manner of political and military systems with the goal of transforming society in the light the justice and equity taught and practiced by Jesus.  

Pictures of the Milvian Bridge as of January 2006. 

Constantine Constantine was born in Serbia. He had been on a campaign against the Picts in Britain where his father was killed at York. There were six contenders for leadership of the Roman Empire. Constantine marched on Rome and defeated Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge over the Tiber River. 
Milvian Bridge The Milvian Bridge was first built by Gaius Claudius Nero on 206 B. C.  Marcus Aemilius Scaurus rebuilt the bridge in 115 BC. It was and is on the Flaminian Way now in Rome. The Tiber River was part of the western defenses of Rome. The monk Acuzio renewed the bridge in the Middle Ages and in 1429 Pope Martin V asked architect Francisco da Genazzxano to repair what was then a collapsing bridge. More modifications were made in the 18th and 19th centuries. (Wikipedia is source for some of this detail.)  

On December 2, 63 BC Milvian Bridge was the site of an ambush led by Caius Pomptinus, an agent of Cicero, that brought down an attempt by Catilina and the Allobroges to free some slaves to take up arms against the Republic. Source:
Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician by Anthony Everett  2001  page 106
The vision There are several stories of the vision event. One says that Constantine saw the vision earlier in Gaul on his way to Rome. The most widely known is that at noon on the day of battle, Constantine saw a cross of brilliant light imposed over the sun with the words "By This, Conquer" attached.  Eusebius the historian in his "Life" says that Constantine personally told him the story. Some sources say Constantine was a "closet" Christian for much of his life. Others say that  Constantine became a Christian later in life. 
Signs of victory A triumphal arch was built three years after the battle with words about how Constantine saved the republic '"by greatness of mind and impulse of divinity."  After Rome was conquered the troops carried a pennant bearing the monogram of Jesus - the Greek letters "chi" and "rho" standing for the word "Christ".
Council of Nicaea Soon after the victory (313) Constantine issued the Edict of Milan  recognizing Christianity as an acceptable religion, restoring previously confiscated church property and protecting Christian people from persecution. Within several years he sponsored the Council of Nicaea to negotiate a statement of orthodox Christian belief that could be recognized across the Empire. The Nicaean Creed continues to be used today.  

Commentary

Good Politics
(for Constantine)
Constantine, good politician that he was, drew an obvious conclusion. Since the Christians had been around for 300 years; and since they had vitality and energy; and since a symbol of leadership was needed in the Empire, why not adopt the cross as a new sign of purpose and power. 
Recovery 
(for Christianity)
The religion of martyrs and minority status became the state religion with all of the status and signs of power that go with such alliances. It is said that Christianity continues to recover from the trauma that strikes a religion of "grace" when "official recognition" gives the illusion of having earned a place among the mighty of government, commerce and the military. Another perspective is that the Church and its Holy See in Rome became an "international personality" able to help make treaties between nations because of its global and universal interests. For centuries the Church worked with international agreements with other world sovereigns. *
Christianity 
   and Islam
Christianity has, for the most part, supported secular governments that assure freedom of religion. Islam views a theocracy as the appropriate governing authority in a nation where Islam is dominant. The issue of religion/state relationship is closed when a theocracy is in effect. These two perspectives are elemental parts of the present situation in Iran and Iraq.  The long history of Islam/Christian conflict is entering a new chapter. All the more reason for Christian people to take to heart the practice of freedom of religion.  Milvian Bridge Day is a time to reflect on  present day religion/government experience in global societies.  

Milvian Bridge Day, October 28 is being promoted as an annual observance with a focus on the relationship between religions and civil governments. See Milvian Bridge Day web page. 

The address for the Milvian Bridge today is the Piazzale Ponte Milva in Rome, Italy.  Below see a picture of the
as it appeared in January of 2006. The photo is by Alison Roberts, a college student. More pictures.

Popular interest in Constantine is being stimulated by The Da Vinci Code authored by Dan Brown. A helpful sifting out of reality in the story is Truth And Fiction in The Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know About Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine by Bart E. Ehrman - Oxford University Press - 2004. 

* The story of the Holy See as an international agency is developed by Robert John Arauja and John A Lucal in The Journal of Law and Religion, Volume XX, Number 2, 2004-2005

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Update April February 6, 2008

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This is the Milvian Bridge as it appears in 2006. The River Tiber flows just below on the left side of the picture. See more pictures.