By Alexis Culotta

A far-reaching vision: 27 October marks the date of ancient Roman Emperor Constantine’s purported “Vision of the Cross,” inextricably linked through history to his victory over his rival Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (28 October 312). This victory awarded Constantine control over the Roman Empire and also, according to accounts by contemporary writers Eusebius of Cæsarea and Lactantius, contributed to Constantine’s shifting attitude toward the acceptance of Christianity.

Seeking to regain control over Rome’s holdings following the division of the empire under Diocletian’s experimental tetrarchy, Constantine’s last great hurdle was the defeat of Maxentius, a confrontation that came to a head at the Milvian Bridge, an essential route into Rome from the north. Constantine’s success was not guaranteed as his army was greatly outnumbered by those prepared to fight for Maxentius.

Constantine, however, was rumored to have experienced a vision, known as the “Vision of the Cross,” which foretold his army’s victory if they fought under the sign of Christ. In one, and arguably more popular, version of the story, as Constantine prepared his troops for battle on its eve, 27 October, he supposedly was encouraged to emblazon his troop’s shields with the Chi Rho, the superimposition of two Greek letters used to symbolize Christ, to protect them and ensure victory. In an alternate version, Constantine experienced this divine intervention the day of the battle: looking up into the heavens as his troops began to march, Constantine supposed witnessed a cross along with the Greek phrase “en toutō nika,” which roughly translates to “in this sign [you will] conquer.”

Whether or not this moment of divine inspiration occurred, it is certain that Constantine proved victorious: The Battle of the Milvian Bridge was a decisive and relatively quick triumph for Constantine, while Maxentius died by drowning in the Tiber River.

Workshop of Raphael (Giulio Romano and Giovanni Francesco Penni), The Vision of the Cross, c.1520. Vatican Palace.

Detail of Constantine, The Vision of the Cross.

Workshop of Raphael (Giulio Romano and Giovanni Francesco Penni), The Battle at the Milvian Bridge (Pons Milvius), c. 1520. Vatican Palace.

Detail of Constantine,The Battle at the Milvian Bridge (Pons Milvius).

Detail, Arch of Constantine, Constantine’s Troops Pushing Maxentius’ Army into the Tiber (note small representation of bridge at left), 315 CE.

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