The battle of the Milvian Bridge, fought 1703 years ago today - 28th October 312 - is often considered one of the most significant clashes in Roman history. Constantine’s victory over Maxentius gave him control of the western empire, and of the city of Rome itself. In the traditional view, as depicted in Guilio Romano's huge fresco in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican, the battle represents the triumph of a Christian emperor over the pagan gods of old Rome.
And yet the battle is more famous for something which probably did not happen. The so-called ‘Vision of Constantine’, a heavenly apparition sent to the emperor by the Christian God on the eve of battle, supposedly convinced him to convert to the new religion, and laid a path for the spiritual transformation of the empire over the following century. But this vision is not mentioned in the earliest accounts of the battle at all. Two imperial panegyrics given shortly after the event make no reference to celestial manifestations, the pagan historian Zosimus ignores the story, and the Christian writer Lactantius claims instead that the emperor was visited by God in a dream, and instructed to mark the shields of his troops with ‘the heavenly sign’.
It was the churchman Eusebius who first supplied the story of the emperor’s vision. Constantine, he claimed, had witnessed ‘with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription 'Conquer by This’. It is not entirely cynical, I think, to relate this anecdote to the solar apparition that Constantine reportedly saw in Gaul two or three years earlier, described at the time as a sign from the sun god. It does not seem unlikely that the Christian emperor of later years chose to reinterpret this older vision, and install Christ in the place of Apollo.
Maxentius has long had a bad press. His reputation was blackened by his opponents at the time, and Christian historians cast him as a satanic figure and a persecutor of the faithful. In fact, he was not particularly opposed to Christianity, and the influential congregations of North Africa were still crediting him as their saviour from persecution some years later. Ironically, while Maxentius's army at the Milvian Bridge was drawn partly from the heavily Christianised populations of Africa and southern Italy, Constantine's troops came from northern Gaul, the Rhine frontier and Britain, where the new faith had won little ground. An impartial spectator at the battle, asked to identify the 'Christian' army, might well have chosen that of Maxentius.
The site of the battle is not known for certain, but very probably lies on the plain of Tor di Quinto in the broad loop of the river north-east of the bridge (which still stands, although better known for the padlocks left on its railings by amorous couples!). The plain is occupied today by military and police training facilities, and crossed by the Via Flaminia Nuova and Tangenziale Est, while modern apartment blocks loom from the red bluffs of the heights above it to the west.
I visited the area a year ago today, researching my forthcoming book, Battle for Rome, but beyond a rough appreciation for the topography I could gain little sense of that long-distant clash of arms. Imagination, as always, made up the deficit!