In hoc signo vinces A.D. 312
H.W. Crocker III
the legions had grown overconfident.
Augustus, the swift-moving Constantine, had led them over the Alps
and, as he had done against the Picts, the Franks, and other enemies
of the empire, so now he led them to victory after victory in a
civil war – civil war being practically a tradition these days –rolling
up armies loyal to Maxentius, the young, decadent usurper in Rome.
had risen to power promising to keep Rome free of taxes and had
kept power by seeing off the mightiest of armies – whether led by
Caesar Severus, or by the emperors Galerius and Domitius Alexander.
He had even faced down his own father, the former emperor Maximian
and the greatest of recent emperors, Diocletian, who had divided
the responsibilities of the empire only to have Maxentius seize
its capital city.
now, on a path parallel to the River Po, Constantine’s legions had
thrown back Maxentius’s armies again and again, smashing his shock
troops, the heavily armored cavalry known as the katafraktoi.
Constantine had a plan to neutralize them. His infantry trapped
them in a pocket of legionnaires, where the horses could neither
maneuver nor charge; then the foot-soldiers, holding four-foot-high
shields close by the helmets, slashed at the horses’ unprotected
fetlocks. The steel-encased cavalrymen were hurled to the ground,
where Constantine’s men butchered them.
while he conquered, Constantine was forgiving to the civilians who
lay in his path. Word of his generosity spread. Now, after a march
down the Adriatic coast, he had camped at the gates of Rome, a short
siege away from restoring the ancient seat of imperial grandeur
to the Western empire, his Western empire.
Rome’s walls, an indifferent and serene Maxentius awaited the defeat
of yet another challenger. Protected by his Praetorian Guard, he
serenely pursued his pastimes of drinking and sleeping with other
men’s wives, knowing (had not the auguries foretold it?) that Constantine
was marching to his doom. The very words of the omen in the Sibylline
books had stated it clearly: "Tomorrow the enemy of Rome will
was making sure of it. At the Circus Maximus, the people had publicly
mocked him with jeers of "Are you a coward?" for relying
on the strength of Rome’s defenses and not taking the field against
Constantine. While Maxentius was popular with the common people,
he was resented by many of the aristocracy. They hated his demands
for bribes, his importuning of their wives for his private sport.
Some remembered the martyrdom of Sophronia, who had killed herself
rather than obey Maxentius’s summons to leave her husband’s bed
for his own.
time would come when, with the marriage of soldiering and the Catholic
Church, chivalry would be born and, in Edmund Burke’s phrase, "ten
thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge
even a look that threatened" a woman "with insult."
that time had not yet arrived. And if Constantine was the rescuer
of Sophronia’s metaphorical sisters, it was not for their sake that
he acted, but for Rome’s and his own….
Constantine rode victorious into the city, Maxentius’s head, raised
on spear point, followed him – a trophy for the conqueror, a warning
to rivals, a target for the spit of the Roman mob, and something
more than all this. For Constantine gave no thanks to the Roman
gods. If Maxentius was their champion, here was his head.
Constantine, Augustus Maximus of the empire, was about to inaugurate
a revolution in the history of the world. Shortly after his victory,
Constantine and his fellow Augustus, Licinius, met in Milan to discuss
imperial problems. Constantine’s priority was a guarantee of religious
freedom, which became known as the Edict of Milan. It is the first
legal affirmation of religious liberty, issued more than 1,400 years
before a similar idea would be promulgated in America. But what
is equally interesting about the Edict of Milan is that it mentions
only one specific religion – Christianity – and it is mentioned
Edict of Milan, issued by two professing pagans, was the first royal
proclamation in a series that would establish Catholic Christianity
as the religion of empire, an empire of which it remains the living
embodiment, from a beginning that stretches before all time.
excerpt from the highly recommended Triumph:
The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church, a 2000-Year
History by H.W. Crocker III.
© 2001 H.W. Crocker III
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