Their 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.
Maxentius 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.
Yet 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.
But 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.
Behind 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 perish."
Maxentius 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.
The 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."
But 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….
As 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.
Triumphant 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 repeatedly…..
The 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.
December 7, 2001
An excerpt from the highly recommended Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church, a 2000-Year History by H.W. Crocker III.