This painting, by an unknown artist inspired by Giulio Romano (c. 1499-1546), strives to re-create the story of Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306-337) and his pivotal battle at Milvian Bridge in the year 312. The battle was a milestone for both political and religious reasons, as it marked Constantine’s dominance in the Western Roman Empire and it was also a turning point with Constantine’s relationship with Christianity. Prior to the battle of Milvian Bridge, Constantine had seemingly been partial to the cult of the Undying Sun (Sol Invictus), but as the emperor was campaigning against his rival co-ruler, Maxentius, in Italy around 312, Constantine began allegedly proclaiming that the Christian God was his personal patron deity. This change was reportedly prompted after Emperor Constantine saw a miraculous Christian symbol, called a labarum, floating in the sky and he had the impression that adopting this symbol as his battle standard would help his odds at the upcoming battle of Milvian Bridge. This legend was recorded by the emperor’s biographer, Eusebius (c. 260-339), who described the memorable episode in his Life of Constantine, writing, “He [Constantine] said that about mid-day, when the sun was beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, CONQUER BY THIS. At this sight he himself was struck by amazement, and his whole army also, which happened to be following him on some expedition, and witnessed the miracle” (Eusebius, Life of Constantine, I.28). As for how this religious labarum symbol looked—or at least Constantine’s spruced up iterations of it— Eusebius described the symbol in great detail. He wrote:
“A long spear, overlaid with gold, formed the figure of the cross by means of a piece transversely laid over it. On top of the whole was fixed a crown, formed by the intertexture of gold and precious stones; and on this, two letters indicating the name of Christ, symbolized the Saviour’s title by means of its first characters, the letter P being intersected by X exactly in its center…From the transverse piece which crossed the spear was suspended a kind of streamer of purple cloth, covered with a profuse embroidery of most brilliant precious stones; and which, being also richly interlaced with gold, presented an indescribable degree of beauty to the beholder” (Life of Constantine, I.31).
After adopting this new symbol and placing it on his army’s battle standards and shields, Constantine would go on to defeat Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. It was a victory that allowed Constantine to become emperor of the entire Western Roman Empire, while the east remained in civil war between Licinius and Maximinus (who was defeated by Licinius in 313). Constantine eventually wrested control of the Eastern Empire for himself in the year 324, making him the emperor of the complete Roman Empire from then until his death in 337.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Life of Constantine by Eusebius, published by Samuel Bagster and Sons and J. Werthrimer and Co., 1843.
- The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, by Robert Louis Wilken. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.