October 29, 312 –
To the victor goes the spoils, but even the victor lives and dies by the ideas he brings with him.
Roman General Constantine, then claimant to the imperial throne of Rome and all her glory, paraded into the eternal city at the head of his victorious legions.
Constantine, who is known more affectionately to history as St. Constantine the Great, had navigated the dangerous path to imperial supremacy through the favor of the Senate and ultimately civil war. Many attributed his success to political and military genius. He preferred to attribute it to the favor of no less than God Himself, itself a mark of political genius.
According to legend, it was on the eve of his fateful Battle of the Milvian Bridge when Constantine came out of his tent and saw a vision of the Cross of Christ. Heaven opened to show him a blindingly bright cross of light and a voice thundered from the Throne of the Almighty:
“By this sign, thou shalt conquer.”
Constantine wasted no time in spreading the zeal of the newly converted among his troops. He had crosses sewn onto the shields and shirts of his legionaries. He led his cohorts into battle knowing that God was on his side. And on his side, God fought.
On October 29, against all odds, the triumphant legions not only marched into Rome on the coattails of their victory, but they fished the body of Constantine’s chief rival, Maxentius, out of the Tiber River to behead it as a show of domination.
With his new found power, Constantine was faced with the mandate to lead a fiercely divided empire and heal the wounds of civil war.
To accomplish this, he harnessed the immeasurable power of ideas. He gave the people of the Roman World a freedom they had never experienced before, and with it, a hope.
It was Christianity.
The year following his victory, Constantine enacted the Edict of Milan, legalizing Christianity and making it the official religion of the Roman Empire. Christianity reached the people in a way that Roman Paganism and Greek humanistic philosophy had failed.
It spoke not just to the rich and powerful, nor just to the educated, but to everyone. It gave the common man hope for salvation, and it elevated private virtue and loyalty to community and government to a new moral high ground.
At Constantine’s behest, the divided Christian churches of the Fourth Century sent delegates from around the world to meet at Nicea and hammer out Christianity in the form that we know it today. At Nicea, they debated and voted into established practice everything from the canon of Scripture to the fundamental statements of Christian faith to the foundations of canon law that undergird the western legal tradition to this day.
Constantine’s triumph at the Milvian Bridge and subsequent victory march into Rome shows us the power of political and military tactics. But if that were all it showed us, he would be a footnote in history. What it really shows us is the power of ideas to shape civilizations.