Battle of the Milvian Bridge

Battle of the Milvian Bridge

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Milvian Bridge
partof=the Wars of Constantine I

caption="Dream of Constantine I and battle of the Milvian Bridge"
date=October 28, 312
place=Ponte Milvio, Rome
result=Defeat of Maxentius
combatant1=Constantinian forces
combatant2=Maxentian forces
commander1=Constantine I
strength1=~100,000 men
strength2=~75,000-120,000 men

The Battle of the Milvian Bridge took place on October 28, 312, between the Roman Emperors Constantine I and Maxentius. Constantine won the battle and started on the path that led him to end the Tetrarchy and become the sole ruler of the Roman Empire.

The battle is noteworthy also because Constantine's victory was attributed by Christian sources to God.

Historical background

The underlying cause of the battle were the rivalries inherent in Diocletian's Tetrarchy System. Once the strong Diocletian stepped down, the weaker rulers who took over began squabble over control of the Roman Empire almost immediately. Although Constantine was the son of the western emperor Constantius Chlorus, the system in place at the time, the "tetrarchy", didn't necessarily provide for hereditary succession. When Constantius died on July 25, 306, his father's troops proclaimed Constantine as Augustus in Eboracum (York) . In Rome, the favorite was Maxentius, the son of Constantius' predecessor Maximian, who was made emperor on October 28 of the same year.

By 312, the two men were engaged in open hostility with one another, although they were brothers-in‑law through Constantine's marriage to Fausta, sister of Maxentius. In the spring of 312, Constantine gathered his forces and decided to settle the dispute by force. He easily overran northern Italy, winning two major battles: the first near Turin, the second at Verona, where the praetorian prefect Ruricius Pompeianus, Maxentius' most senior general, was killed. [Odahl, pp. 101-104]

Vision of Constantine

It is commonly stated that on the evening of October 27, with the armies preparing for battle, Constantine had a vision which lead him to fight under the protection of the Christian God. The details of that vision, however, differ between the sources reporting it.It is believed that the sign of the cross appeared and Constantine heard "In this sign, you shall conquer" in Greek.

Lactantius states that, in the night before the battle, Constantine was commanded in a dream to "delineate the heavenly sign on the shields of his soldiers" ("de mort. pers." 44,5). He obeyed and marked the shields with a sign "denoting Christ". Lactantius describes that sign as a "staurogram", or a Latin cross with its upper end rounded in a P-like fashion. [Lactantius XLIV,5] There is no certain evidence that Constantine ever used that sign, opposed to the better known chi-rho sign described by Eusebius.

From Eusebius, two accounts of the battle survive. The first, shorter one in the "Ecclesiastical History" leaves no doubt that God helped Constantine but doesn't mention any vision. In his later "Life of Constantine", Eusebius gives a detailed account of a vision and stresses that he had heard the story from the emperor himself. According to this version, Constantine with his army was marching somewhere (Eusebius doesn't specify the actual location of the event, but it clearly isn't in the camp at Rome), when he looked up to the sun and saw a cross of light above it, and with it the Greek words "Εν Τούτῳ Νίκα". The Latin translation is "in hoc signo vinces" — "In this (sign), conquer". At first he was unsure of the meaning of the apparition, but in the following night he had a dream in which Christ explained to him that he should use the sign against his enemies. Eusebius then continues to describe the labarum, the military standard used by Constantine in his later wars against Licinius, showing the chi-rho sign. [Gerberding and Moran Cruz, p. 55; cf. Eusebius, "Life of Constantine"]

Those two accounts can hardly be reconciled with each other, though they have been merged in popular notion into Constantine seeing the Chi-Rho sign at the evening before battle. Both authors agree that the sign wasn't readily understandable to denote Christ, which corresponds to the fact that there is no certain evidence of the use of chi-rho as a Christian sign before Constantine. Its first appearance is on a Constantinian silver coin from c. 315, which proves that Constantine did use the sign at that time, though not very prominently. He made extensive use of the Chi-Rho and the Labarum only later in the conflict with Licinius.

As the god Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, featured prominently on Constantinian coins and monuments in the years before and after the battle, the vision has been interpreted in a solar context (e.g. as a halo phenomenon), which would have been reshaped to fit with the Christian beliefs of the later Constantine.

Events of the battle

Constantine reached Rome at the end of October 312 approaching along the Via Flaminia. He camped at the location of Malborghetto near Prima Porta, where remains of a Constantinian monument in honour of the occasion are still extant.

It was expected that Maxentius would remain within Rome and endure a siege, as he already had successfully employed this strategy during the invasions of Severus and Galerius in 307 and 308, respectively. He had already brought large amounts of food to the city in preparation. Surprisingly, he decided otherwise and met Constantine in open battle. Ancient sources about the event attribute this decision either to divine intervention (e.g. Lactantius, Eusebius) or superstition (e.g. Zosimus). They also note that the day of the battle was the same as the day of his accession (October 28), which was generally thought to be a good omen. Lactantius also reports that the populace supported Constantine with acclamations during circus games, though it isn't clear how reliable his account of the events is. [Lactantius, XLIV, 5-9]

Maxentius chose to make his stand in front of the Milvian Bridge, a stone bridge that carries the Via Flaminia road across the Tiber River into Rome (the bridge stands today at the same site, somewhat remodelled, named in Italian "Ponte Milvio" or sometimes "Ponte Molle", "soft bridge"). Holding it was crucial if Maxentius was to keep his rival out of Rome, where the Senate would surely favour whoever held the city. As Maxentius had probably partially destroyed the bridge during his preparations for a siege, he had a wooden or pontoon bridge constructed to get his army across the river. The sources vary as to the nature of the bridge central to the events of the battle. Zosimus mentions it, vaguely, as being a wooden constuction others specify that it was a pontoon bridge; sources are also unclear as to whether the bridge was deliberately constructed as a collapsible trap for Constantine's forces or not. [Nixon "et al.", pp. 319-320]

The next day, the two armies clashed, Constantine emerged victorious. The dispositions of Maxentius may have been faulty as his troops seem to have been arrayed with the River Tiber too close to their rear, giving them little space to allow re-grouping in the event of their formations being forced to give ground. [Nixon "et al.", p. 319] Already known as a skillful general, Constantine first launched his cavalry at the cavalry of Maxentius and broke them. Constantine's infantry then advanced, most of Maxentius's troops fought well but they began to be pushed back toward the Tiber; Maxentius decided to retreat and make another stand at Rome itself; but there was only one escape route, via the bridge. Constantine's men inflicted heavy losses on the retreating army. [Zosimus, 2.16.2-4] Finally, the temporary bridge set up alongside the Milvian Bridge, over which many of the troops were escaping, collapsed, and those men stranded on the north bank of the Tiber were either taken prisoner or killed. Maxentius' Praetorian Guard seem to have made a stubborn stand on the northern bank of the river. [Nixon "et al.", p. 320] Maxentius was among the dead, having drowned in the river while trying to swim across it in a desperate bid to escape, or alternatively, he is described as having been thrown by his horse into the river. [Lieu and Montserrat, p. 45]


Constantine entered Rome on 29 October. [Odahl, 108.] He staged a grand "adventus" in the city, and was met with popular jubilation. [Odahl, 110.] Maxentius' body was fished out of the Tiber and decapitated. His head was paraded through the streets for all to see. [Odahl, 108.] After the ceremonies, Maxentius' disembodied head was sent to Carthage, after which Africa gave no further resistance. The battle gave Constantine undisputed control of the western half of the Roman Empire. Following the battle, Constantine ignored the altars to the gods prepared on the Capitoline to receive sacrifices appropriate for the celebration of his victorious entry into Rome, and the new emperor instead went straight to the imperial palace without performing any sacrifice. [ Brown, p. 60] He chose to honor the Senatorial Curia with a visit, [Odahl, 109.] where he promised to restore its ancestral privileges and give it a secure role in his reformed government: there would be no revenge against Maxentius' supporters. [Odahl, 109.] Maxentius was condemned to damnatio memoriae, all his legislation was invalidated and Constantine usurped all of Maxentius' considerable building projects within Rome, including the Temple of Romulus and the Basilica of Maxentius. Maxentius' strongest supporters in the military were neutralized when the Praetorian Guard and Imperial Horse Guard ("equites singulares") were disbanded. [Odahl, 109.] Constantine is thought to have replaced the former imperial guards with a number of cavalry units termed the Scholae Palatinae.



* Brown, P.,(2003)"The Rise of Christendom" 2nd edition (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing.
* Gerberding R. and Moran Cruz, J.H., (2004) "Medieval Worlds," New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
*Lactantius, Lucius Caecilius Firmianus, "On the manner in which the persecutors died" (English translation of "De Mortibus Persecutorum") see:
*Lieu, S.N.C and Montserrat, D. (Ed.s) (1996), From Constantine to Julian, London. ISBN 0-415-09336-8
*Odahl, C.M., (2004) "Constantine and the Christian Empire," Routledge 2004. ISBN 0415174856
*Nixon, C.E.V., Mynors, R.A.B., Rodgers, B.S.R., (1995) "In Praise of Later Roman Emperors: The Panegyrici Latini : Introduction, Translation, and Historical Commentary, with the Latin Text of R.A.B. Mynors," University of California Press. ISBN 0520083261
*Zosimus, "Historia nova", English translation: R.T. Ridley, Zosimus: New History, Byzantina Australiensia 2, Canberra (1982).

The most important ancient sources for the battle are Lactantius, "De mortibus persecutorum" 44; Eusebius of Caesarea, "Ecclesiastical History" ix, 9 and "Life of Constantine" i, 28-31 (the vision) and i, 38 (the actual battle); Zosimus ii, 15-16; and the "Panegyrici Latini" of 313 (anonymous) and 321 (by Nazarititus).

ee also

In hoc signo vinces

External links

* [ Lactantius' account]
* [ Eusebius, "Ecclesiastical History"]
* [ Eusebius, "Life of Constantine"]

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