The end of the persecutions and the triumph of Christianity
Few events in world history have been of more far-reaching importance than the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in Rome on October 28, A.D. 312.
The young (about 25) general Constantine had been proclaimed Emperor by his troops at York in northern England on July 25, A.D. 306, but his claim to the throne had been challenged by a fellow officer, Maxentius, who was in Rome. Years of intrigue followed until Constantine advanced across the Alps to capture the Imperial City. In the military context of the time, this was a daring gamble, for Maxentius had by far the superior force. Constantine won And he Invoked upon his brilliant victory as proof of the power of Christ and the superiority of the Christian religion.
The story goes that realizing his vulnerable position, Constantine prayed to the God of the Christians, and was rewarded by a vision in which he saw a huge labarum, (the Greek letters X and P intertwined, these being the first two letters of the name of Christ) and the phrase In hoc signo vinces (In this sign you will conquer). Having placed it on his standards, he advanced and won.
Later, so the story continues, he acknowledged his debt by issuing the Edict of Milan. In this, he proclaimed the end of the persecutions and the triumph of Christianity.
The Church now faced a totally new situation.
It had at the very head of the state the richest and most powerful of patrons. Although Constantine was not baptized until he lay on his deathbed in A.D. 337, he made no secret of his Christian convictions. He showered the Church with gifts ordering the creation of many imposing basilicas, including St. Peter's over the tomb of the apostle and the great Lateran palace which to this day has remained the official seat of the Bishop of Rome. He gave munificently from the state treasury and distributed great estates to prelates and priests.
Constantine also ruled as a Christian. He humanized the criminal law and the law of debt; he mitigated the conditions of the slaves, and made large grants in support of poor children and orphans.
It was he who ordered, in A.D. 321, that throughout the Empire Sundays be kept as holidays.
Constantine's reign brought a new kind of strength and identity to the Church. It was universalized. And whereas it had been outlawed and persecuted, it was now established in public life, favoured and privileged. When the Arian heresy began to spread among Christians, for example, Constantine brought state power and support to restore Church unity. He summoned an Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in A.D. 325, presided over it himself (although not yet baptized) and supervised the implementing of its decrees, especially the promulgation of the (Nicaean) Creed.
Many Christians were dismayed however by this new identification of the Church with Imperial interests. They considered the Milvian Bridge to have ushered in the first "post Christian era". For Constantine marked the end of that diversity of belief and practice which had characterized the Church as long as it was a loose federation. Also his munificence did away with the practice of voluntary donations contributed week by week by ordinary Christians for each other's support.
Others thought the Milvian Bridge had brought a new time of salvation for the Church. The early Christian historian Eusebius has left a wonderful description of the atmosphere at the conclusion of the Council of Nicaea when Constantine gave a banquet. ''No bishop was absent from the table of the Emperor,' he writes. "What happened beggars every description. Bodyguards and soldiers stood guard, with sharp swords drawn, around the outer court of the palace, but among them the men of God could walk fearlessly and enter the deepest parts of the palace. At dinner some of them lay on the same couch as the Emperor, while others rested on cushions on both sides of him. Easily one could imagine this to be the Kingdom of Christ or regard it as a dream rather than reality."
In any event, Christian witness would henceforth be something quite different. Within three generations after the battle at the Milvian Bridge, the bishop Martin of Tours would be the first canonized saint who had not been a martyr.