This Day in Military History

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The Battle of Milvian Bridge OCTOBER 28, 312 BATTLE OF THE MILVIAN BRIDGE One of the lesser known battles of history, but one that pushed Western civilization into the Christian fold, thanks to the vision (or visions?) of the Roman emperor Constantine. By the 290’s the ruling emperor Diocletian had decided the Roman Empire was too large for one man to rule. Therefore, he developed the Tetrarchy (Greek for “rulership by four”). He divided the empire into essentially four parts, and appointed three additional co-Caesars to administer the empire with him. When Diocletian stepped down in 305, he appointed Flavius Constantius (called “Chlorus” or “the Pale) to succeed him. Little did he suspect this would be the first scene in a Roman drama of civil war that would not finally end until 324. In the western empire, the rulers were Constantius and Marcus Maximian; in the east, Gaius Galerius and Flavius Valerius Severus were in charge. Constantius was Augustus (the senior co-emperor) for about 14 months when he died in July, 306. Almost instantly, Constantius’ troops declared his son, Constantine, to be Augustus. His chief rival was Maxentius, son of Maximian. Constantine’s claim to Augustus was recognized by Galerius (who was now the senior emperor of the Romans), and Maxentius’ claim was rejected. However, Maxentius gathered his forces and began maneuvering for position. On October 28, 306 Maxentius entered Rome and was declared Augustus by the army. Severus then marched on Rome, seeking to evict the man most Romans considered a usurper. However, the majority of Severus’ troops had served under Maximian, and promptly defected to Maxentius. Severus was captured and executed. Then, in the summer of 307, the eastern Augustus Galerius crossed into Italy to content with Maxentius. He found nearly the entire Italian peninsula fortified against him, so he withdrew. During the period of 307-312, various political and military maneuverings occurred, with Maxentius in command of Rome. Finally in early 312, Constantine resolved to end the rule of the usurper, and marched into Italy, heading for Rome with about a quarter of his total forces, perhaps a bit less than 40,000 men. Maxentius was aware of Constantine’s objective, and had prepared Rome for a long siege. However, when the omens were read by the Roman priests, they recommended that Maxentius meet Constantine in open battle. They especially recommended that he attack Constantine on October 28, 312, the anniversary of Maxentius’ accession to Augustus. So, Maxentius gathered his forces and went to confront Constantine. Maxentius marched out of one of the northern gates of the city of Rome, along the Via Flaminia. At one point, the road crossed the Tiber River by the Milvian Bridge. [A rebuilt Milvian Bridge still stands to this day.] After crossing the Tiber, Maxentius ordered a less-stable wooden bridge or a pontoon bridge (the ancient chronicles disagree) built next to the main bridge. Maxentius deployed his army about nine miles beyond the bridge, apparently determined to defend Rome or die trying. Some ancient sources claim Maxentius constructed the wooden/pontoon bridge to collapse on Constantine if he chose to use it. Maxentius’ army apparently outnumbered Constantine’s forces, perhaps by as much as 3 to 1. At this point, we will mention one of the reasons why this battle has achieved some fame among historians. Again, various historians of the time disagree on the exact facts. One chronicler, Lactantius, claims that the night before the battle, Constantine had a particularly vivid dream. In the dream, he sees a Latin cross with the top rounded to look like a P. He is directed paint this symbol on the shields of him soldiers, indicating that the Christian God’s favor is with him and his army. However, another historian, Eusebius, has a different story (Eusebius also claims that he heard this version from the mouth of Constantine himself). Sometime before the battle as his army was marching toward Rome, Constantine and many of the soldiers of his army saw a strange thing: a cross of light above the sun, and in fiery lettering, “In this sign, you will conquer.” [The phrase was in Greek, but Eusebius translated it into Latin as saying, “in hoc signo vinces.”] Constantine did not understand the apparition, so later that night, Christ appeared to Constantine in a dream to explain the sign. According to Constantine, Christ said that he should inscribe the symbol on his army banners, as a sign that he has the favor of the Christian god. The battle itself is not fully recorded but here are the basics: both armies sent their cavalry against each other, with Constantine’s horsemen victorious. Then, a general attack by Constantine’s forces began to push Maxentius’ lines back toward the Tiber. One account says that Maxentius’ Praetorian Guardsmen fought well, but they too were eventual forced to give ground. After several hours, the Maxentian troops broke and routed, retreating across the makeshift bridge. Almost immediately, the bridge collapsed, trapping thousands of Maxentian troops on the riverbank; many surrendered, those that did not were killed. Maxentius himself drowned in the Tiber, one account saying his horse threw him into the river. The next day, Constantine entered the Eternal City to great public acclamation. The body of Maxentius was fished out of the Tiber, and promptly beheaded and paraded through the city’s streets. Constantine then did something unheard of: he deliberately avoided the temples of the major Roman gods to give sacrifices for his victory, and instead when to the imperial palace. Later, he visited the Senate and promised to restore that body’s ancient privileges. Then, Constantine instituted the “damnatio memoriae,” or the “damnation of memory.” Constantine had any and all of Maxentius’ legislation or imperial decrees nullified, and any building projects started by Maxentius were taken over by Constantine, and labeled instead as his projects. Constantine even extended the damnation to Maximian’s (Maxentius’ father) laws and projects. He also removed the greatest of Maxentius’ supporters by disbanding the Praetorian Guard. Later, Constantine made it imperial policy that Christianity was to be the prevailing religion of the empire.
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I just wanted to thank you very much for this enlightening article. I have already bookmarked your site, when I have more free time I am going to have to do some further reading. Well back to my dreaming of Panama or back to the books - I wonder which one is going to win out. :)

Recently, I didn't give so much thought to writing comments on blog entries and have left comments even less. Checking out your insightful page, will probably encourage me to do so more regularly.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.