On a day like today: conference to mark the battle of Milvian Bridge

At the Battle of Milvian Bridge, Constantine had his victory and so began a long-standing relationship between Church and state.

"Constantine the Great. The Roots of Europe" is the title of an international academic congress to be held in the Vatican from, April 18-21. The event has been organized by the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences to mark the 1700th anniversary of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge and role the Emperor Constantine played in bringing about tolerance for Christians.

It was at the Milvian Bridge, which spans the Tiber river near Rome, where Constantine I defeated Maxentius as they contested the control of the Roman Empire on October 28, 312 AD. While marching to engage Maxentius, Constantine may or may not have had a vision of a cross of light hovering above the sun, paired with the Greek words "Εν Τούτῳ Νίκα", En toutō níka, usually translated into Latin as "in hoc signo vinces," meaning "In this sign,[you shall] conquer;" a more free translation would be "Through this sign [you shall] conquer". That night, according to chronicler Eusebius - who claims he heard it from the emperor's lips - Constantine had a dream in which Christ explained that he should use the sign against his enemies.

Constantine would then use a labarum, a military standard emblazoned with the Greek letters X P - or  Chi-Rho - which are the first letters in 'Christ'. This monogram would also be used on the shields of Constantine's soldiers. Constantine himself, however, while he issued an edict that Christianity would be tolerated throughout his realm, would not be baptized until nearly the end of his life. During his lifetime, he built up the Eastern Roman Empire and established the capital city that would bear his name: Constantinople.

The congress was presented this morning at a press conference held in the Holy See Press Office, by Fr. Bernard Ardura O. Praem., president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences; Claire Sotinel, professor of Roman history at the University of Paris-Creteil and a member of the Ecole Francaise in Rome, and Giovanni Maria Vian, director of the "Osservatore Romano" newspaper.

"The conference", Fr. Ardura explained, "is the outcome of effective academic cooperation with important cultural institutions such as the Vatican Secret Archives, the Vatican Apostolic Library, the Italian National Research Council, the Ambrosian Library and the Sacred Heart Catholic University in Milan". It is also taking place "with the cooperation and contribution of the European Union delegation to the Holy See, the Lazio Regional Council and the Pontifical Lateran University".

Confirming Constantine's status as a founder of Christendom in the East, the Vatican congress this week is the first of two, the second of which will be held in Milan in 2013 for the 1700th anniversary of the promulgation of the Edict of Milan, which established freedom of religion in the Roman empire and put an end to the persecution of certain religious groups, particularly Christians.

While the 2013 congress will concern itself with what is known as the "Constantinian revolution", this week's event will focus on the environment in which Constantine lived and on relations between Christians and the Roman empire prior to the year 313. Participants will "examine the relationship between religion and the State, the idea of religious freedom in the empire, and religion from the point of view of the emperor and the senate", Fr. Ardura said.

One key area will be the conversion and baptism of Constantine himself, and his attitude towards Christians following the battle of the Milvian Bridge, which took place on 28 October 312 and led to the death of his rival Maxentius. Contemporary and later Christian historians, influenced by the narrative of Eusebius of Cesarea, saw Constantine's victory as the result of divine intervention.

Fr. Ardura pointed out that "from a purely strategic-military viewpoint the battle was not very important, but it soon became the founding symbol of the new world which came into being when Constantine found Christianity. Indeed, ... the era of imperial persecution against Christians was about to come to an end, giving way to the evangelisation of the entire empire and moulding the profile of western Europe and the Balkans; a Europe which gave rise to the values of human dignity, distinction and cooperation between religion and the State, and freedom of conscience, religion and worship. Of course these things would need many centuries to come to maturity, but they all existed 'in nuce' in the 'Constantinian revolution' and therefore in the battle of the Milvian Bridge".

For her part, Claire Sotinel explained that attentive and critical historical analysis "facilitates our understanding of what happened following the victory at the Milvian Bridge, helping us in the twenty-first century to reflect on important issues such as the interaction between religions and political power, the creation of religious pluralism, and the possibility of coexistence among different religions".

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