Constantine’s Vision in 312 AD
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
There are a significant number of Christians who believe that Constantine was the first Christian Emperor. Those who hold this view often point to one major event either as his moment of conversion or the beginning of that process: his vision before the battle of Milvan Bridge. In this article, we will the review historical evidence to examine what really happened. This evidence will have a major impact upon one’s view of his possible conversion.
In 312 AD, Constantine fought Maxentius for control of the Western Roman Empire at a battle commonly called the Battle of Milvan Bridge. Just before his victorious battle, contemporary witnesses claim that he had an experience that changed his life and the course of history. We will briefly review the two known accounts of it.
The first account was written by Lactantius, who was the personal tutor of Constantine’s son, Crispus. He wrote just a few years after the victory. He claimed that Constantine had a dream with a heavenly sign where he was instructed to put the Greek letters chi and rho on the shields of his soldiers. Lactantius said that these letters were short hand for Christ. He attributed Constantine’s victory in part to the use of these letters.
He wrote: “Constantine was directed in a dream to cause the heavenly sign to be delineated on the shields of his soldiers, and so to proceed to battle. He did as he had been commanded, and he marked on their shields the letter Χ, with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round thus at the top, being the cipher of Christ. Having this sign (ΧΡ), his troops stood to arms…” (Of the Manner In Which the Persecutors Died, Chapter 44).
The second account comes from Eusebius, an early Christian historian. The events leading up to the vision and just after it are recorded in his work The Life of Constantine (book 1, sections 27-31). He composed it about 330 AD. It is a rather lengthy account, so I will summarize it for space’s sake.
Before the battle with Maxentius, Eusebius claimed that Constantine pondered the failure of past emperors. He then chose to dedicate himself to the deity of his father. Sometime before the battle, Eusebius wrote that Constantine saw a cross of light appear above the sun (about noon that day). It had an inscription attached to it: “Conquer by this.” He then wrote that Christ came to Constantine at night and instructed him to make a cross with a vertical spear, a gold bar horizontally across it and precious stones adorning the cross. The Greek letters chi-rho were also placed on it. He claimed that Constantine used this symbol in his armies (Life of Constantine, 1.27-31).
When we compare and contrast these accounts of the same event, we find significant differences and some similarities.
The first problem is that the accounts do not completely agree. Lactantius said that Constantine had a dream with the chi-rho alone, whereas Eusebius wrote that he had a daytime vision with an elaborate cross above the sun. He was then informed in a dream about the meaning.
The second problem with both stories is the use of the chi-rho. The use of this symbol cannot be the definite confirmation of any conversion experience. These letters were used together as a symbol many centuries before Christianity. The Emperor Ptolemy III, who ruled Egypt from 246-225 BC, minted the Chi-Rho with the likeness of Zeus on some of his coins (picture of this coin below). The chi-rho was used by the ancients to denote something excellent and was even used as a marker for important passages in manuscripts (Mitchell, pp 34-35).
Picture #1: Ptolemy III with picture of Zeus on one side and on the other an eagle with chi-rho between its legs.
The third problem is found in Eusebius’ version. He initially wrote about Constantine’s victory over Maxentius in the 320s AD in a work titled Church History. In this account, he never mentioned a vision, dream, or any similar experience. If it was such an important part of Constantine’s life and the battle, then why did he leave it out of that work?
The fourth problem is similar. When Eusebius finally recorded Constantine’s vision almost 20 years after the event, he said that Constantine only told him about the vision. He further confessed that the Emperor conveyed it long after the events occurred. “But since the victorious emperor himself long afterwards declared it to the writer of this history…” (Life, 1.28). If Constantine only told him long afterwards, then why would Lactantius have written a version of the events two decades before?
The fifth problem, also found in Eusebius’ version, is the mention that Constantine chose the deity that his father worshiped: “…therefore felt it incumbent on him to honor his father’s God alone” (ibid, 1.28). What deity did his father adore?
Constantine’s father, Constantine Chlorus, was not known to worship or honor any one deity. The coins he minted just before his death depicted the god Jupiter, the deified Hercules, and the god Genius (Sear, pp 233-264). These were all common coin issues. More evidence of his religious allegiance is found in a panegyric from the time period. A panegyric is formal speech given to honor the virtue of a person and exalt praises for him/her. In one of these speeches, Jupiter and Hercules were proclaimed as patron deities for the government; he was described as being divine (Nixon and Rodgers, pp 113-114). Right after his death, a panegyric was delivered that praised Chlorus for being “divine” and described him as being taken to heaven by the chariot of Sol, the sun god (ibid, 209). These details strongly conflict with the notion that Chlorus worshiped the God of the Bible.
The sixth problem, found in Eusebius’ version, is the use of the cross. The cross was not a symbol used by the earliest church; it pre-dates Christianity for hundreds, if not thousands of years. It is originally derived from pagan worship in Assyria and Babylon (for general information see: Encyclopedia Britannica 11th edition article “Cross”; for Assyrian reference, see: Layard’s Nineveh Inscriptions plate 59; for cross usage with the god Tammuz, see the alabaster relief in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Germany). This was controversial in the early church. Tertullian defended cross usage among Christians from the accusation of pagan worship (see his work To the Nations, 1.12).
Also consider the opulence with which the cross was adorned in Eusebius’ version. The cross (or possibly stake) was a symbol of Christ’s suffering. It was made of wood. It is neither suggested to be replicated nor adorned in the New Testament.
Lastly, we must consider another contemporary account of Constantine’s life. Did you know that Constantine had a similar vision about two years before the battle of Milvan Bridge? In the year 310, an orator delivered a panegyric before Constantine. This speech alleged that he had a vision of himself as Apollo with the goddess Victory holding a wreath in her hand. He then inferred that, like Apollo, Constantine would one day rule the whole world. Constantine then gave gifts and riches to the temple of Apollo (Nixon and Rodgers, pp 249-250).
As we consider the three accounts, Lactantius, Eusebius, and the panegyric, it seems that Constantine had a reputation for having visions (whether he had them or not). Which vision did Constantine really see before the battle with Maxentius? Did Lactantius and Eusebius edit his real experience? Did Constantine even have a vision? It is entirely possible that Constantine could have seen a cross and chi-rho, but attributed the vision to the sun god (Apollo or Sol Invictus).
While we cannot know the heart of someone else, Jesus instructed us to look at his/her fruit (Matthew 7:16). If Constantine had an experience with Jesus that changed his life and these symbols were part of it, then his behavior would bear witness to it. Let’s review the events that followed the battle.
Constantine won the battle with Maxentius; he became ruler over the Western Empire. An inscription dating to the year after this vision is dedicated to Mithras, which involved sun worship (Vermaseren, p 508; CIMRM no. 523). Within a few years of this event, he dedicated a special commemorative Arch to honor the victory over Maxentius. We find no symbols of the cross or chi–rho carved anywhere on the arch. No honor is given to Jesus Christ or the God of the Bible. The inscription on top of it does not honor God or Jesus for the triumph. However, there are carved medallions on each end. One end depicts Apollo (or Sol Invictus), the sun god. The other end depicts Diana, in honor of the moon (Frothingham, pp 368-389; Planter, pp 36-38).
Following the example of other Emperors, he minted coins of Sol Invictus early in his political career (as early as about 307 AD). These continued far beyond the date of 312, perhaps being made as late as 325/326 AD. Over 100 coin issues with Sol Invictus were minted or struck during his reign. Other gods were also depicted on his coins during this same time period. The god Mars was inscribed on coins from 307-317; Jupiter was depicted on coins from 306-324; and the goddess Victory was depicted on coins throughout his reign (information on coins in this paragraph taken from Sear, pp 363-491).
Two types of Sol Invictus coinage issued between 320 and 325 are very instructive. One depicted Sol giving Constantine the world (with the goddess victory standing on top of the world). The second depicted Sol crowning Constantine Emperor. In the 320s, he defeated his brother-in-law Licinius to become sole ruler of the Roman world. Could these coins depict what Constantine viewed as the fulfillment of the panegyric from years before? Possibly.
He did eventually mint coins and medallions with the chi-rho symbol – but there is no indication that he clearly intended or understood this to be a Christian symbol.
Consider the evidence. He made an inscription to Mithras. The Arch of Constantine honored the sun and moon gods. On many coins, Sol was depicted as his Comitii or companion. When Constantine dedicated Constantinople in 330/331, he brought images of other gods, especially those that honor the sun, into the city (Sozomen, Church History, 2.5; Zosimus, History, 2.31). Even later in life, coins were made which depicted him as the sun god.
The evidence points to Constantine interpreting the vision to mean that the sun god gave him the vision and the victory.
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org
Encyclopedia Britannica 11th edition. Article: Cross
Eusebius of Caesarea. Life of Constantine, 1.27-31. McGiffert, Rev. Arthur Cushman. Schaff and Wace, ed. Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers. Vol. 1: Eusebius. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1904. pp 489-491.
Frothingham, A.L. American Journal of Archaeology. Vol. 16. No. 3. Pp 368-386. “Who Built the Arch of Constantine? Its History from Domitian to Constantine” (Jul-Sept 1912).
Lactanius. Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died, 44. Fletcher, William (trans). Ante-Nicene Fathers. Roberts and Donaldson ed. Vol 7. New York: 1890. p 318.
Layard, Austen Henry. The Monuments of Nineveh. Illustrated in One Hundred Plates. London: 1853.
Mitchell, JB. Chrestos: A Religious Epithet; Its Import and Influence. London. 1880. pp 34-35.
Nixon, C.E.V and Rodgers, Barbara Saylor, trans. In Praise of Later Roman Emperors. The Panegyrici Latini. University of California Press, Los Angeles. 1994. pp 113-114, 209, 249-250.
Platner, Samuel Ball. A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome. London: Oxford University Press, 1929. pp 36-38.
Sear, David. Roman Coins and their Values, Volume IV. Spink, London, 2011. Pp 233-264, 363-491.
Sozomen. Church History, 2.5. Hartranft, Chester D. trans. Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, ed. Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Second series. Vol. 2. The Christian Literature Company: New York: 1890. p 262.
Tertullian. Against the Nations, 1:12. Roberts, Rev. Alexander and Donaldson, James, eds. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 3. New York, 1918. 121-122.
Vermaseren, MJ. Corpus Inscriptionum Et Monumentorum Religionis Mithriacae. Martinus Nijhoff. 1956. No. 523, p 208.
Zosimus. History. 2.31. Vossius, G.J. trans. The History of Count Zosimus. London: 1814. pp 52-53.