28 October 2020

Battle of the Milvian Bridge in Rome

How Christianity became official religion of the Roman Empire

A 17th-century Flemish painting in the style of Italian artist Giulio Romano imagines a battle scene
A 17th-century Flemish painting in the style of Italian
artist Giulio Romano imagines a battle scene
Roman emperor Constantine defeated his rival Maxentius in a battle at the Milvian Bridge (Ponte Milvio), a vital point for crossing the River Tiber, on this day in 312 in Rome.

The battle was a crucial moment in a civil war that ended with Constantine I as sole ruler of the Roman Empire and Christianity established as the empire’s official religion.

The Roman Empire was being torn apart by different factions at war with each other at the beginning of the fourth century.

Although Constantine - known also as Constantine the Great - was declared Emperor at York in 306, his brother in law and rival, Maxentius, later claimed the imperial title in Rome.

In 312, Constantine led a force to march on Rome. Troops fighting for Maxentius lay in wait for them next to the River Tiber at Pons Milvius (Ponte Milvio, which had been partially dismantled to stop the attacking force crossing the river).

It is said that Constantine had a dream before the battle and saw the sun, the object of his own worship, overlain by the figure of a cross. Beneath the cross was the message in hoc signo vinces (in this sign prevail).

A bust of Constantine I - originally from a statue - in Rome's Capitoline Museum
A bust of Constantine I - originally from
a statue - in Rome's Capitoline Museum
The next morning Constantine ordered his men to paint crosses on their shields and then they marched into war as Christian soldiers.

Constantine’s victory owed a lot to his skill as a general. He realised Maxentius had placed his troops too near the river and hurled his cavalry against them, breaking their ranks and leaving them no room to regroup as the rear was too close to the Tiber.

Then Constantine ordered his infantry to push forward, leaving the infantry of Maxentius no room to manoeuvre.

The stone bridge had been reduced in width to keep Constantine and his men back and Maxentius and his troops had crossed the river using an improvised pontoon construction.

But the decision taken by Maxentius to retreat using the temporary pontoon proved fatal and he drowned in the Tiber along with some of his men. According to contemporary sources his body was later fished out of the Tiber and decapitated.

Constantine took Rome the next day and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Arch of Constantine in Rome was erected in celebration of his victory. He later relocated the imperial capital to Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople in honour of himself.

The Ponte Milvio in Rome as it is today
The Ponte Milvio in Rome as it is today
Travel tip:

Ponte Milvio was later restored and is still a strategically important bridge over the Tiber in northern Rome. It became famous again in 2006 because of a book and a film. A tradition of locking padlocks, (lucchetti dell’amore), to bridges, railings and lamp posts to demonstrate never-ending love started after the publication of Ho voglio di te (I want you) by Federico Moccia, and the release of the film of the same name, starring Riccardo Scamarcio and Laura Chiatti. In the story, young lovers tie a chain and padlock around a lamppost at the side of Ponte Milvio in Rome, inscribe their names on it, lock it and then throw the key into the River Tiber, suggesting they will be together forever. This has since been copied throughout Italy and hundreds of love locks have had to be removed from Ponte Milvio and the Accademia and Rialto bridges in Venice. The lamppost featured in the novel began to collapse under the weight of all the padlocks in 2007 and afterwards all parts of Ponte Milvio were used by couples. Rome’s city council has introduced a 50 euro fine for anyone attaching a love lock. The bridge also became a notorious place for AS Roma football fans to gather to attack fans of the opposing team on route to the Stadio Olimpico on match days.

The Arch of Constantine can be found close to the Colosseum in the centre of Rome
The Arch of Constantine can be found close to
the Colosseum in the centre of Rome
Travel tip:

The Arch of Constantine was commissioned by the Roman Senate to commemorate Constantine’s victory over Maxentius and was officially dedicated to the Emperor in 315. It is located in Via di San Gregorio, between the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill, and spans the route taken by victorious military leaders entering the city. It is the largest triumphal arch in Rome at 21 meters high, 25.9 meters wide and 7.4 metres deep. The arch served as the finish line for the marathon event at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

Also on this day:

1639: The death of composer Stefano Landi

1963: The birth of singer-songwriter Eros Ramazzotti

1973: The death of actor and illustrator Sergio Tòfano


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