Aleteia logoAleteia logo
Aleteia
Tuesday 01 December |
Saint of the Day: Bl. Charles de Foucauld
home iconArt & Culture
line break icon

Constantine's vision and the theory of the sun

CONSTANTINE THE GREAT

Jean-Christophe BENOIST | CC BY 2.5

John Burger - published on 10/24/20

History is still not settled on just what the Roman emperor saw in the sky.

There are several theories about what constituted the “Vision of Constantine” just the before the Battle of Milvian Bridge. But whatever the true explanation is, the event left us with a symbol of Christ that has been used ever since.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Constantine, who was the first Roman emperor to profess Christianity, attributed his success to his conversion and God’s support.

According to the Christian apologist Lactantius, Constantine fought the Battle of the Milvian Bridge on October 27, 312, in the name of the Christian God, having received instructions in a dream to paint the monogram of Christ on his troops’ shields. That monogram is known as the chi-rho, a combination of the first two letters of the Greek name Christos.

The encyclopedia says that a somewhat different account, which Constantine gave late in life to the bishop Eusebius, speaks of a vision seen by Constantine during the campaign against Maxentius. In several writings, Eusebius details how the Christian sign appeared in the sky with the words, “In this sign, conquer.”

But J.R. Palanque et al, in The Church in the Christian Roman Empire, point out some problems with Eusebius. In one place, the bishop refers to rival emperor Licinius as a Christian — he never was one. The military standard, which is minutely described, “could not have been made in the course of the lightning campaign of 312.” 

The Britannica says that “a religious experience on the march from Gaul is suggested also by a pagan orator, who in a speech of 310 referred to a vision of Apollo received by Constantine at a shrine in Gaul.” 

Steve Weidenkopf, author of Timeless: A History of the Catholic Church, notes that Constantine was not a Christian prior to the Battle of Milvian Bridge, but was aware of Christianity and probably had Christians in his army.

Constantine’s father, Constantius, one of the four emperors of the Tetrarchy, “had not vigorously enforced Diocletian’s persecution edicts in the west, so Constantine was, at the least, not ill disposed to the Church,” Weidenkopf writes.

Some believe that the vision was actually a natural phenomenon. According to the website Imperium Romanum, British historian A.H.M. Jones and others contest that the “vision” was a “halo” — the Greek word halos means solar disk — which occurs due to the refraction of light in a cloud containing ice crystals. 

Robert Louis Wilken in The First Thousand Years describes the phenomenon as the sun being “surrounded by a circle of light that has two lesser suns on a horizontal axis to the right and left. When all three are visible the points of light extending out from the center form an image that resembles a cross in a circle.” 

Weidenkopf notes that it is believed that the pre-Christian Constantine had a strong devotion to only one pagan god, Sol, “making him already semi-monotheistic in his religious views.”

“Ultimately, probably under the influence of Christian advisers,” Imperium Romanum concluded, “he decided that the sign came not from Sol Invictus, but from Christ.”

Not from the sun, in other words, but from the Son.


CATHOLIC BOOKS

Read more:
Some of the best books on the history of the Church, according to historians

Tags:
Church History
Support Aleteia!

If you’re reading this article, it’s thanks to the generosity of people like you, who have made Aleteia possible.

Here are some numbers:

  • 20 million users around the world read Aleteia.org every month
  • Aleteia is published every day in eight languages: English, French, Arabic, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, and Slovenian
  • Each month, readers view more than 50 million pages
  • Nearly 4 million people follow Aleteia on social media
  • Each month, we publish 2,450 articles and around 40 videos
  • We have 60 full time staff and approximately 400 collaborators (writers, translators, photographers, etc.)

As you can imagine, these numbers represent a lot of work. We need you.

Support Aleteia with as little as $1. It only takes a minute. Thank you!

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...




Top 10
LUXOR FILM FESTIVAL
Zoe Romanowsky
20-year-old filmmaker wins award for powerful...
Andrea Bocelli
J-P Mauro
Andrea Bocelli to perform live Christmas conc...
Eric Clapton, Luciano Pavarotti, East London Gospel Choir
J-P Mauro
Hear Clapton and Pavarotti sing a prayer to t...
John Paul II
Philip Kosloski
St. John Paul II's guide to a fruitful Advent
CATHEDRAL OF THE SACRED HEART
Fr. Patrick Briscoe, OP
6 Questions to determine if your heart is har...
FIRST CENTURY HOUSE AT THE SISTERS OF NAZARETH SITE
John Burger
British archaeologist confident he has found ...
See More
Newsletter
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.