Jonathan Kay | Oct 26, 2012 6:26 PM ET
In 624 A.D., the Muslim faith was still young — so young that Mohammed had not yet even conquered Mecca, which was controlled by pagans. The Meccans’ army was three times as large as Mohammed’s. But when the two sides met at the Battle of Badr on March 13, 624, the prophet’s troops cracked the Meccan defences and slew several of their leaders.
According to lore that would become encoded in Islamic scripture, the victory proved that Mohammed was not just the Seal of the Prophets, but also a great military commander whose forces enjoyed God’s favour on the battlefield. Islam thereby became a fighting faith, almost from its inception — a fact that has shaped its development right up into modern times.
Jesus never had a Badr moment, of course. He never was a warrior at all (except in the lurid vision-world of Revelation, in which he is shown leading an army into battle against the beast and his false prophet). Christians would have to wait three centuries before their faith would become an inspiration to great armies.
That moment came on Oct. 28, 312 — exactly 1,700 years ago this Sunday — when Constantine the Great defeated his rival Maxentius’ forces at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, and opened a path across the Tiber to Rome.
As schoolchildren have been learning since ancient days, the shields of Constantine’s foot soldiers were emblazoned on that day with the Chi-Rho symbol — indicating the first two letters of Christ’s name, spelled in Greek and superimposed as a monogram. The night before the battle, Constantine had taken inspiration from “a cross of light” (as Eusebius of Caesarea later recounted it) that appeared in the sky, along with the slogan “Conquer by this” — or, as it is more commonly and dramatically reworded: “By this sign, you shall conquer.”
“No one knows why [Constantine] embraced Christianity at that moment,” writes historian Simon Sebag Montefiore. His father, Constantius Chlorus, had worshipped Sol Invictus, the “invincible” sun god that had been promoted as a cult by the Emperor Aurelian. But, “like many brutally confident men, [Constantine] adored his mother, Helena, and she was an early [Christian] convert.”
Though Constantine eventually was baptized (on his deathbed, in 337 A.D.), he was no monotheistic zealot, and did not extinguish the existing imperial cults. But he envisioned a Godly empire unified under his command, and settled definitively on Christianity as the dominant creed. It was a momentous decision: For three centuries, Christians mostly had been either hideously persecuted or grimly tolerated. Seventeen centuries ago, all that changed. “Christ the Lamb became the god of victory,” in Montefiore’s words. And through Constantine, Europe was on its was to becoming a Christian continent. Few men, outside of Jesus himself and his immediate companions and contemporaries, can claim to have had such an extraordinary influence on the development and spread of the faith.
Reading the history from that period, one comes to understand just how many bedrock Christian beliefs, practices and forms of cultural expression originated under Constantine in the decades that followed the Battle of Milvian Bridge.
Constantine was a conqueror. And like all conquerors, he wanted to memorialize himself in word and stone. “Over his reign, he gave the Church an equal place alongside the traditional official cults, and lavished wealth on it,” writes Dirmaid MacCulloch in his 2009 opus Christianity: The first 3,000 years. “Christianity would now embark on its long intoxication with architecture, previously a necessarily restricted passion. Among [Constantine’s] many other donations were 50 monumental copies of the Bible commissioned from Bishop Eusebius’ specialist scriptorium in Caesarea: an extraordinary expenditure … for which the parchment alone would have required the death of around 5,000 cows.”
In Constantinople (formerly Byzantium), Constantine created a network of churches devoted to various saints, festivals and holy days, thereby establishing the pattern of prayer-by-station that remains a feature of Christian pilgrimage to this day. He also promoted the practice of convening councils of bishops to settle questions of religious doctrine. This included the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. (presided over by Constantine in person), whose eponymous creed created the foundational dogma that Christ is “begotten, not made” “from the substance of the Father, God from God, Light from Light.”
Unfortunately, Constantine used the same venue to promote the theme of Jew-hatred that would remain a stubborn part of mainstream Christian thought and culture until well into the 20th century. “At the council, we also considered the issue of our holiest day, Easter,” he wrote. “In the first place, it seemed very unworthy for us to keep this most sacred feast following the custom of the Jews, a people who have soiled their hands in a most terrible outrage, and have thus polluted their souls, and are now deservedly blind.”
Another lasting innovation from Constantine’s era is the idea of Jerusalem (at the time, a shabby community known by its Roman designation, Aelia Captolina) as a city of divinely inspired grandeur.
Much of the credit here goes not to Constantine, but to his mother, the aforementioned dowager empress Helena. In her 70s (following a squalid, bloody and possibly incestuous family saga well worthy of an HBO mini-series), she set sail to Jerusalem and immediately embarked upon one of history’s greatest, and most improbable archaeological careers — discovering a cave deemed to be Jesus’ tomb, and the supposed site of the Crucifixion. (More dubiously, it is claimed that she also found the True Cross, and even the nails that went with it.) She built churches (including that of the Holy Sepulchre), destroyed pagan shrines and Jewish synagogues, and created enduring maps for pilgrims that showed them where all the holy sites, as she enumerated them, could be found. Every camera-clicking Christian tourist you see in Jerusalem, filing out from tour busses outside Jaffa Gate, maps in hand, owes something to Saint Helena’s handiwork.
History is full of what-ifs. But some are more profound than others. On the cusp of his great victory at Milvian Bridge, Montefiore reminds us, Constantine just as easily could have picked Manicheanism or Mithraism, two faiths that are now extinct, but which were then just as popular as Christianity. Had he done so, the people we now call Christians might take their inspiration from the gnostic pronouncement of the prophet Mani, or fixate themselves on the Mithraic Mysteries’ seven grades of initiation.
Or, who knows? Judaism might eventually have become the majority religion of Europe. Or perhaps Islam — though such a scenario admittedly is muddled by the fact that the Muslim faith was itself conceived in part on the basis of Mohammed’s (somewhat confused) understanding of the events described in the New Testament.
As for the Milvian Bridge itself, it still exists in northern Rome. In 2006, it became famous as a place where couples could signify their love by attaching padlocks to bridge fastenings, and then throwing the key into the Tiber. It’s also become a popular meeting spot for amorous youth who haven’t yet found a padlock mate.
From bloody battle to pick-up scene for Vespa-riding teenagers in a mere 1,700 years: European civilization in a nutshell.