In Hoc Signo Rides

On this date in history, or possibly legend, October 27 312 AD, the Emperor Constantine had a vision of the Cross and the words "Εν Τούτῳ Νίκα" which, being hard to pronounce or understand, we now render as “in hoc signo vinces” which alas is also today hard to pronounce or understand. But it means “Through this sign you shall conquer” and as the Emperor did win the subsequent battle of the Milvian Bridge. And convert to Christianity along with the Empire of which he became sole ruler partly due to this battle.

Nowadays such stories are dismissed as the sort of silly superstition typical of the dumb people who populated the past. If you’re very lucky someone will try to discern a “genuine” scientific event, like a solar halo, that might have misled the Emperor into thinking he’d seen a cross, or perhaps think he’d been blessed by some solar deity and later muddled himself into believing it had been Christ. More likely they will argue that he wasn’t really a Christian because the sun god appeared on his monuments or coins.

It’s odd to think how rapidly the idea that he might have had a genuine vision has been banished. I don’t say disproved. It’s not even obvious to me how you would disprove it. Not that one should accept every claim to have seen a vision. And certainly nobody in the 4th century AD did so. Not even the deeply credulous. Definitely not the sophisticated, educated, intelligent and tough-minded sorts who fought and won battles for control of the greatest empire the world had ever known.

On the other hand, Constantine went from being not officially Christian to being officially Christian because, as far as we can tell, he himself recounted the story of the omen to Eusebius, who in his Life of Constantine says he heard it from the Emperor personally. Certainly something happened. And the odd thing about all the debunking of things that were widely believed for many centuries is that they tend to explain why history didn’t happen the way it did.

I don’t know if Constantine saw a vision or just found the story good propaganda. I don’t know whether he was long secretly a Christian due to his mother’s influence or whether he convinced her to convert. But I do know he decreed official toleration for Christians and when he knew he was dying urgently sought baptism, trying to reach the river Jordan but not making it.

So obviously he thought it was very important for some reason scholarship strives mightily to prove was not merely wrong but preposterous and probably insincere. Just as an enormous number of people from the early Apostles onward became Christians despite the manifest dangers of doing so and surface absurdity of the whole story. But apparently all of them were ignorant, deluded or weird.

Unlike we moderns, with our calm, rational, well-informed approach to everything.