Friday, March 04, 2005


Constantine's dreams and visions

There appear to be three accounts of Constantine's dreams or visions:
In the vision of the Panegyrici Latini it is written (translation quoted from Stevenson):
For, O Constantine, you saw, I believe, your protector Apollo, in company with Victory, offering you laurel crowns...
This account is the earliest of the three. It is decidedly pagan in tone (Apollo, the sol invictus) and, like in the other two, after the vision there comes victory in battle.

Lactantius wrote (since the Latin is available online, I'm translating it in Italian as well):
Imminebat dies quo Maxentius imperium ceperat, qui est a.d. sextum Kalendas Novembres, et quinquennalia terminabantur. Commonitus est in quiete Constantinus, ut caeleste signum dei notaret in scutis atque ita proelium committeret. Facit ut iussus est et transversa X littera, summo capite circumflexo, Christum in scutis notat. Quo signo armatus exercitus capit ferrum.

Era imminente [l'annversario del] giorno in cui Massenzio aveva conseguito l'impero, ovvero il sesto giorno prima delle calende di novembre, e stavano terminando i [suoi primi] cinque anni di regno. Costantino venne avvertito in sogno di incidere un segno divino sugli scudi e di cominciare la battaglia. Fece dunque come ordinato e con una lettera X posta di traverso, piegata ad arco alla sommita', incise [il segno di] Cristo sugli scudi. Armato di questo simbolo, l'esercito prese l'arme.
Chadwick says that the dream directed Constantine to put "the Chi-Ro monogram" on his shields, thus interpreting "Christus in scutis notat" as the monogram. Actually the monogram appears on Constantine's coins only from 315 onwards, i.e. 3 years after the battle at the Milvian Bridge. I have to say that it is not very clear to me how "transversa X littera, summo capite circumflexo" can be seen in the form of the monogram: it looks more just like a cross with an arch or a loop on the top. It seem interesting that this form might (might!) be similar to the double axe, or Labrys, one of the symbols of Zeus (Zeus Labraundos). See later.

According to Schaff, the account from Lactantius has been questioned by Burckhardt to have actually been composed by Lactantius himself. Certainly, Schaff says, it was composed soon after the event, when Constantine was still on good terms with Licinius, because a similar vision is attributed to Licinius in chapter 46 (Constantine and Licinius agreed on religious toleration in 313):
Tunc proxima nocte Licinio quiescenti adsistit angelus dei monens, ut ocius surgeret atque oraret deum summum cum omni exercitu suo; illius fore victoriam, si fecisset.
There are some notable differences between the two "dreams", though: Licinius is guided explictly by an angel, and the angel tells him to pray to the deum summum. On the other hand, Constantine is told to emboss a generic (in the dream) signum dei on the shields. This sign is then explained to be the symbolum of Christ, as I said the cross it seems to me; but the dream itself does not warrant this explanation.

The former account (Licinius') would look in itself more "Christian" (the angel; the summum deum; the prayer), the latter (Constantine's) more "pagan" (a sign of God? of a god? not clear; the shields). This "paganism" of Constantine's dream seems confirmed by the generic explanation found on the Arch of Constantine, instinctu divinitatis.

Eusebius, finally, records some other details about a vision by Constantine. First of all Constantine makes interesting considerations about the relative merit and reliability of the various gods available to him versus the single God of Christianity:
While engaged in this enquiry, the thought occurred to him, that, of the many emperors who had preceded him, those who had rested their hopes in a multitude of gods, and served them with sacrifices and offerings, had in the first place been deceived by flattering predictions, and oracles which promised them all prosperity, and at last had met with an unhappy end, while not one of their gods had stood by to warn them of the impending wrath of heaven; while one alone who had pursued an entirely opposite course, who had condemned their error, and honored the one Supreme God during his whole life, had found I him to be the Saviour and Protector of his empire, and the Giver of every good thing. Reflecting on this, and well weighing the fact that they who had trusted in many gods had also fallen by manifold forms of death, without leaving behind them either family or offspring, stock, name, or memorial among men: while the God of his father had given to him, on the other hand, manifestations of his power and very many tokens: and considering farther that those who had already taken arms against the tyrant, and had marched to the battle-field under the protection of a multitude of gods, had met with a dishonorable end (for one of them had shamefully retreated from the contest without a blow, and the other, being slain in the midst of his own troops, became, as it were, the mere sport of death); reviewing, I say, all these considerations, he judged it to be folly indeed to join in the idle worship of those who were no gods, and, after such convincing evidence, to err from the truth; and therefore felt it incumbent on him to honor his father's God alone.
Then we have a Constantine praying earnestly to the God of the Christians
that he would reveal to him who he was, and stretch forth his right hand to help him in his present difficulties.
It is after this that we find the famous vision:
He said that about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, Conquer by this. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle.
I don't like the translation "Conquer by this" at all. The imperative used in the translation does not correspond to the future tense (indicating a promise) of in hoc signo vinces, which is in my mind best translated with something like "In [the name of] this symbol you shall prevail". I note here that "above the sun" might be interpreted in a symbolic way. The fact that the entire army observed the vision seems difficult to believe, because if this had been the case we'd probably have some other record of it.

But that's not all Eusebius has to say:
He said, moreover, that he doubted within himself what the import of this apparition could be. And while he continued to ponder and reason on its meaning, night suddenly came on; then in his sleep the Christ of God appeared to him with the same sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to make a likeness of that sign which he had seen in the heavens, and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies.
This does not match completely with Lactantius' account, but it is certainly similar. One remarkable (to me, at least) difference is that the use of the symbol, constrained in Lactantius to the Milvian Bridge battle, is by Eusebius expanded to cover "all engagements"; in chap. XXXI it is also said that
the emperor made use of this sign of salvation as a safeguard against every adverse and hostile power, and commanded that others similar to it should be carried at the head of all his armies.
So, the sign of God here looks more like a general standard. The details by which this standard was made are also told by Eusebius, and they go far beyond Lactantius' transversa X littera:
A long spear, overlaid with gold, formed the figure of the cross by means of a transverse bar laid over it. On the top of the whole was fixed a wreath of gold and precious stones; and within this, the symbol of the Saviour's name, two letters indicating the name of Christ by means of its initial characters, the letter P being intersected by X in its centre: and these letters the emperor was in the habit of wearing on his helmet at a later period.
Who knows if the "later period" Eusebius is talking about could actually also refer to the original, pagan, vision. The description here seems to me a mix of what Lactantius says (the figure of the cross), plus ("within this") the monogram of Christ. I'd like to see the original text. The redactional note to the chapter is interesting: "A Description of the Standard of the Cross, Which the Romans Now Call the Labarum." With reference to what I noted already about Lactantius and the vision found in the Panegyrici Latini, this seems to me to reinforce once more the idea that what we might have here is a later Christian interpolation of an originally pagan account. Perhaps this interpolation was made easier by the fact that, as Chadwick suggests, "Constantine was not aware of any mutual exclusiveness between Christianity and his faith in the Unconquered Sun."

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