A mere suggestion on the road to Rome

In 312, Constantine saw something before he fought for the city of Rome.

Over twenty years later, Constantine told the church historian Eusebius what happened. There was a mysterious daytime vision with writing, a call to conquer, seen by the whole army …

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.

and then a dream in which Christ himself is the director …

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.

Here was a “road to Damascus” moment, a clear call by Christ that created an ardent follower ([1] [2] [3]).

But the evidence contradicts. In the other and much earlier account of this event, the Christian rhetor Lactantius said …

Constantine was directed in a dream to cause the heavenly sign to be delineated on the shields of his soldiers, and so to proceed to battle. He did as he had been commanded, and he marked on their shields the letter X, with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round thus at the top, being the cipher of CHRIST.

A dream. Directed by the unidentified. The Chi-Rho on soldiers’ shields. For Christ at fight. Which soldiers? Probably his personal guard.

And around this time, the senate in Rome dedicated an arch in thanks for Constantine’s victory. Credit goes to the inspiration of divinity but the Chi Rho is nowhere to be found. Some coins that decade show it but none depict a dream, much less the vision described to Eusebius.

Instead of Eusebius’ clear moment, we have a slow journey from the multi-faced world of Greco-Roman divinity to the singular path of Christ ([1]). Indeed, Christ came often. As Eusebius said in a speech to Constantine … 

the abundant manifestations which your Saviour has accorded you of his presence, and the oft-repeated visions of himself which have attended you in the hours of sleep

He had to. There was much tradition to whisper away.

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