Reprinted with kind permission of the author himself, who years ago had to endure yours truly as a student. Errors in transcription accrue to the latter.
(Apologies to Gerry & The Pacemakers) Some amiable marginalia to Patrick Mahoney’s excellent piece [FT275.49] on Constantine’s vision
Lactantius’s (c250 – c. 325) Latin account precedes the Greek one of Eusebius. He doesn’t claim Constantine himself as the source, but must have been close to the Emperor, the latter having appointed him tutor to royal son Crispus c. 317.
Depending which text you read — there has been much editorial emendation (for details. TD Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius. Cambridge, Mass. 1981, p309 n146), one (J. Rougé) deleted the entire sign description – the emblem was either the Chi-Rho Christogram or the Staurogram, already established the third century symbol of the Cross (JL Creed, Lactantius: De Mortibus Persecutorum , Oxford, 1984.119 n9).
Lactantius later (DMP, cb46) claims another miraculous dream, an angel appearing in Constantine’s then colleague and fellow-Christian Licinius prior to another civil war battle. As Mahoney says, these ages abounded in miraculous visions. For easy example, the barbarian general Gainas had an angelic warning during civil strife c. 400; the Virgin Mary made several guest appearances over Constantinople (Virgin on the ridiculous?), and so on.
Barnes (806 1147) suggests the story may also have been inspired by Judas’s dream in 2 Maccabees 15. Other possible parallels could include the Rain Miracle wrought by the prayers of Christian soldiers in Marcus Aurelius’s army (see, ag. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, bks ch5), plus the simple fact that Roman rulers from Romulus on had dreams and visions good and bad at critical moments ( Liry, Roman History, bk1 ch7 para1: Suetonius, Life of Augustus, ca 95 — same vulturine phenomenon.
Incidentally, there was a more fortean moment on the other side at this critical battle. The pagan Greek chronicler Zosimus (New History, bk2 ch16) reports, “When Maxentius had led his forces out of Rome and crossed the bridge, owls in endless number flew down and covered the wall,” a sight that encouraged Constantine to join battle.
Eusebius’s Life of Constantine abounds in dubious details of TG Elliott, “Eusebian Frauds in the Vita Constantini,” Phoenix 45, 1991, 162-71. Discrepancies between this and his Ecclesiastical History have induced some scholars to doubt his authorship of the biography.
Mahoney’s solar-ice particles explanation was anticipated by e.g., AHM Jones, Constantine and the Conversion of Europe (1949). p96; Barnes, p306 n147; P Weiss, “The Vision of Constantine”. Journal of Roman Archaeology 16 (2003) pp 237-59. Barnes adduces pictures of solar halos from Sky and Telescope 54 (1977/8), p185 – available to me.
The TV Ancient Rome meteorite notion reflects the theory proposed some years earlier (BBC news bulletin “Space Impact Suvod Christianity” 23 June 2003) by Swedish geologist Jens Ormo who claimed to have found the actual crater and confirmed its right time period by radiocarbon dating.
For some entertaining fictions, see Colin Thubron’s novel Emperor (Penguin, 1991) Fort of course abounds with solar phenomena and meteorites.
Mahoney is right to emphasise links with solar worship, especially Sol Invictus. The latter, previously number one with emperor Aurelian (270-275) was the patron deity of Constantine’s imperial father Constantius (Barnes, pp 12+290,n38 for source references). Constantine, soon after this battle and for several years afterwards, continued to strike coins (above) linking himself iconographically with this solar patron (Barnes, pp36, 48, 309, nn 47,49).
Apart from dreams and visions, Constantine was also beneficiary of a historical fraud, namely the invention by one of his anonymous Latin panegyricists (no6, para2, cf. the Augustan History’s biography of Claudius, ch1 para3. plus Barnes,vpp35, 301 nn60-2) of a family connection with the perfect prince Claudius II (258-70).
Given this and his distinctly un-Christian rule (e.g., liquidation of son Crispus and wife Fausta, barbarous punishments for errant slaves, reduction of the peasantry to serfdom), redeemed – the hoped – by death-bed baptism at the hands of Eusebius, we are justified in pronouncing his name CON-stantine.
Classical Corner 138: Fortean Times 276 (June, 2011), p. 19.