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New in our coin shop: History in Coins - 28th October 312: Constantine the Great wins at the Milvian Bridge

 

October 28th 312, north of Rome, on the banks of the Tiber

Constantine, son of an army man from the Balkans and an innkeeper’s daughter, has made it. He is the undisputed Emperor of the Western Roman Empire. The river in front of him is the cruel evidence of his ambitions: The Tiber is swollen with the corpses of a hostile army fleeing into the river in panic of his troops. Even Constantine’s rival for the Emperorship Maxentius, leader of the defeated army, drowned in the cold waves.

What has happened?

July 25th 306, Eboracum in Britain

Constantius Chlorus, Constantine’s father and Emperor of the Western Empire dies suddenly during a punitive action against the Scottish tribes. His son who accompanies him during this campaign is declared Emperor by the soldiers present immediately. But the western part of the Empire already has an Emperor: Severus. He was chosen to be the official successor of Constantius the year before. This is what the new Roman system of rule wants: The tetrarchy.

Emperor Diocletian introduced this system in 293. He splits the Empire into west and east and chooses another man to be his Co-Emperor. Both of them bear the title Augustus and they rule one half of the Empire each. But the Emperor of the eastern part has the higher authority. The eastern Roman Emperor grants the title Caesar to two other men. The Senior emperors adopt one of the men each to have help in administration. After their resignation or the death of the Augusti the Caesars will rise to be senior Emperors and will choose new junior Emperors. This college of four sovereigns (thus the name from ancient Greek: The rule of four) shall bring stability to a realm shattered by crisis.

Constantine‘s rise doesn’t follow these rules and is thus illegal. The other Emperors don’t want to fight against the usurper. The Emperors Galerius and Maximinus Daia are controlling the eastern areas. Those areas extend to Armenia and Mesopotamia and are thus far away from Constantine’s territories in Britain and Gaul. And Severus has a much bigger problem in his part of the Empire: In Rome the soldiers rebel and declare Maxentius as Emperor. Severus besieges Rome but soon has to give up and retreat to Ravenna. He dies soon after and leaves the throne vacant.

At the end Galerius has to accept the facts and declares Constantine to be Caesar of the western part. Maxentius is ignored, even though he controls Italy.

November 28th 308, Carnuntum in Pannonia

After two years the situation in the Empire is still tense. Finally six men want to rule Rome. Galerius and Maximinus Daia still rule the east. The western part has now three Augusti. Maxentius still pretends to possess the title. His father Maximian, a resigned senior Emperor, wants to be an Emperor again. And Galerius wants Licinius to be Augustus in the West – although he wasn’t a junior Emperor before. Constantine still is Caesar in the West.

To solve this confused situation Galerius asks the inventor of the  tetrarchy Diocletian for help. The retired Emperor invites to a council in Carnuntum (todays Austria). The meeting clears things up: Galerius and Maximinus Daia are confirmed in their status and Maximian is convinced of another resignation. Maxentius is still not accepted. Licinius rises up to be Augustus of the West and Constantine is Caesar next to him.

The nomination of Licinius is not lawful under the tetrarchic system. Constantine should have followed as senior Emperor after the death of Severus. But Constantine seems to accept the conference’s results. A fragile peace settles in the realm.

Spring 311, Nicomedia in Asia Minor

Galerius dies after a quick and serious illness. Now it’s Constantine’s time and he provides readies his armies. First of all he conquers Hispania. In spring 312 he invades Italy and makes Maxentius his enemy. The always ignored pretender has deployed 100.000 soldiers to northern Italy and has fortified several cities. Constantine’s army only mounts up to 40.000 fighters but they are battle wise and strong. Quickly they conquer northern Italy and some cities greet Constantine with open gates.

Finally both armies meet north of Rome. Maxentius wants to overcome his enemy with a ruse: His vanguard shall fight against Constantine and then retreat. Maxentius wants to encircle the fighting army while Constantine follows his fleeing troops. Therefore he has destroyed the Milvian Bridge leading over Tiber and has built up an auxiliary bridge. But things show up differently: While moving back the soldiers panic and Maxentius and lots of his soldiers drown in the Tiber.

When you want to believe the story not only Constantine’s strategic talent has gifted him this win. Eusebius von Caesarea, a church historian, says that Constantine and his men have seen a cross consisting out of light before the sun with the words through this you will win (Latin: In hoc signo vinces) while on the move. No one could explain this sign. The night before the battle Constantine dreams of Jesus Christ and the Saviour orders him to carry this sign as a sign of victory. So he puts it on all of his standards.

Whether the god of the Christians has granted him this win or not - Constantine proclaims this interpretation only later – one thing is clear: Constantine is the sole ruler over the Western Roman Empire. After the battle he moves into Rome and presents the cut head of his enemy Maxentius to the people. He lets confirm his status as Augustus by the senate and he erects a marble statue of himself, 12 meters high. He orders a triumph arc to be build and leaves because his ambitions burn on inside him. He wants to become an Emperor of the whole Empire – the only one. In 324 it will become true.


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