Section 4. Appearance of the Cross in the sky to Constantine

{271} 142. WHEN Constantine was on his march to Rome to attack Maxentius, at a time when he was as yet undecided about the truth of Christianity, a luminous Cross is said to have appeared in the sky at mid-day, in sight of himself and his army, with the inscription, "In this conquer." [Note 1] His victory and his conversion followed. The date of these transactions is A.D. 311 and 312.

143. Now, here the fact reported is plainly miraculous. No known physical cause could have formed a sentence of Greek or Latin in the air. It has {272} sometimes been supposed, indeed, that letters were not really exhibited, but only some emblem, such as a crown, which denoted conquest [Note 2]; and that then what remains of the phenomenon may be resolved into meteoric effects. But since any extraordinary appearance at such a juncture, whatever be its physical cause, or whether it have one or no, is undeniably the result of an immediate Divine superintendence, it is not easy to see what is gained by an hypothesis of this nature. If in matter of fact our Lord was then really addressing Constantine, it seems trifling to make it a grave point to prove that He did so in this way, and not in that. In such a case nature either would be made to minister, or would be no impediment, to His Will; and His Will to address Constantine is sufficient surely by itself to account for a contravention or suspension of the laws of nature, and to overcome the presumption which prim facie lies against the miracle. That He should address Constantine intelligibly is a miracle already. And surely to sway and overrule the physical system towards a moral object, is a miracle only different in degree from an interference with it for such an object. For this is to impose on nature a constraint beyond and above itself, i.e. a supernatural constraint; and if it is subordinate to moral laws, why should it not sometimes give way to them? In short, does the case {273} ever stand thus, if it may be reverently said that the Almighty would address man, unless nature stood in the way? Does He fetter Himself with its laws, who, even in the days of His flesh, did but submit to them, in order in the event to dispense with them? Such explanations, then, either imply that the inviolability of creation is more sacred than a Purpose of the Creator, or they tamper with historical evidence for an insufficient end. To mutilate the evidence is to incur all the difficulty of denying it, with none of the gain. So this question may be passed over.

144. In the next place the priori aspect of the reported miracle, if it is so to be called [Note 3], is in its favour. The approaching conversion of the Roman empire, in the person of its head, was as great an event as any in Christian history. Constantine's submission of his power to the Church has been a pattern for all Christian monarchs since, and the commencement of her state establishment to this day; and, on the other hand, the fortunes of the Roman empire are in prophecy apparently connected with her in a very intimate manner, which we are not yet able fully to comprehend. If any event might be said to call for {274} a miracle, it was this; whether to signalize it or to bring it about. Thus it was that the fate of Babylon was written on the wall of the banqueting hall; also portents in the sky preceded the final destruction of Jerusalem, and are predicted in Scripture as forerunners of the last day. Moreover our Lord's prophecy of "the Sign of the Son of Man in heaven" [Note 4] was anciently understood of the Cross. And, further, the sign of the cross was at the time, and had been from the beginning, a received symbol and instrument of Christian devotion, and cannot be ascribed to a then rising superstition. Tertullian speaks of it as an ordinary rite for sanctifying all the ordinary events of the day; it was used in exorcisms; and, what is still more to the point, it is regarded by St. Justin, Tertullian, and Minucius as impressed with a providential meaning upon natural forms and human works, as well as introduced by divine authority into the types of the Old Testament.

One would be inclined then to receive the wonderful event in question on very slight evidence, if that evidence were good as far as it went; and now let us see what, and of what kind, is producible in its behalf. It is on the whole sufficient, yet not without its difficulties. {275}

145. In the panegyrical oration delivered immediately upon the victory, the speaker, who is a Pagan, asks, "What God, what Divine Presence encouraged thee, that when nearly all thy companions in arms and commanders not only had secret misgivings but had open fears of the omen, yet against the counsels of men, against the warnings of the diviners, thou didst by thyself perceive that the time of delivering the city was come?" [Note 5] Now here an omen is mentioned of a public nature, which dismayed the heathen priests and soldiers; it is remarkable too that what it was is not mentioned. All this would be sufficiently accounted for, if it was the sign of the Cross which they had seen; a spectacle of all others of bad augury with the hierarchy of the pagan city [Note 6]. And in corroboration of this interpretation, Eusebius, in his own account of the miracle, tells us that on sight of the apparition Constantine, who was still fluctuating between Christianity and Paganism, was at first much distressed from a doubt what it portended.

146. Next, about the year 314 or 315, that is, three years after the event, Constantine erected his {276} triumphal arch at Rome, which still remains, with an inscription testifying that he had gained the victory "instinctu divinitatis, mentis magnitudine." [Note 7]

147. Further, before [Note 8] 314, Lactantius or Ccilius, as we determine the author, published his De Mortibus Persecutorum; in which he asserts, not in a rhetorical tone or in the form of panegyric, but in the grave style of history, that Constantine, in consequence of a dream, caused the initial letter of the word Christ to be inscribed on the shields of his soldiers, and that he thereby gained the victory. "Constantine," he says, "was admonished in sleep to mark the heavenly sign of God on the shields, and so to engage the enemy. He did as he was bidden, and marks the name of Christ on the shields, by the letter χ drawn across them, with the top circumflexed. Armed with this sign, his troops take up arms. The enemy marches to meet them without their imperial Commander, and passes over the bridge," etc. [Note 9] Here is no mention of an apparition, but still the author speaks of the "heavenly sign."

148. On the 1st of March, 321, Nazarius, a pagan {277} orator of celebrity, pronounced, apparently at Rome, and not in Constantine's presence, a panegyrical oration upon the Emperor. In this he speaks of the assistance which the latter had received against Maxentius in the following terms:—"Thou didst fight, O Emperor, by compulsion; but it was thy best claim upon victory, that thou didst not seek it. Peace was denied to him for whom victory was destined ... In short, it is the talk of all the Gallic provinces, that hosts were seen, who bore on them the character of divine messengers. And though heavenly things use not to come to sight of man, in that the simple and uncompounded substance of their subtle nature escapes his heavy and dim perception, yet those, thy auxiliaries, bore to be seen and to be heard; and when they had testified to thy high merit, they fled from the contagion of mortal eyes. And what accounts are given of that vision, of the vigour of their frames, the size of their limbs, the eagerness of their zeal! Their flashing bosses shot an awful radiance, and their heavenly arms burned with a fearful light; such did they come, that they might be understood to be thine. And thus they spoke, thus they were heard to say, 'We seek Constantine; we go to aid Constantine.' Even divine natures have their boastings, and heavenly natures are touched by ambition. Warriors who had glided down from heaven, warriors who were divinely sent, even they did glory that they were {278} marching with thee. Their leader, I suppose, was thy father Constantius," etc. [Note 10]

149. It is impossible to doubt from these contemporaneous witnesses, witnesses more exactly contemporaneous than are commonly producible, that some remarkable portent appeared, or was generally believed in, when Constantine was in anticipation of his engagement with Maxentius, and about the time that he first professed Christianity. After all allowances for the rhetoric of Nazarius, his story surely must have had some foundation; by it he is virtually doing homage to a religion which he disowns, though he adroitly converts it to the service of Paganism, by recurring to the old heathen prodigies, such as the appearance of Castor and Pollux, and seeking to authenticate them by the recent apparition. Even if the Cross appeared, he could not be expected to mention it; he could not have done more than he has done. The same may be said for the still earlier orator, who is obliged to allude to the Emperor's Christianity, while he is complimenting him on having rightly interpreted what his friends thought an omen of evil. Lactantius, though he adds nothing to the evidence of the apparition in the sky [Note 11], testifies to the {279} general idea of some wonderful occurrence having attended the conversion of the Emperor. He testifies also to a fact which from its boldness requires accounting for, Constantine's marking the symbol of the Cross upon the arms of his soldiers.

150. Nor is this the only indication of some extraordinary influence then exerted upon the Emperor's mind. Not to dwell on the words already quoted from his arch, which make no express mention of the Cross, we find him even going so far as to form a new military standard, and that is the Labarum, or Standard of the Cross. And on his entering Rome in triumph, he forthwith erected a statue of himself with a Cross in his hand, and an inscription to the effect that "with that saving sign" he had delivered the city from a tyrant. But the most remarkable evidence in point is a medal, extant in the last century, which bears the figure of the Labarum with the very words, "In this sign thou shalt conquer." [Note 12] Thus his assaults upon Paganism and the supernatural explanation of them go together; one and the same auspicious omen is repeated, whether in ensigns, medals, or monuments. And indeed, if we may dare to judge of the course of {280} Providence in this instance by its general laws, it is scarcely possible to think that no divine direction was given to such an instrument of its purposes on so great an occasion. In junctures of such awful moment, nay, in far inferior ones, men are not left alone, but strange impressions come over them, without which they would not have nerve for bold deeds. It was an act surely of no ordinary courage in Constantine to introduce the Labarum into the Roman armies to the virtual disparagement of those standards which had carried them to victory through so many fights, whether we regard the feelings of his soldiers or the misgivings of his own mind.

151. From this strictly contemporaneous testimony little or no part of which can be called ecclesiastical, we seem to gather thus much, that an omen happened to Constantine and his army, which most men thought bad, but which he trusted;—there was some appearance in the heavens visible to all;—some vision granted to himself;—and a Cross,—but where seen does not appear, whether in his dream, or as part of the visible appearance, and in connection with the omen spoken of; we are but able to discern it in its reflection,—upon the shields, helmets, and standards of his forces, and in his public commemorations of his victory.

152. Thus rests the evidence of the miracle in Constantine's lifetime; after his death Eusebius gives the Emperor's own account of it, which certainly does in {281} a remarkable way explain those acts of his which we have been recounting, and combine the scattered rumours which accompanied them. Eusebius declares on the word of Constantine, who confirmed it with an oath, that Constantine on his march saw, together with his whole army, a luminous Cross in the sky above the mid-day sun, with the inscription, "In this conquer;" and that in the ensuing night he had a dream, in which our Lord appeared with the Cross, and directed him to frame a standard like it as a means of victory in his contest with Maxentius. Such is the statement ascribed by Eusebius to Constantine; and it must be added that the historian had no leaning towards over-easiness of belief, as many passages of his history show [Note 13].

153. This then is the state of the argument in behalf of the miracle; on the other hand, there are these two difficulties in the way of receiving it. First, Constantine's testimony, which alone is direct and trustworthy, is not given till many years after the event; moreover, it is given with an oath and in private, though it concerns an occurrence of public {282} notoriety; and it is not published in his lifetime, nor till twenty-six years after the time to which it refers [Note 14]. And next, it is supported by no independent and by no ecclesiastical testimony. "The advocates for the vision," says Gibbon, "are unable to produce a single testimony from the Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries, who in their voluminous writings repeatedly celebrate the triumph of the Church and of Constantine." [Note 15] It is remarkable too that even Eusebius does not mention it in his history, but in his Life of Constantine, as if, instead of its being a public event, it were but a visitation or providence personal to the Emperor.

154. This, however, may be said in reply: It has already been shown that rumours of some or other extraordinary occurrence abounded from almost the time of the Gallic march [Note 16]; Nazarius says that it was the talk of the whole of Gaul; and we see from his own account of it that it was mixed up with fiction, as such popular reports are sure to be. An army is not like {283} a neighbourhood, or a class of society; it is cut off from the world, it has no home, it acts as one man, it is of an incommunicative nature, or at least does not admit of questioning. The troops of Constantine saw the vision, and marched on; they left behind them a vague testimony, which would fall misshapen and distorted on the very ears that heard it, which would soon be filled out with fictitious details because the true were not forthcoming, and which took a pagan form in a country of Pagans. It was not unnatural that under such circumstances Constantine should have been led formally to impart to Eusebius the fact as it really took place; nor, considering the misstatements that abounded, and the apparent unbelief of intelligent Pagans [Note 17], that he should have confirmed his account of it with an oath. Nor is it wonderful that Eusebius should not appeal to living witnesses of it, an omission which Gibbon urges, as if an army, or the constituent parts of an army, had a residence and an address, and that at the distance of twenty-six years; or as if an ecclesiastic, a native of Palestine, must have had many acquaintances among the veterans of Gaul [Note 18]. Nor is it any great difficulty that, in a work professedly panegyrical, and not historical, and written with {284} much oratory of phrase and circumlocution, and continual vagueness and indeterminateness in statement [Note 19], the writer should not have mentioned the time and place of the miraculous occurrence.

155. It is a more serious difficulty that Eusebius's statement is not supported by other Fathers of his own and the following century; yet this is not so great as at first sight appears. It is not pretended that any of them contradicts or interferes with his account of the matter; and at the very time, there were no great ecclesiastical writers to speak one way or the other. The miracle is said to have taken place in 311 or 312; the only writer of note extant during the first fifty years of the century, besides Eusebius is Athanasius; and his writings are taken up with later transactions and a far different subject. Nor does there seem any special reason why later writers should mention it [Note 20]. The real miracle was encompassed with even heathen fables; the classical or philosophical description contained in the panegyric of {285} Nazarius had been almost coeval with its occurrence, and was not likely to prejudice the Church in its favour, and yet was, as far as we know, the only testimony by which it was conveyed to the Fathers of the fourth century. At least Gibbon himself grants that they were not acquainted with Eusebius's statement, and grants it for the very reason that they did not avail themselves of it. He confirms this opinion by the fact of St. Jerome's ignorance of the Life of Constantine, in which Eusebius reports the miracle, a work which he considers "was recovered by the diligence of those who translated or continued his Ecclesiastical History." [Note 21] Nor does it appear why the Fathers of the Church should have mentioned the miracle, even had they known it. It was not a miracle especially addressed to them, or wrought for the uses of the Church at large. It was, first, a fitting rite of inauguration when Christianity was about to take its place among the powers to whom God has given rule over the earth; next, it was an encouragement and direction to Constantine himself and to the Christians who marched with him; but it neither seems to have been intended, nor to have operated, as a display of Divine power to the confusion of infidelity or error. In like manner, while the Fathers appeal to the fiery eruption at the Jewish Temple, because it was the means of a signal triumph over an enemy, on the other hand, {286} they refer to the destruction of Jerusalem without mentioning the prodigies which attended it. The distinction is clear. First, the taking of Jerusalem and the conversion of Constantine were events of a past day; Julian's antichristian attempt was of their own day. Again, the portents in the sky and the luminous Cross did but concur with and, as it were, illustrate the march of events, which was evident to all men without them; but the fire which burst forth when Julian would rebuild the Temple, was in opposition to the apparent course of things, and arrested them and defeated them. It did a deed, whereas the luminous Cross did but herald one.

156. It may be added, that there is a beautiful harmony and contrast in the omens by which the overthrow of Judaism and Paganism were respectively preceded. The omens in the former instance were only evil, for the chosen people was falling away; but since the nations were to be brought into the Church who had hitherto been outcasts, the sign in the heavens in the latter case was the Cross itself, a terror indeed and dismay at first sight to the ignorant Pagan beholders, but their redemption and salvation under the awful compulsion of Him who suffered on it.

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Notes

1. Philostorgius, Nicephorus, and Zonaras say that the inscription was in Latin. Eusebius gives the impression that it was in Greek. So says the Emperor Leo expressly; vid. Grets. de Cruc. tom. ii. p. 37, who, mentioning this difference of statement, ibid., also determines against Brentius that the apparition was that of the Cross with the monogram of χρ, and not merely of the monogram. Rivetus too contends for the monogram only. Cath. Orth. ii. 19, p. 168.
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2. Fabric, Dissert. de Cruce 10.
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3. "Confudit Danus apparitiones Crucis cum miraculis Crucis; etsi enim apparitiones Crucis possunt miracula appellari, Bellarminus tamen apparitiones a miraculis distinxit, miracula vocans ea, qu per Crucem supra natur vim et ordinem patrata sunt." Gretzer de Cruce, iv. 12, p. 253, ed. 1734.
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4. On the sign of the Son of Man being understood of the Cross by the Fathers, vid. G. Voss. Thes. Theolog. xvi. 9. Cornel. a Lapid. in loc. Matt. and Maldonat. in loc.
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5. Baron. Ann. 312, 14.
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6. Julian is said to have found a cross upon the entrails of a victim he was offering in sacrifice; the sight [phriken paresche kai agonian]. Naz. Orat. iv. 54. He upbraids the Christians with their worship of the wood of the Cross, and signing it upon their foreheads and sculpturing it upon their dwellings. Cyril contr. Julian, p. 194.
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7. Burton, however, tells us that "the words instinctu divinitatis are supposed to have been added afterwards, as the marble is there rather sunk in, and the holes for the bronze letters are confused." Rome, p. 215. Yet the inscription reads oddly without them.
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8. i.e. Before the first breach between Constantine and Licinius. Vid. Gibbon, Ch. xx. note 40.
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9. De M. P. 44.
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10. Ap. Baron. Ann. 312. 11.
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11. Socrates, Philostorgius, Gelasius, Nicephorus, say that the Cross was in the sky. Sozomen first speaks of it as seen in a dream, and then, on the authority of Eusebius, describes the apparition in the sky. Rufinus also gives both accounts.
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12. So says Gibbon, referring to the Abb du Voisin and a Jesuit, the Pre de Grainville. Such a medal is not described in Baronius, Gretser, or Lipsius. Fabricius says, "Nullus extat nummus, nullum vetus monumentum, quo crux, in cœlo a Constantino visa, diserte confirmatur." Script. Grc. lib. v. c. 40. (t. 6. p. 706, ed. Harles.)
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13. E.g. He omits mention of the dove in the martyrdom of St. Polycarp, of the miracles of St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, etc. In such miracles as he does record, he is careful not to commit himself to an absolute assent to them, but commonly introduces qualifying phrases. And his answer to Hierocles is written in a very sober tone. Vid. Kestner. de Euseb. Auct. et Fid. 56, 57.
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14. This objection is urged by Gibbon, Ch. 20. Lardner, Credib. ii. 70. 3. Hoornebeek ap. Noris. Hist. Donat. App. 8.
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15. Ch. xx. note 52.
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16. It is remarkable, however, as is observed by Gothofred. Diss. in Philostorg. i. 6, that Optatianus Porphyrius, in his Panegyric. ad Constant. written in the year 326, does not mention the apparition, except that he calls the Cross "cœleste signum." He wrote, however, from banishment, though the place is not known.
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17. Vid. Gelas. Conc. Nic. i. 4.
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18. Eusebius says that he once or sometimes happened to see the Labarum. [o de kai emas ophthalmois pote sunebe paralabein]. V. Const. i. 30.
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19. Vid. infr. n. 157. note t.
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20. Columbus, however, in Lactant. de Mort. Pers. 44, refers to St. Gregory Nazianzen's second invective against Julian, where he speaks of the Cross seen in the air when the works at the Temple were miraculously stopped, and observes that he certainly would have alluded to Constantine's Cross, had he known of it. Yet surely he would have been going out of his way to do so, considering it was but one portent out of many which he was recounting, and another Cross had been seen over Jerusalem in St. Cyril's time.
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21. Ibid. Ch. xx. note 52. [Vid. Danz. de Euseb. Csar. p. 71.]
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