Friday, October 28, 2005

On October 28th in military history....312 A.D.

On October 28th in military history….312 A.D. Roman Emperor Constantine the Great gains control of the Western Roman Empire by defeating Roman Emperor Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. Constantine was the son of Tetrarch Constantius Chlorus. The ruling system at the time was a tetrarchy where the Roman Empire was split between four different rulers who ruled four different parts of the empire, Gaul (France and Britain), Italy, Illyricum (Yugoslavia and Greece) and Oriens (Turkey and Asia Minor). Two of the tetrarchs were considered senior ("Augusti") and the other two were considered junior ("Caesares") and responsible to the two Augusti and intended as the future successors to the two Augusti. Constantius Chlorus was a junior Tetrach and ruled Gaul and when he died in July, 306 AD in Eboracum (York) in Britain, Constantine was proclaimed Augustus by his father’s troops, although the tetrarchy did not provide for hereditary succession. Back in Rome, the son (Maxentius) of Constantius’ predecessor (Maximian) was proclaimed as Augustus. So, for the next two years, both men claimed the title of Augustus until 308 when a conference proclaimed Maxentius as a senior Emperor (along with Galerius) and Constantine was named as junior Emperor and allowed to rule Gaul and Britain. This really didn’t solve the problem and there was a still lot of "bad blood" between the two men even though they were related by Constantine’s marriage to the sister of Maxentius. Finally, in 311 AD, the other senior Emperor, Galerius, died and the stage was set for a classic Roman power struggle.

During the summer of 312, Constantine decided resolve the dispute by force and prepared for war. He easily overran northern Italy and was marching on Rome. Maxentius decided to make his stand in front of Milvian Bridge (Ponte Milvio in Italian), a stone bridge which carried the Via Flaminia road across the Tiber river about 10 miles from Rome. He needed to hold the bridge to keep Constantine out of Rome since the Roman Senate would favor whoever held the city. Maxentius was confident of hold the bridge since his forces outnumbered Constantine forces 4-to-1.

The night before, Constantine reportedly had a vision where he looked toward the setting sun. A cross appeared emblazoned on the sun and Constantine either saw or heard the Greek phase "With this sign, you shall conquer" (or something close to that). So impressed was he by the vision that Constantine had the symbol placed on the shields of his army before going into battle.

Maxentius decided to place his forces on the far bank of the Tiber River, between Constantine’s army and the bridge leading to Rome. As the battle progressed, Constantine’s forces starting pushing Maxentius’ forces back to towards the Tiber River. Seeing that the battle was starting to go badly for him, Maxentius decided to retreat back across the Milvian Bridge and make another stand in Rome itself. Normally during ancient warfare, it was very hard to keep a "tactical withdrawal" from degenerating into a panic-stricken "sauve-qui-peut". The usual result was that the victorious army slaughtered the panic-stricken retreating army. Unfortunately, since there was only one escape route across the Tiber River (the Milvian Bridge), Maxentius’ tactical withdrawal degenerated very quickly into the aforementioned "sauve-qui-peut" as the retreating forces became congested and bunched up at the bridge. Seeing the opposing forces starting to panic and run away, Constantine’s forces pressed home the battle and started to inflict very heavy losses on Maxentius’ retreating forces. A boat bridge was set up along side the bridge to help evacuate the retreating forces, but when it collapsed, the men stranded on the north bank of the Tiber River were either taken prisoner or killed. Maxentius was unable to get back across the bridge and was found among the dead.
Constantine advanced into Rome and was declared the sole Western Roman Augustus. He credited his victory to the god of the Christians and ordered the end of religious persecution within the Western Roman Empire, the same as he did in Gaul and Britain in 306 AD. Now, with the Western Roman Emperor as its protector, Christianity suddenly grew in popularity and power to give us the Roman Catholic Church that we know today.


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