Archaeologists have discovered remarkable physical evidence of Constantine’s defining victory at the Milvian Bridge
A few years ago, an open-air food market I frequented near the Milvian Bridge in Rome was moved a short distance to a covered site where it is part of a shopping complex. Only recently I discovered the archaeological importance of that site, which convinced me Rome sometimes forgets its past or does not want to remember it – even when it is of global significance.
During excavations by the Rome Archaeological Authority before the shopping complex was built, remains were found of a clash that determined the course of Christianity: the battle won by Constantine on October 28, 312, against a rival for command of the Roman Empire.
According to a later account by Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, on the eve of the battle Constantine saw a cross in the sky and heard of voice promising: “In hoc signo vinces” (“In this sign you will conquer.”) A year after his victory, he recognised Christianity as one of the religions within the empire, whereas previously Christians had suffered intermittent persecution.
Constantine had the first St Peter’s Basilica built and favoured Christians, though he did not make Christianity the state religion. (Theodosius I finally did so in 380.)
Diocletian had introduced a system of shared rule of the empire. Constantius Chlorus, Constantine’s father, shared control of the western part of the empire with Maxentius. On the death of his father, Constantine was proclaimed emperor by his troops in what is now York, and he marched towards Rome where his rival Maxentius ruled. It was the beginning of a civil war which lasted 18 years.
Constantine, who was 32, crossed the Alps and conquered northern Italy using innovative mobile tactics. He took the via Flaminia for Rome, Maxentius having reinforced the city’s fortifications in preparation for a siege. Despite this, at the last minute Maxentius decided to leave the walled city and cross the Milvian Bridge over the Tiber to face Constantine on the other side.
Perhaps he was persuaded to do so by those who divined the future by examining the entrails of sacrificed animals, or by the readings of the allegedly prophetic Sibylline Books. Whatever the reason, the result was disastrous. With the river at their backs, Maxentius’s troops had nowhere to retreat and regroup.
Somehow, after reaching the other side, Maxentius made the Milvian Bridge uncrossable but, a little upstream, had prepared a temporary pontoon bridge of linked boats which could be sabotaged if Constantine’s forces tried to pursue his own across the river. Under the weight of their armour, the pursuers would drown.
Constantine, who had left many of his troops behind, used 40,000 soldiers against Maxentius’s 100,000. Both armies were multinational with a non-Roman majority from Germanic tribes, the Danubian provinces, the Middle East and elsewhere.
Contemporary versions give differing accounts but it seems that Constantine’s cavalry harried both sides of the defending army before his main force thrust at the centre with success. Although the emperor’s guard offered sustained resistance, the bulk of his troops fled to the boat bridge, engulfing Maxentius himself. The bridge collapsed under their weight: the defenders had been caught in their own trap. Maxentius’s body was fished from the river and decapitated.
As no remains of the battle had been found, it was always presumed that they had been lost forever because of frequent Tiber floods and the expansion of the city beyond the bridge. But as excavations for the new covered market deepened, archaeologists uncovered first Renaissance drainage works, then those of the late Roman Empire, and also coins from the Constantine era. Near them were metallic objects which, for the first time, provide material evidence of Constantine’s battle – formerly recorded only in written texts and on the Arch of Constantine beside the Colosseum, whose sculptural frieze shows almost cinematic scenes of the battle. These include drowning troops, Maxentius’s archers (who switched sides), and two of Constantine’s soldiers blowing on a tuba-like instrument.
Three silvered metal sheets from the excavation are thought to be the edge of a peaked helmet of the kind favoured by Constantine. Also unearthed nearby were three bronze tubes said to be part of a wind instrument, like a tuba, used by infantry to announce an attack. The same deposit had a triangular head of an arrow. A further find was a sickle which, when attached to lances by nomadic tribes of Thrace and Dacia (Romania and some surrounding territories), could serve both as a weapon and an agricultural tool. The last find was a bronze knob which was part of the trappings for cavalry in the Roman army.
The excavation has now been covered to allow the construction of a huge electronic goods store and, beneath it, the covered market with below a garage. At the market there are apples, farro, pork and other food the 4th-century Romans ate still on sale. But the excavation site has been buried and there is no transparent section of the flooring or a plaque to indicate that this was the site of one of history’s crucial battles. It suggests Rome is suffering from a poor memory.
Desmond O’Grady is a journalist, author and playwright living in Rome