Originally created 08/31/97

Strange encounters: Bishop credits sign with sudden conversion



Rome was worried.

For more than three centuries her old gods had been under attack by the followers of a new religion, Christianity.

To stem the tide, Rome's rulers had resorted to harsh punishment and executions. In the name of Jupiter, Apollo, Minerva and other "immortals" who had held sway in the empire's capital for centuries, Christians were routinely beaten, tortured, mutilated, decapitated and imprisoned.

Then, all at once, it stopped. Almost overnight Christianity became the official state religion.

Some scholars credit Emperor Constantine with the change. According to an account written shortly after Constantine's death in 337 by Bishop Eusebius, it happened in October 312, when the emperor was marching on Rome to reclaim it from his rival, Maxentius.

As Constantine approached the city, he looked up and saw a cross in the flaming rays of the sun. Emblazoned below the cross were the words, "In this sign conquer." That very night Christ is said to have appeared to the emperor, commanding him to lead his army forward to victory.

The next day Constantine ordered workman to fashion a standard made of gold, studded with precious jewels, and bearing a monogram symbolizing his fealty to Christ.

Behind the ensign - and, according to some accounts, with a special sign of the cross painted on every shield - Constantine's soldiers defeated the enemy at the Milvian Bridge on the River Tiber. Constantine entered Rome victorious, and from that day on, a committed Christian.

Did Constantine have the experience that Eusebius describes?

A number of questions have been raised. To begin with, why was such a startling revelation kept secret until after the emperor's death? How, too, would it have been possible to create an elaborate bejeweled standard in a single morning, almost on the very day of battle?

And why, after being converted to Christianity in such a miraculous way, was the emperor not baptized as a Christian until the last year of his life?

Historians believe that in an age of superstition stories about divine visions were bound to gain currency. Everybody at the time, pagan or Christian, believed in miracles; and the wonder of Constantine's conversion as narrated by Eusebius had a tremendous impact not only on the bishop's contemporaries but also on many generations to come.

There can be little doubt, however, that something happened to the emperor on the eve of his entrance into Rome. Some scholars have suggested that his "vision" may have been caused by the what meteorologists call the "halo phenomenon," in which ice crystals in the upper atmosphere form light rings around the sun.

Very occasionally, such rings interlock in a pattern that can suggest a cross to some viewers.

In any event, Constantine was certainly not a Christian before his victory at Milvian Bridge.of the faith.}

For the rest of his life his imperial armies marched behind the sacred labarum, the name given the banner on which Constantine's monogram of Christ was inscribed. And they never failed to emerge victorious in hoc signo (in this sign).

Syndicated writer Randall Floyd lives in Augusta.