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What if Constantine had seen this instead ?!


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Eusebius wrote about Constantine I having had a vision before his battle with Maxentius - a cross that appeared in the sky, accompanied by the words "in this sign you will be victorious" (which appears on a coin type of Constantius II - IN HOC SIGNO VICTOR ERIS). Separately an account by Lactantius (generally more reliable) records an earlier vision that Constantine had together with his troops while marching across Gaul - two wreaths appearing in the sky, which he took a a message from the sun god Apollo causing him to go pray at a nearby sanctuary to Apollo.

Nowadays it seems to be broadly accepted that these two visions were one and the same (Eusebius had no problem with tweaking the facts to fit his story), and that what Constantine actually saw was some form of "sun dogs" where ice crystals in the air can cause all sorts of interesting diffraction patterns to appear. Certainly there are patterns that do look like a cross, or like a wreath within a wreath.



With these in mind, I was interested to see the photo below the other day, which someone just saw in Montana, described as a rotating(!) spiral of light. It also has some structure in the center which could be seen as an eagle's head if one chose to!


I have to wonder, tongue-somewhat-in-cheek, how it might have changed Constantine's religious convictions if he had seen this instead ?!

It's amazing what light will do in the right circumstances... Here's another interesting rare phenomena "light pillars".


Beam me up, Scotty!


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Actually.... Historians recently found evidence of extraterrestrial interference at the battle, as shown by this ancient Roman photograph. As you can clearly see, the lights are not caused by the sun 😄  


Cool photos by the way. 

And here's a relevant coin:


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I also have read that it was the Chi-Rho he saw and caused to be painted on his soldiers shields before the battle. Certainly Christ would have intervened on the side of the guy whose greatest enemies (perhaps) were within his own family, as history says? He may have had some kind of stress-induced psychotic break instead, seeing visions in the heavens.

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Posted (edited)
57 minutes ago, Ancient Coin Hunter said:

I also have read that it was the Chi-Rho he saw and caused to be painted on his soldiers shields before the battle

Not quite ... how Lactantius actually described the symbol was "transversa X littera, summo capite circumflexo", which translates as "the letter X, on it's side, with the top bent". This sounds more like a Tau-Rho than a Chi-Rho, but I don't think that is quite right either. The actual symbol that Lactantius is describing does in fact appear on a postumous coin of Constantine, and looks like this:


It seems highly unlikely that Constantine's army of tens of thousands of men would have just happened to have access to the paint necessary to draw any symbols on their shields the night before or morning of battle, or would be of a mind to do that anyway. Most of the army at this date would not have been Christian, nor would have been privvy to what Constantine had been dreaming about the night before.

However, that said, there is this rather interesting steelyard weight from the Princeton museum that shows Constantine with a similar symbol (but more of a Tau-Rho) on his shield.



Different (but similar) weight, from Berlin., shown above, to illustrate how these were used.

What's interesting about the Princeton weight is that the shield also has the horned insignia of the Cornuti (literally "horned") roman army auxiliary unit on it, which also appears on the arch of Constantine, and may therefore be historically correct.



So, while it seems very unlikely that any sizeable contingent of Constantine's army would have been painting anything, let alone a Chi-Rho (at least based on the detailed symbol that Lactantius describes) on their shields the night before (or day of) the battle, conceivably some of the Cornuti did have this symbol on their shields, as someone has visualized below (picture from Pinterest - unfortunately I didn't record who created it).


It's very interesting why that steelyard weight of Constantine would show him with the shield of an auxiliary unit (round/oval shaped, as well as with the Cornuti insignia) rather the the rectangular scutum of the regular army!


Edited by Heliodromus
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Interesting stuff, for sure. This is an endlessly fascinating topic.

Sometimes people see what they want to see as well, or report it as such to fulfill an agenda. Was Constantine looking for a sign? Before a decisive battle, he probably was. People often "see" what they are looking for, whether it actually existed or not.

Also, could Constantine have taken, knowingly or unknowingly, some form of minor hallucinogen prior to the battle? Drugs, or even sometimes bad food, can produce visions based on the mind's current preoccupations. "Sun dogs" are an interesting possibility, though, especially if combined with a mild hallucinogen.

He may have also seen nothing and scribes, or Constantine himself, subsequently threw in the vision for "extra flavor." I think it's generally agreed that what we now call "history" didn't exist back then. But propaganda certainly did.

I suspect the reporting of "the vision" was some form of propaganda, created by either Constantine himself or later writers. Without further evidence, that's more believable and likely than an actual divine signal, a gross hallucination, or the coincidence of a "sun dog," or some other kind of natural phenomenon, occurring at that particular moment in time. Or, perhaps, a hallucination or some natural phenomenon inspired the creation of "a vision?" That also seems probable. Also, if Constantine did actually see something, did he report what he actually saw or just an interpretation of what he actually thought he saw? Sadly, historical phenomenology doesn't exist, so we don't know.

I of course have no evidence for any of this (apart from countless examples of political propaganda recorded over the centuries). I have only speculations. But I think Constantine's vision will always remain in the realm of speculation. And I enjoy speculation and "what ifs" as much as the next person. The "sun dog" theory is really intriguing, but I suspect Constantine actually saw nothing or, at the very least, he thought he saw something or he wanted to see something. But will we ever really know? Probably not without time travel.

Sometimes the past is as inexplicable as the future.

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Posted (edited)

I just realized that I got the source for the vision of Apollo wrong. That one comes from a panegyric, delivered c.310 AD (the "Panegyric of Constantine", from "The Panegyrici Latini"). There doesn't seem to be any reason to doubt that Constantine had visited and benefacted the temple to Apollo, but whether he had really seen double wreaths in the sky, or just claimed to have done so, we don't know. His army was with him, but there is no report of them also seeing this "vision", which would have been the case if it was an atmospheric phenomena, so hard to say. The historical context for this is that Constantine's "auctor imperii", Maximianus, is dead, and in this same panegyric the author is for the first time reporting Constantine's ficticious descent from Claudius II - apparently feeling the need for some other form of legitimacy (imperial descent). It's around this same date (coinage reform of c.310AD) that Constantine aligns himself with Sol as "SOLI INVICTO COMITI" (companion), which is similarly convenient, and could even have been premised on this (ficticious or not) vision of Apollo.

This reported event of c.310 AD, certainly a visit to the temple of Apollo, is the occasion that most plausibly (but who knows!) might have been something real - witnessing sun dogs in the form of the double wreaths he reported.

Lactantius (De Mortibus Persecutorum, Ch.44) didn't write about Apollo, but rather only about a DREAM (not vision) Constantine had on the night before the battle with Maxentius (in late 312 AD), when he was directed to put this "transversa X littera, summo capite circumflexo" symbol on the shields of his soldiers. A dream is of course entirely possible (whether or not it actually occurred), but the practicality of painting thousands of shields on what would then be the morning of battle seems highly unlikely, and would surely have been reported by Eusebius if it had actually been done. But, one assumes there must have been some basis of truth to this account, so perhaps some contingent such as the Cornuti did have some such symbol on their shields, despite this NOT being depicted on the Arch of Constantine ?

The most problematic account, naturally, is that of Eusebius (Vita Constantini, Ch. XXVIII) who is also writing about events on the day+night before the battle with Maxentius, but rather than reporting just a dream as Lactantius had, Eusebius reports a vision of a cross in the sky, accompanied by the (in greek) "in this [sign], conquor" words, and claims that Constantine's entire army had witnessed this too! For this account to be true, Constantine's entire army would have had to have been tripping! Even if we discount the obviously made up words in the sky, this would have been the wrong time of year for ice crystals in the air and any sun-dogs type phenomena. Campaign season started in Spring, and Constantine first entered Italy across the Cottian Alps then battled his way across northern Italy before finally crossing to Rome via the Via Flaminia. By the time he arrived in Rome it would have been closer to summer. Lactantius account of (only) a dream seems more believable.

Further, Eusebius doesn't mention Constantine's army painting any symbols on their shields, but instead has a different twist. Eusebius reports that on the night before his battle with Maxentius (the day after his claimed vision) Constantine does have a dream, but in this version he is told to make a likeness of what he'd seen in the sky (nominally a cross), and to carry it into battle for divine protection against the enemy. Eusebius then talks about Constantine gathering his gold workers and jewelers to make such a protective battle standard, which he describes in some detail, with this being the labarum, complete with Chi-Rho, that Constantine LATER did appear to have used. Eusebius admits that this construction of the bejewelled labarum didn't happen until later (after the battle), but nonetheless claims (Ch. XXXVIII) that Constantine did march upon Maxentius carrying such a "victorius trophy" (i.e. labarum), perhaps implying a makeshift one.

So, we do at least have some agreement between Lactantius and Eusebius (who was writing much later - after Constantine's death) that Constantine claimed to have had a dream on the night before his battle, mentioning some type of symbol/Christogram that he should be using for protection. Lactantius has the army painting this on their shields, but Eusebius instead has him being instructed to make a battle standard/labarum. Maybe there is some truth to one of these conflicting accounts. Lactantius is generally more to be trusted given that he was closer to Constantine (tutor to Crispus) and writing closer to events, maybe c.316. Eusebius only met Constantine a couple of times, and was prone to revisionism as shown by differing versions of his "Ecclesiastical History".  Eusebius' idea of history wasn't "as it happened", but rather an (eventually) after the fact "as it ended up", or "as he'd like to report it" - a case of history being written by the winners.

So, yeah. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


Edited by Heliodromus
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It seems to me that the difference between an hallucination and a vision is in how the event influences the future. Constantine had some sort of vision because whatever it was, it changed the course of his life - and history. There's no point telling him it was an hallucination. That's for him to decide. As for related coins, here is an AE3 of Constantius II with VIctory holding two sun-dogs, err...wreaths, and a Chi-Rho in the right field...



Constantius II, AD 337-361.
AE16, 1.6g; Siscia mint.
Obv.: CONSTANTIVS PF AVG; Diademed, cuirassed bust right.
Ref.: VICTORIA AVGG; Victory walking left, head right, holding breath in each hand; Chi-Rho in right field; *ASIS* in exergue.
Ref.: RIC 180 
Edited by JAZ Numismatics
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6 hours ago, JAZ Numismatics said:

Constantine had some sort of vision because whatever it was, it changed the course of his life

I don't see any reason to suppose that he needed to have had anything more than the dream reported to both Lactantius and Eusebius, coupled with his own reported superstition, to have adopted Christianity. If he thought that some type of Christian talisman (shield or labarum) had helped him win against Maxentius, then do we need to look any further? And of course, why was he dreaming of Christianity, in a favorable way, in the first place - evidentially this was a thought that was already on his mind!


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