Tue 14 Aug, 2012 11:53 am
Space impact 'saved Christianity'
By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC News Online science editor
June 23, 22003
Did a meteor over central Italy in AD 312 change the course of Roman and Christian history?
About the size of a football field: The impact crater left behind
A team of geologists believes it has found the incoming space rock's impact crater, and dating suggests its formation coincided with the celestial vision said to have converted a future Roman emperor to Christianity.
It was just before a decisive battle for control of Rome and the empire that Constantine saw a blazing light cross the sky and attributed his subsequent victory to divine help from a Christian God.
Constantine went on to consolidate his grip on power and ordered that persecution of Christians cease and their religion receive official status.
In the fourth century AD, the fragmented Roman Empire was being further torn apart by civil war. Constantine and Maxentius were bitterly fighting to be the sole emperor.
Constantine was the son of the western emperor Constantius Chlorus. When he died in 306, his father's troops proclaimed Constantine emperor.
...a most marvellous sign appeared to him from heaven...
But in Rome, the favourite was Maxentius, son of Constantius' predecessor, Maximian.
With both men claiming the title, a conference was called in AD 308 that resulted in Maxentius being named as senior emperor along with Galerius, his father-in-law. Constantine was to be a Caesar, or junior emperor.
The situation was not a stable one, however, and by 312 the two men were at war.
Constantine overran Italy and faced Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge over the Tiber a few kilometres from Rome. Both knew it would be a decisive battle with Constantine's forces outnumbered.
'Conquer by this'
It was then that something strange happened. Eusebius - one of the Christian Church's early historians - relates the event in his Conversion of Constantine.
"...while he was thus praying with fervent entreaty, a most marvellous sign appeared to him from heaven, the account of which it might have been hard to believe had it been related by any other person.
"...about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the Sun, and bearing the inscription 'conquer by this'.
"At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle."
Spurred on by divine intervention, Constantine's army won the day and he gave homage to the God of the Christians whom he believed had helped him.
This was a time when Christianity was struggling. Support from the most powerful man in the empire allowed the emerging religious movement to flourish.
Like a nuclear blast
But what was the celestial event that converted Constantine and altered the course of history?
Jens Ormo, a Swedish geologist, and colleagues working in Italy believe Constantine witnessed a meteoroid impact.
Drill rig: Sampling the crater
The research team believes it has identified what remains of the impactor's crater.
It is the small, circular Cratere del Sirente in central Italy. It is clearly an impact crater, Ormo says, because its shape fits and it is also surrounded by numerous smaller, secondary craters, gouged out by ejected debris, as expected from impact models.
Radiocarbon dating puts the crater's formation at about the right time to have been witnessed by Constantine and there are magnetic anomalies detected around the secondary craters - possibly due to magnetic fragments from the meteorite.
According to Ormo, it would have struck the Earth with the force of a small nuclear bomb, perhaps a kiloton in yield. It would have looked like a nuclear blast, with a mushroom cloud and shockwaves.
It would have been quite an impressive sight and, if it really was what Constantine saw, could have turned the tide of the conflict.
But what would have happened if this chance event - perhaps as rare as once every few thousand years - had not occurred in Italy at that time?
Maxentius might have won the battle. Roman history would have been different and the struggling Christians might not have received state patronage.
The history of Christianity and the establishment of the popes in Rome might have been very different.
Emperor Constantine saw a comet falling in Rome in 312. Not knowing what a comet was, he decided it must be a miracle and was convinced of the superior claims of Christians as the rising religion of God. That's how we got Christianity. I wasn't convinced. I am a Atheist. BBB
(c.274 - 337)
CONSTANTINE THE GREAT AND HIS SONS. 1. Constantine, Roman Emperor from 306 to 337; was born in 274, at Naissus in Upper Moesia, a son of Constantius Chlorus and Helena, and was, after the death of his father at York (July 25, 306), proclaimed emperor by the legions of Gaul. He immediately took possession of Britain, Gaul, and Spain; and after a series of brilliant victories over Maxentius, ending with the bloody battle at the Milvian Bridge, just under the walls of Rome, he also became master of Italy (312). He now ruled over the ‘Western Empire, as Licinius over the Eastern: but war broke out between them in 314; and in 323, after the battle of Chalcedon, in which Licinius was killed, Constantine became sole lord of the whole Roman world. He died in 337, at Nicomedia.
Tradition tells us that he was converted to Christianity suddenly, and by a miracle. One evening during the contest with Maxentius, he saw a radiant cross appearing in the heavens, with the inscription, "By this thou shalt conquer." The tradition is first mentioned by Eusebius, in his De Vita Constantini, written after the emperor’s death. This miracle has been defended. with ingenious sophistry by Roman-Catholic historians and by Card. Dr. Newman (Two Essays on Biblical and on Ecclesiastical Miracles, 3d ed., Lond., 1873, pp. 271 sqq.), but cannot stand the test of critical examination. Constantine may have seen some phenomenon in the skies; he was no doubt convinced of the superior claims of Christianity as the rising religion; but his conversion was a change of policy, rather than of moral character. Long after that event he killed, his son, his second wife, several others of his relatives, and some of his most intimate friends, in passionate resentment of some fancied infringement of his rights. In his relation to Christianity he was cool, calculating, always bent upon the practically useful, always regarding the practically possible. He retained the office and title of Pontifex Maximus to the last, and did not receive Christian baptism until he felt death close upon him. He kept Pagans in the highest positions in his immediate surroundings, and forbade every thing which might look like an encroachment of Christianity upon Paganism. Such a faith in such a character is not the result of a sudden conversion by a miracle: if it were, the effect would be more miraculous than the cause. Judging from the character both of his father and mother, it is probable that he grew up in quiet but steady contact with Christianity. Christianity had, indeed, become something in the air which no one occupying a prominent position in the Roman world could remain entirely foreign to. But the singular mixture of political carefulness and personal indifference with which he treated. it presupposes a relation of observation rather than impression. He knew Christianity well, but only as a power in the Roman Empire; and he protected it as a wise and far-seeing statesman. As a power not of this world, he hardly ever came to understand it.
His first edict concerning the Christians (Rome 312) is lost. By the second (Milan, 313) he granted them, not only free religious worship and the recognition of the State, but also reparation of previously incurred losses. Banished men who worked on the galleys or in the mines were recalled, confiscated estates were restored, etc. A series of edicts of 315, 316, 319, 321, and 323, completed. the revolution. Christians were admitted to the offices of the State, both military and civil; the Christian clergy was exempted from all municipal burdens, as were the Pagan priests; the emancipation of Christian slaves was facilitated; Jews were forbidden to keep Christian slaves, etc. An  edict of 321 ordered Sunday to be celebrated by cessation of all work in public. When Constantine became master of the whole empire, all these edicts were extended to the whole realm, and the Roman world more and more assumed the aspect of a Christian state. One thing, however, puzzled and annoyed the emperor very much, - the dissensions of the Christians, their perpetual squabbles about doctrines, and the fanatical hatred thereby engendered. In the Roman Empire the most different religions lived peacefully beside each other, and here was a religion which could not live in peace with itself. For political reasons, however, unity and harmony were necessary; and in 325 the Emperor convened the first great oecumenical council at Nicæa to settle the Arian controversy. It was the first time the Christian Church and the Roman State met each other face to face; and the impression was very deep on both sides. When the emperor stood there, among the three hundred and eighteen bishops, tall, clad in purple and jewels, with his peculiarly haughty and sombre mien, he felt disgusted at those coarse and cringing creatures who one moment scrambled sportively around him to snatch up a bit of his munificence, and the next flew madly into each other’s faces for some incomprehensible mystery. Nevertheless, he learnt something from those people. He saw that with Christianity was born a new sentiment in the human heart hitherto unknown to mankind, and that on this sentiment the throne could be rested more safely than on the success of a court-intrigue, or the victory of a hired army. The only rational legitimation which the antique world had known of the kingship was descent from the gods; but this authority had now become a barefaced lie, and was difficult to use even in the form of a flattery. At Nicæa, however, the idea of a kingship of God’s grace began to dawn upon mankind. Constantine also met there with men who must have charmed and awed him by their grand simplicity, burdened, and almost curbed, as he was by the enormous complexity of Roman life. After the Council of Nicæa, he conversed more and more frequently and intimately with the bishops. his interest in Christianity grew with the years; but, as was to have been foreseen, he was sure to be led astray, for the needle lacked in the compass. He was more and more drawn over to the side of the Arians, and it was an Arian bishop who baptized him.
2. Of Constantine’s three sons (1) Constantine II. died early; (2) Constans belonged to the Nicæan party, and enforced (in 349) the re-instatement of Athanasius in Alexandria; while (3) Constantius was at one time almost the leader of the anti-Nicæan party, and interfered in the affairs of the Church in a very high-handed manner. He fell out, however, with the rigorous Arians; and his success in propagating semi-Arianism was probably small, just as his violent measures against Paganism (he forbade sacrifice under penalty of death) proved almost futile.
Constantine went on to consolidate his grip on power and ordered that persecution of Christians cease and their religion receive official status.
This is a simplistic and misleading claim. Toleration in the empire dates from 311 CE, in an edict by Galerius. This claim is based on the "history" writen by Eusebius, known as the father of church history. But the Edict of Milan was only possible because of the cooperation of Licinius, who had already accepted the edict of Galerius. Eusebius portrays Licinius as an evil man (he was a pagan in the eyes of the church) and the enemy of Constantine and christianity. Not only is there no other documentary support for this claim by Eusebius, but it is contradicted by the other surviving documentary evidence, especially in the egregious vilification of Licinus in Eusebius' history. In fact, there is no evidecne that Constantine was even then a christian. The only documentary evidence on the subject has Constantine being baptised shortly before his death in 337 CE--24 years after the Edict of Milan was issed.
If, in fact, Constantine received a "sign from heaven" as Eusebius claims, why did he wait a generation until he accepted baptism? Eusebius is one of the most unreliable of ancient historians, precisely because he was always promoting the christian religion. This article reeks of Eusebius' bullshit.
Well, ****! I'm pissed that I was not there to verify the events.
Were you out of town that weekend?
Wouldn't you know I would be out shopping for new shoes.
Absolutely right. This is a very
simplistic interpretation of the events of the 4th century c.e. It's about on a par with what a typical BBC correspondent would come up with in the absence of any knowledge of conditions in the Roman Empire at this time. The Edict of Milan was a late acknowledgement that Rome was ready to totelate all
religions, not just Christianity. Whether or not that meteor had anything to do with Constantine's conviction that, with the help of the Christian god, he would be victorious in battle is beside the point. It has nothing to do with the eventual triumph of the Christian faith.
(If I'm not mistaken, Constantine's mother was already a self-proclaimed Christian at the time.)
Yes, and i believe his wife was or became a christian. That in hoc signo vinces
crap just reeks of christian propaganda cobbled together after the fact.
You got it. Another thing I just very recently became aware of -- Constantine's banners were not
inscribed with In hoc signo vinces
. That is Latin and by this time the Byzantine court, centered in Constantinople, was using Greek exclusively. The inscription of "By this sign you will conquer" would have been in Greek, not Latin.
But why spoil a good story and denigrate a famous slogan (even appears on Pall Mall cigarette packs
I thought it always reeked of cigarette smoke:
You have to admit it's a good story to tell the troops.
"Hey, boys, I saw a sign in the sky. If we all put crosses on our shields, we'll run those other guys over hell's half-acre."
Guy puts a cross on his shield, feels a bit more like he can whip a few dozen other blokes.
Of course, Constantine could have stepped on a snake coming out of his tent that morning.......
"Hey, boys, I saw a sign this morning, if we all put big red "S's" on our shields, we'll run those other guys over hell's half acre."