Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 - Advanced)
Topic: Writing (01/11/07)
TITLE: In Hoc Signo Vinces – words that transformed an empire
By Gregory Kane
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To Licinius, Augustus of the East, greetings
It is with great pleasure and not a little surprise that I write to you from Rome. The usurper, Maxentius, is no more, his head impaled on a lance and paraded around the city. None dares challenge my claim, especially not the senate, now that I am encamped within these walls.
Truth be told, I was not at all confident of victory. My troops easily overcame those of Maxentius as we penetrated Trans-Gaul and entered Italy proper. But the pretender was safely ensconced within these seven hills and it seemed no trivial matter to expel him. Rome has scoffed at many belligerents intent on laying siege: certainly I was in no mood to live out of a camp billet for two years, waiting for the good citizens of Rome to run out of caviar and pâté de fois gras. Maxentius had already held out against Severus and Galerius, so he was well schooled in patience.
So it was with surprise that I learned he was ready to engage me in battle. I dare say he received some convincing portent from his soothsayers. But then even the simplest strategist would lay good odds on a legion or two of freshly rested soldiers against an exhausted army that has fought tooth and nail down the Italian peninsula. Even my own legates and commanders expressed their reservations at the prospect of joining battle. Yet Maxentius was determined. He crossed the Tiber at the Milvian Bridge, partly destroying it and using a pontoon to carry his own forces across. Curiously this was to be his own undoing. How was he to know that the gods had abandoned him?
As you know I have always been a supplicant of the Sun god, Helios. Many of my men prefer the worship of Mars or Minerva, but I prefer the purity of the older faith. I believe that every man should follow his own heart in the matter of the gods. (Of course that’s not to say that we should extend the same rights to our women!) On the eve of battle, I saw a most unusual sign in the heavens. I was gazing upon the sun when suddenly the shape of a cross appeared, superimposed upon and brighter still than great Helios. At once I observed a message writ large across the firmament, “In this sign you will conquer.” I was at a loss to interpret this vision that was seemingly visible to my eyes alone. Yet, perceiving this to be of divine origin, I made quick to obey and issued the order that every soldier’s shield be painted with the sign of a cross. It was only in doing this that one of my officers asked why I was promoting the symbol of the Christians.
The battle exceeded my expectations. Maxentius’ forces were routed. I’m not sure that we didn’t despatch more as they scrambled across the river than we slew on the field of battle. The usurper himself was carried away by the water nymphs to an audience with old Father Tiber. We advanced at once on Rome whereupon the Senate magnanimously declared me Saviour of the Empire. I dare say they would have conveyed the same honour on whosoever had emerged victorious. Ha, politicians! Give me a clean fight to the death any day!
I have met the most interesting man here in Rome. He is called Gaius Aurelius and appears to be a priest of the Christians. Yet, as far as I can tell, he does not offer any sacrifices to their god. It is a most peculiar religion! How people love to hate it. Even your colleague Maximinus has been outspoken in his abhorrence of Christianity. I don’t think it will be long, dear Licinius, before you have to deal decisively with that upstart. When we meet in Milan for your nuptials with Constantia, could we look afresh at this issue of religious tolerance? I can see no convincing reason why a man should not be free to pursue his own religious beliefs, provided they do not affect his loyalty to the empire. In the meantime, Gaius continues to instruct me in the way of Christ. After all, if I am to have my troops display his emblem, I may as well discover whether this faith really is as loathsome as so many make out.
Keep well, old friend
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