Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign: Constantine's Labarum and Eusebius' σημεῖον and τρόπαιον

  • Rajiv Bhola (Speaker)

Activity: Talk or presentationPresentation


The story of the miraculous conversion of the emperor Constantine (306-337 CE) is a familiar one. According to Eusebius of Caesarea, while Constantine was marching with his army he saw “the trophy of the cross” (τὸ σταυροῦ τρόπαιον; VC 1.28.2) in the sky with the message, ‘By this, conquer’ and later that night Christ appeared to him in a dream with the same sign (τὸ σημεῖον; VC 1.29.1). When the emperor woke, he ordered that the sign be crafted in the form of a military standard topped with a wreathed Chi-Rho monogram; what came to be known as the Labarum.

Eusebius’ narrative has prompted endless debate not only on the substance of the emperor’s epiphanic experience, but also the token symbolism that it produced. To be sure, Eusebius never calls Constantine’s standard ‘Labarum’, but refers to it somewhat ambiguously as either σημεῖον or τρόπαιον. While the communis opinio is that the sign in the sky was a cross, modern scholars tend to regard Eusebius’ terminology as referring variably and sometimes simultaneously to the cross, the Labarum, and/or the Chi-Rho monogram.

In this paper I analyse the ‘Vision’ narrative and examine Eusebius’ usage of the terms σημεῖον and τρόπαιον in order to demonstrate that he considered the Chi-Rho ancillary to the Labarum construction. Rather, Eusebius’ use of these terms is only ever in reference to the cross, which for him formed the crux, so to speak, of the Labarum, calling into question the centrality of the Chi-Rho monogram in Constantinian symbolism.

F. Winkelmann (ed.), Eusebius Werke 1.1: Über das Leben des Kaisers Konstantin (GCS 7.1; Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1975).
Av. Cameron and S.G. Hall (trans.), Eusebius: Life of Constantine (Clarendon Ancient History Series; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999).
Period6 Feb 2019
Event titleAustralasian Society for Classical Studies Annual Conference
Event typeConference
Conference number40
LocationArmidale, Australia, New South WalesShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational