A god by any other name: Lactantius and Constantine's dream at the Milvian Bridge

Rajiv Bhola

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


In the grand scheme of Western history, the Battle of Milvian Bridge (28 October 312) is a singular event synonymous with religious conflict and change. It was not merely a contest for control of the ancient and illustrious seat of the Roman Empire, but the triumph of Christianity over ‘paganism’; Constantine, aided by the Christian god, defeated the ‘pagan’ usurper Maxentius, thereby gaining mastery of the Western empire and ushering in an age of Christian prosperity. In his De mortibus persecutorum the Latin rhetorician Lactantius reports that on the eve of the battle Constantine saw a dream in which he was given a divine sign for protection in combat – the caeleste signum Dei, denoting Christ. This experience has typically been associated with Constantine’s conversion to Christianity and the religious character of the dream appears to be beyond doubt. In this paper, however, I argue that Lactantius’ portrayal of Constantine’s dream is most likely an exceptional example of religious syncretism: he is relating a ‘pagan’ experience, but frames it as a Christian vision – the association is not readily apparent because Lactantius provides no explanation for the conceptual leap. While this certainly has implications for the significance of an episode that has traditionally been considered a turning point in religious history, Lactantius’ mobility within the seemingly incompatible grey area of ‘pagan’ and Christian nocturnal visions outlines perhaps a more challenging aspect of the discourse of tolerance in the early Christian centuries.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2013
Externally publishedYes
EventReligious change and (in)tolerance: views from late antiquity and beyond - University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Canada
Duration: 5 Apr 20135 Apr 2013


WorkshopReligious change and (in)tolerance


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