I went for a walk in the neighborhood and got slapped in the face by history. Almost knocked me over.
It wasn’t in Sulzburg where history can go back a millennium, but Rome where recorded history can take you back 3,000 years. We were just wandering through the neighborhood where my son and his wife live.
When in Rome you know you are going to see things you have only read about in books. It is one of those places that you must visit at some point if you care about western culture. I’ve seen the high spots before: St. Peter’s, the Vatican Museum, the Forum, The Colosseum – you know, the places tourists visit.
In this case though I wasn’t looking for history; it was just a pre-dinner stroll along the Tiber. We came up from the riverbank at one point to check out one of the many bridges over the river.
The attraction was more the neighborhood than the bridge itself, though we did check out the bridge. Supposedly it is a spot for local lovers to meet – something I could see borne out by the graffiti on the parapet. There was an arch at the end, with a Latin inscription that I didn’t pay much attention to.
There are Latin inscriptions everywhere in Rome. It has been almost 50 years since I studied the language, but I can sometimes puzzle out the messages. This time I didn’t bother – it was obviously a relatively new bridge; I assumed it replaced an older one. There are a lot of post-Roman Empire buildings with Latin inscriptions, especially in Rome.
It was only as we were walking away that my son mentioned that the bridge had historic significance. Constantine, he thought, had fought a battle somewhere near it, but he didn’t know more than that.
We weren’t that far from downtown Rome. My understanding from history was that Constantine’s most famous battle, the one that consolidated his rule, was fought outside Rome. This couldn’t be Milvian bridge, that must be farther away. I guess Rome has grown in 1700 years, what was once the suburbs is now part of the core.
I learned about Milvian Bridge in history class. In 312, fighting to again control of the Empire, Constantine had a vision on the eve of battle. A cross of light, and a message: “In hoc signo vinces.” With this sign you will conquer.
I know some historians dispute whether the incident ever happened. Maybe Constantine didn’t have a vision. He did at that point though move his empire from paganism to Christianity. It was a key point in world history.
Standing on Milvian Bridge, I thought about that history and about that battle 1,707 years ago. I thought about the changes in society over those years.
It was at Milvian Bridge that the Christian faith became mainstream. There are many who would argue that was a bad thing, that Jesus never intended for his followers to be come an institution. I see the point of that. There have been many bad things done by the institution over the centuries, things Jesus would not have condoned – though I would argue that the good has been greater. That is a debate for another day perhaps.
Milvian Bridge isn’t one of those “must see” tourist destinations in Rome. Given its importance in world history, maybe it should be.