By Elizabeth Lev
ROME, OCT. 29, 2009 (Zenit.org).- In Rome, Oct. 28, 2009, began like any other day, with the usual city rackets of horns, sirens and motors. On this same day in A.D. 312, Romans awoke to a much different sound: the clanging of swords and the roar of battle cries.
Western Rome was a sea of soldiers fighting by the northern Flaminia road. It was difficult to distinguish the men among the tumult; both sides wore Roman armor and carried the short sword and broad shield of Imperial infantry. Indeed they were both Roman armies battling for the domination of Rome.
The force combating with its back to city walls belonged to the Emperor Maxentius who had seized the throne on Oct. 28, 306, six years to the day of the battle. Senior Emperor Galerius denied him recognition as he favored another candidate to the throne of Rome, Constantine, son of Costantius Chlorus, who had been proclaimed emperor three months earlier. The domestic irony of this conflict was that the two were brothers-in-law, as Constantine had married Maxentius’s sister Fausta.
Despite being declared a usurper and beset by armies sent by Galerius to dislodge him, Maxentius beautified the city and revived the economy through building projects such as the temple of Romulus, the Circus on the Appian Way and the astonishing basilica under way on the Via Sacra.
After several sieges; Maxentius had learned to keep an ample supply of food inside the huge city walls, recently expanded and fortified by the emperor Aurelian in 271. The aqueducts ensured sufficient water, so there was no need for Maxentius to engage Constantine at all.
The other combatants looked much the same, but with one distinctive difference. Painted on their shields and carried alongside their SPQR standards, was a strange symbol, the Greek letters chi and rho superimposed upon each other.
This marking had been ordered by their commander, Constantine, after a strange vision had come to him, declaring that “in this sign” he would be victorious.
Constantine, flush with excitement after his supernatural encounter, eagerly met Maxentius who, convinced that he had the propitiary date in his favor, had marched outside the gates of Rome to engage Constantine.
An ancient bridge crossed the Tiber river at the Flaminian road, originally built by Tiberius Claudius Nero in 206 B.C.. Maxentius’ men marched across the bridge and lined up with their backs to the river. The result was a rout. Maxentius and most of his army drowned in the Tiber and Constantine won the day.
Emperor Constantine attributed the victory of this day to Christ, the God who had appeared to him as the chi rho (the first two Greek letters of Christ’s name). As victorious generals had done throughout the history of Rome, Constantine dedicated a temple, the first Christian church of Christ the Savior (today known as St. John Lateran) to the God that had rendered his victory possible.
The real victory that day, however, was that of the Christians. After almost 300 years, Christianity was finally legalized by Emperor Constantine in 313. This unique triumph celebrated a conquest where the only casualties were suffered by the victors. The witness of the martyrs, willing to shed their own blood but draw none from others, had finally converted the empire.
Today the Milvian bridge has little to extol its glorious past. A simple inscription for a late rebuilding only hints at the momentous battle that opened the door to Christian Rome.
Only Rome’s young people seem to have found importance in the bridge. Since a 2006 blockbuster teen movie “Ho Voglia di Te,” the young lovers of Rome write their name on padlocks and attach them to chain around a lamp post on the bridge. They then throw the keys into the Tiber as a symbol of their undying love.
Despite the city’s removal of the locks, they keep reappearing, the new — if somewhat more ephemeral — battle of the Milvian bridge.
It seems Virgil was right: Love conquers all.
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The synod on Africa brought the wondrous sight of hundreds of African priests and bishops to St. Peter’s square. As they left this week, the piazza seemed to lose a little luster. Reflecting on how much these bishops brought to the Eternal City, I began to think about the history of Africa in Rome.
While there is a much fuller story to tell here, I thought I would mention a few lesser-known tidbits handed down through Rome’s art and architecture.
Although Imperial Rome boasted African emperors, Settimius Severus, for example, Africa became more than Rome’s bread basket under Christianity. Many heroic martyrdoms took place in North Africa where the persecutions were particularly vicious. Names like Felicity, Perpetua, and Cyprian have graced the Roman Canon since its origin, calling on the extraordinary witness of Africa alongside Europe and Asia.
And where would the Church be without St. Monica and St. Augustine who both hailed from Tagaste in North Africa (modern day Algeria)?
Christian Rome’s first address on the Forum in 527 was in a church dedicated to Sts. Cosmas and Damian. These two doctor saints and martyrs are famous for the first transplant — a Roman man devoted to the saints, dying of an infected leg. Cosmas and Damian replaced it with a limb from an Ethiopian who had died that night.
This strange story, appears in the early Middle Ages as the separation of the Roman empire began to isolate what had been a “globalized” world and a color blind society. With the rise of Islam in Africa, Europeans started to fear their southern neighbors. Hence the joy with which the man receives his new leg reveals that there is no color coding in salvation.
In 1541, Michelangelo unveiled his painting of the Last Judgment. Fear of the Muslims was at fever pitch, as Europe was weak and the Grand Sultan of the Ottomans was planning to attack. Yet only a few feet above the crucifix on the papal altar, Michelangelo portrayed a striking pair: a black man and a white man being raised to heaven by a rosary. In the midst of open hostilities, the Pope’s chapel proclaimed the universality of salvation.
In the great Marian Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, a diplomatic drama found its peaceful end. In 1604, Antonio Emanuele Funta, set off from Congo as ambassador for King Jean Battiste Vives. His task was to ask the Pope to send missionaries to evangelize Congo.
Assailed by many misadventures, attacked and sunk by pirates, Ambassador Funta remained castaway on the Spanish coast for three years. He finally arrived in Rome in 1607, but the day before he was to present his credentials, the poor man died.
Pope Paul V celebrated the funeral himself, a very rare occurrence, and the ambassador was buried in Santa Maria Maggiore. A startling monument in the baptistery of a black marble portrait with large white eyes, stands out as unique among many other funerary portraits.
On Oct. 18, 1964, another chapter was added to the illustrious history of Rome and Africa as Pope Paul VI canonized Charles Lwanga and his companions who died between 1885 and 1887.
The Pope recalled the glorious martyrs of the past, the heroic witness of St. Charles Lwanga and St. Matthias Mulumba Kalemba and then added, “Nor must we forget those members of the Anglican Church who also died for the name of Christ.”
Almost 45 years to the day, at the close of the synod on Africa, Pope Benedict XVI remembered the Anglicans amid the Africans, opening the door for Anglicans to return to the Catholic Church.
It seems that Pope Paul VI was prescient when he proclaimed in his 1964 homily, “These African martyrs herald the dawn of a new age. If only the mind of man might be directed not toward persecutions and religious conflicts but toward a rebirth of Christianity and civilization!”
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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic studies program. She can be reached at [email protected]