At the onset of the 4th century, Constantine the Great (or Constantine I) ascended the throne. He recognized that the state could use Christianity as an ally. It was under him that the church and state came to terms. He is said to have seen a cross in the sky with the words “in this sign conquer” in Latin, just before he defeated his enemies in the battle over the Tiber river.
On the evening before the battle, so the story goes, Constantine saw a cross above the sun as it was setting in the west. In letters of light the cross bore the words: Hoc Signo Vinces, which means, “In this sign, conquer.”
The next day, October 28 in the year 312, the battle was joined. It was a furious battle. The Praetorian Guards fought like lions. They never gave ground, but their ranks were cut down where they stood. The army of Maxentius was completely defeated. Maxentius himself, attempting to escape over the Milvian Bridge across the Tiber River, was drowned.
The Edict of Milan Grants Equality
The battle of the Milvian Bridge was one of the great decisive battles in the history of the world. It made Constantine master of the entire western part of the Roman Empire. But it had another and far more important result. Constantine felt that he had won the battle because he had received help from the God of the Christians, and he became a Christian. He who had been a worshipper of the sun-god Mithra now embraced the religion of Him who is the true light of the world.
The Edict of Milan put a stop to the persecutions, and proclaimed absolute freedom of conscience. It placed Christianity upon a footing of equality, before the law, with the other religions in the Empire. They declared that both the Eastern and Western Roman Empires would keep a neutral position on all faiths. Constantine the Great even commissioned the construction of several grand cathedrals. For the first time in ancient Rome, Christians could openly practice their religion without fear.
The World Invades the Church
The Edict of Milan proved to have a very definite disadvantage. It was now no longer a shame, but an honor to be a Christian. The Christian name now secured many and great material advantages. The Christian name had become a passport to political, military, and social promotion. As a result, thousands upon thousands of heathen joined the Church.
Unfortunately many of these were Christians in name only. The Christianity of Emperor Constantine himself was, if not of a doubtful, at least not of a very high character. What the Church gained in quantity it lost in quality.