Wednesday 22 June 2016

Written in Water #5: A Dream of Crosses in the Sky

You see that hole in the side of the statue's head? That's where the laurel crown was attached.

Let's talk about dreams. Dreams are tricky things. Long after we have explained our dreams to people, we continue to edit them, convince ourselves of meanings they might have. The more important the dreams we have are, the more subject to change, to mythologising they are.

And when one dream is credited with a change in the direction of the history of the entire world, its transition into the realms of myth is almost assured.

OK, so in my piece about The Deaths of the Persecutors I touched upon the vision or dream that Constantine had supposedly had before the Big Battle that Changed Everything. On October 28th 312, Constantine got his men to paint a Christian symbol on their shields before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge and the Catholic Church was the direct result. Lactantius, on his staff, writing some time within five years of the event, wrote it, as I said before, like this:
Constantine was convinced by a dream to write the heavenly sign of God on the shields of his soldiers. He did what he had been told to do: he had them paint on every shield an X with a perpendicular line through it and bent over, which is the sign of Christ.
Lactantius, The Deaths of the Persecutors, LXIV. 5 
Now, the cross as we know it was not the Christian symbol up to this time. In fact, there wasn't one. Modern church mythology has it that the fish symbol (mostly seen now on the backs of cars that cut you up on roundabouts) was a common early sign, but in fact that wasn't adopted until about 200CE at the earliest, and not universally. 

The thing about the cross at this time was that to pagan Romans, the idea of putting a symbol of painful death on one's shield was kind of a no no. Symbols of death on uniforms sort of denoted the baddies. So Constantine decided to take the first letter of the name of Christ in Greek, chi...
And the second letter of the name, rho... 

And join them together as a simple monogram, like this:
Or possibly like this:
This is called the Labarum or Chi-Rho. And you see both of them in Roman state insignia, from the time of Constantine and after, and we don't know which of the two he means. Scholars argue bitterly about which one it is, because just like nerds arguing on the internet, the stakes are low enough for the acrimony to be brutal. Doesn't matter. The way I translated what Lactantius said suggests the first one, but to be honest the Latin could mean either. Mainly, it's the sort of thing you can paint on a shield really quickly, and you can see it for miles, and it's an easy insignia. Even today both versions get recycled in Catholic imagery.

One point you don't often hear raised, but which I think is not unimportant, is that this was a civil war, and the two sides in the battle were in fact members of the same army. They were fighting men who looked like them. And in the confusion of battle, how did they know who they were supposed to be stabbing? Except now one side had a really obvious symbol on their shields. This just makes sense.

Anyway, for our purposes, it's that X that matters. Just hold that thought.

Here's Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea. Eusebius was Constantine's official biographer and historian. This is his, state-approved, church-approved version. 
He said that about noon, when the day was just beginning to wind down, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the sky, above the sun, and the words IN HOC SIGNO VINCES (by this sign you will prevail) next to it. At this sight he was himself struck by amazement, and his whole army too, which was with him on the march, and saw the miracle.
Eusebius, Life of Constantine I. 28   
This was published in 338, 26 years after the fact and a year after Constantine's death. It's bigger and more spectacular than Lactantius's version. In this version, it was in broad daylight, and everyone saw it. The big X is central though. The X from the dream, the X in the sky.

I once sat through a lecture where I heard about a dozen explanations of how you might get a cross of light in the sky. Solar anomalies, crashing meteorites, clouds in weird shapes, the lot. It doesn't matter. Even back then I was more interested by how the story had changed, how it developed.

This next version is from a panegyric. A panegyric is a speech given to an Emperor about how great he is. It's propaganda. This one was given by a man named Nazarius in 321. The important thing to remember here is that word "propaganda".
Angels, I don't know how many, came with glowing shields and heavenly armour, burning with a terrible light. They came like this, so you would believe. And you could hear them talking to each other, and they were saying, "We're looking for Constantine, we've come to help Constantine..."
Nazarius, Panegyrici Latini IV/X. 14.
Obviously that's not how it played out. I mean, this chap misses the point of his boss's experience on a really quite profound level. It's understandable that Eusebius pulled back from this sort of representation.

But this is where it gets weird and fuzzy. So I found another version of Constantine's vision. This one's different, because it's from a propaganda speech in praise of the Emperor, as delivered by an anonymous pagan (it's from the same collection of speeches as Nazarius's speech, in fact). It uses the conventional language of traditional Roman state religion.
You saw, I understand, your friend Apollo, with Victory as his companion, offering you three laurel crowns on each of which was written the prophecy: thirty years.
Latin Panegyrics, VI/VII. 21
So he had a vision of Apollo, and there's crowns of laurels (of course what traditionally a Roman Emperor wore when he'd won a battle). And on each crown there's the number 30. Which is Roman terms is: XXX.

Visions of X. The X is a constant, see.

But wait, you see this speech? It was delivered in 310, two years before he was supposed – in the official record – to have seen or dreamed he saw crosses in the sky.

So what's going on here? Is this a coincidence? Does Constantine talk about visions a lot? Did Constantine have a recurring dream about crosses? Did he recycle a useful story he told about himself in order to change the official story? Did he see anything at all?

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I am pretty sure at some point, Constantine saw something. I think that the more contradictory accounts of a happening  there are, the more likely it is that something happened.

It's just harder to see what that something is.

And I think that when we have significant dreams, and every one of us has dreams from time to time to which we attach significance – it's certainly true for me – the way we describe those dreams, even to ourselves, changes and develops. We mythologise them, to ourselves and with others. 

With Constantine, a dream or a vision or a sky phenomenon interpreted as an omen, or whatever it was, became the foundation of a new order, religious and political. He was in a place and time where the mythology of a single man's inner life could become part of the mythology of the whole world.