Book Review: Milvian Bridge by Ross Cowan.

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Paperback: 96 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (28 July 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472813812

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Milvian-Bridge-AD-312-Constantines/dp/1472813812

The Battle of Milvian Bridge is one of the unsung turning points of world history. A known but unknown moment, but a truly decisive encounter, at the very gates of Rome, it’s political and cultural ramifications were not so much the ripples of a stone dropped into a still pond but the beginnings of a tidal wave.
Look at a map of the Roman Empire in the 1st Century AD and then compare it to a map representing it in the early 4th century and you will notice allot has changed. Not so much in extent, although that is a given but in organisation. For a start it is now split in two, and each one of those large provinces are now sectioned into districts.
The empire was now ruled by two emperors (Augusti) and their deputies, or successors (Caesars), the hallowed names of the last two men to truly change the course of world history, now being used at titles. And in many ways the Romans were now living in a changing world, full of changing values, yet full of reminders of their ancient past, now legacies and traditions than actual modes of life.
Christianity was on the rise across the empire. This dangerous eastern religion was suppressed and persecuted throughout the provinces. Few could have thought at the turn of the century that in just over a decade the belief of a persecuted minority would have become the state religion of the most powerful empire in the western world. Indeed it is one of the great ironies of the battle that pagan soldiers emblazoned a mark that usually singled people out for persecution on their shields, in the hope of gaining divine intervention.

God rewarded their blind devotion, or at least that of their leader who duly did the decent thing and was properly grateful. Another irony being that the choice of a largely pacifist ideology to win a battle basically let the door open for later warriors to wage war in the name of God. After all old roman deities had no qualms about being used as excuses to kill, steal and destroy, to the Romans it just seemed natural. Of course after the rise of Constantine the spread of Roman Christianity was like the insertion of a food colouring to dough. It was mixed indelibly into society and adapted. The tale of how a divinely inspired emperor saw the sign of God in a vision and took up the holy symbol on the shields of his still pagan legionaries went into legend. But apart from that little nugget, what else do we know? And that’s the problem.

The Battle of Milvian Bridge is one of those vague ancient battles. One of the ones that is described in a sentence or two by contemporary writers. None of Constantine’s General’s (Duce) are known by name, few of his opponent Maxentian’s are either. The course of the battle is a simple straightforward affair, the two sides meet, one runs away, yet the sources disagree on the choreography and are vague when it comes to the nitty gritty. It’s not a subject an analytical and dedicated historian will take up lightly. All well an good to insert it into a wider biography of Constantine or a history of the late Roman Empire, but in fact I would say that there are very few ancient battles that can be written about with any certainty in a stand alone study. Milvian Bridge is not one of them.

That is of course why Osprey Campaign is a perfect format to discuss this battle. Because the length is just under 100 pages, essentially giving the author, Ross Cowan the ability to boil down military analysis, discussion, narrative and some background politics without needing to worry about bogging down a conventional biography or history. Even so it is notable that in the detailed “Opposing Armies” section, there is little discussion of arms and equipment of the opposing sides and instead leaves that to accompanying images and colour plates. The organisation of the much more convoluted later Roman armies are the main concern. Sean O’brogan must be quite at home with the Roman army by now. With almost 7 titles including this one, that I can think of dealing with subjects from the early, republican and late army. No one except Graham Turner is painting armour with such realism. His full colour plates are true to his style, and I should think the picture of the infantry clash most difficult given the geometrical challenge of perspective caused by the flying javelins and darts being thrown by Constantine’s legionaries. The influence of Angus McBride is I think evident in his Praetorians, and I very much liked his depiction of clibernii. Perhaps the troops could have been given some varied helmets and equipment, maybe that’s too picky, but I’m beginning to prefer my Romans a little more individualistic nowadays, especially the later ones. The scene of the rout over the Tiber is very good, an overview instead of a closeup is original. I noted only one riderless horse though, and although there are shields strewn around, dropped my men obviously dumping their kit in order to swim, there is a lack of other armour on the ground.

There is no lack of gaping holes in the contemporary narrative for an author to indulge in some speculation, and Cowan is forced to assume and suppose certain patterns where the sources are silent, especially when describing Constantine’s approach to Rome. These often frustrating sources are gone into with some detail. 9 separate ancient accounts of the battle and a discussion about the archeology of the likely battlefield are discussed in order to build up a firm footing for the author’s tentative, and he stresses that it is tentative, reconstruction of the action.
On the whole I am in favour of his assertions on this matter, he makes good logical sense and puts some flesh and bones onto the action.

When it comes to the campaign, Cowan ably illustrates the opposing strategies, from the confident and popular, downright dynamic Constantine, who fought in the front of his cavalry like Alexander had. And the cautious, inexperienced Maxentian who relied on a hitherto tried and true strategy of avoiding a pitched battle, yet then at the last moment threw all that common sense out the window and ended up a waterlogged corpse on the right bank of the Tiber alongside thousands of his men as a result.

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