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Hysteria (continued). Just as French rationalism was shaped on the basis of three dreams recalled by Descartes (!), so Christianity strode on to the historical stage with an event recalling the purest pagan traditions: astrological signs . . .The year is 312. Constantine is advancing on Rome. He is fighting his rival Maxentius, from whom he hopes to wrest Italy. His conquest of the north of the peninsula was lightning-fast: Turin, Milan, and Verona fell easily into his hands. The emperor was an old hand at direct contacts with the absolute: in the temple of Grand in the Vosges mountains of Gaul, Apollo appeared in person to promise him a reign of thirty years. At the time, paganism did not trouble him. Indeed he was a devotee of Sol Invictus, the Uncon-quered Sun.

But this time the message was transformed. Like Paul struck down on the road to Damascus, Constantine saw in the heavens a sign announcing that he would conquer in its name. And — a detail of some importance — his troops also witnessed the event: all of them saw the same holy talisman! Eusebius of Caesarea, the prince's house-trained intellectual, and furthermore a bishop, a peerless forger, an outstanding specialist in Christian apologia, gives us a detailed interpretation of this sign, which was in the form of a luminous cross above the sun. Moreover—

here Eusebius warms to his task — a celestial text promised that the emperor would win his war against Maxentius by invoking the sign. Two precautions are better than one: the next night Jesus appeared in a dream, teaching his protege the sign of the cross that would prove useful in winning every one of his battles, provided he armed himself beforehand with the sign. We readily understand that once he became the most Christian emperor, Constantine, imbued as he now was with philosophical rationality, turned savagely on astrology, magic, and paganism. All that philosophical rationality made him unreasonable.

A few days later, he won. Naturally . . . Maxentius was drowned beneath the Milvius bridge on October 28, 312. Helped by the ghost of the Nazarene, Constantine became master of Italy. He marched into Rome, disbanded the Praetorian Guard, and gave Pope Miltiades the Lateran Palace. Admittedly, the Christian kingdom was not of this world, but why should it be neglected, especially when it offered the occasion for pomp, gold, purple, money, power, dominance, all of them virtues naturally deduced from the messages of the carpenters son?

And that sign? Was it a text message from Christ or a collective hallucination? A message from Jesus, riveted in celestial eternity but with a keen eye for the most trivial goings-on in the here and now, or further proof that in this age of anguish a fissured world was susceptible to communal neuroses and divinely mandated hysteria? A proof of regeneration or a mark of decadence? Christianity's first step or one of paganism's last? The misery of men without God — and more miserable still with him.

Today this sign is interpreted in rational and even ultra-rationalist manner: not as astrology but astronomy. Contemporary scientists propose a hysterical (and thus religious) reading of an event reducible to the simplest of causalities. On October 10, 312, eighteen days before the glorious victory over Maxentius, Mars, Jupiter, and Venus stood in the Roman sky in a configura tion that encouraged interpretation of the sign as a fabulous presage. Delirium completed the job.

While Constantine was not a monument of bookish culture, he is acknowledged to have been a cunning strategist, an astute politician. Did he really believe in the power of the sign from Christ? Or did he exploit it skillfully and stage-manage it for opportunistic ends? A pagan familiar with the workings of magic, a believer, like everyone else in this period of antiquity, in the claims of astrology, the emperor may also have counted on obtaining the maximum possible support from his troops, who included a large and loyal Christian contingent respectful of power and never questioning orders.

His father, Constantius Chlorus, had pursued a fruitful policy of tolerance toward Christ's faithful. Was Constantine (counseled by active Christian intriguers) emulating that politically astute policy? Did he have a visionary's glimpse of the possibilities inherent in exploiting this interesting force, annexing it to his cause through the award of timely and generous gifts that tied them to his project—let us call it Gramscian — of unifying the empire? In any event, in these early years of the fourth century, that unlikely candidate Jesus (his praises shouted from the rooftops by Paul) became the emblematic instrument in the fanfare of a new empire.

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