11

Upon emerging victorious after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine the Great created the Chi-Rho from the first two letters of the Greek word ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ meaning "Christ".

Given that Constantine the Great was a Roman emperor, whose "mother tongue" was Latin, and that the sign that appeared before him on the eve of battle was also in Latin ( In hoc signo vinces ), why on earth did he choose to create a Christogram out of a Greek word? What could've possibly influenced him in this regard?

20

The short answer is that Constantine didn't create the Chi-Rho Christogram. There is evidence that it was already being used before Constantine, but he certainly raised the symbol's prominence after the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312AD.

Most of the early Christian texts were written in Greek, and Greek actually continued as the language of the eastern Roman, or "Byzantine", Empire. It was therefore natural that the symbol would have derived from the first two letters of the Greek word ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ.

You are right that Latin was the language of Constantine's court, but as an educated Roman he would probably have known some Greek, and he was probably aware of some of the Christian symbols in use at that time. He certainly wasn't fluent in the language though as he had to use an interpreter to address Greek-speaking bishops at the Council of Nicaea.

In the story of the Battle, the sign that appeared was a cross, or something similar (Lactantius is the first author to mention the story (just a couple of years after the battle), and he is not entirely clear on that point). The sign was associated with a dream in which Constantine received the message (in Latin) "In hoc signo vince!" ("In this sign, conquer!")

  • 6
    To be more precise: Greek was the Lingua Franca of the time. Latin was spoken among the Romans but, as you mentioned the interpreter, the majority of the people in what was left of Alexander's empire would speak Greek at least as second language (hence the necessity for the Septuagint, just as an example). – Patric Hartmann May 12 '17 at 12:32
  • 5
    @PatricHartmann That is absolutely right. But in this context especially, it was the language of the early Christian church, which explains why the Chi-Rho Christogram was based on Greek, rather than Latin, as asked by the OP. – sempaiscuba May 12 '17 at 12:37
  • 3
    I did not mean to correct or criticise your answer, sorry if it was received that way. I simply meant: The Church's language was Greek because the Lingua Franca was Greek (and the Church at the time already a pretty "international" thing). – Patric Hartmann May 12 '17 at 12:40
3

"In hoc signo vinces" is Eusebius' Latin translation of the Greek "writing" "(ἐν) τούτῳ νίκα" that (reputedly) appeared in the sky alongside the sign itself.

("Reputedly" because the whole affair wasn't mentioned by Eusebius until after Constantine's death, and I am generally highly sceptical of "signs" appearing.)

  • 2
    Eusebius probably based his account on the earlier work of Lactantius who said the Emperor heard the words in a dream (presumably in Latin, since that was Constantine's first language), rather than seeing them in the sky. Eusebius' version is probably more hagiography than history. – sempaiscuba May 12 '17 at 10:38
  • 1
    Eusebius wrote in Greek, not in Latin. – fdb May 16 '17 at 10:02

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.