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Space impact 'saved Christianity' By Dr David Whitehouse

BBC News Online science editor

Did a meteor over central Italy in AD 312 change

the course of Roman and Christian history?

A team of geologists believes it has found the incoming space

rock's impact crater, and dating suggests its formation
coincided with the celestial vision said to have converted a
future Roman emperor to Christianity.

It was just before a decisive battle for control of Rome and the
empire that Constantine saw a blazing light cross the sky and
attributed his subsequent victory to divine help from a
Christian God.

Constantine went on to consolidate his grip on power and ordered

that persecution of Christians cease and their religion receive
official status.

Civil war

In the fourth century AD, the fragmented Roman Empire was being
further torn apart by civil war. Constantine and Maxentius were
bitterly fighting to be the sole emperor.

Constantine was the son of the western emperor Constantius

Chlorus. When he died in 306, his father's troops proclaimed
Constantine emperor.

...a most marvellous sign appeared to him from heaven...


But in Rome, the favourite was Maxentius, son of Constantius'

predecessor, Maximian.

With both men claiming the title, a conference was called in AD

308 that resulted in Maxentius being named as senior emperor
along with Galerius, his father-in-law. Constantine was to be a
Caesar, or junior emperor.

The situation was not a stable one, however, and by 312 the two
men were at war.
Constantine overran Italy and faced Maxentius at the Milvian
Bridge over the Tiber a few kilometres from Rome. Both knew it
would be a decisive battle with Constantine's forces

'Conquer by this'

It was then that something strange happened. Eusebius - one of

the Christian Church's early historians - relates the event in
his Conversion of Constantine.

"...while he was thus praying with fervent entreaty, a most

marvellous sign appeared to him from heaven, the account of
which it might have been hard to believe had it been related by
any other person.

"...about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline,

he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the
heavens, above the Sun, and bearing the inscription 'conquer by

"At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his
whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and
witnessed the miracle."

Spurred on by divine intervention, Constantine's army won the

day and he gave homage to the God of the Christians whom he
believed had helped him.

This was a time when Christianity was struggling. Support from

the most powerful man in the empire allowed the emerging
religious movement to flourish.

Like a nuclear blast

But what was the celestial event that converted Constantine and
altered the course of history?

Jens Ormo, a Swedish geologist, and colleagues working in Italy

believe Constantine witnessed a meteoroid impact.

The research team believes it has identified what remains of the

impactor's crater.

It is the small, circular Cratere del Sirente in central Italy.

It is clearly an impact crater, Ormo says, because its shape
fits and it is also surrounded by numerous smaller, secondary
craters, gouged out by ejected debris, as expected from impact

Radiocarbon dating puts the crater's formation at about the

right time to have been witnessed by Constantine and there are
magnetic anomalies detected around the secondary craters -
possibly due to magnetic fragments from the meteorite.

According to Ormo, it would have struck the Earth with the force
of a small nuclear bomb, perhaps a kiloton in yield. It would
have looked like a nuclear blast, with a mushroom cloud and

It would have been quite an impressive sight and, if it really

was what Constantine saw, could have turned the tide of the

But what would have happened if this chance event - perhaps as

rare as once every few thousand years - had not occurred in
Italy at that time?

Maxentius might have won the battle. Roman history would have
been different and the struggling Christians might not have
received state patronage.

The history of Christianity and the establishment of the popes

in Rome might have been very different.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2003/06/23 15:57:14 GMT