The year is 312AD.
Constantine, Emperor of the Western Roman Empire, has launched a pre-emptive attack on rival emperor Maxentius, with the two meeting in battle at Milvian Bridge.
Constantine, by this stage, was likely a Christian. Christianity in the early 4th Century was a small religion in Europe, with relatively few adherents compared to paganism and the other cults of belief along the fringes of the Roman Empire. As a Roman Emperor, Constantine kept his faith quiet.
The historian Eusebius claimed that Constantine received a signal from God – a revelation that led him to glory in battle. Constantine was able to attribute his victory to divine intervention from a Christian God, and rose to power (his faith along with him).
The Edict of Milan (313AD) displayed a rapid-fire move towards toleration of Christianity, and further patronage of Christian churches and the faith were to follow. More widespread Christian iconography was not far behind.
In the last decade, research has revealed that it seems that Constantine may indeed have witnessed something remarkable. The discovery of an impact crater in 2003 suggested that a meteor could have impacted Italy at around 312AD.
As this object burned up over the sky, Constantine interpreted it as a sign to advance despite the persistent reluctance of his advisors. Constantine emerged victorious, with reputation as a “Christian victor”.
The meteor would have provided Constantine with tremendous gravitas amongst his men: his Christian beliefs appearing to be based upon substance to the soldiers in his army who shared in the ‘vision’ of a celestial body burning up in the atmosphere.
We tend to think of meteor and asteroid impacts as destructive events: cataclysmic causes of extinction depicted in films such as Deep Impact and Armageddon. Yet it is beginning to appear more likely that objects from space have deeply influenced the course of human history at several stages.