Following an apparition, the young Emperor Constantine ordered his soldiers to write In hoc signo vinces (“in this sign thou shalt conquer”) onto their shields. Despite the fact that he was outnumbered, on 28 October, 312 AD, Constantine won the battle of Ponte Milva, defeating the pagans of the imposter Maxentius, who, with the support of the Senate, had proclaimed himself Emperor of Italy and Africa. A year later, in Milan, Constantine issued the edict that ended the persecution early Christians had been subject to. At Sedilo, a small town in the centre of Sardinia, the Roman emperor is known as santu Antine and is by far the island’s most venerated saint. Worship of him dates to Byzantine times and every year on the 6th and the 7th of July the emotional and mysterious s’Ardia is re-enacted.
The origins of this particular tradition has its roots in yet another mystical vision, the one of Giommaria Ledda, a slave of the Moors who built the beautiful Sanctuary of Santu Antine in the Middle Ages, after which it was rebuilt in a Gothic style in 1600. The church is the finishing line of the frenetic horse race of the 6th and 7th of July. The knights gather in front of the priest’s house the afternoon of the 6th so that the sa pandèla (banner) can be given to the race leader and the two knights (second and third pandela) chosen by him. A procession of town dignitaries and some hundred knights then slowly winds its way to su Frontigheddu, a small rocky outcrop south of the town from which the action can be followed. Bustling crowds fill the conch of the sanctuary, the event’s natural amphitheatre. The Ardia takes off without much warning as the riflemen who led the procession shoot into the air and the excited crowd frantically incites its heroes.
The riders hurdle down the winding route between su Frontigheddu and the sanctuary, their horses galloping at breakneck speed over dirt tracks. The race is guided by three pandelas, followed by the white-shirted knights that represent the army of St. Constantine. Others follow at their heels, trying to get past the pandelas. They are the pagan soldiers of Maxentius’ army. Once the ‘temple’ is reached the horsemen encircle it seven times at moderate speed until the leader spurs his horse and the race picks up again at full speed past the two sections of onlookers towards sa Muredda, a circle of bricks with a cross at the centre. At dawn of the 7th of July, it is done all over again. That afternoon St. Constantine is honoured by a procession while the second Sunday after the Ardia the same route is raced once again, only this time on foot.
Ardia comes from the verb bardiare, that is, to protect or keep safe. Pandelas and iscortas, brave knights who carry the standards, protect the leader and his chosen men from the frenzied horde of ‘pagans’. The sa prima pandela must never be overtaken, it would mean the defeat of Christianity. The arena in which the strenuous defence of the faith plays out is Sedilo. The stars are the Knights, the Dignitaries of the Government and the Church, the Musicians and Riflemen and, even more important, the Citizens of Sedilo, who have spent long months meticulously preparing for the event. It is a showcase for a lovely ancient village, one known for its vernaccia (white wine) and local specialities, as well as for the beauty of the surrounding countryside overlooking Lake Omedeo, an area dotted with priceless archaeological remains like the Iloi Nuragic complex and the Ispiluncas domus de Janas.