Seventeen hundred years ago this month (February 313 CE), a wedding took place in the city of Milan. As weddings go, it was rather significant. The emperor Licinius (Augustus of the East) was in town to wed Constantia, the younger half-sister of the emperor Constantine (Augustus of the West). The occasion gave the emperors-cum-in-laws plenty of opportunity for imperial small-talk. And when the libations had quit flowing and the matrimonial dust had settled, the two Augustii promulgated one of the most extraordinary documents of its time – the Edict of Milan (Edictum Mediolanense), which granted religious tolerance throughout the Roman Empire. The Edict also mandated the return to Christian communities of previously confiscated property.
Prior to Milan, an edict of toleration had been issued on 30 April 311 in Nicomedia by the emperor Galerius. Remarkable for its time, this ideal – a state granting its citizens the authority to observe the religion of their preference – remains relevant today. In this case, the granting state was the Roman Empire, which for centuries had coerced its citizens to pay homage to the cult of the emperors and had been persecuting Christians at its political convenience for the past three centuries.
The anniversary of the Edict of Milan has not gone unnoticed. From 25 October 2012 through 17 March 2013, Milan’s Palazzo Reale is hosting the exhibition, Costantino 313 d.c. – L’Editto di Milano e il Tempo della Tolleranza. The exhibition, which contains more than 200 artifacts, reconstructs the topography of fourth-century imperial Milan and the events leading up to the promulgation of the Edict. It further explores political, historical and religious themes in the life of Constantine and the fourth-century Roman Empire.
It may be somewhat revisionist, however, to impute tolerance as a meaningful legacy of the Constantinian decree. Rather, the Edict represents more of a shift in the empire’s religious direction than a commitment to religious tolerance per se. Its particular importance was the legalization of Christianity, Constantine’s new-found religion which he famously embraced prior to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (28 October 312), where he defeated his western rival, Maxentius, four months before issuing the Edict of Milan. Emperor worship may have been on its way out, but the will of the emperors still held the day, and in the end, the Edict served to consolidate Constantine’s imperial power.
On one hand, the Edict of Milan was a direct political maneuver by Constantine and Licinius against their rival Maximinus (Ceasar of the East), who had rescinded the previous Edict of Galerius (d. April/May 311) and had renewed persecutions against Christians in the East. Licinius defeated Maximinus later in the year and assumed full control of the East as its lone Augustus in August 313. On the other hand, while the Edict legalized Christianity, it did not stop Constantine from eventually executing the edict’s co-author, Licinius (below left), in 325, after defeating him in civil war in 324 CE. Apparently, there was little room for tolerance among imperial rivals, and Constantine (below center) ruled the empire as its sole emperor until his death in 337.
While Constantine is sometimes mistakenly credited with making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, this took place sixty-seven years later in 380 CE under Theodosius (d. 395, above right). In the meantime, the fourth-century empire experienced drastic shifts in its official religious expression as pagan, Arian and Nicene-Christian emperors all assumed the throne during this period. As Nicene Christianity gained a permanent ascendancy, people were once again denied the right to observe the religion, or even the Christianity, of their preference. The ideals of tolerance and religious freedom outlined in the Edict of Milan gave little protection to Jews and Arians.
The immediate effect of the Edict; however, made a significant impact upon the Christian topography of Milan and other cities throughout the empire. The Edict allowed the official building of new churches and the public burial of saints. One of the local ‘winners’ was Mirocles (Mirocle), the bishop of Milan. After the Edict, Mirocles (d. c. 316) started the erection of the basilica vetus, the city’s first cathedral, built on the location of the present-day Duomo. He is buried in Milan’s San Vittore al Corpo.
The text of the Edict of Milan has been preserved in two different sources. The better known source is Church History (Historia Ecclesiastica), 10.5 by Eusebius (d. 339), which was written in the early 320s. However, as Eusebius viewed Licinius as Constantine’s political nemesis, he edited Licinius completely out of the text.
The second source, Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors (De Mortibus Persecutorum), 48 written before 315, contains a presumably more accurate version of the text (below):
The Edict of Milan
When I, Constantine Augustus, as well as I, Licinius Augustus, fortunately met near Mediolanurn (Milan), and were considering everything that pertained to the public welfare and security, we thought, among other things which we saw would be for the good of many, those regulations pertaining to the reverence of the Divinity ought certainly to be made first, so that we might grant to the Christians and others full authority to observe that religion which each preferred; whence any Divinity whatsoever in the seat of the heavens may be propitious and kindly disposed to us and all who are placed under our rule.
And thus by this wholesome counsel and most upright provision we thought to arrange that no one whatsoever should be denied the opportunity to give his heart to the observance of the Christian religion, of that religion which he should think best for himself, so that the Supreme Deity, to whose worship we freely yield our hearts) may show in all things His usual favor and benevolence.
Therefore, your Worship should know that it has pleased us to remove all conditions whatsoever, which were in the edicts formerly given to you officially, concerning the Christians and now any one of these who wish to observe the Christian religion may do so freely and openly, without molestation. We thought it fit to commend these things most fully to your care that you may know that we have given to those Christians free and unrestricted opportunity of religious worship.
When you see that this has been granted to them by us, your Worship will know that we have also conceded to other religions the right of open and free observance of their worship for the sake of the peace of our times, that each one may have the free opportunity to worship as he pleases; this regulation is made we that we may not seem to detract from any dignity or any religion.
Moreover, in the case of the Christians especially we esteemed it best to order that if it happens anyone heretofore has bought from our treasury from anyone whatsoever, those places where they were previously accustomed to assemble, concerning which a certain decree had been made and a letter sent to you officially, the same shall be restored to the Christians without payment or any claim of recompense and without any kind of fraud or deception. Those, moreover, who have obtained the same by gift, are likewise to return them at once to the Christians. Besides, both those who have purchased and those who have secured them by gift, are to appeal to the vicar if they seek any recompense from our bounty, that they may be cared for through our clemency. All this property ought to be delivered at once to the community of the Christians through your intercession, and without delay. And since these Christians are known to have possessed not only those places in which they were accustomed to assemble, but also other property, namely the churches, belonging to them as a corporation and not as individuals, all these things which we have included under the above law, you will order to be restored, without any hesitation or controversy at all, to these Christians, that is to say to the corporations and their conventicles: providing, of course, that the above arrangements be followed so that those who return the same without payment, as we have said, may hope for an indemnity from our bounty. In all these circumstances you ought to tender your most efficacious intervention to the community of the Christians, that our command may be carried into effect as quickly as possible, whereby, moreover, through our clemency, public order may be secured.
Let this be done so that, as we have said above, Divine favor towards us, which, under the most important circumstances we have already experienced, may, for all time, preserve and prosper our successes together with the good of the state. Moreover, in order that the statement of this decree of our good will may come to the notice of all, this edict, published by your decree, shall be announced everywhere and brought to the knowledge of all, so that the decree of this, our benevolence, cannot be concealed.