Happy Birthday, Edict of Milan

We didn’t want to let the month pass without noting the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan, one of the most important events in the history of religious liberty. In February 313, the emperors Constantine (left) and Licinius met in Milan to discuss imperial business. While there, they agreed to grant religious freedom to Christians–and, incidentally, everyone else in the Roman empire. Their decision came to be known as an “edict,” though it’s not clear an official document ever issued. The historian Eusebius supplies the text:

When I, Constantine Augustus, and I, Licinius Augustus, came under favorable auspices to Milan and took under consideration everything which pertained to the common weal and prosperity, we resolved among other things, or rather first of all, to make such decrees as seemed in many respects for the benefit of every one; namely, such as should preserve reverence and piety toward the deity. We resolved, that is, to grant both to the Christians and to all men freedom to follow the religion which they choose, that whatever heavenly divinity exists may be propitious to us and to all that live under our government.

We have, therefore, determined, with sound and upright purpose, that liberty is to be denied to no one, to choose and to follow the religious observances of the Christians, but that to each one freedom is to be given to devote his mind to that religion which he may think adapted to himself, in order that the Deity may exhibit to us in all things his accustomed care and favor.

Note a couple of things. The edict does not, as commonly believed, make Christianity the state religion. That decision came later, under a different emperor, Theodosius–which suggests that Christians who condemn the “Constantinian compromise” that weakened the faith have got their emperors wrong. And, although it is famous for legalizing the practice of Christianity in Rome, the edict does not cover only Christians. It grants religious liberty to everyone in the empire. Everyone should follow the religion he thinks best, the edict proclaims, so that “whatever heavenly divinity exists” will continue his favors to Rome. Which puts one in mind of Gibbon’s famous jibe: to the magistrate, all religions are equally useful.

At length, Licinius changed his mind about the edict and began persecuting Christians in his part of the empire. A power struggle followed; Constantine eventually defeated Licinius, thereby becoming sole emperor. Constantine was always cagey about his own Christianity, perhaps because he wished to avoid upsetting those powerful Romans who remained pagan. He advanced the interests of the church and influenced (or interfered in) doctrinal developments, but he did not actually become a Christian until shortly before his death. Today, both he and Theodosius are commemorated as saints in Eastern churches. Licinius? Not so much.

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