This year marks the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan, by which the Emperors Constantine the Great and Licinius established tolerance for Christianity in the Roman Empire. MercatorNet asked Mike Aquilina, an expert in the early history of Christianity, how this momentous step came about, and what relevance it has for the debate on religious freedom today.
MercatorNet: Celebrations have been rather low-key, but this year is the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan in 313. What’s it all about?
Mike Aquilina: What we’re really celebrating is the first appearance of the notion of religious liberty. The so-called Edict — it may have been a letter — marked the agreement between Constantine I, who ruled the western lands, and Licinius, who controlled much of the East, to put a stop to the persecution of Christians. They could have presented this in many ways, but they chose to speak in terms of widespread tolerance. “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 that we may not seem to detract from any dignity of any religion.” It’s safe to say that these were revolutionary ideas, and their influence, at least in Western Christian lands, has been profound.
What was the situation before the Edict?
For two and a half centuries, Christians had endured intermittent persecution, which was occasionally quite intense. Sometimes there were long stretches between the imperial crackdowns. But, even in times of peace, Christians lived with the memory of persecution as a recent unpleasantness. They knew that there was substantial legal precedent for the suppression of the Church and the making of martyrs. They knew that anti-Christian violence, outside the law, probably wouldn’t be punished. In the years leading up to the Edict, the Church had endured the empire’s most thoroughgoing persecution to that point in history.
What motivated Licinius and Constantine to take such a momentous step?
If they’d had Facebook accounts, they could honestly have said, “It’s complicated.” Both men had many motives for their action, and their motives were mixed…