Chapter 1: An Opportunity for Reflection
The seventeenth centenary of the Edict of Milan brings back to our attention the issue, more relevant than ever, of religious freedom. In order to address it in terms of the contemporary debate (complicated by the tremendous differences that the problem presents in democracies as opposed to dictatorships, in the more secularized countries as opposed to those of Muslim majority populations), it is useful to make a few cursory and therefore incomplete historical observations.
From the Catholic point of view it is also decisive to refer to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, contained in the declaration Dignitatis Humanae (December 7, 1965).
The Political Project of Imperial Restoration
In order to grasp the historical impact of the Edict of Milan, it is necessary to start with the process of transformation that began during the last two decades of the third century and the first two of the fourth, a transformation of epochal importance.1
Two political projects, one launched by Diocletian and the other by Constantine, mark this forty-year period. Both projects are characterized by a breadth that is "universal" (in terms of the Roman empire); one follows upon the other, but they are rather different in their intentions and results; they are situated at a historical, cultural, and religious juncture that is extremely variegated and complex, in which different currents of thought and action convey worldviews and objectives that often conflict.
Diocletian undertook the renovation of the empire beginning in 286, through an imposing administrative, political, and ideological reorganization involving an extensive and varied series of measures. Together with Maximian, he also decided to give a new impulse to the sacralization of the sovereigns (to whose clementia everyone paid the tribute of adoratio), promoting the affirmation of the absolute uniqueness of their relationship with the gods who ruled the empire: Jupiter and Hercules.2
The imperial ideology paired the emphasis of the sovereign figure with a series of elements aimed at fostering social and political cohesion, primarily by presenting once again the mos maiorum as the fundamental moral code of all the empire's inhabitants, capable of regulating every area of life, from the worship of the gods to marriage to relations between the emperors.
Diocletian's imperial renovation attempted to impose in the field of religion an obligatory point of convergence that would ensure the pax deorum and therefore the safety of the empire and its inhabitants in a decidedly variegated panorama in which the traditional cults were accompanied and sometimes overshadowed both by rituals derived from the Eastern mystery religions (like the cult of Mithra, which was fairly widespread in military circles) and by new syncretistic forms like Manichaeism (whose founder, Mani, had died in 277 AD).
The Persecution of Christians
The strongly theocratic character of the imperial renovation, with its presumption to apply to all of the empire's inhabitants, could not help but give rise to religious conflicts.3
The first to experience this outcome were the Manichaeans. Because of their refusal of military service, they were hit in 297 with an edict that defined as a serious crime the substitution of a new religion for the ancestral one, reviving the argument that there is greater value in the old than in the new, which had also been used extensively in the third century (for example, by the philosopher Porphyry) to belittle and denigrate the Christian nouitas and was well known to the Apologist Fathers.
In the same year, Diocletian began issuing measures aimed at Christians, initially limited to excluding them from the army. The true persecution began in 303, with the clear objective of a structural demolition of the Church: prohibition of the liturgical celebration, destruction of buildings of worship, confiscation of sacred books and furnishings. At the same time, the faithful were deprived of their recourse to the law and lost a series of personal rights and honors. Afterward the measures became more harsh. Ministers were incarcerated and forced to sacrifice to the gods; apostates were set free, and resisters were sentenced to death. Finally, a further tightening of the norms extended the same measures to all Christians.4
These repressive measures remained in effect until 311, although the intensity and duration of their application varied in the different parts of the empire. In the east there were several thousand martyrs and the persecution was more fierce, mainly because of the policies of Galerius and Maximinus II, while in the west the harassment practically ceased in 305 with the arrival of the second Tetrarchy and the ascent of Constantine.5
In light of the facts, Diocletian's ambitious plan proved inadequate in many respects: it failed to achieve the elimination of the dynastic system, the defense of the economy based on copper money (the denarius), and above all the hoped-for social cohesion.6
Defeat of the Policy of Repression
On April 30, 311, Galerius--who until that moment had distinguished himself by his relentless enforcement of the norms against Christians in the regions entrusted to him (which stretched from Thrace on the Black Sea to Greece and the northern part of Asia Minor)--issued an edict allowing Christians "to exist once again [ut denuo sint] and to rebuild their meeting places."7 The emperor, who was seriously ill and near death, as his last act of governance recognized the existence of Christians and the lawfulness of their worship, but he did not give up on defending the correctness of his actions, aimed at bringing the Christians back to the mos maiorum. According to his view, the Christians had abandoned the institutions of their fathers because they were in the grip of a "great stubbornness and folly," to the point of deigning to make their own laws "as they pleased" and drawing others into their error; if now the imperial clemency permitted them to practice their Christian worship, this was only to prevent many inhabitants of the empire from living in a de facto atheism, in that they refused to offer the sacrifices prescribed by the sovereigns but were prevented from exercising their own faith.
This reveals the full extent of the anguish that had risen for Galerius, the heir of three centuries of relations between Roman power and Christianity: on the one hand he acknowledged that he had ultimately been defeated by events and recognized the fidelity of the Christians to their faith, as well as their capacity for proselytizing and attracting others; on the other he continued to maintain that it was an inalienable prerogative of imperial power to "manage" the relationship between the divine sphere and the subjects of the empire in pursuit of the pax deorum upon which the safety of the res publica depended. In his edict he presents as the sole conditions for the exercise of Christian worship that the faithful not do anything against public order and that they pray to "their God" for its safety, that of the empire, and their own ("debebunt deum suum orare pro salute nostra, et reipublicae, ac sua").
From that moment the persecution came to an end almost everywhere in the empire.8
The Edict of Milan
The Revolution of Licinius and Constantine
Between the spring of 311 and that of 312, meanwhile, the conflict was growing between Constantine and Maxentius; it would culminate in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (October 312) and conclude with Maxentius's death. During this time there occurred the "Constantinian revolution," the decision on the part of Constantine to entrust the fate of the empire--and his own fate as emperor--to the Christian God.9 This decision was in complete continuity with the "charismatic" conception of power widely shared at the time, which made it indispensable, for the safety of the res publica, to seek an alliance with the divinity that would show itself to be stronger and more capable of granting victory, the sign of its benevolence toward the sovereign. What took place before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, therefore, was exactly the culmination of the search for a deus adiutor in which Constantine had been engaged for some time.
It is not easy to discern--as some scholars attempt to do--to what extent the decision to entrust the good of the empire to the Christian God was, in addition to a political choice, also a sign of a personal conversion on the part of Constantine, and perhaps it is not even possible to do so in a methodologically correct way, if one begins on the basis of a "modern" view of the concepts of conversion, politics, and government.10
What is certain is that the victory of the Milvian Bridge confirmed for Constantine the decision he had made and impelled him to propose, in the meeting with the pagan Licinius in Milan in February of 313, the "institutionalization" of the relationship with the Christian God and his followers, guaranteeing in the first place the freedom of Christians to practice their religion throughout the empire.
The Initium Libertatis
"The Edict of Milan of 313 has an epochal significance because it marks the initium libertatis of modern man."11 This statement by the illustrious scholar of Roman law Gabrio Lombardi makes it possible to identify how the provisions signed by the two Augusti, Constantine and Licinius, determined not only the gradual end of the persecution of Christians but above all--albeit within the objective limitations of the mentality of the time--the dawn of religious freedom. In fact, again in Lombardi's words, "in order that the freedom recognized in this sense for Christians should not appear as a sort of privilege, it was necessary to recognize it equally for all others, giving up on the intermingling of the 'juridical dimension' and the 'religious dimension' that had come down over a thousand years of history. This is why the text of the edict insists repeatedly that the freedom of conscience, of religion, of worship, was to be recognized not only for Christians but for all without distinction. And this is the first concrete clarification in history of the two dimensions that today we call 'religious freedom' and 'the secularism of the state': two dimensions that, in Western civilization, have become two aspects of a single prerequisite of the organizational experience of political society."12 In a certain sense, in the Edict of Milan the two dimensions that today we call "religious freedom" and "secularism of the state" emerge for the first time in history as decisive factors in the good organization of political society.
The Letter from Licinius to the Governor of Bithynia
We do not have a direct and immediate account of the decisions made during the meeting between Constantine and Licinius on the occasion of the marriage between the sister of the former, Constantia, and the latter. Nevertheless, a letter of the summer of 313, sent by Licinius to the governor of Bithynia13 and known also to Eusebius of Caesarea, specifies in view of their application the provisions concerning "all that pertains to safety and the public good," decided on the occasion of the "coming together" of the two Augusti in Milan. The following is the text of the historic edict:
Perceiving long ago that religious liberty ought not to be denied, but that it ought to be granted to the judgment and desire of each individual to perform his religious duties according to his own choice, we had given orders that every man, Christians as well as others, should preserve the faith of his own sect and religion.
But since in that rescript, in which such liberty was granted them, many and various conditions seemed clearly added, some of them, it may be, after a little retired from such observance.
When I, Constantine Augustus, and I, Licinius Augustus, came under favorable auspices to Milan and took under consideration everything which pertained to the common good 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.
1. See L. Pietri and J. Flamant, "La crisi dell'Impero romano e l'affermazione di una nuova religiosita," in Storia del Cristianesimo: Religione, Politica, Cultura, vol. 2, ed. G. Alberigo (Rome: Borla and Citta nuova, 2000), 25-52; J. Zeiler, "Le grandi persecuzioni della meta del III secolo e il periodo di pace religiosa dal 260 al 302," in Storia della Chiesa, vol. 2, ed. A. Fliche and V. Martin (Cinisello Balsamo, Italy: San Paolo, 1995), 225-46.
2. See F. Kolb, "L'ideologia tetrarchica e la politica religiosa di Diocleziano," in I Cristiani e l'Impero nel IV secolo: Colloquio sul Cristianesimo nel mondo antico, ed. G. Bonamente and A. Nestori (Macerata, Italy: Universita degli Studi di macerate and Pubblicazioni della Facolta di Lettere e Filosofia, 1988), 17-44.
3. See L. Pieri, "Le resistenze: dalla polemica pagana alla persecuzione di Diocleziano," in Alberigo, Storia del Cristianesimo, vol. 2, 156-83; J. Zeiler, "L'ultima persecuzione," in Fliche and Martin, Storia della Chiesa, vol. 2, 633-63.
4. For a description and evaluation of the anti-Christian edicts of Diocletian and Maximian, see P. Siniscalco, Il cammino di Cristo nell'Impero romano (Bari, Italy: Laterza 2009), 61-77 and 92-96.
5. "The general persecutions undoubtedly put the Christian communities to a hard test. Taking into account the nature of the sources available to us, it is impossible to establish an exact balance in numeric terms: the regions and circumstances were different, and the total number of victims--those who paid with their lives or remained mutilated after torture--cannot be calculated," Pietri, "Le resistenze," 182. See also M. Sordi, I cristiani e l'Impero romano (Milan: Jaca Book, 2004), 167-68.
6. On the failure of the tetrarchic construction of Diocletian, see S. Mazzarino, L'Impero romano (Bari, Italy: Laterza, 1993), 593-99.
7. The text of the edict of Galerius is preserved in Lactantius, De mortibus persecutorum, 34; Eusebius of Caesarea, Historia Ecclesiastica vol. 8, 17, 6 10. The Italian text can be found in Eusebius of Caesarea, Storia Ecclesiastica vol. 2, Collana di testi Patristici 159, (Rome: Citta nuova, 2001), 180-81.
8. See Siniscalco, Il cammino di Cristo, 163.
9. See J. R. Palanque, "L'impero cristiano," in Fliche and Martin, Storia della Chiesa, vol. 3/1, 17 83; C. Pietri, "La conversione: Propaganda e realta della legge e dell'evergetismo," in Alberigo, Storia del Cristianesimo: Religione, Politica, Cultura, vol. 2, 187-223.
10. On this topic see F. Braschi, "La 'conversione' di Costantino: Riflessioni a partire dai criteri di lettura delle fonti antiche," La Scuola Cattolica 135 (2007): 115-49.
11. G. Lombardi, Persecuzioni, laicita, liberta religiosa: Dall'Editto di Milano alla "Dignitatis humanae" (Rome: Studium, 1991), 128.
12. Ibid., 124-25.
13. See Lactantius, De mortibus persecutorum, 48. The translation of the text from the original Latin of Lactantius is from L. Martinez Ferrer and P. L. Guiducci (eds.), Fontes: Documenti fondamentali di storia della Chiesa (Cinisello Balsamo, Italy: San Paolo, 2005), 70-73.