Statue of Constantine I, outside York Minster.
A strategic pause following the battle of the Milvian Bridge, enabled Constantine and his two remaining colleagues time to reassess the change in the balance of power in the Roman empire after the death of Maxentius. Constantine was now left solely in charge of the West, Licinius in control of eastern Europe and a third emperor, Maximinus Daia in command of the Asian provinces. The pause also allowed the ‘brotherly’ union between Constantine and Licinius, which was made prior to the battle of the Milvian Bridge, to be finally formalized in Milan, with Constantine giving away his half sister in marriage to Licinius. It was only but one of the key piece of the puzzle to be worked out in Milan between the two of them, in February, 313 AD. The other key pieces to the puzzle revolved around what to do with Italy (which would stay under the control of Constantine), Maximinus Daia, and the Christians.
After the two Emperors had formed an official alliance (of sorts), it was here that the two talked about this new Christian God that Constantine had surprising put his faith into. Both emperors had good reason to discuss this development, as both men had family members who were Christians and both to some degree had personal interest in Christianity. With this in mind, Constantine and Licinius agreed to draft together a joint statement on religious tolerance placing Christianity on an equal footing with all other pagan religions of Rome.
It was only fitting too, that Constantine should readdress the status of Christians throughout the empire during his visit to Milan, because he had after all sort the favour of the Christian God to help him win in battle. If, anything, it didn’t hurt for both men to clarify their own personal views about Christianity, though probably Constantine’s more than Licinuis. Constantine, also had strategic reasons to protect or promote Christianity. Unbeknown to Licinius, Constantine harbored ambitions to control the whole empire, and to help him do so, he would likely need to gain the support of a more heavily populated Christian East. It was during his time in Nicomedia under Galerius, that he would have seen that an ever increasing Christian community was arguably the key to the revival of the Roman empire. Their values as good, hardworking and law abiding citizens might have been attributes that resonated with Constantine, in general? I am aware that writers like Gibbon say otherwise, that Christianity was the beginning of the end of the Empire. Maybe so, if you believe that all that was great with the Empire ended with the fall of the West. However, I believe that Constantine was a shrewd enough politician to realise which way the wind was blowing. The Empire’s future was in embracing a Christian population that was on the rise. It was far more important to include Christianity than to scold it.
Gold Aureus of Emperor Licinus.
The Edict of Milan in many ways was also a formal response to Maximinus Daia, who for selfish reasons was still prosecuting Christians in the East. Daia had gone to great lengths to ignore an earlier edict in 311 and make trouble for Licinius, in particular. Both men loathed each other. Licinius would get his chance soon enough to deal with Daia, when news was brought to him in Milan that Daia had crossed into his territory looking for trouble. War was imminent, as was Daia’s death.
The “Edict of Milan” was not the first of its kind in turning back the clock against the Great Prosecutions of the Christians. Prior to the year 313 AD, Emperor Galerius (with the fingerprints of Constantine and Licinus all over it ?) first issued the “Edict of Toleration” in 311 AD. Galerius, who had been one of the leading figures in the Great Prosecutions under Diocletian, in his old age and maybe with a ting of guilt or remorse, saw fit to reverse Diocletians edicts against the Christians. Galerius realized that ultimately the policy of trying to eradicate the Christians had failed. In some ways, this backward Roman policy (of prosecution) acted as a disabling factor of the Empire. It is with this spirit that Constantine and Licinius took it upon themselves to extend further their offer of toleration to Christians across the whole of the empire.
As a footnote to this amazing meeting between Constantine and Licinius, historian David Potter points out that, the document we refer to as the Edict of Milan never really existed and that it was “the product of a pagan emperor who had decided that (his) approach to the “Christian question” was correct.” What it really was according to Potter, was just a letter Licinius delivered to the governors of the eastern provinces (after his defeat of Daia) declaring universal religious tolerance throughout the empire. Nonetheless, whether it was an actual statement or just a letter, it is still after all one of most referred to and revered statements of religious tolerance observed by Christians (through the ages) and Christian writers. Why? Simply because it is associated with the first Christian Emperor Constantine I.
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Notes and Further Reading:
Anyone interested in reading extract versions of the Edict of Milan, can find it in Grant, Norwich and Stephenson which are listed below. If you are looking for entries of the Edict texts in primary sources, refer to Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History and Lanctantius’ On the Death of the Prosecutors.
Michael Grant, The Emperor Constantine, Phoenix, 1993.
John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, Viking, 1988.
David Potter, The Emperors of Rome, Quercus, 2007.
David Potter, Constantine The Emperor, Oxford, 2013.
Paul Stephenson, Constantine, Quercus, 2009.
Photo Credit: The image of Constantine, outside York Minster is used under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license. The Aureus of Emperor Licinius is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.
Categories: Constantine The Great