This year, 2013, is the 1700th anniversary of one of the most remarkable edicts issued by a Roman emperor—or, to be accurate, two emperors, as it was jointly issued by Constantine, fresh from his victory over his rival Maxentius in Rome at the battle of the Milvian Bridge, and Licinius, emperor of the East. The two rulers were in Milan consolidating their relationship through an arranged marriage between Licinius and Constantine’s half-sister Constantia. Milan had been declared a capital of the Western Empire at a time when Rome, though still weighted with prestige, was no longer an effective centre for the defence of the northern borders.
Plaque commemorating the Edict of 313, in Milan on the site of the imperial palace where it was promulgated. Photo by Giovanni dall’Orto.
The Edict of Milan was a set of instructions to provincial governors and it was a recognition that the last great persecutions of Christians, initiated by the emperor Diocletian, had been a failure. It called for the toleration of Christianity and the restoration of the properties damaged in the persecution. Historians are still arguing over Constantine’s role in all this. Was his public declaration of support for Christianity a result of his own conversion to the new religion, or was it simply a pragmatic way of consolidating support for himself from the bishops, who were by now important authority figures in cities which were often in decay?
The Edict did not give Christianity a privileged position among the other religions of the empire. Constantine certainly had no ambition to abandon paganism. Until well into the 320s he identified with the cult of Sol Invictus, ‘the unconquered sun’, a cult that was popular among his soldiers, and his new capital, Constantinople, was dedicated according to ancient ritual. The only church there completed by his death was the Church of the Holy Apostles, where he was to be buried but, as Constantine designated himself the thirteenth apostle, this was hardly a humble acquiescence to his new faith. Indeed, he had only been baptised shortly before his death in 337.
The Edict did not assign special favours to Christianity, but it outlawed its persecution, and as such it marked the moment of greatest religious toleration in the empire, and so deserves to be celebrated. An exhibition, Constantino 313 DC, has been mounted in the Royal Palace in Milan. It runs to 17th March, after which it transfers to Rome, where it opens on the 27th. The exhibition is largely a celebration of Milan itself as a new imperial capital, with evidence of the imperial palace from recent excavations, and there are sections showing the increasing use of Christian symbolism, notably the Chi-Rho, in art including military insignia. The army, which was central to Constantine’s rule (so that his Christian biographer Eusebius could write of him as ‘God-blessed’ in his victories) has its own section. Another is devoted to Constantine’s mother, Helena, who initiated a new phase in Christian history through her finding and veneration of the Cross in Jerusalem. From now on, relics play an important part in Christian worship. Nails from the Cross were placed in Constantine’s helmet and went into battle with him. Although Christianity was eventually to assume a privileged position in the empire, with pagan cults suppressed in the 390s, the Edict of 313 fully deserves to be rescued from obscurity: and this exhibition does just that.
by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides and author of Sites of Antiquity: 50 Sites that Explain the Classical World.