Edit of Milan: tolerance for Christians (June 13, 313)

Edit of Milan: tolerance for Christians (June 13, 313)

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According to historiographical tradition, Theedict of Milan or Edict of Constantine published in 313 granted religious freedom to Christians. Cardinal Angelo Scola, Archbishop of Milan declared on December 6, 2012 that “in a certain sense, with the Edict of Milan, the two dimensions that we call today“ religious freedom ”and“ secularism of the State ”appear for the first time in history. "If this statement may spark debate, the Milan edict is indeed aimportant text in the history of mankind.

Before the edict of Milan: relative peace for Christians

In the 1st and 2nd centuries, Christianity was widely tolerated in the Empire: there was no witch hunts conducted by the emperors. The only large-scale persecutions listed are that under Nero because of the fire in Rome (in 64) with the martyrdom of Peter and Paul where the imperial power is involved and that of Lyon in 177 which seems to be a local affair whose historians are still struggling to disentangle all the issues with certainty. There are certainly local persecutions of which the letters of Pliny and Tertullian keep track.

However, in both cases, the governors do not systematically hunt Christians and only judge those who are exposed and who do not deny their faith. In Rome itself we know that Christians were frowned upon, as illustrated by the words of Tacitus and Pliny about them. Thus during the Roman peace, the emperors show clementia towards Christians who retract.

Persecutions: a response to the "crisis" of the 3rd century

It was during the second half of the third century that the persecutions of Christians took on great proportions. We will not deal in this article with the persecution of Maximin the Thrace which seems very limited. It was not until Trajan Decius in 249 to have a brief but violent persecution. This emperor had a conservative political agenda that combined the restoration of imperial authority, the exaltation of the past and a return to traditional values. This last point is very important because according to him the Romans turned away from the gods who take revenge and generate the political, social, cultural, economic and military crises which the Romans are confronted with.

The procedure is simple: anyone summoned had to either make a sacrifice or burn incense in order to receive a certificate. Those who refused went to prison and underwent a whole procedure aimed at bringing them back to the right path. Many accept but consequently become lapsi (a Christian who has renounced his faith). Slips pose many problems within Christianity (some ecclesiastical authorities are themselves slips). Christians are not expressly targeted by this edict and the Roman authorities did not ask Christians to renounce their faith but only to perform the requested acts.

The second great persecution is that of Valérien (257-258) who expressly targets Christians. This persecution can be seen as a response to the defeats against the Persians and the still raging plague. The measures are more restrictive: meetings within the framework of Christian worship are prohibited, the Christian authorities must recognize the gods of the Empire on pain of exile. These measures seem to have had a relative effect, hence the adoption of tougher news. The results are not yet up to expectations. The capture of Valérien puts an end to the persecutions and his son Gallien publishes an edict of tolerance which aims to calm the situation. It seems that some places have been returned to Christians. The little peace of the Church settles down to the great persecution.

Christianity, a religion unsuited to Roman customs

Christian persecutions are not only a response to a one-off political crisis but also to a religious problem. Christians cannot participate in the sacrifices which are one of the guarantees of the survival of the Roman order desired by the gods: it is indeed the non-sacrifice for the city more than the non-participation in the imperial worship that is reprimanded. . This non-participation in civic cults also affects the military world, all the more so after the Edict of Caracalla, which transformed many Christians into Roman citizens. The martyrdom of Centurion Marcellus illustrates the difficulties Christians could encounter in the military.

Slah Selmi writes: “The Acts of Saint Marcel took place on July 21, 295. It was on the occasion of the feast of the epiphany of the emperors, that is to say the anniversary of the day on which Diocletian was proclaimed. Jovius, son of Jupiter, and Maximian Herculius, son of Hercules. In the city of Tangier, of which Fortunatus was prefect, there were many celebrations in the army to celebrate this anniversary. Marcel, one of the centurions of the Trajan legion, approached the trophy of the flags of the legion in front of which the sacrifices were offered. He threw up his belt saying "I am a soldier of Jesus Christ, the Eternal King". He also threw down his arms and resumed: "From now on I refuse to serve your emperors, not wanting to worship your gods of wood and stone, deaf and mute idols" ... "It is impossible for a Christian to serve in the militia of the century "..." All the soldiers feasted and sacrificed "; "Such was the situation with the military, that they were forced to worship the emperors" ... ". I did this in front of the trophy while we were celebrating the Emperor's Day. Therefore he was charged with desertion and blasphemy. " Christianity therefore posed many problems within the framework of the Roman Empire and called into question the pax deorum, the foundation of Roman religion and therefore the survival of Rome.

The great persecutions

These great persecutions were instituted by Diocletian in 303 and will continue until 312, either the greatest persecutions either in terms of the number of victims or in view of the particularly long duration of these persecutions. We will not dwell in detail on the policy of each Tetrarch in this area during this period, especially since there is in the meantime the resignation of Diocletian which marks the beginning of important struggles between the various protagonists of the empire. Preceded by measures aimed at purifying the army (see the story of Saint Marcel above), the persecutions, although violent, did not have the same intensity according to the regions, given the different temperament of each tetrarch who applied with the various edicts more or less vehemently. However, it is not uninteresting to be interested in the context which saw the emergence of these abuses.

As always, the will of the Tetrarchs is to ensure that Christians find the right path in religious matters. However, the changes that Diocletian brought to the Roman Empire made cohabitation with Christians more difficult than before. The ideology that underlies the tetrarchy sacralizes the imperial power of the two Augustus who would be the descendants of Jupiter: the non-devotion of Christians to traditional gods is therefore intolerable and endangers the state. The Oracle of Apollo of Miletus, of whom Diocletian was a devotee, did not say otherwise. This theology anticipates the political philosophy of the Christian Empire developed by Eusebius of Caesarea. It is also a way for Diocletian to assure his successors an empire ruled by one faith.

The Edict of Sardonic

On April 30, 311, Galerius issues an edict of tolerance in Nicomedia called the edict of Sardica. Although the policy to adopt towards Christians was discussed as early as the Carnuntum conference in 308, this text promulgated without the consultation of the three other tetrarchs (Constantine, Licinius and Maximin Daïa) proclaims the end of religious persecutions and the freedom of worship in the whole Empire. Galerius was demonized by Lactantius who saw in him a relentless persecutor who would have even motivated Diocletian which does not seem to be attested by the other passions of martyrs. This edict is motivated by the observation that the persecutions have failed: they did not help to stop the advance of Christianity.

According to Arnoldo Marcone, this edict is less aimed at the subjects than a warning to the other tetrarchs: civil wars must be avoided especially as the Sassanid (Persian) threat lasts. This edict marks an ideological aggiornamento of the tetrarchy, aggiornamento possible because Galerius is a faithful and authorized interpreter of the diocletian project. It is then possible to ask Christians to pray for the salvation of the Empire. It is specified in this edict that the governors will receive letters which will stipulate the modalities of application of this edict.

The Edict of Milan

Christian historiography has overvalued this edict for obvious ideological reasons. After his victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, brought freedom to Christians, and was the only one able to issue such an edict. But this text is just a decree implementing the edict of Sardonic and is not even an edict. From the winter of 312-313, Constantine wrote a letter to the governor of Africa and to the bishop of Carthage for the establishment of the restitution with indemnities of the goods of the clergy which followed the edict of Sardonic: the Christianity was already tolerated in some provinces. The Edict of Milan is actually a circular letter from Emperors Constantine I and Licinius which is the result of an interview between the two men in Milan sent to the governor of Bithynia published in Nicomedia on June 13, 313.

This letter was displayed publicly which allowed Lactantius to copy it into his book. Of the death of the persecutors and to Eusebius of Caesarea to give us another version in his Ecclesiastical history. Notable additions to the Edict of Sardonic are the restitution of books and property confiscated from Christians as well as the removal of municipal obligations for the clergy. In the end, this text is the symbol of the definitive end of persecutions against Christians in the Roman Empire.

Published after the victory of Licinius over Maximin Daia at the Ergenus Campus, near Adrianople, on April 30, 313, this text is the fruit of the alliance between Licinius and Constantine who abolish the Tetrarchy. Yet the two men do not have the same vision of this edict: if for Licinius this edict is the last step, for Constantine it is a beginning. His involvement in the first councils shows his interest in religious matters. It was not until the end of the 4th century that the Christian religion became the official religion of the empire.

The importance of this edict is therefore much less important than what some historiography has said about it, even though this text recognizes the right of Christians to exercise their worship freely. However, it remains anchored in the collective memory and is the subject of important events to celebrate it. This memory is not about to stop, as the mention of this edict in the French program for the sixth year of history and geography illustrates.

Indicative bibliography

- Marie Françoise Baslez, How our world became Christian, Seuil, 2011.

- LANÇON Bertrand and MOREAU Tiphaine, Constantin, a Christian Auguste, Armand Colin, Paris, 2012.

- MARAVAL Pierre, Constantine the Great: Roman Emperor, Christian Emperor (306-337), Tallandier, Paris, 2011.

- VEYNE Paul, When our world became Christian (312-394), Le Livre de Poche, Paris, 2010.

Video: What Is The Edict Of Milan About?


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