The Edict of Milan: When Christianity Came to Power

Does the Edict of Milan proclaimed the Western and Eastern Roman Emperors Constantine and Licinius in early 313 represent the true birth of the Christian Church?

Linda Woodhead, Professor of Sociology of Religion at my alma mater, Lancaster University in England, begins her excellent text An Introduction to Christianity (2004) with the Edict of Milan rather than with the Pentecost narrative in Acts 2. She argues that the 'early church' (between 64 and 313) was an "unregulated mix of all sorts of different religious and spiritual groups."

While these all looked back to the teaching and example of Jesus, they each interpreted his legacy in different ways and "constructed very different sorts of 'church' in the process."

The version of Christianity that eventually triumphed in the Edict of Milan may be designated 'catholic' or 'universal' Christianity. Woodhead points out that even our knowledge of Jesus and the beginnings of Christianity "is mediated to us through this tradition." Twelve years after the Edict of Milan, Catholic Christianity ruled on which books should be included in the official canon of the New Testament and which should be excluded.


Diocletian and the Great Persecution

The rise of Christianity is one of the most startling success stories in history. In less than 300 years Christianity has spread from an obscure corner of Palestine through the entire Roman Empire. Despite centuries of persecution and repression Christianity has not only survived it has flourished.

Now, 300 years after the death of Jesus, the Christian church faces ultimate destruction from a vengeful new emperor. Diocletian (Roman Emperor, 284-305) takes command and reorganizes the entire Empire on a military basis. He splits the sprawling empire into eastern and western halves in an attempt to prevent his rivals from rising against him. The division of the Empire seems creates more problems than it solves.

Left: 2nd century CE Roman statue of Apollo depicting the god's attributes—the lyre and the snake Python.

In 303, Diocletian claims that the sun god Apollo has spoken to him. According to Diocletian, Apollo is angry at the rise new Christian deity in Rome. And so begins a deadly crusade against Christianity.

It intended to do nothing less than destroy the new religion; to eliminate every Christian in the Mediterranean world: A “final solution” for Christians.

And yet, within a decade of what will come to known as the Great Persecution, Christianity will become the dominant religion of the entire Roman Empire.

What caused that extraordinary—even miraculous—turnabout?

How did this tiny Jewish sect from the backwater of the empire come to dominate Rome, the Mediterranean and all of Europe?

With the Edict of Milan, out went the old gods and goddesses of pagan Rome; in came the one God of the Christians. It was a turning point in the history of the Christian faith. More than a hundred years previously, the king of Edessa, in present day Turkey, had made Christianity his official religion. But to be the state religion of a whole empire was something else altogether.


Constantine the Great (272-337)

Above: Bronze statue of Constantine I in York, England, near the spot where he was proclaimed Augustus in 306.

In 312 the unstable power structure of the divided empire collapses. Constantine, a former soldier, has been assigned to the furthest reach of the Empire—the English city of York. It is from here that in 306 Constantine is raised to the rank of Augustus, senior western emperor. From here he makes his fateful bid for power. With his legions he marches south across the European continent intent on overthrowing the eastern emperor.

Eight miles outside Rome at the Milvian Bridge, Constantine pauses. It is the eve of what will be the greatest battle of his life—the fight for control of the Empire. It is precisely at this point that the would-be emperor has a vision. It is an apparition that will change Constantine’s life and the life of all Europe for the next 1,700 years.

According to tradition, looking up in the sky Constantine sees the sign of the cross on the face of the sun.

Up until this time Constantine has been a traditional pagan worshiping the gods of Rome. Now he is confronted with the miraculous symbol of the forbidden Christian religion. At the same time he hears an awesome voice announce his destiny: “You are to conquer in this sign.” He realizes that it’s through Christ that he’s going to win this battle.

The battle is completely successful—they beat the opponent, he is established as the sole emperor of the western part of the Empire.

And so it was that the tiny sect of a Jerusalem rebel conquers the Roman Empire. The conversion of Constantine is one of the most important turning points in Christian history. Constantine immediately rewards his newly embraced religion by issuing the Edict of Milan declaring official tolerance for Christianity throughout the Empire.

The Roman persecutions are over forever.

In 323 Constantine marches against the eastern Augustus—the pagan Licinius—and defeats him after two years of war. Constantine is now the sole ruler of both east and west. The ceremonies to celebrate the reunification of the Empire are Christian.


Constantine after the Edict of Milan

Right: A gold coin of Constantine with Sol Invictus, struck in 313, the same year as the Edict of Milan.

Yet the nature and extent of Constantine’s conversion are still matters of debate. Modern scholarship suggests a complicated scenario behind the traditional version of history’s greatest conversion.

Some scholars suggest that the God Constantine accepted that day at the Milvian Bridge was not Jesus, but the sun god, Apollo. Could the reputed “first Christian emperor” have actually retained his paganism? He believed in the sun god Sol Invictus, the invincible sun. He had some connection with Apollo and the idea of sun worship.

Despite his ostensible conversion, Constantine retains many pagan practices when he becomes emperor. His sympathy with Christianity is undeniable but so is his tolerance for paganism. His coins carry the image of the sun god. Constantine demands that Christians change their day of worship from the Hebrew Sabbath to the Roman “day of the sun.”

It is a matter of record that Constantine will not be baptized a Christian until he is on his deathbed. The question remains to this day was Constantine truly a convert to Christianity or was he simply a shrewd pagan politician who embraced a powerful minority?

The ability to re-invent itself would become a hallmark of Christianity. But this was the greatest re-invention of them all. It meant an end to persecution; it brought power and wealth. It gave the Christian faith the chance of becoming a universal religion. From the Edict of Milan a Church of the Roman Empire emerged.


History of Christianity Library

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