Edict of Milan
The Edict of Milan (313) was a letter that established religious toleration throughout the Roman Empire.
The Edict, in the form of a joint letter to be circulated among the governors of the East, declared that the Empire would be neutral with regard to religious worship, officially removing all obstacles to the practice of Christianity and other religions. It "declared unequivocally that the co-authors of the regulations wanted no action taken against the non-Christian cults."
Christianity had previously been decriminalized in April 311 by Galerius, who was the first emperor to issue an edict of toleration for all religious creeds, including Christianity. The Christian historian Philip Schaff noted that the second edict went beyond the first edict of 311: "it was a decisive step from hostile neutrality to friendly neutrality and protection, and prepared the way for the legal recognition of Christianity, as the religion of the empire." The wording of the Edict reveals that such developments, however, remained in the future. The letter gives detailed instructions to the governor for the restitution of sequestered Christian property.
The Edict of Milan transformed the status of Christianity, as it initiated the period known by Christian historians as the Peace of the Church, and it has been interpreted by Christians as officially giving imperial favor to Christianity, as Constantine became the first emperor to actually promote and grant favors to the Church and its members. The document itself does not survive.
The Edict of Milan was issued in 313 AD, in the names of the Roman Emperors Constantine I, who ruled the western parts of the Empire, and Licinius, who ruled the east. The two augusti were in Milan to celebrate the wedding of Constantine's sister with Licinius.
A previous edict of toleration had been recently issued from Nicomedia by the Emperor Galerius in 311. By its provisions, the Christians, who had "followed such a caprice and had fallen into such a folly that they would not obey the institutes of antiquity", were granted an indulgence.
Wherefore, for this our indulgence, they ought to pray to their God for our safety, for that of the republic, and for their own, that the commonwealth may continue uninjured on every side, and that they may be able to live securely in their homes.
By the Edict of Milan the meeting places and other properties which had been confiscated from the Christians and sold or granted out of the government treasury were to be returned:
...the same shall be restored to the Christians without payment or any claim of recompense and without any kind of fraud or deception...
It directed the provincial magistrates to execute this order at once with all energy, so that public order may be restored and the continuance of the Divine favor may "preserve and prosper our successes together with the good of the state."
The actual edicts have not been retrieved inscribed upon stone. However, they are quoted at length in a historical work with a theme of divine retribution, Lactantius' De mortibus persecutorum ("Deaths of the persecutors"). Eusebius of Caesarea translated Lactantius' Latin into Greek for the text that was included in his History of the Church.
- It brought the governance of the Eastern Empire into line with the tolerance now operating in Constantine's dominions in the West. The Edict's context in Constantine's career is explored in John Curran, "Constantine and the Ancient Cults of Rome: The Legal Evidence" Greece & Rome 2nd Series 43.1 (April 1996, pp 68-80): Edict of Milan, p. 68f.
- "...we have also conceded to other religions the right of open and free observance of their worship for the sake of the peace of our times, that each one may have the free opportunity to worship as he pleases; this regulation is made we that we may not seem to detract from any dignity or any religion." (Edict of Milan as quoted by Lactantius, De Mortibus Persecutorum ("On the Deaths of the Persecutors") chapters 34, 35.
- Curran 1996:69, quoting the Edict: "This we have done to ensure that no cult or religion may seem to have been impaired by us."
- Lactantius, op. cit.. The theme of the work is the divine retribution that befell the perpetrators of the persecution ended by the decree of Galerius.
- History of the Christian Church, chapter II, section 25 "The Edicts of Toleration. a.d. 311–313" (on-line text).
- "In the Ecclesiastical History, the Panegyric on Constantine and the life of Constantine... the guiding idea of Eusebius is the establishment of a Christian empire, of which Constantine was the chosen instrument" (J.B. Bury, editor, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. II, Appendix, p. 359).