The Legalization of Christianity

Funerary stele of Licinia Amias on marble, in the National Roman Museum. One of the earliest Christian inscriptions found, it comes from the early 3rd century Vatican necropolis area in Rome. It contains the text ΙΧΘΥϹ ΖΩΝΤΩΝ (“fish of the living”), a predecessor of the Ichthys symbol.

The legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire marked a pivotal moment in the history of the Western world. Prior to its legalization, Christianity was often subjected to sporadic bouts of persecution, ranging from local decrees to empire-wide campaigns aimed at suppressing the faith. Christians were frequently marginalized, discriminated against, and punished for their refusal to participate in the traditional Roman religious practices. This period of persecution reached a critical turning point in the early 4th century. In 313 AD, the Edict of Milan, jointly issued by the Roman Emperors Constantine I in the West and Licinius in the East, proclaimed religious tolerance across the empire. This landmark decree effectively legalized Christianity, granting the religion legal status and the freedom to worship openly. The edict not only ended the state-sponsored persecution of Christians but also laid the groundwork for Christianity’s eventual rise as the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, profoundly influencing the course of Western civilization and religious history.

The Rise of Constantine the Great

Amid the early 4th century’s turbulent political landscape, Constantine the Great emerged as a pivotal figure in Roman history. His journey to power was characterized by astute military strategies and shrewd political moves. Born in 272 AD in Naissus, in what is now Serbia, to Constantius Chlorus—a respected general and later a Western Roman Emperor—Constantine was positioned from birth within the complex web of Roman elite politics and military affairs.

The empire at the time was deeply divided, not just territorially between the Western and Eastern Roman Empires, but also internally, due to religious strife, economic instability, and the pressures of external threats. It was against this backdrop that Constantine’s character and leadership qualities were forged and tested.

Following his father’s footsteps, Constantine displayed remarkable military capabilities from an early age. His career took a decisive turn upon his father’s death in 306 AD, when he was proclaimed emperor by his father’s troops. This proclamation, however, plunged Constantine into the midst of the ongoing civil wars that had engulfed the Roman Empire. The path to securing his position as sole ruler was fraught with battles against fellow contenders for the imperial throne, highlighting the fractured state of Roman politics.

One of the most defining moments in Constantine’s rise to power was the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD. On the eve of this decisive conflict against Maxentius, Constantine reportedly experienced a divine vision that led him to adopt the Christian symbol—the Chi-Rho—on his soldiers’ shields. This strategic and symbolic act not only secured his victory but also marked the beginning of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, setting the stage for the religion’s transformation within the empire.

Constantine’s triumph at the Milvian Bridge was more than a military victory; it was a turning point that shifted the empire’s religious landscape. His subsequent enactment of the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, which granted religious freedom and specifically legalized Christianity, ended centuries of persecution of Christians and established a new era of religious tolerance and Christian patronage. This decree was a cornerstone in Christianity’s journey from a persecuted sect to the dominant religion of the Roman Empire.

The Conversion of Constantine

A folio from Papyrus 46, an early-3rd-century collection of Pauline epistles

The conversion of Constantine to Christianity stands as one of the most momentous events in the annals of history, marking a pivotal turning point not only in his life but also in the trajectory of Western civilization and the Christian Church. This transformation is deeply intertwined with the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, a conflict that not only solidified Constantine’s rule over the Roman Empire but also set the stage for Christianity’s ascent from a persecuted religion to the dominant faith of the empire.

The night before the decisive confrontation with his rival Maxentius, Constantine was reportedly visited by a vision. The precise nature of this vision has been the subject of much historical and theological speculation. Sources, most notably Lactantius and later Eusebius, recount that Constantine saw a symbol of a cross in the sky along with the Greek words “Ἐν τούτῳ νίκα” (En toutoi nika), translated as “In this sign, conquer.” This divine encounter prompted Constantine to order his soldiers to adorn their shields with the Christian symbol, the Chi-Rho, representing the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek.

The subsequent victory of Constantine’s forces was not merely a military triumph; it was perceived as a manifest endorsement of the Christian God’s power and protection. Constantine’s conversion following this victory was both personal and political, a fusion that would characterize the relationship between the Christian Church and the Roman state for centuries to come.

This event catalyzed Constantine’s endorsement of Christianity, leading to significant shifts in imperial policy towards the religion. The Edict of Milan, issued in AD 313 in collaboration with Licinius, his fellow emperor in the East, legalized Christianity throughout the empire and initiated a period of religious tolerance after centuries of persecution. Constantine’s conversion and the subsequent imperial patronage of Christianity facilitated the faith’s spread and institutional development, fundamentally altering its role and status within the empire.

Constantine’s faith influenced his reign in profound ways. He initiated the construction of major Christian basilicas, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and Old Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, thereby laying the foundations for Christian architecture and pilgrimage traditions. His involvement in ecclesiastical affairs, notably the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, underscored the emperor’s role as a protector and arbiter of orthodoxy within the Church, setting precedents for the intersection of imperial authority and Christian theology

The Edict of Milan

Bust of Emperor Constantine I, Roman, 4th century

The Edict of Milan stands as a landmark decree in the annals of Western history, embodying a profound shift in the Roman Empire’s approach to religious practice and marking the beginning of a new era of religious freedom. This decree, issued in AD 313 by Constantine, ruling the West, and Licinius, his counterpart in the East, was revolutionary in its scope and implications, extending religious tolerance to all and ensuring the restitution of property confiscated from Christians during periods of persecution.

The backdrop to the Edict of Milan was a period of intense and often brutal persecution of Christians, who had been subject to sporadic bouts of imperial hostility since the reign of Nero in the first century. Under emperors like Decius and Diocletian, this persecution intensified, with Christians facing execution, torture, and the confiscation of their property, largely due to their refusal to participate in state-sponsored religious practices which they saw as idolatrous. The issuance of the Edict of Milan thus represented not only a significant policy shift but also a symbolic end to centuries of suffering and martyrdom for the Christian community.

The edict’s primary proclamation was the legal recognition of Christianity, allowing Christians to practice their faith openly without fear of retribution. However, its impact extended beyond the Christian community; the edict affirmed the principle of religious liberty for all citizens of the empire, promoting a policy of state neutrality in matters of religion. This policy of tolerance was grounded in the belief that the peace of the empire might be secured not through the uniformity of religious practice, but through the respectful coexistence of diverse faiths.

The Edict of Milan is often celebrated for effectively legalizing Christianity, but its broader significance lies in its contribution to the concept of religious freedom. By decriminalizing Christianity, Constantine and Licinius set a precedent for the separation of religious affairs from state control, a principle that would eventually find echo in modern conceptions of religious liberty.

Moreover, the edict facilitated the return of confiscated property to Christians, allowing them to reclaim churches and cemeteries. This restitution was not merely symbolic but served to legitimize and institutionalize Christianity within the Roman social and political order. The edict thus played a crucial role in the transformation of Christianity from a persecuted sect to a major element of the imperial establishment, paving the way for its eventual status as the state religion under Theodosius I at the end of the 4th century.

The ramifications of the Edict of Milan were far-reaching, affecting not only the Christian community but also the fabric of Roman society and governance. It marked the beginning of a cultural and religious transformation of the empire, influencing the development of Western legal and philosophical thought regarding freedom of belief and the role of religion in public life. As such, the Edict of Milan is remembered not only as a milestone in the history of Christianity but also as a foundational moment in the history of religious freedom, reflecting a profound evolution in the relationship between the state, society, and the divine.