This month marks the 1,700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan. While much debate surrounds the relationship of Church and state in Christian Rome, even key figures like the Emperor Constantine (traditionally considered a saint by both East and West), the Edict of Milan is something that anyone who values liberty, religious liberty in particular, ought to commemorate as a monumental achievement. While a previous edict in 311 had offered some toleration to Christians, who spent almost their first 300 years having to fear for their lives any one of many local outbreaks of persecution that periodically plagued Pagan Rome, the Edict of Milan for the first time granted the Church the same status, including property rights, as other religions. It did not establish Christianity as the state religion (that would not happen until the end of the fourth century). Even then, the history, like all history, is messy. Often different emperors had widely different practical perspectives toward their role (or lack thereof) in religion. As Lord Acton has stated, liberty is the “delicate fruit of a mature civilization,” and that includes religious liberty and Christian Rome. In all cases, it was not a total separation of Church and state, but it was an achievement, a maturation if only for a time, that marked the end of centuries of martyrdom for Christians in the Roman (now Byzantine) empire.
On the other hand, even while commemorating the fruit of liberty in the Edict of Milan, I would be remiss if I did not also call attention to the effect that the conversion of Constantine had on Christians in the Persian empire. Once the Roman emperor was Christian, even if only nominally, Christians in Persia were suspected of being a “fifth pillar” of Rome. When persecution was declining in Rome, a new wave of religious intolerance and persecution broke out in Persia. Christianity has never been free of martyrdom, indeed, even in countries that claimed it as its own.
In commemorating this landmark document, one ought not forget what a “delicate fruit” such liberty is, nor that many, of many different religions, do not enjoy such liberty today. It is something that can only be achieved through the maturation of a society, and then only retained so long as that society does not regress again from maturity to immaturity, from peace to violence. Hopefully, in remembering this edict, and the positive and negative effects that it had, we will esteem anew the good of a free society and pray for those who do not enjoy such freedom, even, like ancient Christians who daily prayed for the very emperors and fellow citizens who were persecuting them, for those who seek to undermine such freedom today.
For those who have not read it, or for those who wish to read it again, the Edict of Milan can be read in full in Eusebius of Caesarea’s Ecclesiastical History here.