“The Edict of Milan”

There are two versions of the so-called “The edict of Milan”: a Greek version (translated by Eusebius) in HE x. 5.1-14) and a  Latin  copy of the letter (litterae cf. De mortibus persecutorun  48.1) sent to the governor of Nicodemia, preserved in De mortibus persecutorun 48.2-12. The discussion, whether the so-called “Edict of Milan” is merely a confirmation (by Constantine and Licinus during their meeting in Milan) of the already existing edict of Galerius promulgated in 311 or a letter to the provincial governors instructing how they should treat the Christians, is inconclusive. In such eventuality how was it possible that it came to be known as “Edict”? A probable answer is that Eusebius called it dia,taxij (cf. x.5.1) which is very close to the Greek “dia,tagma”  - an equivalent to the Latin  edictum (dia,tagma = edictum).

The Importance of the Theme and the Starting Point of the Discussion:

There is no doubt that “the edict” is an important mile stone in shaping the identity of Christianity in the IV century. The Edict itself was an outcome of the various elements (e.g. religious, cultural, political etc.) embroiling for a long time.  From this perspective, the phrase in HE x.5.2 - “Hdh me.n pa,lai skopou/ntej th.n evleuqeri,an th/j qrh|skeiaj ouvk avrnhte,an ei=vnai . .  kekeleu,keimen” (Iamdudum quidem, cum animadverteremus non esse cohibendam religionis libertatem. . . sanximus…) - is an apt starting point of the discussion for the period 310-319 A. D.

From a grammatical point of view, from the text it is very clear  that Constantine had been contemplating for a long time even before the “Edict of Milan” concerning the religious freedom. The participle “skopou/ntej” used in relation to the main verb “kekeleu,keimen” has a clear grammatical connotation of a continuous action in the past time  (German: Aktionsart). Such grammatical connotation of the longevity of the action contemplated or perceived  is further supported from other angles as given below:

A. Constantine breathed “an Air” of Religious Toleration and Christian faith for long time:

His father Constantius, in spite of the hard line persecution policy of Diocletian in the whole Empire, had rejected such policy in his own province in Gaul. Constantine inherited  from his father one part of the empire, which was most disposed to Christianity. Constantius had named his daughter “Anastasia”, a name found only among Jews and Christians. Another sister of Constantine, Constantia became a Christian very early (VC I, 17,3). Constantine himself had considered his father “Constantius” as his “forerunner” and called him “the first Christian Caesar” (VC II, 49). Even at the court of Diocletian, where Constantine had spent his youth, before the edit of persecution, there was an atmosphere of tolerance.  Adauctus and Dorotheus, high court officials at Nicomedia were Christians (HE 8,2). Lactantius notes the Christian inclination of the wife of Diocletian (Prisca) and his daughter (Valeria).  In other words, Constantine, who was born in the period of “piccolo pace”, had breathed not only an “air of tolerance” but also an “air  faith in Christ”.

B. A wide socio-cultural and political experience both in East and in West of the Empire

Constantine was born  in East and was brought at Drepanum in Cilicia, away an “imperial court” of Nicodemia, which provided him a realistic experience of the “then” existing multi socio-religious context of the empire. From a very young age (16 year old), he had accompanied Diocletian in his expeditions through out the empire. He was present at Nicomedia in 303, when the Edict of persecution was proclaimed and experienced the lightening that struck the palace soon after.  He was also a witness in 305 of the abdication of the two Augusti: Diocletian and Maximian. In other words, before his “flight” to West, he had a wide range of socio-cultural and political experience especially in the eastern part of the empire. He had also witnessed the outbreak and severity of the persecution and should have “contemplated” its effectiveness even before going to West to become a successor to his father. His first act, after being elevated as Augustus by the troops in 306, was to assure religious freedom in his province (De morti.  Xxiv, 9).   

C. The Ambition of “One God - One Empire – One Caesar”

Diocletian reforms for an effective socio-religious and political administration did not provide the expected result. After his abdication, the entire “system” broke down into utter confusion. It is also to be noted that Constantine after his victory on 28th October near Ponte Milvio did not go over to Campidoglio  for the traditional sacrifice to Jupiter. 

The various socio-political and religious initiatives by Constantine before and after his conversion show that he had already “contemplated”  for a long time the ambition of “One God – One Empire – One Caesar.” Thus the “Edict of Milan” was a result of various socio-religious and political factors, which had been the object of “skope,w” to Constantine for long time and played important role in shaping the identity of Christianity.



Eusebius Caesariensis,  Ecclesiastical History. Translated by Roy J. Deferrari. New York : Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1953-55.

________ De vita Constantini: eingeleitet von Bruno Bleckmann ; übersetzt und kommentiert von Horst Schneider.Turnhout : Brepols, 2007.

Lactantius Firmianus, Lucius Caecilius De mortibus persecutorum. Edited and translated by J. L. Creed. Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1984.

Silli, Paolo (ed.) Testi costantiniani nelle fonti letterarie. Milano : A. Giuffrè, 1987.


Secondary Literature:


Coleman-Nortan, P. R. Roman State & Christian Church: A Collection of Legal Documents to A. D. 535. London: SPCK, 1996.

Dassmann, Ernst, Kirchengeschichte. II/1, Konstantinische Wende und spätantike Reichskirche . Stuttgart : W. Kohlhammer, c1996. .

Greenslade, S. L., Church and State from Constantine to Theodosius. London : SCM Press, 1954.

Kraft, Heinrich, Kaiser Konstantins religiöse Entwicklung. Tübingen : J.C.B. Mohr, 1955.

Ricciotti, Giuseppe,  L'era dei martiri : il cristianesimo da Diocleziano a Costantino. Roma : Coletti, 1953.

Vogt, Joseph, Constantin der Grosse und sein Jahrhundert. München : Bruckmann, 1960.




Updated: 26/11/07