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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Vasilief, A History of the Byzantine Empire

The empire from Constantine the Great to Justinian

The Edict of Milan


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Page 3

In 1891 the German scholar O. Seeck advanced the theory that no Edict of Milan was ever issued. The only edict which ever appeared, he stated, was the edict of tolerance issued by Galerius in 311. For a long time most historians failed to accept this view. In 1013 the sixteen-hundredth anniversary of the Edict of Milan was solemnly celebrated in many countries and a vast literature on the subject was produced. In reality, however, the edict quoted above, promulgated at Nicomedia by Licinius in 313, was a confirmation of Galerius edict of 311, which apparently had not been satisfactorily carried out. The document which was issued at Milan in March, 313 by Constantine and Licinius was not an edict but a letter to the governors of the provinces in Asia Minor and in the East in general, explaining and directing how they should treat the Christians.  

The conclusion, on the basis of this edict, is that Constantine and Licinius gave Christianity the same rights enjoyed by other faiths, including paganism. It is premature to speak of the triumph of Christianity in Constantine's time. To Constantine, Christianity seemed compatible with paganism. The great significance of his act is that he not only allowed Christianity to exist but actually placed it under the protection of the government. This was an extremely significant moment in the history of early Christianity.  

The Edict of Nicomedia, however, gave no basis for the claim made by some historians that during the reign of Constantine Christianity was placed above all other religions, that the others were only tolerated, and that the Edict of Milan proclaimed, not a policy of toleration, but the predominance of Christianity. When the question of the dominance or the equal rights of Christianity is raised, the decision must be in favor of equal rights. Nevertheless, the significance of the Edict of Nicomedia is great. As one historian has said, In reality, without any unnecessary exaggeration, the importance of the Edict of Milan remains unquestionably great, for it was an act which ended the illegal position of the Christians in the empire and declared at the same time complete religious freedom, thus reducing paganism de jure from its former position of the only state religion to the rank of all other religions

Cf. Ancient Greece and Christianity (text in Greek only) ||| Byzantium : heir to the Graeco-roman antiquity 

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