In the small Syrian village of Maaloula, Aramaic has been spoken since the time of Jesus and his disciples. But this is no safe place to be a Christian today. The town has become a battleground between rebels linked to al-Qaeda and Syria government forces. Most of the town’s 3,000 residents have fled, literally taking the road to Damascus to avoid being punished for practicing Christianity.
Stories like this have obscured a significant and symbolic anniversary. This year is the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan, issued by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 313, establishing religious freedom throughout the empire.
Constantine had been proclaimed emperor by his troops in 306, making him one of half a dozen claimants after the retirement of Diocletian. He eventually cemented his position by defeating his chief rival, the emperor Maxentius, at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312. Before the battle, Constantine dreamed that he saw a cross and heard a voice saying, “In this sign you will conquer.” He had his soldiers paint the cross on their shields; they were surprised but followed orders.
His victory was complete: Maxentius and much of his army drowned in the Tiber when the bridge collapsed as they tried to retreat across it. Quite soon thereafter, Constantine became a Christian. The next year, he issued the Edict of Milan. His motives have been much debated. Christians were a growing sect in the empire—one of Constantine’s generals was a Christian—but they were still a minority. Had Constantine imposed Christianity, he could have split the empire at the same time he was trying to defend it against the invading Goths.
The Edict of Milan ended a decade of severe persecution of Christians, but it went much further. As quoted by the contemporary church historian Eusebius, it was comprehensive: “every man, according to his own inclination and wish, should be given permission to practice his religion as he chose…Christians and non-Christians alike should be allowed to keep the faith of their own religious beliefs and worship…This we have done to make it plain that we are not belittling any rite or form of worship.” In an empire stretching from Syria to Scotland, everyone—Christians, pagans, Jews, worshippers of the sun god or Isis or Mithras—could worship whoever he wanted to. The historian Arthur Herman observes, “Nothing like it had ever been promulgated in the ancient world before—or ever was again.”
And not just in the ancient world, but for more than a millennium afterwards. The edict was overturned by Emperor Theodosius I in a series of pronouncements between 381 and 391. From then on, Christianity was the state religion, and the Christian leaders repaid the pagans in full. Then as the Empire fragmented in the fifth century, bishops became political as well as religious leaders. In consequence, theological differences within Christianity became political differences, and heresies could not be tolerated by either the state or the church. Toleration was not re-established anywhere in Europe until the followers of Martin Luther and the Catholic rulers of the Holy Roman Empire fought to a draw in the 16th century.
The next edict of toleration—the Edict of Torda—was published in 1568 by King John II of Hungary. Its language was sweeping: “in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve.” In practice, however, this applied only to Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Unitarians. Other faiths—not only Jews but also Eastern Orthodox Christians—were officially “tolerated,” but lacked legal protection. Edicts in other countries were similarly limited.
Full freedom of religion did not reappear until Roger Williams founded Rhode Island, and then through very different reasoning. Williams found no basis in the Bible for a state church, and argued that “no persons, papists, Jews, Turks, or Indians, [should] be disturbed in their worship.” He regarded Constantine as a worse enemy of Christianity than Nero. “Under Constantine, Christians fell asleep on the beds of carnal ease and liberty.” Massachusetts and Connecticut, where suffrage was limited to Puritans, tried to unseat him—he accused their leaders of worshipping “the Great God Self”—but his principles triumphed in the First Amendment.
Constantine was born in the town of Naissus in the Roman province of Moesia Superior, which is now the city of Nis in Serbia. The city and the country have been celebrating the anniversary of the Edict of Milan with cultural events throughout the year. But there have not been many other commemorations, which is unfortunate: freedom of religion is notably absent today in quite a few former Roman provinces that enjoyed it 1700 years ago. Just ask the citizens of Maaloula.