The West

Constantine and Libertas Ecclesiae

With the Edict of Milan, the Emperor recognized the freedom “for Christians and all others” to follow one’s religion: The story of his conversion from the cult of the sun god to Christianity, in an interview with Marta Sordi

edited by Stefano Zurlo

Two edicts, the Edict of Serdica signed by Galerius in 311, and that of Milan in 313, issued by Constantine... In between, a mysterious event turned everything upside down: Constantine’s conversion and his victory in the battle of the Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312 was a central fact that opened the doors of Roman society to Christians, till then formally discriminated against or, rather, prosecutable and bloodily persecuted. Both edicts centered on the same subject, religious tolerance of those unstoppable followers of Christ, but with very different words. While Galerius granted freedom to the disciples of Jesus almost against his will, Constantine formed the principle of libertas Ecclesiae with a dizzying leap ahead. Dr Marta Sordi, formerly Professor of Greek and Roman History at Catholic University in Milan, has puzzled for years over this singular concentration of events that overturned Western history. “The Edict of Serdica stated that Christians had erred, but granted the Emperor’s pardon because, ill and fearful of death, he hoped to ingratiate himself with the God of the Christians. Constantine, on the other hand, defined the impassable limit of Caesar’s action, emphasizing the value of the conscience.”

The distinction of levels

These are the words of Constantine: “Ut daremus et christianis et omnibus liberam potestam sequendi religionem quam quisque voluisset.” Dr Sordi translates them as, “In order to give the Christians and all others the power to follow the religion each one wants,” noting that christianis next to omnibus (all the others) indicates that the Christians, the followers of Jesus, had been a very tough nut to crack, a source of permanent conflict for three hundred years. Therefore, guaranteeing freedom for them meant fathoming to its depths the profundity of the word freedom, recognizing the inalienable space of the conscience and laying the foundations for future Western civilization, based on the exaltation of the “I” and the distinction between two levels: God on one, and Caesar on the other. With this step, Constantine not only recognized libertas Ecclesiae, but the freedom of each human being. In fact, Dr Sordi is quick to read another line from the Edict, in which the Emperor explains that each person may follow the religion most suited to his own conscience, “Qui... ei religioni mentem suam dederit quam ipse sibi aptissimam esse sentiret.”
Thus, the bond with the Christian God led to the definition of the realm of the conscience, a conquest that from then on will pertain to all, christianis and omnibus.
In the middle of all this were the battle of the Milvian Bridge and Constantine’s mysterious dream. Dr Sordi believes that centuries and centuries of Roman history prepared for the event, nurturing the word freedom as one nurtures a baby that grows into a man, forming the culture onto which Constantine’s unexpected change would be grafted.

Constantine’s vision

What happened on October 28, 312? Eusebius of Caesarea and Lattantius described the vision that provoked the Emperor’s conversion, but Dr Sordi prefers a pagan panegyric from 313. “It’s very interesting, because the author says that Constantine had the aid of a supreme god who is never named, of whom not even the name is known, who caused him to prevail over his rival, Maxentius. For me, this means that the pagan culture of the time marked it as something exceptional, perhaps a mystical experience, certainly something that brought Constantine to embrace the religion of Christ and definitively close the door on the gods of the Capitol.”
That day, something particular happened, summarized in Constantine’s vision of the victorious cross of Christ on the Sun. “Certainly, Constantine’s conversion was, first of all, that of an Emperor who became convinced about the truth of the Christian God and the power of Christianity, even before that of a man whose heart was touched, but this does not mean that Constantine chose out of political or military calculation or, in any case, for purely human reasons, nor that he nurtured the ambition of exploiting the altar to strengthen the throne. The truth is that in his era Christians were still a minority, especially in Rome, and cultural power was in the hands of the pagans. Therefore, Constantine did not, so to speak, make a marriage of convenience; if anything, he sensed in some way the strength of Christianity in social and cultural terms as well and, above all, was convinced that the Christian God was not only the strongest, but the only God.”

The victory on the Milvian Bridge

For Dr Sordi, the itinerary followed by the Emperor is clear. Rome had never loved the divinization of temporal power, and the emperors themselves often refused sacrifices in their honor; certain oriental models in Italy and the West did not function very well. Rome did not love the suffocating embrace of the sacred and the profane. “But this does not mean that the Romans weren’t religious. For them, religion was the foundation of the State; the power of the State rested on divine help and the alliance with the divinity (pax deorum). In a certain sense, this is the attitude we find in today’s American political system.”
Into this very open and elastic situation came Christianity, certainly the most irreducible, incomprehensible, and revolutionary of religions. In fact, it was the only one that “couldn’t clear Customs,” as it were: “Christians worshipped a God not recognized by the State, who excluded all the gods of the empire. A large part of public opinion therefore accused them of atheism and hostility, and they were denied any recognition until the time of Gallienus (260).”
After the last persecution, that of Diocletian, which Galerius continued in the East until 311, Christianity was granted full recognition with the so-called Edict of Milan. “According to the line of thought of his father, Costanzo Cloro, Constantine was a follower of the cult of the sun, which viewed the omniscient and omnipotent sun as the summus deus with many names. The vision described by Eusebius in his Life of Constantine and the dream reported by Lattantius induced Constantine to recognize the god with many names as the one Christian God and to go beyond the solar cult, seeking in the alliance with the Christian God the salvation of the Empire. Thus, the divinity’s right to be adored as it wants forms the foundation in the Edict of the individual’s freedom to adore the God to whom his conscience freely turns.” Constantine won at the Milvian Bridge with the cross of Christ on his soldiers’ shields (shields which he converted for the battle), and wrote the Edict of Milan. Thus, in 313, freedom was sanctioned for everyone, christianis et omnibus.