BMCR 2020.10.44

Beyond intolerance: the Milan meeting of AD 313 and the evolution of imperial religious policy from the age of the tetrarchs to Julian the Apostate

, , Beyond intolerance: the Milan meeting of AD 313 and the evolution of imperial religious policy from the age of the tetrarchs to Julian the Apostate. Studi e testi tardoantichi 14. Turnhout: Brepols, 2018. Pp. 220. ISBN 9782503574493. €100,00.

The seventeenth centenary of the so-called Edict of Milan (313) prompted several conferences in its memory in 2013 and subsequently led to a number of publications.[1] Beyond intolerance is based on the papers held in the postgraduate conference in 2013 at the University of Parma. This conference volume is a collection of articles by early career scholars whose field is mainly Roman law. Most articles are published in English, with two articles in Italian. The articles discuss Roman religious legislation and policy from the Tetrarchs until Emperor Julian, with the focus on Emperor Constantine. It is commendable that the title of the volume speaks of the meeting of Milan, not of the edict, as neither was there an edict nor was it issued in Milan.

As Viola Gheller explains in her Foreword, the main title Beyond Intolerance refers to the new circumstances of Christians as a political power in the Roman Empire while underlining the unpredictable consequences that the Edict of Galerius in 311 and the meeting of Milan in 313 produced. She points out that the changes that took place were less shifts from ‘intolerance’ to ‘tolerance’ in the modern sense, but rather “from a peculiar kind of intolerance to another” (p. 8).

The introductory article “Religious Tolerance in the Fourth-Century AD Melting Pot” by Ulrico Agnati explores the concept of religious tolerance in the fourth century but also extends the discussion to later developments in the Reformation period, in Islamic culture, and even in modern inter-religious debates. As the scope of the article is very wide, much of the discussion is often necessarily limited to very general comments. Agnati correctly points out that ‘polytheism’ was not a religion as such but rather different beliefs, rituals and behaviours seen from outside and he compares it to the construction of ‘Hinduism’ that the British imposed on the rituals and beliefs in India in the early nineteenth century. Agnati rightly writes that “when there are differences, tolerance enters the scene”. For Roman leaders before the shift towards Christianity, private religiosity was an issue of indifference – rather than ‘tolerance’. What mattered more were good relations between the divine and the community. Here I would stress that this was no idiosyncrasy of polytheistic Rome but continued in the Christian Empire as well. Agnati points out that Constantine even strengthened an emperor’s traditional role of connecting the state to the divine sphere, and, therefore, the connection between (what we moderns call) religion and politics became stronger than before.

Valerio Massimo Minale analyses the Tetrarchic emperor Maximinus Daia’s anti-Christian legislation and policies. Much of the evidence is based on Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History and Lactantius’ On the Deaths of Persecutors and thereby looks at the circumstances from the Christian point of view. Minale shows how Maximinus Daia used local anti-Christian attitudes to gain support from local communities (e.g., the citizens of Tyrus) while trying to avoid open conflicts with the other Tetrarchic emperors Constantine and Licinius.

Daniela Borrelli’s article (in Italian) explores Maximinus Daia’s state-sponsored ‘pagan church’ and Emperor Julian’s support of Hellenic religion by comparing the role of the high priest (hiereus) during the reigns of the two emperors. Both Maximinus and Julian seem to have understood the important role of the priesthood in reinforcing what they regarded as traditional religiosity. Borrelli does not make any interpretations of Maximinus’ or Julian’s religious mind-set but rather analyses the settings in which the figure of the hiereus functioned. The mentions of Maximinus’ ‘church’ come (again) from Eusebius and Lactantius and consequently are negatively coloured, whereas in Julian’s case the sources are his own works. For Eusebius, Maximinus’ priests are the great experts in magic; for Julian, priests accomplish important tasks – religious and educational—in the community. These differences in the sources cause considerable discrepancy in comparisons but Borrelli takes this into account in her analysis. I agree with her that we can infer some notions of priestly hierarchy, rituals, sacrifices, and vestment from the hostile sources even though much of the ‘Egyptian’ (or rather what Neoplatonic philosophers imagined as Egyptian) influence may remain speculative.

Marco Rocco discusses the infamous fates of Constantine’s son Crispus and Constantine’s second wife Fausta, examining the divergent narratives crafted by late antique historians. Constantine had his son executed in 325. Sometime later, his wife was murdered under suspicious circumstances; according to later historians she was suffocated in the hot baths. The incident was of a sexual nature, and this is all the ancient historians agree upon about the affair. Rocco analyses the possible juridical, political and religious aspects of the incident. In his reconstruction of the events, Rocco proposes that Crispus may have attempted to rape his stepmother Fausta and was subsequently sentenced to death under Constantine’s law punishing crimen vis (crimes of violence). He also suggests that Fausta may have accused Crispus to Constantine, which led to trial and execution. Be that as it may, in the early fifth century, the church historian Philostorgius portrayed Fausta as a new Phaedra who falsely accused the new Hippolytus—her stepson Crispus. Rocco also discusses the rumours concerning the involvement Helena, Constantine’s mother, in the affair and a possible competition between political and religious factions at Constantine’s court. Fausta was the daughter of Maximian, the former Tetrarchic emperor, and it is possible that, as a member of the earlier Tetrarchic dynasty, she was swept aside.

Michele Giagnorio examines the cultural and ideological background of Constantine’s and Licinius’ religious policies as presented in the Milan meeting and Licinius’ letter (the so-called Edict of Milan). Giagnorio regards the second-century Christian writer Tertullian’s ideas as a background of the discussion on ‘freedom of religion’. Tertullian presented the concept of ‘freedom of religion’ in terms of naturalis potestas, that is, a fundamental right that does not entail any formal recognition by the ruling powers—and Tertullian’s ideas for their part were closely connected with Cicero’s notions of natural law. Giagnorio argues that Tertullian’s notions may have influenced the libera potestas announced by Constantine and Licinius, or at least Lactantius’ way of presenting it. However, as Giagnorio remarks, the emperors’ notion of libera potestas was a right granted by rulers and thus dependent on political and juridical action. Therefore, there was a significant difference between naturalis potestas and libera potestas. Furthermore, it would be misleading and anachronistic to speak of ‘state secularism’, ‘laicization of the state’ or ‘conceptualization of the right to freedom of conscience’. The Roman Empire, including when it was ruled by Christian emperors, looked for divine protection. For Constantine and Licinius, the main purpose of religion was to safeguard social order.

In his article, Davide Dainese looks at the relations between Emperor Constantine and the bishops within the framework of the Council of Nicaea in 325. His analysis of the discrepancies in the bishops’ and the emperor’s anticipations and intentions is based on Eusebius’ account in The Life of Constantine. Understandably, as Constantine’s support and close relations with Christians created a novel state of affairs in the Roman Empire, there were divergent expectations of the role of the emperor and relations with bishops. Dainese gives three case studies of the discrepancies between Eusebius’ narrative, the standpoints of certain bishops, and Constantine’s own writings (from documents, admittedly, coming via Eusebius). He aims to consider, first, how to understand the emperor’s role as koinòs epískopos or epískopos tôn ektós; second, how to interpret the emperor’s preparations for sanctification post mortem; and third, how to comprehend the famous Biblical theophany at the Oak of Mamre, which was intensely discussed at the time. In discussing these discrepancies, Dainese aptly considers not only theological problems connected to the ‘Arian’ dispute, but also the competition among bishops to curry favour with Constantine.

Dario Annunziata discusses the property owned by the church from the Christian beginnings to the reign of Constantine. This article (in Italian) has a wide range of evidence. First, it surveys the social and economic teaching in the early Christian communities. New Testament episodes show an ethos in which poverty had a positive eschatological value and wealth was regarded as perilous. Later, Clement of Alexandria proposed compromises with those Christians who wanted to find a balance between their riches and the ideal of poverty. The second part of the article examines how the Roman emperors (that is, the Roman state) recognised the rights of Christian communities to own property—which is intertwined with the juridical status granted by the Roman rulers. Annunziata proposes that the fundamental moment for the Christian property right may have been in 260 during the reign of Emperor Gallienus. Later, as Annunziata shows with several examples, Constantine started to favour and increase the properties of Christian communities.

Alessia Spina examines Constantine’s legislation on slavery, focusing on two topics, the issue of the humane treatment of slaves and manumission in ecclesia. Spina discusses a number of Constantinian laws on the status of slaves, setting them into their specific contexts and political motivations. A few laws discuss the punishment of slaves, setting limits to a master’s chastisement of his slave; if the punishment was inflicted with the intention of killing, a master was to be held responsible for murder. However, within the limits of simplex castigatio, a master had full freedom in regard to his slave. As Spina points out, this was certainly an improvement in the treatment of slaves, but there is no evidence that this law would have been inspired by ideas of humanity or Christian charity. For its part, the manumission in ecclesia developed alongside other forms of manumission of slaves recognised by ius civile. Spina argues that the manumissions in ecclesiawere purely civilian in nature and the religious component was secondary.

Francesca Zanetti’s article explores the relations between Jews and the Roman Empire from Diocletian to Constantine. She also surveys the juridical status of Jews before the fourth century and discusses the privileges granted to Jews which guaranteed a relatively wide range of religious freedom, for instance, allowance to live according to their customs and exemption from the performance of traditional rituals (for example, when one held a Roman civic office). Diocletian recognised these privileges of Jews, who were exempted from the imperial decree that required people to offer sacrifices to the gods. Constantine’s legislation showed caution and moderation, and he granted immunities to priests and chiefs of Jewish communities. Here he followed the earlier Roman policy of granting immunities to priests of several cults. As Zanetti remarks, here the religious policies of Diocletian and Constantine were not very different. However, Constantine took a clear stand in separating Christians from Jews. Some of his laws aimed at protecting converts from Judaism to Christianity as well as severely forbidding Jews from circumcising their slaves.

Many of the articles in this volume speak in a general way of religio licita (e.g. Gheller p. 7: “Constantine and Licinius declared Christianity religio licita”; Minale p. 37: “the process of the transformation of Christianity into a religio licita”; Zanetti p. 251: “juridical tradition which recognized Judaism as a religio licita”). However, religio licita is an anachronistic construction based on Tertullian’s mentions of Judaism as religio licita (apol. 21.1) and Christians as an illicit assembly (coitio Christianorum … illicita, apol. 39.20), that has stuck in scholarly language. As far as we know, there was no juridical system of licit and illicit religions as such in the Roman Empire,[2] even though in practice every society and each community creates boundaries between licit and illicit practices (such as those labelled as magical) and meetings.

My major criticism is about the quality of the English in this learned and prolific volume. In some of the articles (especially by Minale, Agnati, and Spina), the language is clumsy and one can sense the Italian phraseology influencing the English. The articles would have greatly benefited from substantial language editing. I should add here that I practise what I preach. I am not myself a native Anglophone writer, and all the texts I write and publish in English are checked by a native editor.


[1] One prominent volume of articles is Religiöse Toleranz: 1700 Jahre nach dem Edikt von Mailand, ed. Martin Wallraff(Berlin – Boston: De Gruyter, 2016).

[2] As Andreas Bendlin, ‘Eine Zusammenkunft um der religio willen ist erlaubt…?’ Su den politischen und rechtlichen Konstruktionen von (religiöser) Vergemeinschaftung in der römischen Kaiserzeit’, Die verrechtliche Religion. Der Öffentlichkeitsstatus von Religionsgemeinschaften, hrs. H.G. Kippenberg & G.F. Schuppert, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck,2013, 65–107: 78–80 argues, the expression religio illicita would be contradictory in Roman terms and does not appear in non-Christian writers. The term religio licita seems to be Tertullian’s neologism and it is possible that Tertullian introduced it for apologetic purposes. See Bendlin 2013, 79 on “Tertullians pseudolegalistische Terminologie”; see also Jörg Rüpke, Aberglauben oder Individualität? Religiöse Abweichung im römischen Reich, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011, 92.