Jun 132016
 

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On this date in 313 the Edict of Milan was posted in Nicomedia. The precise dating of the Edict and its exact nature is still under dispute, but in general it was a Roman proclamation (one of several) to declare that Christians were to be treated fairly throughout the empire. It was originally devised in February of that year, but no other definitive dates are known, nor has the original document survived. Western Roman Emperor Constantine I, and Licinius, who controlled the Balkans, met in Milan and among other things, agreed to change policies towards Christians following the Edict of Toleration by Galerius issued 2 years earlier in Serdica. The Edict of Milan gave Christianity a legal status, but did not make Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire.

The document we now call the Edict of Milan (Edictum Mediolanense) is found in Lactantius’ De Mortibus Persecutorum and in Eusebius of Caesarea’s History of the Church with marked divergences between the two. Whether or not there was actually a formal ‘Edict of Milan’  is debatable. The version found in Lactantius is not in the form of an edict. It is a letter from Licinius to the governors of the provinces in the Eastern Empire he had just conquered by defeating Maximinus later in the same year and issued in Nicomedia.

Ever since the fall of the Severan dynasty in 235, rivals for the imperial throne had bid for support by either favoring or persecuting Christians. The previous Edict of Toleration by Galerius had been recently issued by the emperor Galerius from Serdica and was posted at Nicomedia on 30 April 311. By its provisions, the Christians, who had “followed such a caprice and had fallen into such a folly that they would not obey the institutes of antiquity”, were granted an indulgence:

Wherefore, for this our indulgence, they ought to pray to their God for our safety, for that of the republic, and for their own, that the commonwealth may continue uninjured on every side, and that they may be able to live securely in their homes.

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Their confiscated property, however, was not restored until 313, when instructions were given for the Christians’ meeting places and other properties to be returned and compensation paid by the state to the current owners:

. . . the same shall be restored to the Christians without payment or any claim of recompense and without any kind of fraud or deception.

It directed the provincial magistrates to execute this order at once with all energy so that public order may be restored and the continuance of divine favor may “preserve and prosper our successes together with the good of the state.”

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The actual letters have never been retrieved. However, they are quoted at length in Lactantius’ On the Deaths of the Persecutors (De mortibus persecutorum), which gives the Latin text of both Galerius’ Edict of Toleration as posted at Nicomedia on 30 April 311 and of Licinius’s letter of toleration and restitution addressed to the governor of Bithynia and posted at Nicomedia on 13 June 313.

Eusebius of Caesarea translated both documents into Greek in his History of the Church (Historia Ecclesiastica). His version of the letter of Licinius must derive from a copy posted in the province of Palaestina Prima (probably at its capital, Caesarea) in the late summer or early autumn of 313, but the origin of his copy of Galerius’s Edict of 311 is unknown since that does not seem to have been promulgated in Caesarea. In his description of the events in Milan in his Life of Constantine, Eusebius eliminated the role of Licinius, whom he portrayed as the evil foil to his hero Constantine.

The Edict was actually directed against Maximinus Daia, the Caesar in the East who was at that time styling himself as Augustus. Having received the emperor Galerius’ instruction to repeal the persecution in 311, Maximinus had instructed his subordinates to desist, but had not released Christians from prisons or virtual death-sentences in the mines, as Constantine and Licinius had both done in the West. Following Galerius’ death, Maximinus was no longer constrained. He enthusiastically took up renewed persecutions in the eastern territories under his control, encouraging petitions against Christians. One of those petitions, addressed not only to Maximinus but also to Constantine and Licinius, is preserved in a stone inscription at Arycanda in Lycia:

Christians, who have long been disloyal and still persist in the same mischievous intent, should at last be put down and not be suffered by any absurd novelty to offend against the honor due to the gods.

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The Edict of Milan is popularly, but falsely, thought to concern only Christianity, and even to make Christianity the official religion of the Empire (which did not actually occur until the Edict of Thessalonica in 380). In fact, the Edict expressly grants religious liberty not only to Christians, who had been the object of special persecution, but goes even further and grants liberty to all religions:

When you see that this has been granted to [Christians] by us, your Worship will know that we have also conceded to other religions the right of open and free observance of their worship for the sake of the peace of our times, that each one may have the free opportunity to worship as he pleases; this regulation is made that we may not seem to detract from any dignity of any religion.

Because Licinius composed the Edict with the intent of publishing it in the east following his hoped-for victory over Maximinus, it expresses the religious policy accepted by Licinius, a pagan, rather than that of Constantine, who was already practicing some form of Christianity. Constantine’s own policy went beyond merely tolerating Christianity: he tolerated paganism and other religions, but he actively promoted Christianity.

People commonly point to the Edict of Milan as Constantine’s first great act as a Christian Emperor, although, it is unlikely that the Edict of Milan was an act of genuine Christian faith on Constantine’s part. The document instead should more accurately be seen as the first step in creating an alliance with the Christian God, whom Constantine considered the strongest deity – among many. Constantine at that time was more concerned about social stability and the protection of the empire from the wrath of the Christian God than he was for justice or care for the Christians. The Edict of Milan is more indicative of the Roman culture’s genuine desire for seeking the gods’ intervention – which ones might prove profitable –  than of Constantine’s or Licinius’ religious beliefs.

The Edict of Milan required that the wrong done to the Christians be righted as thoroughly as possible. From the state’s perspective all wrongs should be righted as it claims “it has pleased us to remove all conditions whatsoever.” The edict further demanded that individual Romans right any wrongs towards the Christians as well. These provisions indicate that more than just the establishment of justice was intended. After stating that they should return what was lost to the Christians immediately, the edict states that this should be done so that “public order may be secured,” not for the intrinsic value of justice or even for the glory of God. The sense of urgently righting wrongs reflects the leaders’ desires to avoid unfavorable consequences, which in this case included social unrest and both internal and external weakness.

Constantine is known to have been superstitious and believed in the existence of a number of gods. Because Constantine actually revered all the gods worshiped in the Roman Empire at that time, his fear of, and desire to form an alliance with, the Christian God (as demonstrated in the Edict of Milan), is insufficient to claim he was actually a Christian in the conventional sense. He was just trying to cover all bases. Nonetheless, the Edict stopped the persecution of Christians, which many historians see as both a blessing and a curse.

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Constantine was first exposed to Christianity by his mother, Helena. At the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312, Constantine commanded his troops to adorn their shields with the Christian symbol in accordance with a vision that he had had the night before. After winning the battle, Constantine was able to claim the emperorship in the West. How much Christianity Constantine had adopted at this point is difficult to discern. The Roman coins minted up to eight years subsequent to the battle still bore the images of Roman gods. Nonetheless, the accession of Constantine was a turning point for the Christian Church. After his victory, Constantine supported the Church financially, built various basilicas, granted privileges such as exemption from certain taxes to clergy, promoted Christians to some high-ranking offices, and returned property confiscated during the Great Persecution of Diocletian.

Between 324 and 330, Constantine built, virtually from scratch, a new imperial capital that came to be named for him: Constantinople. It had overtly Christian architecture, contained churches within the city walls, and had no pagan temples. In accordance with a prevailing custom, Constantine was baptized on his deathbed.

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Constantine also played an active role in the leadership of the Church. In 316, he acted as a judge in a North African dispute concerning the Donatist controversy. More significantly, in 325 he summoned the Council of Nicaea, the first Ecumenical Council. Constantine thus established a precedent for the emperor as responsible to God for the spiritual health of his subjects, and, thus, with a duty to maintain orthodoxy. The emperor was to enforce doctrine, root out heresy, and uphold ecclesiastical unity. As far as I am concerned this is the curse.

Constantine’s son’s successor, known as Julian the Apostate, was a philosopher who upon becoming emperor renounced Christianity and embraced a Neo-platonic and mystical form of paganism shocking the Christian establishment. He began reopening pagan temples and, intent on re-establishing the prestige of the old pagan beliefs, he modified them to resemble Christian traditions such as the episcopal structure and public charity (previously unknown in Roman paganism). Julian’s short reign ended when he died while campaigning in the East.

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Subsequently Church Fathers such as Augustine, Gregory Nazianzus, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, John Chrysostom and Athanasius published extensive theological texts, and argued non-stop about the correct interpretation of canonical texts including the gospels and the Pauline epistles. This all led to the entrenchment of the rigidly dogmatic and hierarchical Catholic Church that was opposed periodically by various elements, leading to the kaleidoscope of sects we have today. I suspect that the Christian Church was a great deal more faithful to the precepts of Jesus before the Edict of Milan than it ever was subsequently, even following the Protestant Reformation.

I could give a recipe from De Re Coquinaria of Apicius. The period is right (4th century) as well as the general provenance. But I’ve given quite a few already. Search for Apicius in the search box and you’ll find plenty. They are really very much all on the same theme and are not easy to understand. A lot of the time he just gives lists of ingredients which all seem to be limited to the same items, such as here:

Piper, cuminum frictum, ligusticum, mentam, uuam passam enucleatam aut Damascena, mel modice. uino myrteo temperabis, aceto, liquamen et oleo.

Pepper, roasted cumin seeds, mint, grapes or raisins, honey, myrtle wine, vinegar, liquamen (fermented fish sauce) and olive oil.

These are pretty standard seasonings for Apicius, and, trust me, I’ve searched his work extensively. What we’re looking at is a sauce that is sweet, sour, salty, and spicy. Could be classic Chinese!

Let’s take a small, and slightly anachronistic detour. The village of Gorgonzola is in the Milan district and gives its name to the famous blue cheese, which can be found easily throughout Lombardy, and is immensely popular. The cheese was probably not made until the 9th century at the earliest, so it does not fit the period of the Edict, but it is regionally suitable. Like Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses, I’m fond of a midday snack of a Gorgonzola sandwich because I usually have some on hand, and it’s quick and easy – nothing additional necessary because Gorgonzola is rich, complex, and tangy. Gorgonzola is a good addition to pasta sauces too.

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For a basic Gorgonzola sauce, heat one or two tablespoons of good extra virgin olive oil in a wide, deep skillet over medium heat. Add some finely diced onion and cook gently until soft (2 to 3 minute). Add equal quantities of shredded gorgonzola and heavy cream, and stir until the cheese melts. Then add small cooked pasta, such as penne, farfalle, or conchiglie, and stir until the sauce coats the pasta completely. I like to add a little cooked spinach to the sauce for both color and flavor. Very traditional.

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