Restoring the Peace: The Edict of Milan and the



Restoring the Peace: The Edict of Milan and the
Restoring the Peace:
The Edict of Milan and the Pax Deorum
Jason A. Whitlark
Baylor University, Waco TX 76798
After his victory over Maxentius, Constantine met Licinius in Milan where he
gave his half-sister in marriage to Licinius. At that time, Constantine and Licinius drafted letters to be circulated among the governors of the Eastern Empire.
One of those correspondences is the so-called Edict of Milan. From the perspective of Christians, such as Eusebius, this declaration constituted the triumph of
Christianity over paganism.1 But within the larger imperial discourse the Edict
betrays something else. John Curran, in his analysis of the legal texts of Constantine's reign, makes an interesting passing comment about the so-called
Edict of Milan. After quoting a key section from this letter, Curran writes, "The
pax deorum was best served by the inclusion of Constantine's new god alongside those of the state."2 This article will attempt to demonstrate how the socalled Edict of Milan participates in the imperial rhetoric of the pax deorum. To
this end we will examine the imperial discourse about the pax deorum. Then we
will examine the Constantine-Licinius correspondence in light of this discourse.
Finally, we will consider what this evidence suggests about the "conversion" of
Constantine in 312 CE.
The Imperial Discourse of the Pax Deorum
W. Warde Fowler describes the pax deorum as a quasi-legal covenant that ensued when humanity and the gods were rightly related.3 This restored
covenantal relationship was regarded as key element to the success of Rome's
worldwide dominion. The discourse of the pax deorum was entrenched in the
imperial propaganda of the Augustan principate and persisted even in Constantine's accession to imperial rule. In this section we will examine some key
pieces of evidence from the Augustan period that articulated the key features of
the pax deorum. Then we will take a look at how Eusebius continued to articulate this aspect of the imperial discourse in his bios and panegyric of
The Pax Deorum Typified in the Ara Pacis
Let us first look at the articulation of the pax deorum during the Augustan principate. In 9 B.C.E. the Senate voted to honor Augustus's military victories in
Spain and Gaul with an altar to be erected in the Field of Mars upon his return
Cf. Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 10.1-4; Laud. Const 6.1-18.
John Curran, "Constantine and the Ancient Cults of Rome: The Legal Evidence,"
W. Warde Fowler, The Religious Experience of the Roman People from the Earliest Times to the Age of Augustus (London: MacMillan and Co., 1911), 169, 431.
to Rome. The altar was to be called Ara Pads Augustae. The altar typified two
key elements of the pax deorum: peace achieved through victory over Rome's
enemies and peace mediated by the pious emperor. Thus, as one approached
the altar from the rear, one would see two images. One of the images depicted
the goddess Roma seated and at rest. She is seated atop of shields heaped in a
pile indicating victory after war. The other image illustrated the goddess Pax
sitting amidst symbols of abundance. The two winds are portrayed on each side
of her, one seated upon a goose and the other upon a sea monster. Both creatures are docilely under the beneficent control of each wind. These two images
of Pax and Roma together symbolized the abundant gifts Pax had bestowed
upon the Empire through Roman victory over its enemies.5 Furthermore, by
putting all this imagery on an altar, the Romans typified that their victory was
predicated upon a restored relationship with the gods.
In fact, military defeat was a sure sign to the Roman mind that the pax
deorum had been disrupted and that the populace now lived under the ira deorum. In Livy's Ab urbe condita there are two primary illustrations. First, Book 5
of Livy's Ab urbe condita narrates the destruction of Veii, the sack of Rome by
the Gauls, and Rome's deliverance followed by Camillus' speech to the Romans. The defeat of the Romans by the Gauls, according to Livy, was chiefly
due to Roman impietas that dissolved the pax deorum. Gabriella Gustafsson has
shown that the central theological thread that holds these elements of the narrative together is that victory is due to the pietas of the Roman people. Roman
pietas maintained the pax deorum. Gustafsson lists five ways this connection is
indicated in the narrative: the performance of correct rituals (19.1, 21.1); showing the gods due respect (22.4); making up for bad omens (19.1); making
various vows to the gods (19.6, 21.2-3); and keeping vows to the gods (22.6-7).
Further, the favor of the gods could only be acquired by pietas.6 In the concluding speech of Camillus to his fellow Romans, Camillus declares, "things turned
out well for us when we obeyed the gods" (51.5 [Foster, LCL]).7 The second
illustration comes from Livy's narration of the Second Punic War. During the
war with Carthage, the Romans lived in fear of the Carthaginian general,
For a succinct discussion of these points see, J. Rufus Fears, "The Cult of Jupiter
and Roman Imperial Ideology," ANRW 17.1:36-38. For a fuller discussion see his "Theology
of Victory at Rome: Approaches and Problems," ANRW 17.2:736-826. Cf. Klaus Wengst,
Pax Romana and the Peace of Jesus Christ (trans. John Bowden; London: SMC, 1987), 1119.
For further discussion of these images see, Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in
the Age ofAugustus (trans. Alan Shapiro; Jerome Lectures 16; Ann Arbor: Michigan, 1988),
172-79. See also Nancy Thomson de Grummond, "Pax Augusta and the Horae on the Ara
Pacis Augustae," AJA 94 (1990): 663-77. Printed on coins was PAX AVGVSTA, indicating
that Pax performed her function through Augustus's activity. See J. Rufus Fears, "The Cult of
Virtues and Roman Imperial Ideology," ANRW 17.2:885, 889 n. 353, 936 n. 553. By 9 B.C.E.,
some 20 years after Actium and the two power settlements with Senate in 27 and 23 B.C.E.,
this altar is representative of the mature propaganda of the Augustan Principate.
Gabriella Gustafsson, Evocatio Deorum: Historical & Mythical Interpretation of
Ritualized Conquests in the Expansion ofAncient Rome (Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis Historia Religionum 16; Uppsala: Uppsala University Press, 2000), 95-97.
Gustafsson, Evocatio, 97-98.
Hannibal, because Roman legions were unable to wage a successful campaign
against his forces in Italy. Livy writes that, when Quintus Fabius Maximus took
the office of dictator to deal with the Carthaginian threat, he first took up the
matter of religion in order to discover how the Romans might appease the wrath
of the gods (irae deum; 22.9.7) that was frustrating Roman victory over the Carthaginian forces. In these two examples and throughout his history, Livy is
supremely concerned with how the Romans placated the deities in order to secure victory and peace.8
The second element of the pax deorum indicated by the images on the
Ara Pads is that pax was mediated by the pious emperor. Pietas was the means
to the pax deorum. Thus, the reliefs down the side of the altar depict the people
in procession to the altar. Leading the people is a pious Augustus, hooded and
wearing the toga, and the royal family with the purpose of fulfilling their duty to
the gods and thereby ensuring the ongoing peace.9 The scene is completed on
the next side of the altar with pious Aeneas preparing to make a sacrifice to the
gods. "The relief of the pious Aeneas sacrificing invoked the historical archetype of the pietas ergos deos upon which the peace of the restored order now
rested."10 Thus the imagery upon the Ara Pads represented to all the inhabitants
of and travelers to Rome that the pax deorum was maintained by piety. Further,
the emperor led the senatorial members and the populace in preserving the pax
deorum through pie tas. Again, in Livy's Ab urbe condita Camillus is the pious
leader who directs the victory over Veii and the deliverance of Rome from the
Gauls. Camillus is the type of pious leader who can lead the Romans back to
victory.11 Roman piety in the imperial age was chiefly directed to supplicating
the gods for the health and well-being of the emperor as Pliny indicates in his
panegyric to Trajan.12 Thus the Roman people and the Roman emperor forged a
synergistic relationship that ensured the pax deorum.
The Pax Deorum Narrated in the Aeneid
These aspects of the pax deorum can also be found in the foundational narrative
of Roman imperial power, Virgil's Aeneid. In the story of the Aeneid^ the
Cf. Ab urbe condita 4.30.9-11; 7.2.2-4; 21.62.4; 22.1.16; 22.9.7-11; 22.57.2;
24.10.1-11.1; 24.44.
Many of the statues of the emperor throughout the empire depicted him wearing
the toga with a veiled head thus chiefly representing him as the pious Roman (Zanker, "The
Power of Images" in Paul and Empire, 74). Constant exposure to such images impressed
upon the imperial inhabitants that piety, primarily that of the emperor, maintained the divine
peace and prosperity and justified Roman rule.
Fears, "The Cult of Virtues," 886.
Cf. Gustafsson, Evocatio, 97-98. There appears to be some connection between
Camillus and Augustus. Camillus is implicitly connected to Aeneas and explicitly connected
to Romulus as the second founder of Rome (96). We find these connections in the Augustan
Principate in both the Aeneid and his forum. Gustafsson notes that three models of interpretation have been applied to this observation: (1) Camillus is put forth as the ideal model for the
Roman leader, such as Augustus; (2) Augustus is the realized actuality of Camillus; and (3)
Camillus is the critically contrasting image to the actuality of the Augustan Principate (12627).
Cf. Pan. 67.3, 94.2.
preeminently pious Trojan, Aeneas, fulfills his destiny to establish the foundations of the Roman Empire. Virgil in the Aeneid declares that Rome's mission
was "to bring the whole world under law's dominion" (4.229-30).l3 In fact the
mission of Rome is stated explicitly in Aeneid Book 6: "Roman, be sure to rule
the world (by these your arts), to crown peace with justice, to spare the vanquished and crush the proud" (851-53 [Fairclough, LCL]). Additionally, none
other than Jupiter has bequeathed worldwide dominion to Rome. Jupiter declares that "for these [Romans] I set neither bounds nor periods of empire,
dominion without end I have bestowed" (1.279-80 [Fairclough, LCL]). Aeneas's journey, however, from Troy to Rome, and thus the completion of his
fated objective, is continually being frustrated by his primary divine antagonist,
Juno. She engages in subterfuge all along Aeneas's journey to lay the foundations of what would become the Roman Empire. Not until peace is made with
Juno establishing a pax among all the gods can Aeneas make a beginning for the
Roman Empire. In the end, Juno is pacified when Jupiter tells her: "From them
shall arise a race, blended with Ausonian blood, which you will see overpass
men, overpass gods in pietate, and no nation will celebrate your worship with
equal zeal" (12.838-40 [Fairclough, LCL]). After hearing Jupiter's declaration,
Virgil writes that "Juno assented to this and joyfully changed her purpose"
(12.841). Livy records that after the defeat of Veii, the Romans conveyed Juno
from her sanctuary there to Rome and removed the objects of the gods "more in
the manner of worshippers than plunderers" (Ab urbe condita 5.22.4-5 [Foster,
LCL]). In fact Livy writes that one of the Romans asked Juno if she were willing to go to Rome and the statue of Juno responded by nodding her assent. Livy
also recounts a speech by Quintus Marcus Philippus who states why Rome ruled
the earth: "For the gods support the cause of duty (pietati) and faithfulness (//deique), the qualities by which the Roman people has climbed to so great an
eminence" (44.1.11 [Schiestinger, LCL]).
What we see in the Aeneid confirms what we saw earlier. Roman dominion was established by and an indication of the pax deorum. Moreover, that
peace was founded preeminently upon the piety of the Roman ruler (i.e., Aeneas) and more generally upon the piety of the Roman populace. What is more,
pax needed to be established with all the traditional deities for there to be a real
pax deorum. Though Jupiter and the other gods do not stand opposed to Aeneas
and his divinely-appointed mission, Aeneas does not experience victorious
peace and dominion as long as Juno remains unreconciled.
The Pax Deorum Exploited by Eusebius
These key features of the pax deorum that were foundational to imperial ideology persisted in imperial Rome even with the rise of Constantine to the imperial
throne in the early fourth century. For instance, Constantine is the God-chosen
I am following Robert Fitzgerald's translation, Virgil, The Aeneid (Vintage Classics; New York: Random House, 1990), 103.1 am here taking the more "positive" reading of
the Aeneid over the "pessimistic" reading of the Harvard School. For a survey of twentiethcentury scholarship on the Aeneid, see S. J. Harrsion, "Some Views of the Aeneid in the
Twentieth Century," in Oxford's Readings in Vergil's Aeneid (ed. S. J. Harrsion; Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1990), 1-20.
emperor who restores peace and order to the world. Eusebius even draws upon
the Gigantomachy when he declares that Constantine is "the victor over the
whole race of tyrants and destroyer of the God-battling giants" (Vit. Const.
1.5.1).15 Eusebius recounts that God put "all barbarian nations beneath [Constantine's] feet" (Vit Const. 1.46). Thus, by his defeat of tyrants and barbarians,
Constantine establishes a new age of peace through victory, "a rebirth to a fresh
new life" (Vit. Const. 1.41.2). Again, Empire-wide peace is established through
victory and victory is an indication of a restored, at least for Eusebius, pax
More importantly, this restored peace with the Christian God was pre­
served by pietas or ευσέβεια. As with the emperors that preceded Constantine,
Constantine is supremely pious. The imperial coinage depicts a pious Constan­
tine praying.17 Constantine is the teacher of ευσέβεια (Vit. Const. 1.5.2). As
Eusebius declares him, he is ό ευσεβή Βασιλέα (Hist, eccl 10.9.7), and God is
"the champion of the pious (των ευσεβών)" (Hist. eccl. 10.2.1 [Oulton, LCL]).
Thus, God-given victory was also the indication of piety while defeat was a sign
of impiety. Constantine himself in his letter to the provincials of Palestine dec­
lares that ασεβή towards the supreme God of the Christians results in defeat and
Just as the pious Augustus restored and built the temples of the gods,
the pious Constantine restored and built places of worship for Christians. 9 He
built a basilica venerating the site of Jesus' resurrection,20 His mother also vene­
rated other sacred sites of Jesus' life with shrines.21 Further, he destroyed places
of pagan worship.22 He also suppressed heresy among the Christians.
Cf. Vit. Const. 2.28.2.
All quotes follow the translation from Life of Constantine: Introduction, Transla­
tion, and Commentary by Averli Cameron and Stuart G. Hall (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1999). The Greek text consulted was F. Winkelmann, Eusebius Werke, Band 1.1: Über das
Leben des Kaisers Konstantin (Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller, Berlin: Akademie
Verlag, 1975), 3-151.
Cf. J. Rufus Fears ("Theology of Victory at Rome: Approaches and Problems,"
ANRW 17.2:752) who argues that, for Eusebius, Constantine's victory was the Christian
god's victory over imperial paganism.
Cf. Vit. Const. 4.14.2. Carlos F. Noreña ("The Communication of the Emperor's
Virtues," The Journal for Roman Studies 91 [2001]: 135) has demonstrated that one of the
most advertised virtues on the imperial coinage was pietas.
Cf. Vit. Const. 4.24.2-3.
Cf. Vit. Const. 1.42; 2.42.2-46.4; 3.47.4-53.4.
Cf. Vit. Const. 3.29.1-2.
Cf. Vit. Const. 3.43.1-3.
Cf. Vit. Const. 2.45,1; 3.54-58; 4.23-25. Earlier imperial policy had been to stamp
out some indigenous religions in the frontiers of the Empire and non-traditional religions
within the Empire that seemed to be at odds with Rome's imperial mission. See Peter Garnsey and Richard Sailer, The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture (Berkley:
University of California Press, 1987), 169, 172-73.
Cf. Vit. Const. 3.64-65.
According to Eusebius, Constantine attended to all things that pertained to the
peace with God (τα της ειρήνης του θεού, Vit. Const. 1.44.2).24
Not only was Constantine's piety of paramount importance but the pie­
ty of the Roman populace was vital to this new pax Dei. Just as previous
emperors had called upon their subjects to sacrifice to the gods on their behalf
for the prosperity of the Empire, so also Constantine petitioned the Christians to
pray to God on his behalf for the sake of the welfare of the Empire.25 All of
these points reflect the imperial propaganda of the pax deorum filtered through
Eusebius's own Christian articulation of the imperial discourse. Eusebius is not
only attempting to indicate the superiority of the Christians' god, but he is doing
it in such a way that vindicates Constantine as the true God-chosen emperor to
an imperial audience. Now in light of this discussion let us look at the so-called
Edict of Milan.
The Edict of Milan and the Pax Deorum
Prior to the rise of Constantine to power, Christians experienced one of their
darkest periods of persecution under Diocletian. His persecution had not only
targeted the Christians but any religious expression that denied the traditional
imperial religion and deities. In one document he states: "A new cult ought not
to find fault with traditional practices. For it is a most serious offense to re­
examine matters decided and fixed once and for all by our ancestors" (Coli.
Mos. Et Rom. Leg. 15.3.2-3).26 From the imperial perspective, the exclusivist
Christian claims upset the pax deorum.21 Christians were blamed for hindering
the success of sacrifices and so, in 303 CE., the Edict of Nicomedia was issued
in order to suppress Christianity.28 We find a similar complaint by imperial pa­
gans recorded by Tertullian at the beginning of the third century. He writes that
whenever there were outbreaks of plague or natural disasters Christians were
blamed because they angered the gods by forsaking their worship (cf. Αρ. 40).
Roldanus states that historians often depict the failure of traditional
Roman religion to secure imperial peace from Decius onwards. Additionally,
Plague and depopulation, abandonment of agricultural lands by peasants
fleeing as taxes weighed ever heavier on the reducing tax base, the de­
cline of slavery, coinage debasement, inflation, demonetization, of the
Rudolph Storch ("The 'Eusebian Constantine/ " CH 40 [1971]: 145-46) lists four
aspects of the image of Constantine that Eusebius portrays in Vita Constantini: (1) all success
and benefit derive from the favor of divinity; (2) only the pious receive divine favor; (3) di­
vine favor for a pious ruler is primarily indicated by military victory; and (4) with victory
secured, divine favor goes on to produce peace and unity in the Empire. These four aspects
were not invented by Eusebius but were employed from traditional imperial ideology, exis­
tent from foundations of the Empire (cf. Storch, "The 'Eusebian Constantine,' " 153-55).
Cf. Vit. Const. 4.14.2.
Quoted in A. D. Lee, "Traditional Religions," in The Cambridge Companion to
the Age of Constantine (ed. Noel Lenski; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006),
Cf. Johannes Roldanus, The Church in the Age of Constantine: The Theological
Challenges (New York: Routledge, 2006), 51-52.
In 299 c.E. Diocletian had purged the army of Christians.
economy, the demoralization of the educated urban elites who had main­
tained classical culture, the expansion of new religions: all these and
more were woven into a "theory of everything" to explain both crisis and
What I propose is that, within the Roman imperial context, Constantine's march
to victory under the patronage of the Christian's god was not a result of the per­
ception of the failure of the traditional religion (though Eusebius depicts it in
this manner).30 If we examine the Edict of Milan in light of the imperial dis­
course of the pax deorum, then one perspective that the document betrays is that
Constantine was upholding the traditional imperial religion but restoring peace
with all the gods, even the Christian god who had been mistakenly excluded for
all this time. Let us now examine the so-called Edict of Milan to this end.
The so-called Edict of Milan has been preserved in two sources: a
Greek translation in Eusebius's Historia ecclesiastica and a Latin transcription
in Lactantius's De Mortibus Persecutorum.31 The Edict lifts the ban on Chris­
tianity but also other previously banned religious devotion to other deities. The
Edict grants "both to the Christian and to all the free choice of following what­
ever form of worship they pleased" (Hist. eccl. 10.5.4 [Oulton, LCL]). Thus the
Edict is not a declaration for monotheism or the forsaking of traditional imperial
religions. The Edict expands the canopy of what counts for officially sanctioned
religious expression in the Empire.
The purpose of resending the former policies and adopting these new
ones was so that "all the divine and heavenly powers that be might be favoura­
ble to us and all those living under our authority" (Hist. eccl. 10.5.4 [Oulton,
LCL]). Again, the Edict is issued so that "the Divinity may in all things afford
us wonted care and generosity" (Hist. eccl. 10.5.5 [Oulton, LCL]). The Edict
ends expressing the hope that "by this method, as we have also said before, the
divine care for us, which we have already experienced in many matters will re­
main steadfast continually" (Hist, eccl 10.5.13). In these statements we have
what amounts to the imperial discourse of the pax deorum. Constantine and Li­
cinius hoped that in issuing this order that all the divine powers worshipped
under the Roman aegis would be placated and made favorable to Roman Impe­
rium. Most of the Edict is concerned with the Christians, the cessation of
hostilities against them, and the restoration of confiscated property. Again, the
hope is that by implementing these directives the Empire, which was once anta­
gonistic against the Christian god, will now recognize his legitimacy and thus
bring about peace with Constantine's patron deity.
Roldanus, The Church in the Age of Constantine, 37. Roldanus sees the essential
crisis being between the emperor and the management of the army.
Cf. Vit. Const. 1.27.1-3. Here, Eusebius recounts how Constantine considered the
benefits the Christian god brought to his father and the misfortunes of those devoted to pa­
'interestingly, Erika Cartunuto ( "Six Constantinian Documents [Eus. Η.E. 10, 57]," VC 56 [2002]:73) has argued that the Constantinian documents that make up Book 10 in
Eusebius's Historia ecclesiastica were grouped together in an anti-Donatist context in order
to indicate who were the legitimate recipients of the imperial policy of restitution and exemp­
While the Edict is clearly pro-Christian it is not exclusively Christian.
Moreover, since the Edict is not a declaration of monotheism nor a denial of
traditional imperial religion, what we are dealing with is an articulation of the
pax deorum. Here the resolution of the Aeneid provides us a model. In Book 12,
the pax deorum is achieved when once the last god antagonistic to Aeneas's
fate, i.e., the founding of Rome, is reconciled to Aeneas and his mission. Once
Juno's hostilities have ceased, Aeneas, his companions, and the peoples of Italy
can begin to lay the foundations of Rome and its march to world rule. Prior to
the Edict of Milan, Rome had viewed the Christians and their worship of God as
a cause of the ira deorum. Their forsaking of the traditional deities contributed
to the declining Empire by disrupting the pax deorum upon which Roman Imperium depended. The Edict of Milan turns this reasoning on its head. Instead of
Christian (and others) being part of the problem, they become part of the solution. The Edict calls for the Empire to be reconciled to this god of the
Christians. The Christian god (and others) is to be placated and recognized
within the confines of officially sanctioned traditional imperial religion. "The
pax deorum was thus best served by the inclusion of the Constantine's new god
alongside those of the state."32 The traditional religion is not to be forsaken just
expanded to no longer be antagonistic to the powers of heaven, one being the
Christian god. Further, this god has legitimated himself because he has given
victory to Constantine and thus has sided with Roman rule. While a proChristian proclamation, the Edict does not elevate the Christian god above the
traditional pagan deities but incorporates him into the traditional Roman pantheon for authorized worship. John Curran concludes about the Edict, "The
highly visible and public ceremonies connected with these [pagan] cults would
The placating and incorporating of deities into the official pantheon
was characteristic of Roman religion. J. Rufus Fears argues this point as it relates to the cult of Virtues in the Roman religious mentality. He writes
concerning the worship of Concordia,
As in the case of the Virtues worshipped at Rome, the cult of Concordia
had its origins in a specific manifestation of its numen to the Roman
People. Traditionally, the first cult to Concordia was established by Camillus to mark the restoration of civil harmony after the disorders
surrounding the passage of the Licinian-Sextian laws. Historical or not,
Plutarch's account accurately reflects the way in which such cults came
into being. At the height of the crisis Camillus turned to the Capitoline
Hill, prayed to the gods to bring the civil turmoil to an end, and vowed a
temple to Concordia if the conflict should come to a happy end. When
the issue was successfully resolved and the People and Senate reconciled,
an assembly was held and the People voted to build the temple vowed by
Camillus and to place it facing the Forum and place of assembly to commemorate what had transpired. In short, the introduction of the godhead
Concordia into the ranks of the state gods was the result of a votum. If the
deity addressed, Concordia, granted the requested benefit, civil peace,
then Camillus, as vovens and representative of the Roman People, vowed
Curran, "Constantine and the Ancient Cults of Rome," 69.
Curran, "Constantine and the Ancient Cults of Rome," 69.
that the pledge offering would be made. When the newly invoked divinity manifested its beneficent power by establishing concord, the debt had
to be paid, and the temple was then erected and dedicated; cult was established to the deity, now further defined by the spatial localization of her
cult in a templum and by the temporal specification of a particular feast
Along very similar lines was the worship of the Christian god instituted by Constantine. Under the patronage and promise of this god, Constantine experienced
victory and restored peace. Eusebius even depicts Constantine before his battle
with Maxentius considering what kind of god he should call upon to give him
aid eventually deciding to venture his fortunes upon the Christians' god.35 As a
result of victory, Constantine instates Christian worship alongside the authorized Roman religions. Constantine then goes about honoring the Christians'
god for his benefits—ending persecution of Christians, restoring church property, building basilicas, honoring sacred sites.
What might all this say about the "conversion" of Constantine?36 In studies on
Constantine, there have been a range of opinions represented by scholars concerning the genuineness of Constantine's Christian faith as well as his political
agenda. Jacob Burckhardt more than 150 years ago set forth the thesis that Constantine was a political opportunist who exploited the Christian religion for his
own imperial purposes.3 On the other hand, others have in some measure accepted the Eusebian portrait of Constantine as a genuine Christian convert who
embraced the mission to Christianize the Roman Empire over the course of his
reign.38 Many have seen this process as gradual in conjunction with the progressive stages of Constantine's acquisition of power. Thus as Constantine's
political power grew so did his opposition to paganism.39 Still others like
J. Rufus Fears, "The Cult of Virtues and Roman Imperial Ideology," ANRW
Cf. Vit. Const. 1.27.2.
Thomas G. Elliott, "Constantine's Conversion: Do We Really Need It?" Phoenix
41 (1987): 420-38, has argued that Constantine had converted to Christianity before 312 C.E.
prior to his encounter with Maxentius.
Jacob Burckhardt, The Age of Constantine The Great (trans. Moses Hadas; Berkley: University of California Press, 1949). The original edition, Die Zeit Constantin der
Grossen, was printed in 1853.
See, however, Storch, "The 'Eusebian Constantine,' "155. Storch argues that Eusebius's panegyrics do not provide conclusive evidence of the genuineness of Constantine's
Christianity. Eusebius's rhetoric is taken from themes traditional to Roman imperial discourse.
Cf. Thomas G. Elliott, "The Language of Constantine's Propaganda," TAPA 120
(1990): 349-53; Charles M. Odahl, "God and Constantine: Divine Sanction for Imperial Rule
in the First Christian Emperor's Early Letters and Art," CHR 81 (1995): 327-52; Graham
Gould, "What Did Constantine Do For Christianity," in Decoding Early Christianity: Truth
and Legend in the Early Church (ed. James Leslie Houlden; Oxford: Greenwood World Publishers, 2007), 125-27,130; Timothy D. Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1981), 44,48-49; Hans A. Pohlsander, The Emperor Constantine
(Lancaster Pamphlets; New York: Routledge, 1996), 23, 28. Gould goes so far as to assert
Harold Drake, while not denying the genuineness of Constantine's conversion
to Christianity, have argued that Constantine's political policy was one of relative tolerance that attempted to create a neutral public space for both Christians
and pagans.40 What light might the preceding argument shed on this range of
First, Constantine's imperial policy makes clear that Constantine favors
Christianity and becomes its most powerfiil patron. He appears by Eusebius's
accounts to be interested in Christian affairs and the unity of the churches across
his empire. Constantine enters into the both the Donatisi and Arian controversies. Further his advocacy for Christianity appears to grow, especially after his
conquest of the East.41
Second, the so-called Edict of Milan is both a political solution and act
of devotion by Constantine. The god who gave Constantine victory must be
honored. He has shown himself to exist and be worthy of worship. Roman tradition had allowed for newly recognized deities to be incorporated and honored in
the traditional Roman religion when they had showed themselves to be beneficent towards Roman rule. By incorporating the Christian god into the authorized
religions of the Roman Empire in a traditional Roman manner, Constantine was
able to maintain devotion to the Christian god without alienating the majority of
the Empire and especially ruling elites who remained pagan.4 Thus, Clifford
Moore points out that from the Augustan settlement through three centuries of
Roman rule "to many pagans it seemed that the safety of the state and the preservations of a civilization depended on the maintenance of religion with which
their national life had been so intimately united that separation appeared utter
ruin."43 With such a strong emphasis upon the importance of traditional religion
among the imperial citizens, Constantine authorizes Christianity (as well as
that Constantine had a divinely appointed mission to convert his subjects to Christianity
(131). Barnes states that the apparent ambiguity of Constantine's Christian allegiance at the
beginning of his reign was due to his deliberate, cautious, and shrewd changing of the imperial traditions over time, not due to lack of personal convictions (48-49). Pohlsander does
express some caution in his claims about Constantine's conversion (23-24).
Harold A. Drake, "Constantine and Consensus," CH 64 (1995): 1-15. See also
idem, 'The Impact of Constantine on Christianity," in The Cambridge Companion to the Age
of Constantine (ed. Noel Lenski; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 121-22.
Drake has aptly stated that the question we ought to ask is not whether Constantine became a
Christian but what type of Christian did Constantine become (112).
Curran, "Constantine and the Ancient Cults of Rome," 72-76.
Throughout the fourth century the Roman Senate remained for the most part pagan (cf. Clifford H. Moore, "The Pagan Reaction in the Late Fourth Century," TAPA 50
[1919]: 128-32). Constantine never seemed to divorce himself completely from traditional
Roman religion or at the very least always showed exceeding tolerance for it. For instance,
through the end of his reign he remained the Pontifex Maximus (Zosimus 4.36.4). This office
made him head, not over Christian religious infrastructure, but over the state cults. He only
banned malicious, manipulative magic not beneficial magic (cf. Lee, "Traditional Religions,"
172 and Curran, "Constantine and the Ancient cults of Rome," 70). From 319-321 CE., Constantine continued to permit public divination while disallowing its private observance—a
policy implemented by previous emperors (cf. Curran, "Constantine and the Ancient Cults of
Rome," 70).
Moore, "The Pagan Reaction," 127.
other religions) in a way that fortified and affirmed the traditional Roman reli44
What then can we conclude about Constantine's conversion and political policies from our examination of the so-called Edict of Milan? First,
Constantine was advocating the acceptance of the Christian god in terms of traditional imperial ideology. Augustus over three centuries earlier had identified
his victory at Actium with Apollo. Constantine in like manner identified his
victory over Maxentius with the Christian god, while not denying the traditional
Roman pantheon as a result of this victory.45 From this perspective we then
cannot talk about the conversion of Constantine, if what we mean by "convert"
is that Constantine denied his pagan traditions and embraced singly the God of
Jesus Christ. Second, the argument of this article also furthers, in some measure,
Harold Drake's conclusions about Constantine's imperial policies. He writes,
"Constantine's goal was to create a neutral public space in which Christians and
pagans could both function, and that he was far more successful in creating a
stable coalition of both Christians and non-Christians in support of this program
of 'peaceful co-existence' than has generally been recognized."46 The imperial
rhetoric of the pax deorum embodied by the so-called Edict of Milan created
this "space" for both Christians and pagans on the basis of traditional Roman
religious grounds. With Constantine and the issuing of the Edict of Milan,
Christianity "entered into the complex of imperial religious life."47 Christianity
thus gained a foothold in the affairs of imperial Rome that it did not easily relinquish, and imperial ideology found its way into Christian theology and
Interestingly, Robert M. Errington, "Constantine and the Pagans," GRBS 29
(1988): 309-18, has argued that Constantine's letter in 324 CE. to the Christians in the eastern
provenances was clothed in Christian rhetoric in order to advocate a tolerance for pagans by
rescinding an initial ban on pagan sacrifices.
Christopher Coleman (Constantine the Great and Christianity: Three Phases: The
Historical, the Legendary and the Spurious [Studies in History, Economics and Public Law
146; New York: Columbia University Press, 1914]) rightly observes that Constantine's
Christian convictions were not theological or moral but in identifying his fortunes with the
Christian god (86). Well known is the fact that coins minted during Constantine's reign continued to display traditional images of Roman deities.
Drake, "Constantine and Consensus," 7.
Coleman, Constantine the Great, 95-96.
^ s
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