Early Byzantine Period (330–717)

Aleksandar Jovanović

Christianization of the Empire, Romanization of Christianity

From the times of Augustus to Constantine the Great, the Roman Empire has undergone a series of changes that the leaders of the state always justified by fitting them into the existing Roman laws and regulations­­––which at times had to be modified. Arguably one of the greatest official changes in the empire was introduced by emperor Caracalla’s Constitutio Antoniniana issued in 212 CE; this law granted Roman citizenship to virtually all free men and women of the empire, thus terminating the city of Rome’s special position in the Mediterranean. However, this law had long reaching consequences, as in Roman legal tradition it was the people who had to acclaim the new emperor. Now, the people included all the free inhabitants of the Roman Empire and, thus, the armies manned with Roman citizens started proclaiming their own emperors. This period of multiple emperors being acclaimed in military camps is known as the Crisis of the Third Century. The crisis and bloodshed ended with Diocletian becoming emperor in 284 CE and commencing a series of reforms to enlarge and centralize the country’s administration, as well as to split power between four official co-emperors.

While Diocletian’s idea of four co-emperors did not live long, the major administrative and fiscal reforms started under him continued with Constantine the Great, who became the sole emperor in 324 CE. Other than continuing Diocletian’s reforms of the administration by splitting the military and civil administration and by breaking down the traditional senatorial groups at the expense of equestrians, Constantine changed the previous policies towards the Christians in the empire. Traditionally, Christians––originating from the eastern provinces of the empire––were persecuted by the state (see the section on Christian martyrs). By the time of Constantine’s reign, the religion has spread around the empire and the emperor sought to recognize the Christians’ right to worship their god and practice their religion freely. A major law was issued in 313 CE by Constantine granting Christians the right of free worship. Constantine, however, did not stop at recognizing the Christians, but he himself became invested in the institutional organization of the empire’s church. We can say then that Constantine started the process of Christianization of the Roman Empire, as well as the Romanization of Christianity, which reached its apex at the end of the 4th century when Theodosius I made Christianity the sole official religion of the Roman Empire. In under a century, Christianity went from being outlawed to being the official and only allowed religion of the Roman Empire.

Edict of Milan (313 CE)

When I, Constantine Augustus, as well as I Licinius Augustus d fortunately met near Mediolanurn (Milan), and were considering everything that pertained to the public welfare and security, we thought -, among other things which we saw would be for the good of many, those regulations pertaining to the reverence of the Divinity ought certainly to be made first, so that we might grant to the Christians and others full authority to observe that religion which each preferred; whence any Divinity whatsoever in the seat of the heavens may be propitious and kindly disposed to us and all who are placed under our rule And thus by this wholesome counsel and most upright provision we thought to arrange that no one whatsoever should be denied the opportunity to give his heart to the observance of the Christian religion, of that religion which he should think best for himself, so that the Supreme Deity, to whose worship we freely yield our hearts) may show in all things His usual favor and benevolence. Therefore, your Worship should know that it has pleased us to remove all conditions whatsoever, which were in the rescripts formerly given to you officially, concerning the Christians and now any one of these who wishes to observe Christian religion may do so freely and openly, without molestation. We thought it fit to commend these things most fully to your care that you may know that we have given to those Christians free and unrestricted opportunity of religious worship. When you see that this has been granted to them 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 we that we may not seem to detract from any dignity or any religion.

Moreover, in the case of the Christians especially we esteemed it best to order that if it happens anyone heretofore has bought from our treasury from anyone whatsoever, those places where they were previously accustomed to assemble, concerning which a certain decree had been made and a letter sent to you officially, the same shall be restored to the Christians without payment or any claim of recompense and without any kind of fraud or deception, Those, moreover, who have obtained the same by gift, are likewise to return them at once to the Christians. Besides, both those who have purchased and those who have secured them by gift, are to appeal to the vicar if they seek any recompense from our bounty, that they may be cared for through our clemency. All this property ought to be delivered at once to the community of the Christians through your intercession, and without delay. And since these Christians are known to have possessed not only those places in which they were accustomed to assemble, but also other property, namely the churches, belonging to them as a corporation and not as individuals, all these things which we have included under the above law, you will order to be restored, without any hesitation or controversy at all, to these Christians, that is to say to the corporations and their conventicles: providing, of course, that the above arrangements be followed so that those who return the same without payment, as we have said, may hope for an indemnity from our bounty. In all these circumstances you ought to tender your most efficacious intervention to the community of the Christians, that our command may be carried into effect as quickly as possible, whereby, moreover, through our clemency, public order may be secured. Let this be done so that, as we have said above, Divine favor towards us, which, under the most important circumstances we have already experienced, may, for all time, preserve and prosper our successes together with the good of the state. Moreover, in order that the statement of this decree of our good will may come to the notice of all, this rescript, published by your decree, shall be announced everywhere and brought to the knowledge of all, so that the decree of this, our benevolence, cannot be concealed.

Theodosius I’s Prohibition of Pagan Religions

Theodosian Code XVI.1.2

It is our desire that all the various nation which are subject to our clemency and moderation, should continue to the profession of that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter, as it has been preserved by faithful tradition and which is now professed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness. According to the apostolic teaching and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe in the one deity of the father, Son and Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity. We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since in our judgment they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics and shall not presume to give their conventicles the name of churches. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of divine condemnation an the second the punishment of out authority, in accordance with the will of heaven shall decide to inflict.

Questions for Consideration

  1. How does Constantine justify his decision to allow Christians to worship freely in the empire?
  2. How does Theodosius I justify his decision to prohibit non-Christian worship in the empire?
  3. How do both emperors use the language of the Roman state to formalize their decisions revolving around religious issues?


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The Ancient and Medieval World Copyright © by Aleksandar Jovanović is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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