Last week, we learned about the edicts of Diocletian. We also learned about the political chaos which racked the Roman Empire in the early 300s. When we left off last week Galerius had just passed an edict ending the persecution of Christians. However, five days after he passed the edict he died.
So after Galerius’ edict regarding the release of Christians, most prisons opened their doors and many tortured Christians poured out of them. The Empire was now divided among Licinius, Maximinus Daia, Constantine, and Maxentius. The first three recognized each other’s office, but they all saw Maxentius as a usurper. Constantine, who had previously stayed out of much of the political maneuvering, decided to make a change. He gathered his army in Gaul and marched on Rome, Maxentius’ capital. Maxentius made the mistake of gathering his army outside the city walls and was defeated by Constantine.
It was before this battle at Rome that Constantine either had a vision or a dream, in which a voice from heaven spoke to him. Wither it was a vision or a dream, does not really matter, Constantine obeyed and had all his soldiers place the symbol on their shields and standards. The symbol was what looked like the Greek letters chi (χ) and rho (ρ), superimposed over each other, which are also the first two letters in the word Christ. The voice told him “in this you shall conquer.” Some point to this as the beginning of Constantine’s conversion, which was really a very long process.
With Maxentius defeated and dead, Constantine became the sole ruler of the western half of the Empire. Soon after his victory at Rome, he met with Licinius at Milan and together they declared that the persecution of Christians should end. Along with that all their churches, cemeteries, and other properties should be returned to them. This is commonly known as the Edict of Milan (313 AD) and it is usually pointed to as the time Christian persecution ended. However, Galerius’ edict was much more important and did a lot more for Christians. Even after the Edict of Milan, Maximinus Daia’s persecution of Christians continued. However, through several processes which I will discuss later Constantine became the sole emperor of the Empire and Christian persecution stopped entirely.
So this marks the beginning of the peace of the Christian Church. The Church would face some local persecutions but it would not be an Empire sponsored or wide persecution. This is a very big deal for a new religion, which asked for a lot of exceptions to the rules. The Christians wanted to be given a lot of the same breaks the Jewish religion was given. The Romans were alright with giving the Jews breaks because they were such an ancient religion and had firm traditions (they loved tradition). However, when the Christians tried to ask for the same breaks, the Jews denied that they were part of their religion, while the Christians held to the stance that they came out of the Jewish religion. So they were not given the same breaks, such as sacrificing to the Emperor, freedom of worship, and some tax breaks.
This post ends a major chapter in Christian History. After this time, the Church is no longer persecuted and it will have an influx of members, because it is no longer an outlawed religion. So some of their beliefs must be defined and polished for a larger audience. This will start a great process of theological development in the Church.