This granted all persons in the Roman Empire freedom to worship whatever deity they pleased, assured Christians of legal rights (including the right to organize churches), and directed the prompt return to Christians of confiscated property. Previous edicts of toleration had been as short-lived as the regimes that sanctioned them, but this time the edict effectively established religious toleration.
|Statue of Constantine at York Minster|
Geoffrey Blainey regards the edict as one of the great turning points in the history of the world. Lord Norwich ranks this decision, and the decision to establish Constantinople as capital of the Roman empire (dedicated on 11 May 330), as decisions which "changed the future of the civilized world".
Constantine's decision was influenced by the vision of a cross of light in the heavens he is said to have seen on 28 October 312 just before or perhaps during the battle of the Milvian Bridge, against his brother-in-law Maxentius.
In February 313, Constantine I, emperor controlling the western part of the Roman Empire and Licinius, controlling the Balkans, met in Milan and, among other things, agreed to treat the Christians benevolently. Wikepiedia states that it is debatable whether or not there was in fact a formal 'Edict of Milan', but that it took the form of letters by Licinius, a pagan, to the governors of a number of provinces. However, John Julius Norwich (in A Short History of Byzantium) quotes the text of a joint edict.
Constantine's policy went beyond tolerating Christianity: he tolerated paganism and other religions, but he actively promoted Christianity, and he ordered the building of St Peter's basilica in Rome. Laws such as one made in 319 prohibiting the murder of slaves and one in 321 proclaiming Sunday, 'the venerable day of the sun', as a day of rest appear clearly to have been influenced by Christian values.
Constantine was born in Naissus (now Nis), in Serbia, and Nis proposes to celebrate the event this year. His connection with York (see image) is that he was made a Caesar there when his father Constantius died there in 306, and he ruled Gaul and Britain for the next six years before marching against his adversary Maxentius, who held power in Rome and who he defeated at Milvian Bridge.
(Image from freefoto.com)