Religion08 Jul 2008 09:37 am
Before Constantine I issued the Edict of Milan in 313, it was illegal to practice the Christian faith in the Roman Empire. In fact, many religious sects were outlawed before the Edict was issued. The Edict mentions Christians specifically, but it also makes it clear that “others” will also have the “full authority to observe that religion which they prefer.” This tolerant atmosphere was short-lived: less than a century later, the emperor Theodosius I would declare Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.
The line from Constantine’s Edict to Theodosius’ momentous declaration is usually portrayed as a very direct one, but there was a significant reversal in between. In 361, Constantine’s nephew Flavius Claudius Julianus became emperor. He only reigned for a short time, dying in battle with Persia in 363. However, he made a valiant attempt during his reign to stem the tide of Christianity and restore the worship of the Hellenic gods. His contempt for Christianity was quite extreme: he referred to Christians as “Galileans” and churches as “charnel houses” in Against the Gallileans, his treatise opposing the faith. Of course, the young emperor failed and the victors gave him the name by which he is remembered today: Julian the Apostate.
Sixteen centuries later, an American admirer of Julian’s resurrected the vanquished emperor as a character in a historical novel. As a narrative description of Christianity’s triumph, and the atrocities and compromises that secured it, Gore Vidal’s Julian can’t be beat. Buy it here.
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