Diocletian, Maxentius and the legal status of Christianity in imperial constitutions on religious freedom (303-312 AD): a review according to the latest findings

In 2022, an interdisciplinary, preliminary study analyzed for the first time Diocletian’s edict of persecution of Christianity, which was believed to be completely lost for 1700 years. Three imperial constitutions belonging to several manuscript traditions that come from 12 Byzantine and post-Byzantine Codes have been carefully studied from a legal-historical, legal-philological and critical-historical point of view. The selected documents have been examined under a comparative structured test that takes into consideration a selection of legal papyri from Roman Egypt as well as the Roman and Roman-Christian literary sources in order to assess their authenticity and the level of interpolation. The analysis of these documents seems to confirm what has been suggested in the recent studies on two unedited epistles of Maxentius, critically published for the first time in 2021. Maxentius’ first epistle is the edict of legality of Christianity, quoted by bishop Eusebius of Caesarea and issued around 307-308, which officially put an end to the persecutory edicts of Diocletian in the West. Maxentius’ second epistle, approximately dating back to 311-312 AD, is a rescript ruling against the first woman leading the Donatist schismatic Church, Lucilla of Carthage. Interestingly, Diocletian’s edict makes direct reference to the principles of religious pluralism and tolerance as well as it points out unedited information on the historical Jesus.