On this day in 380 CE, the Edict of Thessalonica was released in the Roman Empire. It was issued by emperors Theodosius I, Gratian, and Valentinian II. And it basically said that all Roman citizens should convert to Christianity. It was the result of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312. As I discussed before, this was when Christianity died, “No religion ever survives this kind of power.” And the Edict of Thessalonica shows that ultimately, religion is about power. If religion is about God, you don’t need governments stepping in and telling people what they must believe.
What the people were told they must believe was specifically Nicene Christianity. And anyone who was ever forced to go to Sunday school or catechism can tell you what that is. “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.” Given that God made all things, you would think he could just tell the people himself. This is why it is so funny in Small Gods that the Great God Om comes down to Discworld and only manages to be a tortoise. He has a grand total of one believer. Most people don’t think through their religious beliefs very well. That’s why we are so blessed to have minds as brilliant as Terry Pratchett to do it for us. Unfortunately, people insist upon reading things like the Bible rather than Small Gods.
Edict of Thessalonica: Not Just Any Christianity
Of course, it couldn’t be just any old Christianity either. The Edict of Thessalonica chose a side in an ongoing religious war. People have this odd idea that Christians mostly got along except for big events. We know the Orthodox split from the Catholics. We know the Protestant split from the Catholics. And we know the Spanish Inquisition. But the truth is that the religion has been fighting within itself from the beginning. Things are actually more placid now than they ever have been. There are zillions of different kinds of Christianity (including Mormonism). But they don’t seem to care enough (or believe strongly enough) to do much fighting. Still, it could all fly apart again. After all, no one expected the Spanish Inquisition.
So what was the effect of the Edict of Thessalonica? Well, just what you would expect. According to Wikpedia, “After the edict, Theodosius spent a great deal of energy suppressing all non-Nicene forms of Christianity, especially Arianism, and in establishing Nicene orthodoxy throughout his realm.” This was because he believed in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible — who was nonetheless dependent on petty dictators to make sure that the people worshiped the right god in the right way. Otherwise, without the Edict of Thessalonica, people might have worshiped a god that didn’t need so much care and upkeep. And then imagine what would have happened: people would have been oppressed in the name of the wrong god!
Stewart Lee on problems in the creation myth: