Sunday Laws in the Roman Empire (Part 1 of 2)

Sunday Laws in the Roman Empire (Part 1 of 2)

By Kelly McDonald, Jr.

As reviewed last month, the Roman Empire protected Sabbath observance for hundreds of years. This facilitated the spread of Christians who observed the Sabbath within the Imperial domains (CLICK HERE to read about Sabbath laws in the Roman Empire).  In the fourth century, laws pertaining to Sunday were enacted by Roman Emperors. Unlike Sabbath protections, these were a nuanced ideal.

The first Sunday laws, perhaps in history, were enacted in 321 by Constantine. Before we delve into these two laws, it is important to recognize that he held the title pontifex maximus. This was an ancient pagan Roman title that allowed him to control the religious calendar of the Empire. As we will see, his Sunday laws are consistent with the idea of the pontifex maximus. We have a copy of his first two Sunday laws below:

Law 1: “All Judges and city people and the craftsmen shall rest upon the venerable Day of the Sun*. Country people, however, may freely attend to the cultivation of the fields, because it frequently happens that no other days are better adapted for planting the grain in the furrows or the vines in trenches. So that the advantage given by heavenly providence may not for the occasion of a short time perish” – March 7, 321 (CJ 3.12.2 [some list as 3.12.3], English: Ayers, 284-285; Latin: Krueger, p 127).

*In the Latin manuscript of this law, the phrase translated as “venerable day of the sun” is venerabili die solis. Constantine’s decree was based upon honoring and esteeming the celestial body we call the sun.

Law 2: “Just as it appears to Us most unseemly that the Day of the Sun (Sunday), which is celebrated on account of its own veneration, should be occupied with legal altercations and with noxious controversies of the litigation of contending parties, so it is pleasant and fitting that those acts which are especially desired shall be accomplished on that day. 1. Therefore all men shall have the right to emancipate and to manumit on this festive day [Latin: festo], and the legal formalities thereof are not forbidden” – July 3, 321 (CT: 2.8.1; English: Pharr, p 44; Latin: Haenel, p 207).

Many have assumed that these laws were issued to honor God or promote the agenda of the Roman Catholic Church. This would be a stretch to say the least. These decrees did not mention Jesus or the God of the Bible. No penalty was issued for those who did not comply. Additionally, this law was not designed to mirror the Biblical Sabbath. Notice that farmers were not allowed to take off work on the day. The God of the Holy Bible gave us the Sabbath (Friday sunset to Saturday sunset) as the weekly day of rest for all people, regardless of their occupation.

As the pontifex maximus, Constantine had responsibilities to uphold certain Roman ideals regarding celebrations for the Roman people. The ancient writer Cicero, who lived from about 106 to 43 BC, wrote about this subject. His writings will help clarify the 321 Sun-day laws. In his work On Law, he described special characteristics of the ancient Roman celebrations.

“Next, our provision for holidays and festivals [Latin: feriarum festorumque dierum] ordains rest from lawsuits and controversies for free men, and from labour and toil for slaves. Whoever plans the official year ought to arrange that these festivals shall come at the completion of the various labours of the farm…” (idem, 2.12[29]).

The principles described by Cicero continued to be applied to Roman festivals during the Imperial period. This included the Saturnalia (Dec 17-24) and the Kalends of January (Jan 1-3), which were still celebrated even in Constantine’s time (see Seneca, Epistulae, 18.1-4; Lucian, Saturnalia, sec 2 and Chronosolon, sec 13-14; Dio Cassius, Roman History, 60.19.3; Macrobius, Saturnalia; and Libianus, Oration, 9).

Constantine’s 321 Sunday laws matched the anticipated patterns for Roman festivals described by Cicero and other ancient authors. The issues of work and agricultural toils were addressed in the first law. While farmers were not granted rest on the day, their appropriate behavior was discussed to be consistent with other festivals. Many annual festivals related in some way to the harvest cycle. It was not logical to allow farmers off on Sunday since there is not a weekly crop. In the second law, most legal proceedings were suspended and freedom for slaves were addressed. The Latin word festo was employed in this law.

The day after his first Sunday law, he received a law allowing the pagan soothsayers to enter buildings where lightning had struck (CT: 16.10.1). This decree upheld the ancient Roman custom where a ceremony was used to determine which god or goddess was angry and how to pacify him/her. Tacitus, writing a couple of centuries earlier, mentioned that pontiffs were involved with overseeing the haruspices (Annals, 11.15).

Balkans Inscription

A third Sunday law from Constantine’s reign is recorded on an inscription found in a Slavonian bath house. To understand this inscription, one must grasp that the Romans had two ways that they calculated weeks. There was the market week, which was composed of eight days. Every eighth day was nundinae or market day. The inscription informs us that Constantine adjusted the ancient Roman nundinae or market day so that it would occur every dies solis instead of every eighth day (Orellius, p 140). Despite this ruling, the dual system of eight-day and seven-day weeks continued into at least the mid-fourth century AD.

While Constantine did show favor to Christians, he also continued to honor paganism in obvious ways. He honored the sun god Sol Invictus on monuments and coins; his Sunday laws are congruent with this sentiment. In the case of these Sunday laws, he utilized the title pontifex maximus to promote dies solis as a weekly feast day (in the Roman sense). One can be hardly surprised. His Sunday laws lack the necessary evidence to have firm Roman Catholic influence. First, he did not recognize it as the first day of the week or the Lord’s Day (pagans considered Sunday to be the second day of the week; we will likely cover this subject in a future BSA article). Secondly, the Roman Church did not have a developed theology about Sunday rest in 321 AD. The first Roman Church Council to discuss Sunday rest does not occur until about 364 (Laodicea).

A last, but not least, development which occurred during his reign is the gradual joining of the Roman Church and Roman State. Constantine paid the expenses of some Church Councils (Eusebius, Church History, 10.6). He ruled that clergy and their families did not have to pay taxes (CT: 16.2.10). By law, people could leave property to the Roman Church at death (CT: 16.2.4 [321]). In 326, he passed a law that granted the Roman Church special privileges. All other Christian groups were not allowed these privileges and were bound to public service (CT: 16.5.1).

In addition to these measures, he regulated the number of clergy in Christianity (CT: 16.2.6 [326 AD]). The wealthy were prevented from serving in these positions; only the poor could serve in them ([10.2.6 [326 or 329 AD]). He prevented clerics from being summoned to municipal councils for public service (10.2.6, 10.2.7 [330 AD]). Secular judges were even forced to enforce the decisions of Catholic Bishops; when such a bishop testified, his witness was considered supreme and voided all others (CS: 1 [333 AD]).

During the reign of Theodosius, this union between Church and State was made complete. We will review this occurrence in the second part of this series. The next Sunday law was enacted about 45-50 years later by the Roman Emperors Valentinian and Valens.

“Emperors Valentinian and Valens Augustuses to Florianus, Governor of Venetia. It is our will that no Christian shall be sued by tax collectors on the Day of the Sun (Sunday), which has long* been considered holy**, and by this interdict of our statute we sanction peril against any person who should dare to commit this offense” – April 21, 368, 370, 371 (CT: 8.8.1; English: Pharr, 209; Latin: Haenel, p 754).

*The Latin phrase translated as “long” is qui dudum. It more refers to the present and the immediate past rather than a long period of time (Lewis, A Latin Dictionary). This is different than the Sabbath – which the Roman Emperors viewed as being sacred since ‘ancient times’ (Latin: vetus).

**Notice the word ‘holy’ in the law. This is not a good translation. The underlying Latin word is faustus; it means lucky, fortunate, or a good omen. The word can have religious meaning, but it does not have to. In other words, Sunday was considered a lucky day.

This law was written to the governor of Venetia, which was a province in northeastern Italy. This means that it was likely not applied in other areas. This is the first Roman law that mentions Christianity in relationship to Sunday. Notice that nearly fifty years after the first Sunday laws, Roman Emperors still did not use the term Lord’s day; this continues to show a lack of Roman Church influence.

One thing that we can learn from this law is that there must have been a significant number of Christians in Venetia who kept Sunday. Tax collections still took place on Sunday up until this law was issued. This law was repeated as CT:11.7.10.

We will continue this subject next week!

To read more about this subject, download our free booklet Sabbath and Sunday Laws in the Roman Empire by clicking HERE

Kelly McDonald, Jr.

BSA President –

Sources Cited

Ayers, Joseph Cullen. A Source Book For Ancient Church History. New York. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913. pp 284-285.

Cicero, On Law, 2.12(29). Translated by Clinton Walker Keyes. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1928. pp 406-407.

Codex Justinian, 3.12.2. Latin. Corpus Iuris Civilis. Krueger, Paulus, ed. Vol 2. Codex Iustinianus. Berlin, 1892. p 127.

Codex Theodosianus. English. Translated by Clyde Pharr. The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions. Princeton University, 1952. pp 44, 209.

Codex Theodosianus. Latin. Edited by Gustavus Haenel. Novellae Constitutiones Imperatorum Theodosii II., Valentinianii III., Maximi, Severi, Anthemii. Ad XLII Librorum Manuscriptorum Et Priorum Editionum Fidem Recognovit Et Annotatione Critica Instuxit. Lipsiensis, 1841-1842. Vol 2: pp 207, 754. Vol 3: pp 1070-71.

Encyclopedia Britannica. 11th edition. Article: Mithras.

Lewis, Charlton T. A Latin Dictionary. Oxford, Clarendon Press. 1879. Entry: dudum.

Orellius, Johann Caspar. Inscriptionum Latinarum Selectarum Amplissima Collecto. Romanae Antiquitatis. Vol 1. 1828. p 140, no 508.

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