7 March 321: Constantine orders that Sunday become a day of rest

The Roman emperor shapes working practices for millennia with a decree that pleases Christians and pagans alike


Like all successful politicians, the Roman emperor Constantine was a master of ambiguity. Remembered today as the first Christian emperor, he was also associated with the cult of Sol Invictus – the unconquered sun – and even displayed images of the sun god on his coins.

When, on 7 March 321, Constantine issued an edict declaring that Sunday must be the day of rest, he was once again treading a fine line between Christianity and paganism, and between religious principle and economic pragmatism. “On the venerable day of the Sun,” he ordered, “let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country however persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits because it often happens that another day is not suitable for grain-sowing or vine planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven
should be lost.”

Picking Sunday as the day of rest made excellent political sense. Although it was nominally a working day, many Christians across the empire already treated Sunday as a day for religious worship, although those in Rome and Alexandria tended to prefer Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. More importantly, though, most non-Christians already regarded Sunday as a special day because workers were often paid on Sundays. Perhaps crucially, this was the special day of Sol Invictus, which had become an official cult as recently as AD 274 and had a particular appeal to the senatorial upper classes.

Not all Christians warmed to Constantine’s edict, and even centuries later some groups still preferred Saturday. And yet, even now, 1,695 years on, many of us still observe Constantine’s edict. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

More like this

7 March 1799

In Palestine, Napoleon Bonaparte captures Jaffa and allows his troops two days to rape and murder their way across the city.

7 March 1799

The Royal Institution of Great Britain is born as a group of gentlemen meet at the Soho Square house of Royal Society president Joseph Banks. They agree to found an institution to encourage invention and to diffuse scientific knowledge.

7 March 1810

Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, Nelson's second-in-command at the battle of Trafalgar, died at sea on board HMS Ville de Paris. He had spent only one year ashore in 17 years of war.

7 March 1838

Seventeen-year-old soprano Jenny Lind, "the Swedish Nightingale", makes her operatic debut in Stockholm as Agathe in Weber's Der Freischütz.

7 March 1857

Nobel Prize winning psychiatrist Julius Wagner von Jauregg is born in Wels, Austria.

7 March 1873

‘The West Auckland poisoner’, Mary Ann Cotton, was found guilty at Durham assizes of the murder of her son Charles and was hanged two weeks later. She has been suspected of murdering up to 21 people.

7 March 1881

Birth of Labour politician Ernest Bevin. A founder of the Transport and General Workers' Union, Bevin served as minister for labour and national service in Churchill's wartime government and foreign secretary in Attlee's postwar regime.

7 March 1912

Henri Salmet, chief instructor at the Bleriot flight school, Hendon, flew non-stop from London to Paris, making the crossing in his Bleriot monoplane in just over three hours. Salmet had waterproofed his aircraft with rubber canvas and improvised a life jacket out of an inflated inner tube.


After lunching with Louis Bleriot he set off again, planning to fly back to London on the same day but was thwarted by a strong headwind. During the First World War, Salmet served with the French Air Service and was awarded the Croix de Guerre.

Browse more On this day in history