Early Christians and a Conscientious Roman Governor

Pliny the Younger didn’t know what to do with the Christians.

Bust of Trajan (reign 98–117 ), in the Glyptothek, Munich (public domain photo by User:Bibi Saint-Pol)

The Emperor Trajan had appointed him governor and sent him to Bithynia in 112 AD. His job was to go out there and solve the problems that arose; and if he had any doubts he was supposed to write back and ask for advice.

“I have never been present at an examination of Christians,” he wrote to Trajan. “Consequently, I do not know the nature or the extent of the punishments usually meted out to them, nor the grounds for starting an investigation and how far it should be pressed….

“For the moment this is the line I have taken with all persons brought before me on the charge of being Christians. I have asked them in person if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution; for, whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakeable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished…

Cover of a book by John Beckwith,  showing an early Christian depiction of The Last Supper.

“I considered that I should dismiss any who denied that they were or ever had been Christians when they had repeated after me a formula of invocation to the gods and had made offerings of wine and incense to your statue (which I had ordered to be brought into court for this purpose along with the images of the gods), and furthermore had reviled the name of Christ: none of which things, I understand, any genuine Christian can be induced to do…..

“[Some declared] that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: that they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery, to commit no breach of trust, and not to deny a deposit when called upon to restore it. After this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind; but they had in fact given up this practice since my edict, issued on your instructions, which banned all political societies. This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by torture from two slave-women, whom they call deaconesses. I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.”

The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (public domain photo)

“I have therefore postponed any further examination and hastened to consult you. The question seems to me to be worthy of your consideration, especially in view of the number of persons endangered…It is not only the towns but villages and rural districts too which are infected through contact with this wretched cult. I think though that it is still possible for it to be checked and directed to better ends, for there is no doubt that the people have begun to throng the temples which had been almost entirely deserted for some time…It is easy to infer from this that a great many people could be reformed if they were given an opportunity to repent.”

Pliny, Letter 96, Book 10



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8 Responses to Early Christians and a Conscientious Roman Governor

  1. hiit says:

    I love the last picture with lion

  2. 100swallows says:

    Judith: Isn’t it odd that this edict by Decius prescribes the exact procedure for interrogation of accused Christians that Pliny asked Trajan about more than a hundred years earlier? The three questions, the leading away to execution, the dismissing those who renege, and so on. Either one has to suppose that Pliny invented it or he himself was following a directive that was around perhaps before Trajan. Trajan, by the way, took a more tolerant line in his answer. This Decian edict is reminiscent of Nazi and Soviet edicts one has read. Of course if it was illegal to be a Christian then they had to go underground. So we accuse them of secrecy and hiding something.

  3. wpm1955 says:

    100 Swallows,

    I think the Christians and Jews of that time were behaving as the Muslims of today. As you say, if they had been tolerant of others, and given “lip service” the emperor, they wouldn’t have had any problem.

    The Muslim religion forbids prostration (the Muslim prayer position) to ANY HUMAN. It is reserved for ALLAH (God) ALONE. So can you imagine if Islam had existed in that time, and Muslims refused to prostrate to the emperor? They would have had exactly the same problems as the Christians and Jews.

    Madame Monet
    Writing, Painting, Music, and Wine

  4. It’s difficult to explain what the Romans ‘had against the Christians’ because, to our way of thinking, they were innocent. But here, in a nutshell, is the Roman thinking.

    One of the edicts condemning the Christians makes the negative case for the persecutions:

    (i>The Christians venerate an ordinary man who was punished by execution for a criminal act on the deadly wood of a cross; this attributes to these irredeemable and wicked people very appropriate religious objects, in that they worship just what they deserve to, a god who died in delusions, who was condemned by right-thinking judges and killed in by the worst death, one bound with iron nails. Why do they struggle to hide and conceal whatever it is they worship, if decent things always welcome publicity, and only wicked things are secretive? Why have they no altars, no temples, no recognisable statues? Why do they never speak in public or assemble openly, unless that which they worship and conceal is something illegal or shameful.
    This secret and light-fearing tribe is to be sought out and destroyed. Magistrates are to test them as follows: Ask those who are accused whether they are Christians. If they admit it, ask them a second and even a third time, threatening them with punishment. Order those who persist in this madness to be led away for execution by fire. You may dismiss those who deny that they were or had been Christians once they have prayed to the gods, have sacrificed, and, moreover, once they have cursed Christ.

    The edict of Emperor Decius, which initiated the first empire-wide persecution, explains the positive case, the importance of correct veneration of the gods:

    For the security and eternity of the Empire, you should frequent, with all due worship and veneration of the immortal gods, the most sacred shrines for the rendering and giving of thanks, so that the immortal gods may pass on to future generations what our ancestors have built up and all which they have granted to our ancestors and to our own times too.

  5. 100swallows says:

    Danu: I was surprised to read about the “deaconesses” too. It seems very hard to believe that in our time the Church will be able to go on excluding them from the clergy.
    I can well understand why slaves would become Christians. What is stranger is the role of upper-class women in the early Church–women like Monica. The protocols of some of those early Councils give rules about treating slaves.
    I know Trajan conquered Dacia. You’ll have to come to Spain some day and visit the ruins of his (and Hadrian’s) hometown, near Seville.

  6. ivdanu says:

    I find very interesting the “deaconesses” part… It’s obvious primitive Christian Church: the deaconesses were SLAVES and WOMEN, a thing which later (even today!) is not evident… How many Christian denominations have women priests?

    Maybe this was also a raison for the succes of the Christian faith: at least at the beginning, Slaves, Women etc. were adopted as equal… The Heaven was open for everybody… Jesus had a very Slave-like punishement, he was crucified between two thieves… Most of the slaves and low class inhabitants of the Roman Empire were probably solidar with him, his ideas and his story…

    By the way, Trajan was the emperor who conquered Dacia (the today Romania, mainly) in two intensely fought wars…

  7. 100swallows says:

    Thank you, Madame Monet. I had the same impression. I even wondered whether Pliny really meant he “executed” them in our sense, but I didn’t have the Latin to see what word he used.
    Yours is a good question, and your answer to it, too, with some important differences, however. Gibbon made much of Jewish and Christian intolerance–he says that was what caused them so much trouble. (Other religions–other gods–didn’t mind equals or even rivals.) The Roman state was open and liberal. They let people worship any god they wanted to as long as they also paid at least lip service to the state gods. But that they had to do. An important part of Augustus’s reform was a religious one. He built or repaired eighty-eight temples in Rome. He wanted people to “be true Romans”, which meant pietas (respect for the old gods, for the old virtues.) Christians were defiant and in their refusal to do their duty, subversive.

  8. Madame Monet says:

    Well, I find this an interesting letter. It is clear the governor does not find the Christians bad people, worthy of execution.

    So this leads one to ask, what was it that Rome so had against the Christians? From this letter above, it appears to be a threat to the semi-divine power status of the emperor.

    I live in a country with a king. Just as today, many people have pictures of the king in every place of business, and there is a state religion. If people were to start questioning the state religion (Islam), and converting to another religion, the king (who is considered “commander of the faithful”) would lose his legitimacy.

    It was probably a similar problem in ancient Rome.

    Madame Monet
    Writing, Painting, Music, and Wine

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