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Pliny the Younger and Christians

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Pliny the Younger and Trajan
Pliny the Younger and Trajan

Pliny the Younger was a Roman politician and magistrate during the Roman Empire. The most important position he took was the office of governor (legatus Augusti) of the province of Bithynia et Pontus (current Turkey), in 110 CE, during the reign of Emperor Trajan.

Extremely interesting correspondence of Pliny the Younger and Emperor Trajan has survived to our times, which emphasizes how much respect he had for his ruler. In one of his letters from 112 CE, Pliny asks the emperor for advice on Christians living in the province.

Perception of Christianity in the Empire

It is worth mentioning that until the time of Emperor Decius, when in 250 CE a decree was introduced requiring citizens to make sacrifices to the begging Roman deities (not accepted by Jews and followers of Christ), there could be no mass persecution of Christians by the state. Any action against this community resulted from local government decisions. Sam Tertullian claimed that Christian blood was not spilt in Africa until 180 CE.

Any bad opinions or dislike of early Christians resulted from their secrets and gossip about cannibalistic feasts or incest (this is mentioned, among others, by Athenagoras of Athens in the 2nd century CE). Moreover, due to the fact that Christians did not recognize traditional Roman deities, they were considered atheists (because of monotheism), superstition or sect. Christians refused to participate in official religious practices aimed at worshipping emperors, which caused misunderstanding and resentment of the Roman community and authority. Pliny himself assessed stubbornness (contumacia) of Christians as a threat to Roman power, violation of order within the state, and despising state customs and denominations. From here, in turn, there is near to rebellion.

Content of the letter

In a letter to Trajan, Pliny asked the ruler three questions in fact about making judgments about Christians:

  1. Should young people be treated differently from adult Christians?
  2. Does denying being a Christian mean pardoning the accused?
  3. Is Christianity in itself evidence of a conviction?

The governor’s queries are largely due to the ambiguity of Roman law, the lack of imperial regulation, and various approaches towards Christians. Pliny tells us what the judgment on the follower of Christ looks like. The Christian is asked three times whether he admits his faith and threatens him with death. If the accused does not renounce his faith, he is sentenced to execution or, in the case of a Roman citizen, sent to Rome. Pliny clearly states that radical measures result from the stubbornness of the accused and are legally justified. A Christian who stubbornly stays in faith and does not agree with the authorities’ questions, humiliates him. Interestingly, a large proportion of the indictments resulted from an anonymous document – which can be interpreted as a letter from provincial residents who report on Christians.

Pliny also describes how he made sure that he was in fact accused of faith in Christ and renounced his confession. A person who denied being a Christian had to first offer incense and wine before the image of Trajan and Roman deities, then curse Christ; especially this second task was impossible to perform by the true most ardent followers of Christ.

In the remainder of the letter, Pliny presents the practices of Christians who gathered in a given place before dawn and were bound by an oath, pledging not to commit any crimes such as fraud, theft or adultery and singing the hymn in honour of their god. The meeting of the followers was celebrated with a joint feast. Thanks to Trajan, Pliny prohibited such gatherings, which resulted from the imperial authorities’ fear of state stability (the association of firemen was also banned). Importantly, Christians in the province complied with the order.

For the purpose of ascertaining the essence of Christianity, Pliny ordered – according to the law – to subject two slaves to torture, which only confirmed his belief that Christianity was superstition (superstitio) and not religio. In this way, the governor deliberately depreciated the confession.

Finally, Pliny states that Christianity is spreading not only in cities but also in the villages and this is worrying. By the way, however, he emphasizes that the Roman temples are filling up and there is an increasing demand for sacrificial animals – which is to prove the effective policy in the province.

Trajan’s answer

Trajan responded to his subordinate briefly and matter-of-factly, agreeing with his actions. As he stated, no general rule could be established as to the behaviour of Christians. The emperor pointed out that Christ’s followers should not be “sought”, but if they are charged and found guilty, they must be punished. If the accused denies the confession and confirms it, he should be pardoned. Any anonymous accusations should not be taken into account, as this is a dangerous precedent.

Meaning of the letter

The correspondence of Pliny and Trajan demonstrates the close cooperation of governors with the imperial office. In case of uncertainty, Pliny decided to consult the ruler to be sure of his actions. It is noteworthy that Trajan did not provide Pliny with clear general principles on how to deal with Christians. The governor is to act at his own discretion, taking into account specific guidelines.

Letters are one of the earliest sources in which Roman power is aware of Christianity. We also learn how the Romans saw early Christian communities and that at that time it was possible to talk about the formation of early church structures.

  • J. B. Rives, The Decree of Decius and the Religion of Empire
  • Pliny the Younger, Epistulae

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