Pliny and Trajan on the Judgment of Christians by the Roman State

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Pliny the Younger’s question in his letter from Book X 96-97 is centrally what is considered punishable? This suggests that what crime is actually something that eludes Pliny.  He has several ideas with associated questions which he presents to Trajan but his personal opinions appear obscured. Pliny states that he does ‘not know what offenses it is practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent.’[1] He examines the nature by which he himself has punished Christians and determines that he has more questions than answers for ‘What Crime were the Christians guilty of?’ For one thing though Pliny says he has no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished.[2]  But is this the answer? In Pliny’s opinion, were the Christians simply guilty of stubbornness and obstinacy and was this enough of a crime to warrant persecution?

English: Denarius featuring emperor Trajan
English: Denarius featuring emperor Trajan

Pliny however does not appear to believe that Christians constituted a threat to the security of the state as ‘he found nothing more than a malignant and immoderate superstition’,[3] which he does not consider to be a crime.  Pliny’s enquiries suggest that the Christians were plainly guilty of being Christians.  But, in his opinion the Christians bind themselves by oath and not to some crime.[4] Pliny asks ‘Whether it is the name itself…or only the offenses associated with the name that is to be punished.’[5] Which cements Pliny’s perplexity as to what type of punishment should be inflicted if their crime is only the name they bear.

The first thing that comes to mind in reading Trajan’s reply is that Trajan’s view on the treatment of Christians appears rather different to many throughout subsequent periods.  It almost appears to be a case of innocent until proven guilty; stating that denouncing others is a sort of thing that is a dangerous type of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of the age.[6] Trajan’s reply has been determined problematic by scholars.  Firstly, it does not answer all of the questions that Pliny prescribes and only assures Pliny that his actions are correct. Secondly, there is no reference to Pliny’s question regarding distinctions on the basis of age.  These suggest that persecution of Christians is already quite common; is Trajan simply following established precedents?

In relation to the subsequent treatment of Christians, Trajan’s reply also brings up a number of other questions.  For instance; does this treatment of Christians apply only to problems in Pontus, or is it a kind of general edict? This idea of a general edict has been discussed by a number of scholars.[7]  But there is no evidence of such an enactment.  Is Keresztes right, and presupposed here is an edict previously propagated by Nero?[8]  Trajan states that it is not possible to lay down any general rule.[9]  This is indicative that there is no general edict proscribing Christians.

In examining Trajan’s Rescript it seems that the state and imperial rule were not convinced that Christianity posed a political threat and they had no intention of indiscriminate application of anti-Christian legislation going unchecked.[10]  This appears almost tolerant of Christianity, an idea which would become more pronounced in subsequent dealings.  However, Trajan appears anxious not to upset public opinion by vetoing the right to take the Christians to trial.[11]

The Imperial cult is very relevant to the situation, as the centre of upholding a unified empire, which the Christians and their faith detracted from.[12]  There was also conflict as an oath to the Emperor constituted the basis of business transactions within the empire.  This was an issue to the Christians and the other involved parties as how could they accept in good faith? Eusebius states that during the period there was no open persecution but partial attacks in various provinces… notably…establishment of the imperial cult had taken two centuries in which time the Graeco-Roman world had become more unified in a common loyalty to the imperial idea.  Frend assesses that in becoming so it stood increasingly on its guard against rival ideology.[13]  This is relevant as a basis for persecution of the Christians in Pontus-Bithynia.[14]

The idea that the Christians were persecuted by name alone is viable, as to be associated with Christianity was itself a crime because Christians were seen as the culprits who brought divine retribution through their rejection of traditional forms of religion such as the imperial cult.  Sardi puts it, the Pax Decorum had been undermined and the pagan masses demanded some decisive action on the part of the state in order to restore it.[15]  The imperial cult is also very relevant to the situation based on Pliny’s location.[16]  With a centre of the imperial ideals so close, Christians were seen as potential dangers.

Christianity can also be seen as a threat to imperial rulership with the imposing idea of a Lord God, bringing up questions regarding ‘Lord Caesar vs Lord Christ’.[17]  More specifically it is relevant in the line of questioning that Pliny takes as to why the Christians are being persecuted, is it due to name alone? Does this wider idea of a threat to the traditional by association constitute a crime by the individual?

Bibliography

Dundas, G.S., Pharaoh, Basileus and Imperator: The Roman Imperial Cult in Egypt (Michigan, 1993)

Fishwick, D., The Imperial Cult in the Latin West: Studies in the Ruler Cult of the Western Provinces of the Roman Empire (New York, 1987), pp.97-149

Frend, W.H.C., Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford, 1967), pp. 155-172, 461-466

Hazlett, I., Early Christianity: Origins and Evolution to AD 600 (Nashville, 1991), pp.52-64

Keresztes, P., The Imperial Roman Government and the Christian Church, I: From Nero to the Severi, in ANRW II 23.1, pp.247-315

Lane Fox, R., The Spread of Christianity: Pagans and Christians (Canada, 2006), pp.428

Macmullen, R., and Lane, E.N., Paganism and Christianity 100-425CE: A Sourcebook (Minneapolis, 1992), pp.74-78

Macmullen, R., Christianizing the Roman Empire (A.D. 100-400) (London, 1984), pp.25-42, 132-138

Momigliano, A., The Conflict Between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century (Oxford, 1963), pp.17-37

Pliny, Letters, Book X, 96-97 (Trans. Melmoth, W., Harvard Classics Series, reproduced from: Internet Medieval Source-Book, ed. P.Halsall [www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html])

Sherwin White, A.N., The Letters of Pliny: A Historical and Social Commentary (Oxford, 1966)

Sordi, M., The Christians and the Roman Empire (London, 1986), pp.57-60

Wilken, R., Pliny: A Roman Gentleman, in idem., The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven, 1984), pp.1-30


[1] Pliny, Letters, Book X, 96-97 (Trans. Melmoth, W., Harvard Classics Series, reproduced from: Internet Medieval Source-Book, ed. P.Halsall [www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html]), 96

[2] Ibid., 96

[3] Ibid., 96

[4] Ibid., 96 – …not to commit fraud or adultery or the falsifying of trust

[5] Ibid., 96

[6] Ibid., 97 – Trajan’s reply to Pliny

[7] Keresztes, P., The Imperial Roman Government and the Christian Church, I: From Nero to the Severi, in ANRW II 23.1, p.279

[8] Keresztes, op.cit., p.279

[9] Pliny, op.cit., 97

[10] Sordi, M., The Christians and the Roman Empire (London, 1986)., p.58

[11] Ibid., p.58

[12] Lane Fox, R., The Spread of Christianity: Pagans and Christians (Canada, 2006), p.428

[13] Frend, W.H.C., Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford, 1967), p.156

[14] Ibid., p.162 – The area at the time had fallen into serious financial and administrative difficulties and these difficulties were blamed on the Christians and their contention to the imperial cult so causing chaos rather than the unity which the imperial powers had set out to encourage.  This idea is seen elsewhere in the empire, for instance Christians were blamed for natural disasters such as the famine of 92/93 in Pisidion Antioch.

[15] Sordi, M., op.cit., p.57

[16] Frend, W.H.C., op.cit., p.164 – Amastris in the eastern part of the province where Pliny appears to have come across the majority of the Christians after passing Amisus also was where the provincial council and priest of the imperial cult were situated. 

[17] Ibid., p.155

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