emperor trajan

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?


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


Archaeology Travel Blog: Selinus and Antiochia ad Cragum!

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So it is about time I told you all about this archaeological dig I am on. Welcome all to the wonderful world of Gazipasa and Antiochia ad Cragum!

Arrived in Gazipasa after a long bus trip from Antalya and several lessons: Lesson number one, learn more Turkish; two, people lie; three, people don’t know their own country. After many hours and help from a lovely Swedish woman who explained that the Turkish men were having fun confusing us, grrrr, we are now in a lovely town with lovely people and excellent food.

Gazipasa is located in the south of Turkey and is associated with the ancient city of Selinus. Selinus has settlement evidence from as far back as the Hittites in 2000 BC. Selinus was established on the River Kestros and is now called Hacimusa and was incorporated into Cilicia in 628 BC. It is located about 180 km to the East of Antalya on the Southern coast of Anatolia.

Beach side of Gazipasa

Selinus became part of the Roman Empire in 197 BC and became particularly famous in the first century AD when the Emperor Trajan died there. As a consequence, for some time Selinus was known as Traianapolis. Selinus later became part of the Byzantine Empire alongside the rest of Cilicia before falling into the hands of the Turks in 1225 AD. It is listed among the castles of Gazipasa alongside Iotape, Lamus, Nephelis and Antiochia ad Cragum and is still subject to archaeological research by a team from Florida State University. The archaeological artefacts from Selinus are now mostly housed in the museum of Alanya.

The dig site itself is located about 7 miles the east of Gazipasa. Antiochia ad Cragum has also been called Antiochetta and Antiohia Parva which basically translate to ‘little Antiochia’. Its name ‘Cragum’ comes from its position on the Cragus mountain overlooking the coast. It is located in the area of modern Guney about 12km from the modern City of Gazipasa. The city was officially founded by Antiochis IV around 170 BC when he came to rule over Rough Cilicia. The site covers an area of around three hectares and contains the remains of baths, market places, colonnaded streets with a gateway, an early Christian basilica, monumental tombs, a Temple and several structures which are yet to be identified. Excavations are currently being undertaken by the Antiochia ad Cragum Archaeological Research Project headed by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The site and its harbour likely served as one of the many havens for Cilician pirates along the South Anatolian coast, likely because of its small coves and hidden inlets. Unfortunately no definite pirate remains are visible in the modern day. Its pirate past ended with Pompey’s victory in the first century BC and the take over by Antiochis IV. Initial occupation appears to have occurred in the Classical and Hellenistic periods followed by a surge of activity in these Roman periods. The city itself was built on the sloping ground that comes down from the Taurus mountain range which terminates at the shore creating steep cliffs; in some places several hundred metres high. The temple complex is situated on the highest point of the city and most of the building material remains though in a collapsed state. There is also evidence of a gymnasium complex nearby.

Side of Temple at Antiochia ad Cragum

The harbour at Antiochia ad Cragum measures about 250,000m squared and is one of the few large, safe harbours along the coast between Alanya and Selinus. On its Eastern side are two small coves suitable for one or two ships but with limited opportunity for shipping and fishing due to wave activities. The area is well situated as a defensible position against invaders. Recent Terrestrial survey at Antiochia ad Cragum has had emphasis on finding evidence of pirate activity which has been limited, but it has turned up Pottery principally from the Byzantine Period with additional pottery from the late Bronze Age, the Hellenistic and some from the Roman periods. There is little evidence of pre-Roman occupation at the fortress or pirate’s cove at Antiochia ad Cragum. Banana terracing may have caused much of the evidence to have been erased. The maritime survey has turned up shipping jars, transport Amphoraes and anchors from the Byzantine, Roman and Hellenistic periods as well as a range of miscellaneous items. The assemblage appears to indicate early activity to the West of the harbour moving East over time.

Part of Mosaic in Bath Complex at Antiochia ad Cragum

So that’s the site. Now to what I am doing because this is my blog! We have started a new trench at the back of the temple which is abutted by the temple wall and a neighbouring trench. So far we have uncovered all the steps down to the base of the temple, which isn’t bad for a week or so’s work if i do say so myself. We have a wall running oddly through the middle of the trench with a channel situated about two thirds down. Tomorrow I intend to investigate this channel but it looks like some form of drainage system. We also have stone and mortar strangely situated alongside the south edge of the trench which we can see also in the abutting trench but here it seems to lose uniformity. MMMM, questions arise. Well we continue in the hope of answering them!

My Trench on Day 2 at Back of Temple

Elsewhere we have two of the boys excavating the West side of the temple and the some others starting a new trench in which we have thus far found a snake, a frog and several snake eggs. A goat was also found in my trench but that was cheekily put there by the site foreman while I wasn’t looking! Sufficed to say I got a bit of a fright…

We have found several coins and a mountain of pottery as usual in addition to glass and tiles. We also have a Turkish team restoring the mosaic down the hill which is probably the largest mosaic in Turkey. And a team from Clark university drawing and recording the huge number of marble blocks in our block field so that one day work can begin on restoring the temple! Very exciting.

That’s the start of it. More soon. Now though it is time for dinner at a lovely little restaurant and bar owned by an English Expat which acts as our home away from home. Dig Hard and Live Free!

My Trench on Day 10