From the letters of Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan
To the Emperor Trajan
It is my custom to refer all my difficulties to you, sir, for no one is better able to resolve my doubts and inform my ignorance.
I have never been present at an examination of Christians. 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. Nor am I at all sure that any distinction should be made between them on the grounds of age, or if young people and adults should be treated alike; whether a pardon ought to be granted to anyone retracting his beliefs, or if he has once professed Christianity, he shall gain nothing by renouncing it; and whether it is the mere name of Christian which is punishable, even if innocent of crime, or rather the crimes associated with the name.
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 a 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 unshakable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished.
Now that I have begun to deal with this problem, as so often happens, the charges are becoming more widespread and increasing in variety. An anonymous pamphlet has been circulated which contains the names of a number of accused persons. Among these I felt 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 further more had reviled the name of Christ–none of which things any genuine Christian can be induced to do.
Others, whose names were given to me by an informer, first admitted the charge and then denied it; they said that they had ceased to be Christians two or more years previously, and some of them even twenty years ago. They all did reverence to your statue and the images of the gods in the same way as the others, and reviled the name of Christ. They also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly at dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honour 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 to deny a deposit when called on 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 that 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.
I have therefore postponed any further examination and hastened to consult you. The question seems to me worthy of your consideration, especially in view of the number of persons endangered; for a great many individuals of every age and class, both men and women, are being brought to trial, and this is likely to continue. 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 people have begun to throng the temples which had been almost entirely deserted for a long time; the sacred rights which had been allowed to lapse are being performed again, and flesh of sacrificial victims is on sale everywhere, though up till recently scarcely anyone could be found to buy it. It is easy to infer from this that a great many people could be reformed if they were given an opportunity to repent.
Trajan`s response to Pliny`s letter
You have followed the right course of procedure, my dear Pliny, for it is impossible to lay down a general rule to a fixed formula. These people must not be hunted out; if they are brought before you and the charge against them is proved, they must be punished, but in the case of anyone who denies that he is a Christian, and makes it clear that he is not by offering prayers to our gods, he is to be pardoned as a result of his repentance however suspect his past conduct may be. But pamphlets circulated anonymously must play no part in any accusation. They create the worst sort of precedent and are quite out of keeping with the spirit of our age.
Pliny`s letter was sent to the Emperor Trajan in 112 A.D. and highlights the growing, and ongoing problem the Imperial administration perceived the Christians to be. It is interesting to see the Romans viewed the Christians as a political problem to be solved rather than a religious one; although Romans were intensely superstitious, the ruling elite took a more pragmatic line with the gods, and viewed religion more from a political viewpoint than a religious one. By making an offering to the statue of the divine emperors you were affirming your allegiance to the state; no sensible emperor saw himself as divine, but his person embodied the state, and refusing to pay homage to him was a treasonable act against the Roman Imperium punishable by death. Pliny completely misread the signals being given out by early Christian beliefs: chanting hymns in praise of Christ as if he were a god; pledging under oath not to engage in any criminal activity, adultery, or any which may do harm to others seems to have flown serenely over his head. Jesus was considered the personification of God in human form by his followers who simply wished to lead a life unblemished by the moral standards considered normal under the Roman state. The Roman state on the other hand saw Christians as dangerous political agitators working to overthrow the status quo.
Not for the first, or the last time, the state considers itself the arbiter of what is considered normal, correct social and political behaviour; it claims to speak for all, when in fact it ultimately represents only it`s own interests. The Roman hierarchy saw an incipient threat to it`s power developing, and initiated a long term political struggle for the hearts and minds of it`s people which it eventually lost. In the late Roman Empire, when the good times had gone, and the Barbaricum was not just knocking on the door, but had smashed it down, the people felt helpless in the face of renewed poverty, continuous war, over burdened by taxation which the super rich avoided, rampant monetary inflation and the prospect of a short, hard life followed by death. There was nothing to live for, not even the promise of an afterlife in paradise: Christianity offered a reward after death for even the slave who had existed through long years of crushing destitution of spirit, or the dirt poor peasant, toiling away in the fields 24/7 just for the chance to live another day. For Trajan and Pliny, their religion was all about politics and keeping their grip on power; for the early Christian community spreading the word, it was about saving and nurturing the humanity in people and holding out the promise of eternal life as a reward for belief in Christ. By the 4th century, given the choice between endless war and taxes without reward under an increasingly arthritic and oppressive Imperium, and life everlasting in the welcoming arms of Christ………Well, there seemed to be no contest. As the lights were going out all over the Roman world, the descendants of that little, degenerate sort of cult were about to take up the torch and offer a new way. Unfortunately, life rarely offers something without taking something in return, and what Christianity ultimately provided was more of the same old, same old. By taking upon itself all the pomp and circumstance, political and social credo of the dying Roman state, the new Church of Christ became the very thing thing it had struggled not to be. In many ways, a Borgia pope would prove to be no better than a Domitian or a Nero.