Pliny and Trajan on the Christians.

The persecution of Christians in Asia early in century II.


One of the ancient pagan testimonia.

The epistle of Pliny to Trajan, 10.96 (translation slightly modified from the 1915 Loeb edition):

Sollemne est mihi, domine, omnia de quibus dubito ad te referre. quis enim potest melius vel cunctationem meam regere vel ignorantiam instruere? cognitionibus de Christianis interfui numquam: ideo nescio quid et quatenus aut puniri soleat aut quaeri.

It is a rule, lord, which I inviolably observe, to refer myself to you in all my doubts; for who is more capable of guiding my uncertainty or informing my ignorance? Having never been present at any trials of the Christians, I am unacquainted with the method and limits to be observed either in examining or punishing them.

Nec mediocriter haesitavi, sitne aliquod discrimen aetatum, an quamlibet teneri nihil a robustioribus differant; detur paenitentiae venia, an ei qui omnino Christianus fuit desisse non prosit; nomen ipsum, si flagitiis careat, an flagitia cohaerentia nomini puniantur. interim, {in} iis qui ad me tamquam Christiani deferebantur, hunc sum secutus modum.

Whether any difference is to be made on account of age, or no distinction allowed between the youngest and the adult, whether repentance admits to a pardon, or if a man has been once a Christian it avails him nothing to recant, whether the mere profession of Christianity, albeit without crimes, or only the crimes associated therewith are punishable, in all of these points I am greatly doubtful. In the meanwhile, the method I have observed towards those who have been denounced to me as Christians is as follows.

Interrogavi ipsos an essent Christiani. confitentes iterum ac tertio interrogavi supplicium minatus; perseverantes duci iussi. neque enim dubitabam, qualecumque esset quod faterentur, pertinaciam certe et inflexibilem obstinationem debere puniri.

I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed. For, whatever the nature of their creed might be, I could at least feel no doubt that contumacy and inflexible obstinacy deserved chastisement.

Fuerunt alii similis amentiae, quos, quia cives Romani erant, adnotavi in urbem remittendos. mox ipso tractatu, ut fieri solet, diffundente se crimine plures species inciderunt.

There were others also possessed with the same infatuation, but being citizens of Rome, I directed them to be carried thither. These accusations spread, as is usually the case, from the mere fact of the matter being investigated and several forms of the mischief came to light.

Propositus est libellus sine auctore multorum nomina continens. qui negabant esse se Christianos aut fuisse, cum praeeunte me deos appellarent et imagini tuae, quam propter hoc iusseram cum simulacris numinum afferri, ture ac vino supplicarent, praeterea male dicerent Christo, quorum nihil cogi posse dicuntur qui sunt re vera Christiani, dimittendos putavi.

A placard was put up, without any signature, accusing a large number of persons by name. Those who denied they were, or had ever been, Christians, who repeated after me an invocation to the gods, and offered adoration with wine and frankincense to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for that purpose, together with those of tbe gods, and who finally cursed Christ, none of which acts, it is said, those who are really Christians can be forced into performing,these I thought it proper to discharge.

Alii ab indice nominati esse se Christianos dixerunt et mox negaverunt; fuisse quidem sed desisse, quidam ante triennium, quidam ante plures annos, non nemo etiam ante viginti. quoque omnes et imaginem tuam deorumque simulacra venerati sunt et Christo male dixerunt.

Others who were named by that informer at first confessed themselves Christians, and then denied it; true, they had been of that persuasion but they had quitted it, some three years, others many years, and a few as much as twenty-five years ago. They all worshipped your statue and the images of the gods, and cursed Christ.

Affirmabant autem hanc fuisse summam vel culpae suae vel erroris, quod essent soliti stato die ante lucem convenire, carmenque Christo quasi deo dicere secum invicem seque sacramento non in scelus aliquod obstringere, sed ne furta ne latrocinia ne adulteria committerent, ne fidem fallerent, ne depositum appellati abnegarent. quibus peractis morem sibi discedendi fuisse rursusque coeundi ad capiendum cibum, promiscuum tamen et innoxium; quod ipsum facere desisse post edictum meum, quo secundum mandata tua hetaerias esse vetueram.

They affirmed, however, that the whole of their guilt or error was that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food, but food of an ordinary and innocent kind. Even this practice, however, they had abandoned after the publication of my edict, by which, according to your orders, I had forbidden political associations.*

* Confer epistles 10.33-34 below.

Quo magis necessarium credidi ex duabus ancillis, quae ministrae dicebantur, quid esset veri, et per tormenta quaerere. nihil aliud inveni quam superstitionem pravam et immodicam.

I judged it so much the more necessary to extract the real truth, with the assistance of torture, from two female slaves who were styled deaconesses, but I could discover nothing more than depraved and excessive superstition.

Ideo dilata cognitione ad consulendum te decucurri. visa est enim mihi res digna consultatione, maxime propter periclitantium numerum. multi enim omnis aetatis, omnis ordinis, utriusque sexus etiam vocantur in periculum et vocabuntur. neque civitates tantum, sed vicos etiam atque agros superstitionis istius contagio pervagata est; quae videtur sisti et corrigi posse.

I therefore adjourned the proceedings, and betook myself at once to your counsel. For the matter seemed to me well worth referring to you, especially considering the numbers endangered. Persons of all ranks and ages, and of both sexes are and will be involved in the prosecution. For this contagious superstition is not confined to the cities only, but has spread through the villages and rural districts; it seems possible, however, to check and cure it.

Certe satis constat prope iam desolata templa coepisse celebrari, et sacra sollemnia diu intermissa repeti passimque venire {carnem} victimarum, cuius adhuc rarissimus emptor inveniebatur. ex quo facile est opinari, quae turba hominum emendari possit, si sit paenitentiae locus.

It is certain at least that the temples, which had been almost deserted, begin now to be frequented; and the sacred festivals, after a long intermission, are again revived, while there is a general demand for sacrificial animals, which for some time past have met with but few purchasers. From hence it is easy to imagine what multitudes may be reclaimed from this error, if a door be left open to repentance.

The epistle of Trajan to Pliny, 10.97 (translation slightly modified from the 1915 Loeb edition):

Actum quem debuisti, mi Secunde, in excutiendis causis eorum, qui Christiani ad te delati fuerant, secutus es. neque enim in universum aliquid, quod quasi certam formam habeat, constitui potest.

The method that you have pursued, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those denounced to you as Christians is extremely proper. It is not possible to lay down any general rule which can be applied as the fixed standard in all cases of this nature.

Conquirendi non sunt; si deferantur et arguantur, puniendi sunt, ita tamen ut, qui negaverit se Christianum esse idque re ipsa manifestum fecerit, id est supplicando dis nostris, quamvis suspectus in praeteritum, veniam ex paenitentia impetret. sine auctore vero propositi libelli {in} nullo crimine locum habere debent. nam et pessimi exempli nec nostri saeculi est.

No search should be made for these people; when they are denounced and found guilty they must be punished, with the restriction, however, that when the party denies himself to be a Christian, and shall give proof that he is not, that is, by adoring our gods, he shall be pardoned on the ground of repentance, even though he may have formerly incurred suspicion. Informations without the name of the accuser subscribed must not be admitted in evidence against anyone, as it is introducing a very dangerous precedent, and by no means agreeable to the spirit of the age.

Tertullian refers to these epistles in Apology 2.5-7:

De nobis nihil tale, cum aeque extorqueri oporteret quod cum falso iactatur, quot quisque iam infanticidia degustasset, quot incesta contenebrasset, qui coqui, qui canes affuissent. o quanta illius praesidis gloria, si eruisset aliquem, qui centum iam infantes comedisset. atquin invenimus inquisitionem quoque in nos prohibitam. Plinius enim Secundus, cum provinciam regeret, damnatis quibusdam Christianis, quibusdam gradu pulsis, ipsa tamen multitudine perturbatus, quid de cetero ageret, consuluit tunc Traianum imperatorem, adlegans praeter obstinationem non sacrificandi nihil aliud se de sacramentis eorum comperisse quam coetus antelucanos ad canendum Christo ut deo et ad confoederandam disciplinam, homicidium adulterium fraudem perfidiam et cetera scelera prohibentes. tunc Traianus rescripsit hoc genus inquirendos quidem non esse, oblatos vero puniri oportere.

In our case no such procedure is followed, although there was an equal necessity to sift by investigation the false charges that are bandied about, how many slaughtered babes each had already tasted, how many times he had committed incest in the dark, what cooks, what dogs had been present. Oh, what fame would that governor have acquired if he had ferreted out someone who had already eaten up a hundred infants! But we find that in our case even such inquiry is forbidden. For Pliny Secundus, when he was in command of a province, after condemning some Christians and having dislodged others from the stand they had taken up, was nevertheless greatly troubled by their very numbers, and then consulted the emperor Trajan as to what he should do in future, stating that, apart from the obstinate refusal to sacrifice, he had found out nothing else about their mysteries save meetings before dawn to sing to Christ and to God, and to establish one common rule of life, forbidding murder, adultery, fraud, treachery, and other crimes. Then Trajan replied that such people were not indeed to be sought out, but that if they were brought before the court they ought to be punished.

Epistle of Pliny to Trajan, 10.33, requesting permission to form a company (collegium) of firefighters (translation slightly modified from that of William Stearns Davis):

Cum diversam partem provinciae circumirem, Nicomediae vastissimum incendium multas privatorum domos et duo publica opera, quamquam via interiacente, gerusian et Iseon absumpsit. est autem latius sparsum, primum violentia venti, deinde inertia hominum quos satis constat otiosos et immobiles tanti mali spectatores perstitisse; et alioqui nullus usquam in publico sipo, nulla hama, nullum denique instrumentum ad incendia compescenda. et haec quidem, ut iam praecepi, parabuntur; tu, domine, dispice an instituendum putes collegium fabrorum dumtaxat hominum CL. ego attendam, ne quis nisi faber recipiatur neve iure concesso in aliud utantur; nec erit difficile custodire tam paucos.

A desolating fire broke out in Nicomedia and destroyed a number of private houses and two public buildings, the almshouse and the temple of Isis, although a road ran between them. The fire was allowed to spread farther than it needed, first owing to the violent wind, second to the laziness of the citizens, it being generally agreed that they stood idly by without moving and simply watched the conflagration. Besides, there was not a single public fire engine or bucket in the place, and not one solitary appliance for mastering a fire. However, these will be provided upon orders I have already given. But, sire, I would have you consider whether you think a fire company of about 150 men ought not to be formed. I will take care that no one not a genuine fireman shall be admitted, and that the guild should not misapply the charter granted it. Again, there would be no trouble in keeping an eye on so small a body.

Epistle of Trajan to Pliny, 10.34, denying the request (translation slightly modified from that of William Stearns Davis):

Tibi quidem secundum exempla complurium in mentem venit posse collegium fabrorum apud Nicomedenses constitui. sed meminerimus provinciam istam et praecipue eas civitates eius modi factionibus esse vexatas. quodcumque nomen ex quacumque causa dederimus iis, qui in idem contracti fuerint, hetaeriae eaeque brevi fient. satius itaque est comparari ea, quae ad coercendos ignes auxilio esse possint, admonerique dominos praediorum, ut et ipsi inhibeant ac, si res poposcerit, accursu populi ad hoc uti.

You have formed the idea of a possible fire company at Nicomedia on the model of various others already existing; but remember that the province of Bithynia, and especially city states like Nicomedia, are the prey of factions. Give them the name we may, and however good be the reasons for organization, such associations will soon degenerate into dangerous secret societies. It is better policy to provide fire apparatus, and to encourage property holders to make use of them, and, if need comes, press the crowd which collects into the same service.