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Pliny the Younger: Persecution of Christians, c. 112 CE

Nero’s police action against the Christians of Rome in 64 C. E. apparently set a precedent for executing Christians merely for being such, and by the time of Trajan (emperor from 98-117 C. E.), Christians who refused to curse Jesus Christ and to worship the emperor, along with the traditional gods, were liable to execution as stubborn adherents of “superstition.”

Pliny the Younger (61-113 CE), who served as Governor of Bithynia-Pontus, wrote to Trajan c.112 CE-

“I have never been present at an examination of Christians. So, I do not know the nature or the extent of the punishments usually dealt out to them, nor the grounds for starting an investigation and how far it should be carried…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; 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 punishment; for whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakeable obstinacy ought to be punished. There have been others similarly fanatical who are Roman citizens; I have entered them on the list of persons to be sent to Rome for punishment…. I considered that I should dismiss any who denied that they were or ever had been Christians, once 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 images of the gods), and furthermore had cursed the name of Christ. Real Christians (I understand) can never be induced to do these things….They declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this- they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honor 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 not to refuse to return a deposit upon demand. After this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and later to take food of an ordinary harmless kind. But they had in fact given this up since my edict, issued on your instructions which banned all political societies. This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth from two slave women (whom they call `deaconesses’ by torture. 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…”

Trajan replied to Pliny-

“You have followed the right course of procedure, my dear Pliny, in your examination of the cases of persons charged with being Christians. For it is impossible to lay down a general rule to a fixed formula. These people must not be hunted out. But if they are brought before you and the charge against them is proved true, 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 conduct may have been in the past. But pamphlets circulated anonymously must play no part in any accusation. They create the worst precedent, and are quite out of keeping with the spirit of our age.”

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Posted in: Roman Period II

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