Pliny on the Christians
Pliny the Younger was governor of Pontus/Bithynia from 111-113
AD. We have a whole set of exchanges of his letters with the emperor
Trajan on a variety of administrative political matters. These
two letters are the most famous, in which P. encounters Christianity
for the first time.
PLINY, LETTERS 10.96-97
Pliny to the Emperor Trajan
It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning
which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation
or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of
Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice
to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been
not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction
on account of age or no difference between the very young and
the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance,
or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to
have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses,
or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.
Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians,
I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these
as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated
a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those
who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever
the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy
surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of
the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed
an order for them to be transferred to Rome.
Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings
going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document
was published containing the names of many persons. Those who
denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked
the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense
and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for
this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed
Christ--none of which those who are really Christians, it is said,
can be forced to do--these I thought should be discharged. Others
named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but
then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to
be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as
twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues
of the gods, and cursed Christ.
They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault
or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed
day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a
god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not
to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust,
nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When
this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again
to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food. Even this,
they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which,
in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political
associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary
to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves
who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but
depraved, excessive superstition.
I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult
you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially
because of the number involved. For many persons of every age,
every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered.
For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to
the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible
to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples,
which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that
the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed,
and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which
until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy
to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity
for repentance is afforded.
Trajan to Pliny
You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases
of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is
not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of
fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced
and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation,
that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it--that
is, by worshiping our gods--even though he was under suspicion
in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously
posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution.
For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping
with the spirit of our age.
[I was unsure of the origin of this file. Bob Edsall (email@example.com)
informs me that is originates with James O'Donnell's (firstname.lastname@example.org)
file at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/texts/pliny.html]
This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book.
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(c)Paul Halsall Mar 1996