Pliny the Younger, Letters X.96-97

Pliny’s correspondence with the Emperor Trajan regarding how to deal with Christians.
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Pliny the Younger
112 CE
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Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus) was born in 61 or 62 CE at Como (he died c. 113 CE, not long after the present correspondence was written). His uncle, Pliny the Elder, the famous author of the Natural History adopted the young Pliny when his father died, and ensured that he received an education in rhetoric. Pliny the Younger studied under Quintilian, as well as other prominent teachers. We are not in possession of any of Pliny’s speeches apart from his panegyric on Trajan, which was delivered on the occasion of his being granted the consulate. Pliny served as tribune in Syria in 81 or 82 CE, but was not enamoured with the military life, and undertook a more preferable career in politics under the Emperor Domitian. In 100 CE Pliny became suffect consul. Subsequently, the emperor appointed Pliny as governor (his official title was that of legatus Augusti pro praetore consulari potestate) of Bithynia and Pontus. Pliny was probably sent to the province between 110 and 112 CE (Hurlet, Le proconsul, p. 304). This appointment was exceptional because this province was a public one, and it was traditionally governed by a proconsul of praetorian standing. Thus, slightly before Pliny’s nomination, the province of Bithynia and Pontus was temporarily made one of the emperor’s own provinces meaning that Trajan was free to decide whoever he wanted to send – with the official sanction of the Senate – to this province to replace the usual proconsular governor (Hurlet, Le proconsul, p. 304). The fact that Trajan chose Pliny can be explained variously. The administration of Bithynia and Pontus had been largely neglected for many years, meaning that the cities of the province were affected by many irregularities, financial problems, dysfunctionality in the justice system, and civil disorder, because of the troubles caused by various factions, the hetairiai. Trajan thus needed a man of confidence to regain control over the province, especially before starting the military operations he planed against Parthia (Levieils, Contra Christianos, p. 464-465; Griffin, “Nerva to Hadrian,” p. 118-123). Pliny had great experience in civil administration, especially in finance, and he had also been already involved in the affairs of the province by serving as defence counsellor for two former proconsuls of Bithynia and Pontus, who had been tried for extortion (see Griffin, “Nerva to Hadrian,” p. 120-123).

Book X of Pliny’s letters is unique because a large part of its letters – except for the first fourteen – are part of the correspondence between Pliny, when he ruled the province of Bithynia and Pontus, and the emperor Trajan. It is actually the only collection of this kind which has been preserved, and it thus gives important insight into the subjects which may have been frequently discussed between any proconsular governor (or similar) and the emperor (on this kind of correspondence see Hurlet, Le proconsul, p. 197-301). The letters refer to a large variety of subjects, including women, slaves, the supernatural, Roman social life, as well as political issues (on the variety of themes, see Sherwin White, The Letters of Pliny, p. 42-50). Pliny’s present letter, and its response from Trajan, is arguably one of the most famous of Pliny’s epistles. It has been discussed by scholars of early-Christianity and Roman history alike. Letters X.96-97 provide us with some of the earliest evidence for Roman attitudes towards the growing phenomenon that was Christianity, and have sparked much debate over the years as to whether they evidence early repression of Christianity, or rather imply a certain degree of tolerance to it on the part of the Roman government. Arguably, Christians were attracting a reasonable degree of hostility in Pliny’s province, and he was simply looking for a solution. His actions therefore can be seen as reactive, with the governor simply attempting to deal as efficiently as possible with a growing problem in his province (Winsbury, Pliny the Younger, p. 208).

Pliny’s question to the emperor is essentially what is considered punishable behaviour? As such, Pliny enumerates various profiles of Christians, or ex-Christians, that he has been confronted with, and explains the decisions he made according to their situations. The diversity of profiles of these Christians is striking, and reflects the diversity of the population in the province in general (see Fernoux, Notables et élites; for the profile of Christians, p. 523). Pliny begins with the case of non-Roman citizens who declared themselves Christian in spite of sanctions. He decided without hesitation that they had to be executed (96.3). He also deals with Roman citizens who persisted in declaring themselves Christian. In these cases, he decided to send them to Rome to be judged (96.4). The third category with whom Pliny was confronted were a bit more complex, as they had been accused of being Christian and refuted this, undergoing all the procedures to prove that they were not Christian. Pliny decided that these individuals had to be released (96.5). Fourthly, Pliny exposes the most problematic case, apostate Christians who had been discovered after having been denounced (96.6). Even if we understand from the rest of the letter that Pliny thought that these apostates had to be released, he writes to the emperor specifically to ask his opinion about these cases (Giovannini, “L’interdit contre les chrétiens,” p. 117).

As the likes of Timothy Barnes and John Granger Cook have argued, Pliny’s letter does not seek to establish whether he was in the right to execute Christians who had confessed, but rather how to proceed with those Christians he was presumably keeping in prison (see Barnes, “Review,” p. 300; Granger Cook, Roman Attitudes, p. 156). He seems to have initially had no doubts about executing those who refused to renounce their Christianity, but evidently needs reassurance in what was becoming ambiguous legal territory. Even if Pliny had long-standing experience with judicial cases (see the charge of decemvir stlitibus iudicandis that he dealt with when he was around eighteen years old, Winsbury, Pliny the Younger, p. 48), he claims in this letter that he has never been present at a legal examination of a Christian (96.1). It has been argued by Freudenberger that this suggests Pliny simply never acted in an official capacity (Das Verhalten, p. 49). However, John Granger Cook claims that this distinction is not suggested by Pliny (Roman Attitudes, p. 160). In any case, Pliny cites his lack of experience witnessing Christian trials as part of the reason for his dilemma as to how he should deal with those brought before him. However, he does not seem to have wavered much when it came to the Christians who continued to openly assert their faith. Pliny even seems very confident in his actions when he explains to Trajan that, in this case, he questions the accused three times, gives them a warning of their likely punishment, and then if they still will not recant, he has them led away to execution (duci iussi, 96.3). The inconsistency between Pliny’s alleged ignorance of how to deal with charges against Christians and the fact that he decided with confidence that some of them had to be executed, be sent to Rome, or released, is striking. Adalberto Giovannini has attempted to demonstrate that at Pliny’s time, there may have existed a law against Christians which would have generally threatened all the people who claimed to be Christian of capital punishment. For him, the fact that Pliny decided to execute people on the sole motif that they claimed to be Christian can be understood only if a law of such a kind already existed. Giovannini thus rejects the idea that Pliny would have made these decisions because of coercitio (the right that a magistrate having the imperium hadto coerce citizens to obey their decrees and orders, even by inflicting a corporal punishment), due to these Christians having acted in such a way that they could be condemned during a judgment (Giovannini, “L’interdit contre les chrétiens,” p. 112-121).

One of Pliny’s central questions is whether it is the name “Christian” (nomen christianum, 96.2) itself which ought to be punished, or merely the crimes (flagitium, 96.2) which are associated – most of the time through rumours or public opinion – with Christians. Giovannini has suggested that it is not the crimes which were allegedly imputed to Christians which are taken into account by Pliny in order to decide, but the very fact that people claimed to be Christian or rejected such a name. Actually, when Pliny presents the case of individuals who persisted in declaring themselves Christian, the fact that they committed a crime or not does not seem to have been pivotal in their condemnation. What matters is the fact that they declared themselves Christian. The very fact of claiming oneself Christian was reprehensible and condemned. The case of apostates was more problematic for Pliny. First, apostates recognised that in the past they had declared themselves Christian. However, even if they retracted this, Pliny seems to have found it necessary to pursue the enquiry and to know if in the past they had committed any crimes. This is why he interviews them, and also tortures two deaconesses (96.7-8; Giovannini, “L’interdit contre les chrétiens,” p. 116-117). The term flagitium is in essence rather vague and wide-ranging, meaning in general shameful deeds or wrongdoings.

In the second part of his letter, Pliny alludes to wrongdoings attributed to Christians, namely secretive meetings where the Eucharistic meal frequently drew accusations of cannibalism (96.7). Pliny is the first author who alludes to such accusation of anthropophagy (Levieils, Contra Christianos, p. 292-293). Nevertheless, he recognizes that the food that Christians shared “was of no special character (promiscuum), and entirely harmless (innoxium).” Moreover, it is important to note that other associations which used to gather in secret were also suspected of illegal activities. Such is the case with the hetaeriae (political clubs which acted as factions), mentioned in 96.7. Pliny writes that in one of his edicts which followed Trajan’s order, he banned them from meeting due to a motif which may have been similar to that which was invoked to attack Christians, namely, the fact that these groups were suspected of criminal activities or of causing trouble. The fact that Roman power feared and tried to control secret meetings, sometimes by using extremely violent means, is not a new or isolated phenomenon. The affair of the Bacchanales in 186 BCE is a good example. Coming back to Pliny’s environment, the control of associations was part of his duty as governor of Bithynia and Pontus. In his correspondence with the emperor, Pliny asked Trajan to authorize the creation of an association of fire-fighters in Nikomedeia, and ensured that he would control this guild. Trajan rejected this proposal by arguing that a lot of factions (factio) already disturbed the province of Bithynia-Pontus, and that such a guild would soon become a hetaeria (see Pliny, Letters X.33-34; Arnaoutoglou, “Roman Law,” p. 37-38). Dio Chrysostom also denounces at various times the troubles that these associations caused in Bithynia (see his Speech 39, in which he exhorts the inhabitants of Nicaea to stop civil strife, and his Speech 45 in which he implies that the elections to the council of Prusa had been perturbed by factions, ἑταιρείαι (hetaireiai); Jones, The Roman World, p. 100-103; Salmeri, “Dio, Rome,” p. 70, 74-76, 80; Bekker-Nielsen, Urban Life, p. 125-133).

All these testimonies show that the suspicions which targeted the Christians in this province were part of a broader context of troubles caused by professional or religious associations. The Christians may have been regularly charged with sedition because of the impressive success that Christianity seems to have had in the province of Bithynia and Pontus at that time (Pliny recognizes openly this success in 96.9), and because Christian meetings had a lot of similarities with secret meetings, which, in the past or at Pliny’s time, were suspected of leading to separatism, crimes, and/or conjuration (Levieils, Contra Christianos, p. 483-484). When Pliny deals with the apostates, he mentions that these Christians denied the fact that crimes were committed or planned during their meetings, and that they also asserted that they even abandoned their practice of gathering secretly in the night so as to respect Roman regulation regarding secret meetings (96.7). We understand in the following sentence (96.8) that Pliny checked the truthfulness of their testimony by torturing the deaconesses, without finding any evidence of the criminal actions allegedly associated with Christians. However, we get the impression that, for Pliny, it may have not been the apostates themselves which were the most problematic, but the fact that many of the men who are said to be Christian had been denounced. The apostates were clearly the most problematic group for Pliny, with the other groups of Christians being much simpler to deal with. liny has thus far adopted a practice whereby he has assumed that simply confessing the name “Christian” is enough to warrant punishment in itself, without there needing to be a conviction of any other criminal activity associated with it. Essentially, he is keen to establish the imperially sanctioned policy on something which has stirred up divisions amongst the people in his locale.

The practice adopted by Pliny finds some evidence in the Christian sources also. The apologist Justin Martyr, writing in around 153 CE, argues that a name in and of itself is not sufficient grounds for either punishing or acquitting a person (see First Apology IV.1-V.4). There needs to be some sort of proof that wrongdoing has been committed, or in the case of an acquittal, that none has occurred. Justin is unhappy with the fact that Christians are, he claims, being punished by the courts before any proof of guilt has been examined (IV.4). He illustrates this illogical treatment of Christians by stating in IV.5 that those who recant the name are immediately released, without any further examination. What should happen, Justin suggests, is a thorough inquiry into the lives of both those who confess the name of Christian and those who deny it, in order to establish whether they are of good or bad character (IV.6). It is the results of such an examination that will provide the authorities with the appropriate information to decide whether the defendant ought to be punished. Tertullian similarly writes that the Romans in their dealings with Christians assume crimes (scelera) purely on the basis of the name “Christian,” but do not see any need to torture these individuals for a confession, as they are already certain on the basis of their name that crimes have been committed (Apology II.10). There is a difference, however, in that Pliny explicitly states that while he has punished Christians based on their name, he has not done so because of an assumption of associated crimes—we have outlined above that he seemingly did not understand there to be much, if any, criminal behaviour associated with Christians (see Granger Cook, Roman Attitudes, p. 167).
The process of asking Christians three times if they wish to hold to their Christian name has been compared by Richard Bauman to the practice at tribunician and quaestorian trials. Bauman argues that Pliny believes Christianity not to be a crime under any criminal law (lex) but rather “under traditional law operating in the comitial process, and once he [Pliny] has the threefold confession the accused is a confessus or manifestus and no formal trial apud populum is necessary” (“The ‘Leges iudiciorum publicorum’,” p. 169). Indeed, Pliny does not seem to have made attempts to convince Christians to change their minds as we see governors doing in other sources (e.g. the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs; Tertullian, Apology II.13), he was satisfied that a confession of the name Christian was enough for execution. After the sentence has been passed, Pliny has the condemned “led away” (duci iussi, 96.3) to their execution, and from his mentioning of some Christians being Roman citizens, some of these executions we can assume were carried out by beheading (compare the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs 14, 16, and the mention of similar practice in Eusebius’s account of the Martyrs of Vienne and Lyon).

The comment in 96.4-5 that Christianity is tantamount to madness (amentia) appears in numerous other sources (see, for example, Tertullian, Apology I.13; XXVII.2; Justin Martyr, Apology I.13). The specific accusations made against Christians by Pliny’s anonymous informers (delatores), however, are left to our imagination—we simply learn that Pliny has been given names by means of a pamphlet (libellus), and Trajan’s reply (X.97.2) is particularly scathing of such material, stating that this sort of ‘evidence’ should not be taken into account in future cases. There are several examples of similar libelli (not exclusive to cases involving Christians) causing problems in Roman legal investigations (see Granger Cook, Roman Attitudes, p. 173, n. 209 for some of these, including in Constantine’s time). Pliny informs Trajan in 96.5 that he had carried out a test of those denying their present or past affiliation with Christianity, whereby a formula of prayer was recited, and wine and incense was offered to the emperor’s image (on imperial images in the cities of the Empire and the fact that they were an important medium fostering loyalty to the imperial power, see Clifford Ando, Imperial Ideology, p. 232-239). Moreover, some such individuals were apparently happy to curse Christ’s name, which Pliny takes as substantial evidence that he can grant acquittal: “Those who denied that they were or had been Christians and called upon the gods with the usual formula, reciting the words after me, and those who offered incense and wine before your image — which I had ordered to be brought forward for this purpose, along with the regular statues of the gods — all such I considered acquitted — especially as they cursed the name of Christ, which it is said bona fide Christians cannot be induced to do” (on this, see Duncan Fishwick, “Pliny and the Christians,” p. 123, who compares these ‘tests’ with those undertaken by the mass populace in times of crisis of jubilation; of course, similar procedures are also seen in the later Christian martyr literature). However, it is important to remind that such procedures were not specifically used for groups which were suspected of not being loyal to the emperor. In the Great East itself, from Augustus’s reign onwards, populations were used to undertaking communal performances of oaths of loyalty to the various emperors (see, for example, the Oath of loyalty to Augustus in Paphlagonia).

Another point which is important to consider is Pliny’s opinion about the religious practices of the Christians, and if these practices are presented by him as having being used at his time as legal precedence to condemn Christians. In 96.8, Pliny affirms that after he tortured two deaconesses to check the truthfulness of the testimony of apostates, who pretended that no criminal actions were perpetrated during Christian meetings, he found nothing of particular use, nothing beyond mere superstition (superstitio). Such a situation prompted him to consult further with Trajan. The comparison of the Christian religion with superstitio is not specific to Pliny; his contemporaries and friends, Tacitus and Suetonius, also use this term (see Levieils, Contra Christianos, p. 199). Pliny views the Christian “superstition” as a contagion, which is quickly spreading through all parts of his region and endangering the people (it should be noted that the association of superstitio with the notion of contagion is commonplace, especially in Livy; Levieils, Contra Christianos, p. 199, n. 168).

Behind Pliny’s testimony, we can see some elements of Christian religion or of Christian religious practices which were criticized by the provincials of Bithynia and Pontus. It seems difficult, however, to understand from Pliny’s text if these singular beliefs or practices were used at that time to serve as a legal basis to condemn Christians. Scholars such as Adrian Sherwin-White have taken Pliny’s statement in 96.3 that he believes Christians’ inflexible obstinacy to be worthy of punishment as evidence that the legal foundation for their condemnation was contumacia (stubbornness, arrogance, disobedience of a judicial order) (“For I do not doubt that — be their admitted crime what it may — their pertinacity (pertinacia) and inflexible (inflexibilis) obstinacy (obstinatio) surely ought to be punished”) (“Early Persecutions,” p. 210-212). However, Granger Cook argues that the context does not support this theory, as Pliny has not systematically asked for a sacrifice to the Roman gods, for instance, and been refused (Roman Attitudes, p. 169; he draws on de Ste Croix, “Why Were the Early Christians Persecuted?” p. 100). Moreover, the sense seems to be that while he agrees that Christians’ obstinacy is worthy of punishment, Pliny is not punishing them specifically for this; he has already decided that they should be condemned because they claimed to be Christian.

The fact that many people, Christian or not, had been exposed to Roman authorities through anonymous accusations prove that there may have existed in Bithynia and Pontus a widespread aversion towards Christians. Through Pliny’s letter, it is possible to understand which of their behaviours and practices may have caused the opposition to them, and meant that they became a major concern for the Roman authorities. First, Pliny alludes to their refusal to buy sacrificial meat (96.10; for Paul’s teaching on the issue of sacrificial meat, see 1 Corinthians 8:1-11 and 10:25-33). Such a refusal was assimilated to some kind of religious abstention, meaning that Christians withdrew themselves from civic life and the civic community. Such a withdrawal was thus perceived as a mark of impietas, and thus damaged the cohesion of the civic body (see Levieils, Contra Christianos, p. 342-344). The second problematic point – implicitly present in Pliny’s letter – is that the most hardened Christians refused to sacrifice to the gods and to the emperor, whereas they honoured Christ as a god (96.7). This attitude was perceived as proof of the dislike the Christians held for Rome’s politico-religious system, and must have been used as another reason justifying the fact that claiming to be Christian had to be punishable by death. However, we cannot infer from this that at Pliny’s time Christians were condemned for maiestas (treason), as enemies of the state because they refused to sacrifice to the emperor. Such a practice of condemning Christians to death because they refused to sacrifice to the emperor occurred later. As Xavier Levieils recalls, the profession of Christian faith did not fit into the category of crimes of capital offence (maiestas). The fact that Trajan forbade judicial proceedings being led against Christians on the basis of anonymous accusations suggests this. For Trajan, it recalls the abuses committed under Domitian’s reign, when many individuals used anonymous accusations of atheism or of leading a Jewish life to get ride of anybody they wanted, with the fallacious motive of preserving imperial maiestas. Even if at Pliny’s time Christians were not condemned because of the strict application of the lex Iulia de maiestate, it seems clear that this law furnished various “moral causes” which justified the fact that to claim oneself Christian had to be punished (Levieils, Contra Christianos, p. 472).

Finally, Pliny is confident that the situation he is confronted with is nothing so serious that it cannot be stamped out. He uses the term corrigo (correct, set right) in 96.9, which implies that he understands Christianity as perfectly manageable at this stage, especially given that he has witnessed several accused Christians happily renouncing this name. For instance, he states that the sale of meat for the temples is not struggling any more (96.10), a statement which aims to prove that many apostate Christians had decided to take part in civic life again. Such a statement may seem simplistic, or almost too good to be true, however, it seems clear that by narrating the situation of the apostates in such a way, Pliny must have wanted to show to the emperor that the problems he met in his province were not insurmountable, and that the first decisions he made were the right ones. Moreover, judging from his concluding sentence (96.10), Pliny apparently believes that his experience of a significant number of Christians in his province leads him to think that they are not a malicious, dangerous group which need to be immediately and entirely quashed; many of their members were perfectly capable of being deterred from their folly. Trajan’s response to Pliny seems to confirm the fact that his legate made the right decisions. In his rescript, Trajan confirms that Christians who were denounced and who persisted in claiming themselves Christian had to be condemned. However, Trajan recalls that the apostate who in the past was Christian, but who finally “denies he is a Christian” (qui negaverit se Christianum esse, 97.1) should be released. Such a reasoning proves that it is the very act of claiming oneself Christian, whatever the age or the sex of the accused, which was punishable.

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