Rome and the Christians: the official relationship

[From A. Futrell, Roman Games (Blackwell, 2006).]

During the years immediately after the crucifixion of Christ, the Roman government had no official opposition to Christianity; the legal troubles documented in Acts of the Apostles and alluded to in the letters of Paul seem to be local disputes mostly within Jewish communities of the Diaspora. The differences of practice and doctrine advocated by previously-Jewish Christian proselytizers, like Paul, provoked more mainstream Jews to seek out official redress from Roman administrators, charging the proselytizers with “defying the edicts of Caesar” and worshipping in a way contrary to law. Even the deportation of Paul to Rome around 60 C.E. was the result of escalating tensions in Judaea that had resulted in charges of sedition being claimed against Paul; Paul made use of his right, as a Roman citizen, to appeal local judgement to the emperor.

         Four years later, according to Christian tradition, Paul had successfully defended himself and resumed his missionary efforts, only to be caught up in Nero’s persecution, the first officially sanctioned action against Christians.

The Neronian Persecution

This represented a shift in Roman policy from the hands-off stance documented in Acts. What catalyzed the change? The most extensive account comes from Tacitus, who places the action in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 64. Tacitus’ focus, however, is not on the Christians so much as the emperor; the Christian incident is added to a long list of Nero’s abuses of power. In order to deflect hostile suspicion from himself, Nero targeted a group despised by the population to take the blame.

Source: Tacitus, Annals 15.44: But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed. [Translation by M. Hadas]

Tacitus’ version of events raises some questions: to what did the first arrests confess? What were they guilty of? Tacitus is the only ancient author to connect the Christians to the fire at all and even he finds the arson connection unlikely. He does, however, believe they deserve execution, although not the spectacle to which they were subjected by Nero’s “cruelty”. Tacitus says they were condemned because of their known odium humani generis, hatred of the human race. His narrative of the Christian persecution follows his description of the traditional religious response to disaster, in which Nero, quite appropriately, tried to propitiate the gods who had punished the Romans with the Great Fire, tried to restore the positive relationship with deity by offering public prayers and ritual banquets to make up for some perceived neglect in pious duty.  The real crime committed by the Christians is their sociopathic dereliction of their responsibilities toward the human community. By refusing to participate in public religion, Christians threatened everyone by provoking the rage of the gods.  The Christians are guilty of organized misanthropy. Under Nero, Christianity became a crime against the Roman state, punishable, like sedition and treason, by death.

         Christian sources interpreted the policy as the height of Nero’s perversion, emphasizing the emperor’s notoriety and lack of moral grounding as the “reason” behind his hostility toward Christians. Nero is evil, through and through, is their argument; he is engaged in a cosmic battle against all goodness. Opposition by such an emperor serves as proof, therefore, of Christian righteousness. Persecution of Christians becomes part of the pattern of praise and blame of Christian historians in their interpretation of the imperial past. Interesting as well is the frequency of a combat metaphor to describe this opposition, used here by Eusebius in the fourth century. Persecuting emperors become killer gladiators in a metaphysical arena.

Source: Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.25: When the rule of Nero was now gathering strength for unholy objects he began to take up arms against the worship of the God of the universe. It is not part of the present work to describe his depravity: many indeed have related his story in accurate narrative, and from them he who wishes can study the perversity of his degenerate madness, which made him compass the unreasonable destruction of so many thousands … But with all this there was still lacking to him this – that it should be attributed to him that he was the first of the emperors to be pointed out as a foe of divine religion… “We boast that such a man was the author of our chastisement; for he who knows him can understand that nothing would have been condemned by Nero had it not been great and good.”(1) In this way then was he the first to be heralded as above all a fighter against God, and raised up to slaughter against the Apostles.[Loeb translation by K. Lake.]

Rome and the Christians: Trajan’s policy

Roman criminal law was not very proactive. The absence of something approximating a public prosecutor meant that criminal procedures were usually initiated by individuals taking it upon themselves to press charges against the alleged malefactor. The criminalization of Christians did not mean, therefore, that the Roman state launched a house-to-house search to hunt down and destroy all believers. The pattern followed by most procedures against Christians, and the reasoning behind it, is laid out in correspondence between the emperor Trajan and Pliny the Younger.  From about 109 CE, Pliny was acting as an imperial procurator in Bithynia, particularly charged with cleaning up financial corruption and administrative neglect. In this situation, Pliny serves as an agent of Roman law when a group of locals are accused of Christianity; the rarity of the action means that Pliny has no standard procedure to follow. The issue becomes more complicated, as Pliny wonders about the specific relationship these people have with Christianity, and whether this secret cult would involve them in other kinds of criminal activity, and how Roman justice should deal with what may constitute a number of different dangers to the state.

Source: Pliny Letters 10. 96-7: … 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 whether 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 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 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 unshakeable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished. 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 trial. 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. Amongst these I considered 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 furthermore had reviled the name of Christ: none of which things, I understand, 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 before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst 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 deny a deposit when called upon 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 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 to be 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 rites 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 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; 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. [Penguin translation by B. Radice.]

Trajan’s rescript becomes imperial policy, validating the actions of Pliny as standard procedure. The criminality of Christians is focused on the name itself, rather than any sinister behavior taking place at their meetings. Pliny’s investigation of food and ritual points to the accusations of incest and cannibalism usually leveled against mystery cults like Christianity; it was feared that these cults of initiation kept their ritual acts private because they were shameful, disgusting and dangerous to the well-being of the community. Trajan’s response means that Roman governors should focus on the sole charge of Christianity, rather than the additional alleged crimes. They should also only condemn those who are presently and persistently Christian. Pliny had given the accused the opportunity to recant, requiring a small proof of their change in orientation, and then executed those who stubbornly clung to the cult, heedless of the threat of punishment.(2) Former Christians and those who denied the charge presented no danger to the state.

The correspondence between Pliny and Trajan points to what was dangerous about Christianity: atheism, here, the rejection of the Graeco-Roman gods. The belief in Christ as sole god defied the positive connection Rome maintained with the pantheon of divine powers and as such acted as a potential catalyst for divine retribution. This atheism had political overtones at a time when the head of the government was himself worshipped as a living god; denying his divinity was at the very least lesé majesté.

            During the second century, persecution of the Christians took place usually on a local level, usually as a result of popular agitation in the wake of some sort of crisis. Apparently arguing that the Christians were the source of this disruption, the crowd demanded that the officials take decisive action to resolve the situation.

         Eusebius notes that basic premise of Trajan’s rescript, i.e. that Christians were not to be sought out. He then discusses the overall effect of the policy to localize persecution of Christians.

Source: Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 3.33: By this means the imminent threat of persecution was extinguished to some extent, but none the less opportunities remained to those who wished to harm us. Sometimes the populace, sometimes even the local authorities contrived plots against us, so that with no open persecution partial attacks broke out in various provinces and many of the faithful endured martyrdom in various ways.  [ Loeb translation by K. Lake.]

(1) Eusebius quotes Tertullian Apology 5 here.

(2) Those holding the Roman citizenship were sent to Rome; one of the benefits of citizenship was the right to appeal against summary action taken by Rome’s magistrates. In Rome, the emperor, as holder of tribunician power, would be responsible for securing their rights to lawful judicial procedure.