Pliny the Younger (c. 61—113), a Roman administrator, was the nephew of Pliny the Elder and a friend of the historian Tacitus. His primary historical significance is in the letters that he wrote, which provide an intimate window into the inner workings of the Roman Empire at its strongest. Some of his letters were actual letters to individuals, and some were essentially moral essays. Although he wrote thousands of letters, fewer than 250 of them survive to this day. It is assumed that Pliny the Younger died around AD 113 since his letters seem to end abruptly about that time, but specific details about what might have happened are not available.
The Roman Empire allowed its people to follow almost any religion they wanted, as long as it did not interfere with their allegiance to Rome and to the Emperor. This is where Christians ran into trouble, because they insisted that Jesus alone is Lord and that He has authority over Caesar. Christians could not embrace the central creed, “Caesar is Lord,” and this brought them into conflict with the ruling powers of the Roman Empire. Pliny the Younger is probably best known in church history for his letter to Emperor Trajan explaining how he has dealt with Christians as governor of Bithynia (in modern-day Turkey) and asking for the Emperor’s guidance in such matters.
In his letter to Trajan, Pliny the Younger asks whether Christians should be punished simply for bearing the name Christian or for acting upon their faith. He explains how he has used interrogations, torture, and threat of death to extract information from Christians. If someone was accused of being a Christian, Pliny offered him or her a chance to “repent”: worship the Roman gods and curse Christ, and all would be forgiven. Those who refused to curse the name of Christ were executed for “stubbornness.” He gives a few details of his understanding of what a Christian worship service involved, and he laments the fact that the “contagion” of Christianity is hard to stamp out. He ends on the happy note that paganism seems to be making a comeback.
Pliny the Younger’s letter is worth reproducing here in full, as it illustrates the persecution of the early church and how non-Christians viewed Christians and their practices:
Pliny the Younger’s Letter to 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 worshiped 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’s Response to Pliny the Younger:
“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.”