Letter Of Pliny the Younger Concerning Christians
This famous letter was written to the Emperor Trajan in 112 A.D by Pliny the Younger, Governor of what is now modern day Turkey. In this letter, he briefly runs over what the Christians claimed to do, none of which were crimes, and how he dealt with them, and asking how he should deal with them.
It is my custom, O lord, to refer all questionable issues to you. For who is more capable of resolving my doubts and instructing my ignorance?
I have never been present at a formal inquiry of “Christ-niks.” Consequently, I do not know the nature or the extent of the sanctions usually administered against them, nor the grounds for opening a formal inquiry and how far it should be pressed. Nor am I at all sure whether any distinction should be made between them on the basis of age, or whether young people and adults should be treated identically, whether a pardon ought to be granted to anyone retracting his beliefs, or if he has once professed being a “Christ-nik” he shall gain nothing by renouncing it; and whether it is the mere label that is actionable, even if not guilty of a crime, or rather the crimes associated with the name.
In the meantime, this is the approach I have taken with everyone brought before me on the charge of being “Christ-niks”: I have asked them in person if they are “Christ-niks”; and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and third time with a warning of the sanction 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 should not go unpunished. Others as fanatical who are citizens of Rome I have listed to be remanded to “the City” 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 writing has circulated that contains the names of several accused individuals. From these, I considered dismissing any who denied that they were or ever had been “Christ-niks” when they had recited after me an invocation of the gods and made offerings of wine and incense to your statue—which I ordered brought into court for this purpose along with the images of the gods—and further reviled the name of Christ: none of which, I understand, any true “Christ-niks” can be induced to do. Others, whose names were given to me by an informant, first admitted the charge and then denied it; they said that they had ceased to be “Christ-niks” two or more years before, and some of them even twenty years ago. They all venerated your statue and the images of the gods in the same way as the others, and cursed the name of Christ.
They also declared that the totality of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a certain day to chant verses antiphonally amongst themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves with an oath, not in a criminal conspiracy, but to abstain from fraud, banditry, and adulteration, to commit no breach of trust, and not to renege on a deposit. After completing this foolishness, it was their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an common and innocuous type; but they had in fact given up this practice since my edict, issued on your instructions, which banned all associations. This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth from two female slaves—whom they call “ministers”—by means of torture. I found nothing but a degenerate sort of superstition carried to immoderate lengths.
I have, therefore, put off any further consideration awaiting your counsel. The matter seems worthy of your consideration, especially in light of the number of persons at risk. For numerous persons of every age and every class, both genders, are being brought to trial, and this is likely to continue. It is not only the town, but villages and countryside as well that are infected through contact with this perverse superstition. I think 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 abandoned for a long time. And the sacred rites that had been allowed to lapse are again being performed, and the flesh of sacrificial meat is on sale everywhere, though until recently hardly anyone was buying it. It is easy to infer from this that a great many people could be rehabilitated if they were given an opportunity to recant.
This is the response from Emperor Trajan. It is far shorter than the above letter!
You have followed the correct course, my favored one, in your investigation of the cases of persons charged with being “Christ-niks”; for it is impossible to construct a universal principle applied as a fixed standard. These people should not be hunted down; if they are brought before you and the charge against them is proven, they must be punished. But in the case of anyone who denies that he is a “Christ-niks” and makes it clear that he is not by offering supplications to our gods, he shall be acquitted as a result of his recanting, however suspect his former conduct may be. But anonymous accusations shall not be introduced into the proceedings. They set a bad precedent and are not in the spirit of our age.