Life of Christians: From Pliny the Younger to Constantine
The Christians during the reign of Trajan were being persecuted severely, all those living in Roman controlled territory being told to worship the Roman gods, and Pliny the Younger, Governor of modern day Turkey, wrote a message to Trajan in 112 A.D., asking counsel on the treatment of Christians. I quote some of this letter (I cut some out because of its length, to see full letter, and the response to it, see here):
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 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…
…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… 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…
To boil this down; Pliny the Younger basically asks if the punishment for Christians should vary based on age, or gender, or whether they were once Christians but renounced the faith. Trajan’s response is short and simple; continue with what you are doing, you shouldn’t hunt the Christians, but if you are tipped off, deal with them strictly, with no discrimination.
The life that the Christians lived after that until the reign of Constantine was hard; they could always get tipped off for being a Christian, facing death and the rebuke of the community. Though it some times did become worse; they were actually hunted during one Emperor’s reign; on average, it was a lenient severity.
This was reversed, especially with the Edict of Milan; which gave religious freedom to everyone, and Christians who had lost their property would have it returned – they would be “made whole”. And thus, the Christian church survived the Roman Empire and the early persecutions.