Chapter XXXIII.—Trajan forbids the Christians to be sought after.
1. So great a persecution was at that time opened against us in many places that Plinius Secundus, one of the most noted of governors, being disturbed by the great number of martyrs, communicated with the emperor concerning the multitude of those that were put to death for p. 165 their faith. 891 At the same time, he informed him in his communication that he had not heard of their doing anything profane or contrary to the laws,—except that they arose at dawn 892 and sang hymns to Christ as a God; but that they renounced adultery and murder and like criminal offenses, and did all things in accordance with the laws.
2. In reply to this Trajan made the following decree: that the race of Christians should not be sought after, but when found should be punished. On account of this the persecution which had threatened to be a most terrible one was to a certain degree checked, but there were still left plenty of pretexts for those who wished to do us harm. Sometimes the people, sometimes the rulers in various places, would lay plots against us, so that, although no great persecutions took place, local persecutions were nevertheless going on in particular provinces, 893 and many of the faithful endured martyrdom in various forms.
3. We have taken our account from the Latin Apology of Tertullian which we mentioned above. 894 The translation runs as follows: 895 “And indeed we have found that search for us has been forbidden. 896 For when Plinius Secundus, the governor of a province, had condemned certain Christians and deprived them of their dignity, 897 he was confounded by the multitude, and was uncertain what further course to pursue. He therefore communicated with Trajan the emperor, informing him that, aside from their unwillingness to sacrifice, 898 he had found no impiety in them.
4. And he reported this also, that the Christians arose 899 early in the p. 166 morning and sang hymns unto Christ as a God, and for the purpose of preserving their discipline 900 forbade murder, adultery, avarice, robbery, and the like. In reply to this Trajan wrote that the race of Christians should not be sought after, but when found should be punished.” Such were the events which took place at that time.
Plinius Cæcilius Secundus, commonly called “Pliny the younger” to distinguish him from his uncle, Plinius Secundus the elder, was a man of great literary attainments and an intimate friend of the Emperor Trajan. Of his literary remains the most important are his epistles, collected in ten books. The epistle of which Eusebius speaks in this chapter is No. 96 (97), and the reply of Trajan No. 97 (98) of the tenth book. The epistle was written from Bithynia, probably within a year after Pliny became governor there, which was in 110 or 111. It reads as follows: “It is my custom, my Lord, to refer to thee all questions concerning which I am in doubt; for who can better direct my hesitation or instruct my ignorance? I have never been present at judicial examinations of the Christians; therefore I am ignorant how and to what extent it is customary to punish or to search for them. And I have hesitated greatly as to whether any distinction should be made on the ground of age, or whether the weak should be treated in the same way as the strong; whether pardon should be granted to the penitent, or he who has ever been a Christian gain nothing by renouncing it; whether the mere name, if unaccompanied with crimes, or crimes associated with the name, should be punished. Meanwhile, with those who have been brought before me as Christians I have pursued the following course. I have asked them if they were Christians, and if they have confessed, I have asked them a second and third time, threatening them with punishment; if they have persisted, I have commanded them to be led away to punishment. For I did not doubt that whatever that might be which they confessed, at any rate pertinacious and inflexible obstinacy ought to be punished. There have been others afflicted with like insanity who as Roman citizens I have decided should be sent to Rome. In the course of the proceedings, as commonly happens, the crime was extended, and many varieties of cases appeared. An anonymous document was published, containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians I thought ought to be released, when they had followed my example in invoking the gods and offering incense and wine to thine image,—which I had for that purpose ordered brought with the images of the gods,—and when they had besides cursed Christ—things which they say that those who are truly Christians cannot be compelled to do. Others, accused by an informer, first said that they were Christians and afterwards denied it, saying that they had indeed been Christians, but had ceased to be, some three years, some several years, and one even twenty years before. All adored thine image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ. Moreover, they affirmed that this was the sum of their guilt or error; that they had been accustomed to come together on a fixed day before daylight and to sing responsively a song unto Christ as God; and to bind themselves with an oath, not with a view to the commission of some crime, but, on the contrary, that they would not commit theft, nor robbery, nor adultery, that they would not break faith, nor refuse to restore a deposit when asked for it. When they had done these things, their custom was to separate and to assemble again to partake of a meal, common yet harmless (which is not the characteristic of a nefarious superstition); but this they had ceased to do after my edict, in which according to thy demands I had prohibited fraternities. I therefore considered it the more necessary to examine, even with the use of torture, two female slaves who were called deaconesses (ministræ), in order to ascertain the truth. But I found nothing except a superstition depraved and immoderate; and therefore, postponing further inquiry, I have turned to thee for advice. For the matter seems to me worth consulting about, especially on account of the number of persons involved. For many of every age and of every rank and of both sexes have been already, and will be brought to trial. For the contagion of this superstition has permeated not only the cities, but also the villages and even the country districts. Yet it can apparently be arrested and corrected. At any rate, it is certainly a fact that the temples, which were almost deserted, are now beginning to be frequented, and the sacred rites, which were for a long time interrupted, to be resumed, and fodder for the victims to be sold, for which previously hardly a purchaser was to be found. From which it is easy to gather how great a multitude of men may be reformed if there is given a chance for repentance.”
The reply of Trajan—commonly called “Trajans Rescript”—reads as follows: “Thou hast followed the right course, my Secundus, in treating the cases of those who have been brought before thee as Christians. For no fixed rule can be laid down which shall be applicable to all cases. They are not to be searched for; if they are accused and convicted, they are to be punished; nevertheless, with the proviso that he who denies that he is a Christian, and proves it by his act (re ipsa),—i.e. by making supplication to our gods,—although suspected in regard to the past, may by repentance obtain pardon. Anonymous accusations ought not to be admitted in any proceedings; for they are of most evil precedent, and are not in accord with our age.”165:892
ἅμα τῇ žῳ διεγειρομένους. See note 9, below.165:893
This is a very good statement of the case. There was nothing approaching a universal persecution,—that is a persecution simultaneously carried on in all parts of the empire, until the time of Decius.165:894
Mentioned in Bk. II. chap. 2. On the translation of Tertullians Apology employed by Eusebius, see note 9 on that chapter. The present passage is rendered, on the whole, with considerable fidelity; much more accurately than in the two cases noticed in the previous book.165:895
The view which Tertullian here takes of Trajans rescript is that it was, on the whole, favorable,—that the Christians stood after it in a better state in relation to the law than before,—and this interpretation of the edict was adopted by all the early Fathers, and is, as we can see, accepted likewise by Eusebius (and so he entitles this chapter, not “Trajan commands the Christians to be punished, if they persist in their Christianity,” but “Trajan forbids the Christians to be sought after,” thus implying that the rescript is favorable). But this interpretation is a decided mistake. Trajans rescript expressly made Christianity a religio illicita, and from that time on it was a crime in the sight of the law to be a Christian; whereas, before that time, the matter had not been finally determined, and it had been left for each ruler to act just as he pleased. Trajan, it is true, advises moderation in the execution of the law; but that does not alter the fact that his rescript is an unfavorable one, which makes the profession of Christianity—what it had not been before—a direct violation of an established law. Compare, further, Bk. IV. chap. 8, note 14.165:897
κατακρίνας χριστιανούς τινας καὶ τῆς ἀξίας ἐκβαλών. The Latin original reads: damnatis quibusdam christianis, quibusdam gradu pulsis. The Greek translator loses entirely the antithesis of quibusdam …quibusdam (some he condemned, others he deprived of their dignity). He renders gradu by τῆς ἀξίας, which is quite allowable; but Thelwall, in his English translation in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, renders the second phrase, “and driven some from their steadfastness,” in which the other sense of gradus is adopted.165:898
Greek: žξω τοῦ μὴ βούλεσθαι αὐτοὺς εἰδωλολατρεῖν. Latin original: præter obstinationem non sacrificandi. The εἰδωλολατρεῖν is quite indefinite, and might refer to any kind of idolatry; but the Latin sacrificandi is definite, referring clearly to the sacrifices which the accused Christians were required to offer in the presence of the governor, if they wished to save their lives. I have, therefore, translated the Greek word in the light of the Latin word which it is employed to reproduce.165:899
Greek: ἀνίστασθαι ἕωθεν. Latin original: cœtus antelucanos. The Latin speaks of “assemblies” (which is justified by the ante lucem convenire of Plinys epistle), while the Greek (both here and in §1, above) speaks only of “arising,” and thus fails to reproduce the full sense of the original.166:900
Greek: πρὸς τὸ τὴν ἐπιστήμην αὐτῶν διαφυλ€σσειν. Latin original: ad confœderandum disciplinam. The Greek translation is again somewhat inaccurate. ἐπιστήμη (literally, “experience,” “knowledge”) expresses certain meanings of the word disciplina, but does not strictly reproduce the sense in which the latter word is used in this passage; namely, in the sense of moral discipline. I have again translated the Greek version in the light of its Latin original.