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ANCIENT ROME - PLINY THE YOUNGER - EPISTULAE X.96

(Letters, Latin/Roman, c. 111 CE,38 lines)

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Introduction
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“Epistulae X” (“Letters 10”, also known as the “Correspondence with Trajan”) is a book of letters by the Roman lawyer and author Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan between 109 and 111 CE. Letter 96 is the most famous of the collection, and it contains the earliest external account of Christian worship, and details what was to become the standard Roman policy toward Christians for the rest of the pagan era.

Synopsis
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Pliny, the recently instated governor of the Roman province of Bithynia, admits to the Emperor Trajan that he has never taken part in formal trials of Christians, and is therefore unfamiliar with precedents as to the extent of the investigation required and as to the degree of punishment. He feels that a distinction might be drawn between adults and those of more tender years, and also that allowance might be made for anyone who recanted.

He also brings up the question of whether anyone should be punished simply for claiming the name of Christian, or only if he was found guilty of “crimes associated with that name”. Hitherto, in the case of those who were brought before him, he has asked them three distinct times whether they were Christians and, if they persisted in the admission, has ordered them to be taken to execution. Whatever might be the real character of their profession, Pliny holds that such obstinate persistence ought to be punished. There are others, no less “demented”, who, being Roman citizens, would be sent to Rome for trial.

As the natural consequence of these proceedings, Pliny has received an anonymous statement giving a list of accused persons, and a variety of cases has come to his notice. Some of the accused have denied that they had ever been Christians, have consented to pray to the Roman gods and to adore the image of the Emperor, and to blaspheme Christ, and these cases have been dismissed.

Others admitted that they had once been Christians, but then presently denied it, adding that they have ceased to be Christians for some years now. These also worshipped images of the Roman gods and of the Emperor, and blasphemed Christ, and averred that the sum and substance of their “fault” was that they had been accustomed to meet on a fixed day before daylight to sing in turns a hymn to Christ as God, and to bind themselves by a solemn oath to abstain from theft or robbery, and from adultery, perjury and dishonesty, after which they were would separate and then meet again for a common meal. This, however, they had ceased to do as soon as Pliny had published a decree against “collegia”, in accordance with the Emperor's edict.

To ascertain the truth, Pliny had also put to the torture two maid-servants described as deaconesses, but had discovered nothing beyond a perverse and extravagant superstition. He had accordingly put off the formal trial with a view to consulting the Emperor directly. Pliny considers the question worthy of such a consultation, especially in view of the number of persons of all ages and ranks, and of both sexes, who are imperilled, the contagion having spread through towns and villages and the open country.

However, he feels that further spread might still be stayed, and a large a number might be reclaimed, if only room were granted for repentance. Roman temples that had been almost deserted were already beginning to be frequented again, rites long intermitted were being renewed, and the trade in fodder for sacrificial victims was reviving.

Analysis
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The letters of Book 10 are addressed to or from the Emperor Trajan in their entirety, during the time Pliny was employed as governor of the distant Roman province of Bithynia (around 109 to 111 CE), and it is generally assumed that we have received them verbatim. As such, they offer a unique insight into the administrative functions of a Roman province of the time, as well as the machinations of the Roman system of patronage and the wider cultural mores of Rome itself. They reflect great credit on the strict and almost punctilious conscientiousness of Pliny as governor, as well as on the assiduity and high principles which animated the Emperor Trajan. However, in addition, the corruption and apathy which occurred at various levels of the provincial system can be seen clearly.

Stylistically, Book 10 is much simpler than its precursors, largely because, unlike the first nine books of his letters, the letters of the “Correspondence with Trajan” collection were not written for publication by Pliny. It is generally assumed that this book was published after Pliny's death, and Suetonius, as a member of Pliny's staff, has been suggested as one possible publisher and editor.

Letter 96 contain the earliest external account of Christian worship, and reasons for the execution of Christians. Pliny had never taken part in formal trials of Christians, and was therefore unfamiliar with precedents as to the extent of investigation and the degree of punishment deemed appropriate. Trajan's reply to Pliny's queries and requests is also part of the collection (Letter 97), making the anthology even more valuable, and the letters thus allow us a glimpse of the personalities of both Pliny and Trajan.

The letter deserves special mention because its contents were, in the view of many historians, to become the standard policy toward Christians for the rest of the pagan era. Taken together, Pliny's letter and Trajan's response constituted a fairly loose policy toward Christians, namely that they were not to be sought out, but were to be executed if brought before a magistrate by a reputable means of accusation (no anonymous charges were permitted), where they were to be given the opportunity to recant. While some persecutions represent a departure from this policy, many historians have concluded that these precedents were nominal for the Empire across time.

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