Pliny The Younger - Letter To Emperor Trajan - Preface To Podcast
The first century of the so-called “new age”, an age whose beginning is fixed by the date of an obscure Jewish infant’s birth, has come to its close. Just a hair over seventy years ago, this child, now dressed in the raiment of a full-grown man, now stepping forth with avidity and purpose into his third decade of life, suffered a premature end. At the outset of what might’ve been a fruitful career, he was charged with impiety, condemned by his coreligionists, apprehended by the authorities, and—as a result of his radicalism and his sundry transgressions—nailed to a cross.
Across this terrible wooden beam, this coarsely-hewn pillar of bark, a limp, battered, and exhausted body was ingloriously stretched. With a couple of well-aimed blows delivered by a group of Roman soldiers, metal stakes were driven through his unresisting hands, out which the bloody stigmata began to take their pooling shape. His feet were similarly treated, and a prickly crown of thorns enwreathed his drooping head. With a heave and a thrust, the cross bearing this peculiar man was brought into its upright position. There it would stand, firmly dug into the yielding soil atop Golgotha hill, a small elevation of earth outside the walls Jerusalem proper.
This happened on Friday morning—a fit ending to the Passover festivities in which everyone in that section of the empire partook. Within hours (fewer, in fact, than normally expected) the body suspended on the cross was dead. Stronger men are known to languish there for many hours, and occasionally, a few days. As for this specimen, his end came rather sooner than later. By noon, his mouth was agape and his head folded over. His joints were unhinged to the point of collapse, and his sinews began to succumb to the unkind pull of gravity’s force.
The crime of which this curious figure was accused, for which he was made to suffer this most torturous and humiliating of punishments, was, among other things, blasphemy. For this, he was crucified and killed. As a consequence of his messianic pretensions, his ethical teachings, his claims to divinity, his subversion of the state, his unimpeachable purity, and his insistence on bucking every established Jewish trend, he was brought before the vaunted Sanhedrin.
The Sanhedrin, from the Greek, “Sitting together”, was an eminent body of legal scholars, a Rhadamanthine council of Jewish clerics, elders, and priests by whom judgement on all such matters pertaining to the faith and its preservation was severely doled out. The council had long since become familiar with this prophetic “upstart”, this rustic preacher of embarrassingly low birth. He was, for the better part of his life, nothing more than an undistinguished carpenter, a boy mysteriously begotten of a virgin womb, but, as of late, he became something of a religious sage, a radical guru and healer behind whom, for reasons unintelligible to more orthodox minds, a fervid and devout group of admirers was gathering.
The unperturbed detainee, who was called by the name Yeshua, or Joshua, or—as we’ve come to know it—Jesus, was brought to the house of Caiaphas. Caiaphas enjoyed the distinction of being the Sanhedrin’s high priest, a very lofty role in that competitive hierarchy of learned Hebrews. He oversaw a trial in which false testimony was included; such claims were admissible, so long as they worked on the prosecution’s behalf. He presided over an event that saw the accused first mocked, and then beaten, rough treatment nowhere to be sanctioned in the proper conduct of the law.
And so, its guilty verdict delivered, the Sanhedrin, led by Caiaphas, transferred the condemned to Pontius Pilate—the Roman governor responsible for ensuring the stability of Judea, and executing the local judiciary’s will. In keeping with good Roman custom, to whose soundness and probity many centuries could attest, Pilate chose as the method of execution the cross. This instrument of death, this means of capital violence was strictly reserved for non-Romans; it would be unmeet to expose a Roman citizen to the harshness of the elements, and the mockery of his fellow men, while strapped naked and bleeding to a rickety old cross. A Roman, because Roman, would be much more respectfully and gracefully disposed of; his head would be removed from him forthwith, without undue suffering in the privacy of a discreet setting.
We fast-forward, now, to the end of the first century. This man, Jesus Christ, has been dead nigh seventy years, yet his memory is still very much alive, and his influence as strong as ever. Those who sought to memorialize his unusual story—writers by the names of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John—did so with the publication of their extraordinary gospels. Admittedly, a certain mastery of the Greek language is wanting in their combined scribblings, but the picture they join to create is something to behold.
With little variation, they tell of a boy born to a mother unacquainted with a man’s seed. She was a young, studious girl of uncontested virtue, an adolescent in the glory of her bloom whose claim to perfect chastity and undefiled innocence was never, not even for an instant, doubted. Her child’s paternity, then, surely not human, was therefore alleged to have been something on the order of divine. The child gave his bewildered neighbors many reasons for thinking this daring allegation true: he was precocious, and flaunted an intellect equal to that of any hoary Jewish scholar; he performed miracles and suspended the laws of nature without breaking a sweat; he restored wellbeing to the infirm, and life to the deceased; he multiplied fishes, and transformed water into wine.
Most importantly of all, he suffered for “our” sins. He consented to die, for the purpose of saving our souls, and acquiring eternal life.
At least, this is what a great many people in the provinces, and also in Rome, have come to believe. The year is AD 113, and this race of zealots has earned something of a reputation. They’re commonly called, Chrestiani, or Christians, for their devotion to that man called, Chrestus, or Christ—the same figure about whom those four authors wrote. Christ’s message, faithfully conveyed through the many pages of their work (for he, like Socrates and our countryman, Epictetus, wrote nothing of his own conception down) has proven especially resonant with the lower classes of society.
The wretched and the indigent have responded with enthusiasm to a preacher who dares to put them first. Among the impecunious, Christianity finds its most ardent followers, and its most devout congregants. The Kingdom of Heaven, it’s said, will be theirs to keep—a supreme gift to the poor deliberately withheld from the rich. The latter might enjoy the temporal spoils of the “here and now”, but the much greater bliss, the Empyrean forthcoming, will be the exclusive privilege and enjoyment of the former. The women of the empire appear likewise to be susceptible to the seductions of this novel creed. In its doctrines, they find an improvement to and an elevation of their modest station, a role quite inferior to that of the men next to whom they toil. They come to the realization that they too are deserving of dignity and, irrespective of their sex, are equally worthy of receiving the boundless felicity of Christ’s infinite love.
But how are we to deal with this strange new cult? By what means are we to check the peculiarity of its rites? Sure, we’ve heard dark tales of its members’ cannibalism (they openly admit to eating, in the form of an unleavened wafer, their savior’s flesh and drinking, in the form of consecrated wine, the blood of their deity) and the foul, incestuous relations in which they’re said to engage, but how are we to address them? If, indeed, they’re taking place, how are we to limit these perversions, halt these unnatural acts, and restore the preeminence and wellbeing of the state? Or are these even crimes at all? Are these not merely the customs of yet another sect, the likes to which our empire is so famously accommodating? “Having never been present at any trials concerning those who profess Christianity, I am unacquainted not only with the nature of their crimes, or the measure of their punishment, but how far it is proper to enter into an examination concerning them”.
These were the types of questions asked of Emperor Trajan by Pliny the Younger, the scholar-turned-statesman who confronted, as governor of Bithynia, the vexing problem of the Christians. The territory over which he presided lay on the Pontic coast, the northeastern part of modern-day Turkey. His correspondence with Trajan was as elegant as it was frequent. In true, Ciceronian fashion, Pliny adorned his lines with beautiful language—lovely words whose musicality suggest that its author intended for their future publication. We, his readers, are the great beneficiaries of his unabashed vanity and his desire for fame. In a letter to Tacitus, a fellow man of letters of great renown, he admits as much: “Nothing”, he says, “so strongly affects me as the desire of a lasting name”. With today’s reading, I hope to contribute to the fulfillment of his wish.
Pliny displayed no hesitation in soliciting the emperor for favors and advice. Whether it be on the topic of architecture or the raising of statuary, hydraulics or the building of aqueducts, or the attainment of citizenship for colleagues and friends, Pliny constantly wrote to Trajan, from whom he often received pithy, but altogether friendly replies.
The most compelling of their exchanges, though, is that which dealt with the Christians. The religion, at this point, was still in its infancy. The fourth Gospel, that of John, was only finished a decade ago, and the burgeoning creed was still in the process of understanding itself. Far was it, indeed, from convincing an entire continent to convert to its new and immature faith. Before it still lay many years of establishing its structure, agreeing to its dogma, appointing its leadership, and refining the many rough, metaphysical edges by which its complex theology was marked. Pliny’s disarmingly candid letter to Trajan fails to probe into these difficult questions, but it does shine light on how Christians were received during his age.
--With tempered hostility, if I were to choose a single word, but there’s a palpable uneasiness and uncertainty about just how severely to treat them. The Christians, at this time, weren’t subject to widespread persecution; there was no systematic effort to purge the realm of their presence. In the recent history of Rome, only Nero had carried out this type of policy, of whom every subsequent emperor was very careful not to be imitative. He, of course, blamed the Christians for inciting the massive fire of AD 64, by which the city of Rome was almost completely engulfed. The Christians, an execrable race that lived on society’s fringe, were easy targets, and were thus accused of having lit the incendiary torch. It was an accusation for which they themselves were set to the flame. According to Tacitus, Nero
“Found a set of profligate and abandoned wretches who were induced to confess themselves guilty; and on the evidence of such men a number of Christians were convicted, not indeed on clear evidence of having set the city on fire, but rather on account of their sullen hatred of the whole human race. They were put to death with exquisite cruelty, and to their sufferings Nero added mockery and derision. Some were covered with skins of wild beasts, and left to be devoured alive; many, covered with inflammable matter, were set on fire to serve as torches during the night”.
Trajan, a moderate emperor unacquainted with such depths of Neronian depravity, did no such thing. Instead of declaring all Christians guilty, and murdering them without cause, they were tried on a “case-by-case” basis, always within the boundaries of established Roman law. It was Pliny’s job to interrogate them and to discern the nature of their belief. Only if, in a fit of obstinacy, they refused to renounce their quasi-Jewish belief, and they persisted to affirm, after three chances, their unyielding faith in Christ, were they sentenced to death and killed by the state. An apostate, though perhaps not the most noble of creatures, always had the opportunity to “revile” his savior, and save his own life.
With that, I read to you the correspondence between Pliny the Younger and Emperor Trajan, on the subject of the proper way to go about handling the Christians.