Pliny the Younger

Pliny the Younger (61-113 AD) was a Roman Magistrate appointed by the emperor Trajan over Bithynia, now in modern Turkey. In 112 AD he wrote the emperor requesting direction on how to handle the many Christians that were brought before him. The English translation of Pliny’s letter and Trajan’s response was published by William Harris, Prof. Em. Middlebury College.

Harris said the Christians were brought daily before Pliny for refusing military service, refusing to worship the Roman emperors and for being members of a strange new and secret religion which although harmless, seemed dangerous to the established Roman way of life. I would add “revenge” to this list because of the change in temple economics due to Christians forsaking the idols.

This is the first documented evidence of the “Christian Problem” in the Roman world.

Oh, in case you’re wondering, Pliny the Elder was his uncle who died trying to rescue people from the Pompeii disaster. Here is the translation from Latin:

Gaius Plinius to the Emperor Trajan

It is for me an important point of responsibility to refer to you as Head of State, things about which I have questions, since you are the person best able to set straight my hesitations and correct my lack of information.

Actually I have never been present at a Examination (cognitio) of Christians, so I do not know what punishment is required or how far it is to be carried out. Nor do I understand the legal grounds for a prosecution, or how stringently it is to be prosecuted. I am not clear about prosecutions in respect to the age of the persons, whether no distinction should be made between the young and the old, and furthermore whether a pardon should be granted in cases of recanting, or if there is no advantage for a person completely ceasing to be a Christian. Or is it the name “Christian” which is prosecutable, even if not involved in criminal actions, or is that “criminality” is automatically attached to the name?

In the meantime, I now handle it this way with those who are turned over to me as Christians. I ask them directly, in person, if they are Christian, I ask a second and third time to be sure, and indicate to them the danger of their situation. If they persist, I order them led dispatched (= executed). I have had no trouble with this, since whatever it was they admitted or professed, I decided that their obstinacy and unyielding inflexibility should be sufficient reason for punishment. Some others who were virtually insane with this cult, but Roman citizens, I sent back to Rome for trial.

As I continue with this handling of the situation, as often happens, the numbers and kinds of incriminations are becoming more widespread. An anonymous List has been brought out which contains the names of a great many persons. I decided to dismiss charges again any on this list who stated that they were now not, nor had ever been Christians, if they repeated after me a prayer of invocation to the Gods, and made an offering of wine and incense to your statue, which I had brought in to the court along with the statues of the Gods, for this purpose. And in addition they were to formally curse Christ, which I understand true Christians will never do.

Other named by the anonymous List said they were Christians, and later changed their statement. Some said that they had been and then stopped, some three years before, some longer, some even twenty years before. All these reverenced your statue and those of the Gods, and cursed Christ. They stated that the sum total of their error or misjudgment, had been coming to a meeting on a given day before dawn, and singing responsively a hymn to Christ as to God, swearing with a holy oath not to commit any crime, never to steal or commit robbery, commit adultery, fail a sworn agreement or refuse to return a sum left in trust. When all this was finished, it was their custom to go their separate ways, and later re-assemble to take food of an ordinary and simple kind. But after my edict which forbids all political Societies, they did in fact give this up.I thought at this point that it was necessary to get information from two slave women, whom they call Deaconesses (ministrae) about the actual truth, by means of torture. I found nothing worthy of blame other than the blind and over-wrought nature of their cult-superstition.

I have therefore postponed further Examinations (cognitiones) and made haste to come to you immediately for consultation. This situation seem to demand serious consultation, especially in view of the large number of people falling into this danger. A great many persons of every age, of every social class, men and women alike, are being brought in to trial, and this seems likely to continue. It is not only the cities, but also the towns and even the country villages which are being infected with this cult-contagion.

It seems possible to check and reverse this direction at this point, for it is quite clear that the Temples of the Gods which have been empty for so long, now begin to be filled again, the sacred rites which had lapsed are now being performed and flesh for sacrificial rites is now sold again at the shops, although for a while nobody would buy it. So it seems reasonable to think that a great many people could be persuaded to reform, IF there were a legal procedure for Repentance.

Emperor Trajan to Pliny:

You have done the right thing, my dear Pliny, in handling the cases of those who were brought to you under the charge of being Christians. But it is not possible to make hard and fast rule with one specific formula. These people must not be searched out, if they are brought before your court and the case against them is proved, they must be punished, but in the case of anyone who states that he is not a Christian and makes it perfectly clear that he is not, by offering prayers to out Gods, such a one is to be pardoned on the grounds of his present repentance, however suspect he may have been in the past. But anonymous lists must not have any place in the court proceedings. They are a terrible example and not at all in keeping with our times.


William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College


Go to the Chronological List of all Early Christian Writings

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