Trajan Adopts Anti-Christian Religious Policy

Trajan’s religious policy established an imperial precedent for the suppression and persecution of Christians.

Summary of Event

The Roman province of Bithynia-Pontus lay along the south coast of the Black Sea. King Nicomedes IV bequeathed Bithynia to Rome in 74 b.c.e. Rome governed through a dozen Hellenized cities, each of which controlled the surrounding countryside. Pompey the Great annexed Pontus at the conclusion of the war against king Mithradates VI Eupator in 63 b.c.e. This region was less urbanized, containing three Greek cities along the coast (Sinope, Amisus, and Amastris) and a few half-Hellenized places in the interior, notably Amaseia. To facilitate provincial governance, he founded a number of cities, naming some after himself (Pompeiopolis and Magnopolis). Augustus re-created the kingdom for the client ruler Polemo, but it fell under Roman rule again in 64 c.e. and was joined to Bithynia. The senate assumed supervision of this peaceful province and annually dispatched senators of praetorian rank (termed proconsuls) to govern it. Each year, the governor made a circuit of his province, holding court in the major towns, inquiring into a wide range of matters, and rendering punishments. In these cognitiones, the proconsuls had enormous power over ordinary provincials; they had to proceed more carefully when dealing with Roman citizens and sometimes chose to transmit their cases to Rome. Trajan
Pliny the Younger

Trajan (seated) meets with a group of soldiers.

(Library of Congress)

Bitter rivalries within and between cities, combined with lax senatorial supervision and corrupt governors, put urban finances in critical condition, and in about 108 c.e., Trajan intervened. Using his greater proconsular imperium, he removed Bithynia-Pontus from the senate, placed it under temporary imperial control, and dispatched the former consul and treasury expert Pliny the Younger as special legate. Trajan provided a broad set of instructions (mandata). The Tenth Book of Pliny’s Epistulae (97-109, books 1-9; c. 113, book 10; The Letters, 1748) contains correspondence with the emperor; letters 15-121 are a mixture of his inquiries and Trajan’s answers (responsa), which thus constitute imperial policy. (It is incorrect to label Pliny a curator or corrector; these officials supervised one or several cities, whereas he was in charge of the entire province.)

Pliny encountered Christians, a novel annoyance interrupting his more important concerns, while on circuit in Pontus. The location is unknown; Amastris is likely (cf. letter 98), though Amisus (numbers 92 and 110) or Sinope (number 90) are possible. Lacking personal familiarity with Christianity and possessing no guidance in his mandata, he relied on his imperium and coercitio (power of a legitimate authority to compel obedience and punish refusal) and then checked with the emperor whether he was correct: letters 96-97. These letters are the earliest Roman account of “the Christian problem”; a few years later, the historian Tacitus described the Neronian persecution of 64 c.e. in his Ab excessu divi Augusti (c. 116 c.e., also known as Annales; Annals, 1598). The Christian community was small and generally kept a low profile, though the New Testament is clear that it had been spreading through Asia Minor for years. Acts 2:9-10, Acts 18:2, and 1 Peter 1:1 mention Christians from Bithynia, Cappadocia, Galatia, Pamphylia, Phrygia, and Pontus; Paul and Barnabas had journeyed through Pisidia, Galatia, and Asia; and there are letters to Colossae, Ephesus, Galatia, and Laodicea. The notorious heretic Marcion was from Sinope, according to Eusebius of Caesarea in his Historia ecclesiastica (c. 300, 324 c.e.; Ancient Ecclesiastical Histories, 1576-1577; better known as Eusebius’s Church History).

Pliny the Younger’s report raised three questions. First, should a distinction be made in age or sex, or “should the weakest offenders be treated exactly like the stronger?” Second, should pardon be given to those who recant, or must they be punished nevertheless for having been Christians? Third, does punishment attach to the mere name of Christian apart from the secret crimes allegedly committed by the new sect, or are Christians to be punished only for the actual crimes they may commit? In other words, was simply being a Christian a (capital) crime, or did one have to have done something more?

Pliny continued by reviewing the actions he had already taken against the Christians. Whenever accusations were made against them, he brought them to trial. Some denied that they had ever been Christians, and then offered proof by worshiping with incense and wine before a statue of the emperor; after they had reviled Christ, they were released. A second group admitting having been Christian but asserted that they had ceased to be such; these also were released after making offerings to the emperor and reviling Christ. The third group, those who confessed to being Christians, were told of the consequences of their acts and allowed three opportunities to recant. Employment of coercitio emerges when Pliny said that those who refused were executed: “whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished.” Roman citizens constituted an exception: They were remanded to Rome for sentencing.

Pliny also reported that his investigation of the Christians indicated they were a relatively harmless cult whose only guilt consisted in the habit of meeting “on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath not to do any wicked deeds.” The torture of two female slaves styled deaconesses revealed to the governor that the new religion was merely “a perverse and extravagant superstition.” The letter concludes with the observation that because of these stringent measures against the Christians, “the almost deserted temples begin to be resorted to, long disused ceremonies or religion are restored, fodder for victims finds a market, whereas buyers until now were very few.” As far as Pliny could see, Christians did not constitute a threat to public order. Yet as an unsanctioned group, a religio illicita, they deserved punishment. Rome tolerated far stranger beliefs and practices than Christianity. It did, however, have a long-standing suspicion that unauthorized groups might be subversive of morality. Refusal to obey, contumacia, implied conspiratorial subversion. Trajan refused to permit a fire department because this seemingly commendable cause might serve to cover covert political action (letter 33). Rome’s hostility toward the Bacchanalian cult in the 180’s b.c.e., though tinged with hysteria because it was in Italy, is similar to its attitude toward the Christians.

Trajan’s reply, embodying his statement of religious policy, was as follows:

You have adopted the proper course, my dear Secundus, in your examination of the cases of those who were accused to you as Christians, for indeed nothing can be laid down as a general rule involving something like a set form of procedure. They are not to be sought out; but if they are accused and convicted, they must be punished—yet on this condition, that whoever denies himself to be a Christian and makes the fact plain by his action, that is by worshiping our gods, shall obtain pardon for his repentance, however suspicious his past conduct may be. Papers, however, which are presented unsigned ought not to be admitted in any charge, for they are a very bad example and unworthy of our time.


This responsum constituted imperial precedent; although it was directed to Pliny in Bithynia-Pontus, it could be extended throughout the Roman Empire. Soon imperial responsa became law. Christians were not to be actively sought out. The government had more important concerns; Trajan essentially instructed Pliny not to bother unless provoked. The movement remained illegal. If Christians caused trouble and accusers brought charges in open court (not anonymously), the authorities should suppress them. The open profession of Christianity continued to be a capital offense, apparently because it implied disloyalty in its refusal to worship the Roman gods. Punishment of Christians was local, sporadic, and, on occasion, nasty for years; the persecution of Gallic Christians at Lyon in 177 illustrates what could happen, even under the “good” Marcus Aurelius. The first empire-wide persecutions began in the crisis of the 250’s.

Further Reading

  • Dowden, Ken. Religion and the Romans. 1992. Reprint. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1995. An examination of religion during the Roman Empire, including the empire’s dealings with Christians. Bibliography and index.
  • Hopkins, Keith. A World Full of Gods: Pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Roman Empire. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1999. An examination of the religions of the Roman Empire. Bibliography and indexes.
  • Lane Fox, Robin. Pagans and Christians. 1987. Reprint. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995. Lively account of the vitality of paganism and the challenge of the new religion.
  • Lee, A. D. Pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity: A Sourcebook. New York: Routledge, 2000. Lee examines Christianity and other religions during the Roman Empire.
  • Pliny the Younger. Correspondence with Trajan from Bythinia. Translated by Wynne Williams. Warminster, England: Aris & Phillips, 1990. A translation, with commentary and introduction, of the letters of Pliny the Younger and Trajan.
  • Schowalter, Daniel N. The Emperor and the Gods: Images from the Time of Trajan. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993. An analysis of Trajan and his attitude toward religion, including Christianity.

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