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A. Reasons for the Persecutions (cont.) 2) By Rome a) Tiberius

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A. Reasons for the Persecutions (cont.)

2) By Rome

a) Tiberius (reign: AD 14-37)

 Tiberius was Augustus’ heir who had to deal with a lot of problems doing a job he really didn’t want in the first place.

  • To be emperor, he was forced to divorce his beloved wife Vispania.

  • Augustus forced him to marry his daughter Julia, whom he hated and eventually imprisoned for life.

  • Drusus, his only son by Vispania, was not to be his heir.

  • His trusted friend, Sejanus, had an affair with Drusus’ wife named Livilla.

  • Sejanus and Livilla poisoned Drusus in a plot to get Sejanus next in line to the imperial throne. (Tune in next time for another episode of “As the Toga Turns.”)

Faced with all this treachery, Tiberius resurrected the ancient Republican Law of Majestas.

  • Originally, this law was defined as “any crime that is against the majesty of the Roman People or against its security.”

(”Crimen illud quod adversus majestatem Populi Romani vel adversus securitatem ejus committitur.” Now you know more Latin; impress your friends!)

  • Because of all the treason around him, Tiberius re-formulated the law of Majestas to include all forms of speech or actions against the Roman government or Emperor.

  • “So what?” Remember that under the Roman Empire, Emperors were thought to be gods.

  • So, any refusal to acknowledge the Emperor as divine (e.g., by Christians worshipping only one God) could technically be seen as treason punishable by death.

b) Nero (reign: AD 54-68)

- Nero was the emperor during that disastrous fire that burnt Rome in AD 62.

  • Ordinary Romans were either (a) afraid that the gods were peeved or (b) blaming Nero for the fire.

  • To calm the people down, and to deflect criticism from himself, Nero blamed the Christians for the fire.

  • Worshipping that obscure Carpenter made the gods angry, you see.

  • Besides, by not worshipping Nero as a god, weren’t those icky Christians committing a crime against the Law of Majestas?

  • Well, let’s kill them off, then!

  • So, they started to kill them off (and how!).

  • The courage that the Christians showed only encouraged other Christians to endure, and it persuaded others to become Christian.

  • That’s why there a writer named Tertullian wrote “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”


Read your handout on the letters between Pliny and Emperor Trajan. Do the assignment given at the end.

Pliny, Letters 10.96-97

Pliny the Younger was governor of Pontus/Bithynia from 111-113 AD. We have a whole set of exchanges of his letters with the emperor Trajan on a variety of administrative political matters. These two letters are the most famous, in which P. encounters Christianity for the first time.

Pliny to the Emperor Trajan

It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.

Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.

Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ--none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do--these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.

I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.

Trajan to Pliny

You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it--that is, by worshiping our gods--even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.


Answer each question in paragraph form.

  1. From the evidence in Pliny’s letter to Trajan, what were the common legal proceedings done against Christians in Trajan’s reign?

  2. From the evidence in Trajan’s reply, what do you think his attitude was towards the Christians? How different was it from Nero?

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